Flying Dutchman Reborn with New Billy Valentine Release

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“I’ve always felt good about social commentary,” says singer ​Billy Valentine.

(Photo: Atiba Jefferson)

Just as jazz today casts its own light on the nation’s cultural movements, the music played a similar role 50 years ago. That was the time when record producer Bob Thiele began Flying Dutchman and released consciousness-raising albums from vocalists Gil Scott-Heron and Leon Thomas along with topical LPs from bandleaders Duke Ellington and Horace Tapscott, among many others. While the sensibilities that propelled those albums have re-emerged in America, the company has been reborn this year with the release of singer Billy Valentine’s Billy Valentine And The Universal Truth.

Flying Dutchman has also remained a family operation with Thiele’s son, Bob Thiele Jr., running the company (the elder Thiele died in 1996). Thiele said that since the albums Flying Dutchman produced in the late 1960s and early 1970s foreshadowed today’s political and social discourse, this is the moment to re-start the label.

“The times seemed to demand it,” Thiele said. “It was this feeling of deja vu: This could have been 1969 when [Black Panther leader] Fred Hampton was gunned down, there was that kind of feeling in the air. It was inside of me, and it was just a kind of intuitive sense of let’s connect those dots — 1969 to 2020.”

During Flying Dutchman’s initial run, Thiele was aware of his father’s work and even appeared on a landmark album as a young man: He is on the cover art of Ornette Coleman’s Friends And Neighbors: Live At Prince Street (1970).

“Flying Dutchman started when I was about 13, and it was an impressionable time for me,” Thiele said. “I grew up in New York City and hung out with a lot of progressive people, so I was very tuned in to the politics of the time. We were these barely teenagers who were looking for the next protest. The music of Flying Dutchman seemed to be the soundtrack to our experiences.”

While Valentine grew up further away — in Columbus, Ohio — with the National Guardsmen killing anti-war demonstrators in nearby Kent State University in 1970, those issues hit him close to home. Valentine also heard how artists on Flying Dutchman spoke to those concerns.

“The Vietnam war protests, racial injustice, these songs were part of our neighborhood,” Valentine said. “Gil Scott-Heron was like a prophet. Spoken word was pretty popular back in those days, too. And I was getting close to being drafted, so all of these songs had a special meaning to me growing up.”

Thiele met Valentine during the mid-1980s in Los Angeles, where they both still live. The two went on to collaborate with Valentine singing demos of their compositions to sell the songs to such artists as Bonnie Raitt. Valentine went on to a successful career singing for movies and television, but Thiele felt that he should record an album of his own.

“About 15 years ago when Billy was singing, he was the gold standard of demo singers,” Thiele said. “Why didn’t he have the record deal and all the others did when they were taking every lick he provided on the demos? At first, I said, ‘Maybe you should do a Great American Songbook record with Billy’s version of “Skylark.”’ Then I thought when this idea came around, ‘What about the Great Black American Songbook?’”

The popular soul tunes from such songwriters as Curtis Mayfield, Prince and Stevie Wonder comprise The Universal Truth, and all detail stark themes. Valentine has delved into such pointed topics going back to his 1982 R&B single “Money’s Too Tight (To Mention),” which he recorded as half of the Valentine Brothers duo (with his brother John).

“I’ve always felt good about social commentary,” Valentine said. “When Bob came to me about relaunching his father’s label and wanted me to be the first person on the label, we talked about these songs and they fit right into my wheelhouse. When he brought to me the idea, we were right in the middle of the pandemic, and there was George Floyd. We were recording the right songs at the right time.”

For Valentine’s debut, Thiele invited a cast that included such accomplished musicians as guitarist Jeff Parker, pianist Larry Goldings as well as bassists Linda May Han Oh and Pino Palladino.

“It wasn’t that we need the names, we need people who can play at Billy’s level,” Thiele said. “When you get those people to record with you and ask, ‘When’s the next one?’ then you know you have something. I was very conscious to get the very people we could get for this record because Billy deserves it.”

As Valentine conveyed more jazz inflections within this album’s repertoire, he felt that the songs and personnel all offered a great deal of musical freedom.

“We were all in that room together, and a lot of those songs started with me out there singing with the guys in the room before going into the booth and isolation,” Valentine said. “These songs allowed me to stretch to a place I hadn’t been before. I’m holding notes, there’s space going on there, the way we allow the musicians to be a part of the nucleus of me being laid-back and use my voice to its fullest.”

The company is also being commemorated in the United Kingdom, where Ace is releasing This Is Flying Dutchman, a double-LP historical overview, and will reissue Flying Dutchman records from such artists as Coleman, Thomas and Oliver Nelson later this year. Thiele is currently working on a spoken word recording by author Caroline Randall Williams with musical accompaniment from Ron Carter and Donald Harrison. Meanwhile, Valentine hopes that his album’s release will lead to more invitations.

“Maybe we can get on a festival or two before I’m too old to do it,” Valentine said. “I love performing, I love all sizes of stages. I’m not finished yet and I’m not tired yet. I’ll do it as long as I can do it.” DB



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