In hindsight, the big moment for Eli “Paperboy” Reed came in high school. It was the time when Reed, a cherub-cheeked white boy from the Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass., got up in front of his high school class during the Martin Luther King Jr. Day assembly and belted out a rendition of Sam Cooke’s civil rights anthem “A Change Is Gonna Come.”
“People went crazy, and I was kinda surprised by that,” says the 27-year-old Reed, who now lives in Brooklyn, N.Y. “Looking back, it was a pretty insane thing for me to have done. But people really liked it, fortunately.”
Though it would take several more years — and a series of musical adventures — Reed eventually found his calling as an impassioned R&B throwback. As his latest album, Come and Get It (Capitol, $13), proves, he’s the genuine article: an unapologetic old-school soul man/showman with a powerful set of lungs and a beguiling set of songs to match.
Reed grew up in a musical hothouse, raised on his music-critic father’s record collection and on the school band system. After he graduated from high school, wanderlust took hold, and he set out for Clarksdale, Miss., the historical home of the blues and the birthplace of gospel/soul great Cooke.
“Going to Mississippi was a way to not go to college for a while,” admits Reed, laughing. “But I ended up playing a lot more music than I expected to down there and learned a lot about performing in front of really demanding audiences.” (Reed also picked up his nickname down in the Delta, thanks to his fondness for newsboy-style caps.)
From Mississippi, Reed headed north to attend the University of Chicago. “Well, there I just spent a lot of time avoiding schoolwork,” laughs Reed, who would go on to meet Mitty Collier, former 1960s Chess Records hit maker turned minister, who was sufficiently impressed by Reed’s chops to have him man the organ in her South Side church.
Those woodshedding experiences finally pushed Reed to embrace his destiny. While back in Boston on a break from school, he formed his band, the True Loves, and cut a debut album, Sings “Walkin’ and Talkin’ (for My Baby)” and Other Smash Hits!, which he self-released in 2005.
“That was a collection of random covers, mostly — blues, country and R&B,” he says. “It was like, these are all the things I like right now. But I realized I needed to synthesize the things I enjoyed and write songs in a style that was my own.”
Five years later, Reed has fulfilled the promise of his debut. After releasing 2008’s critically acclaimed Roll with You, he built a large following in Europe and signed with major label Capitol for the new Come and Get It. Cut in two weeks with producer Mike Elizondo at the helm, the 12-track album fattens up Reed’s sound with some big brass backing and sweetens it with touches of strings. While calling on his myriad influences — from the manly funkiness of Wilson Pickett to the tear- and sweat-stained evocations of Otis Redding — Reed’s album also successfully avoids any paint-by-numbers R&B revivalism.
“Because of the way I was raised, I’ve internalized so much of the music I love that when I write, it invariably echoes that stuff. But I still feel like it’s all me,” he says. “The thing is, I’d be doing myself and my songs a disservice if I tried to fight that impulse. At the end of the day, I’ve taken in all that music, and it’s become a part of me. That’s what I hope, at least.”
Entertain your ears at these upcoming multi-day music extravaganzas.
What: Matador at 21
Where: Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas
When: Oct. 1–3
Who’s playing: Pavement, Sonic Youth, Guided by Voices, Yo La Tengo and dozens more Matador Records acts
What: Austin City Limits Music Festival*
Where: Zilker Park in Austin, Texas
When: Oct. 8–10
Who’s playing: the Eagles, Muse, Phish and more than 100 other bands
*AW is headed to ACL!
Visit www.americanwaymag.com or follow us at twitter.com/americanway for updates from the fest!