When Eli Reed was a high-school kid in Brookline, Mass., he did what some might consider risquAc for a baby-faced Jewish white boy with little life experience. He sang Sam Cooke's civil rights classic, “A Change Is Gonna Come” in front of the whole school.
“I've been blessed with being naA_ve,” the 27-year-old singer says from his new home in Brooklyn. “I didn't think why I should not be singing that song. Sam Cooke could sing it; I could too. That's always been my whole philosophy and it really helped me.”
Reed grew up devouring a wide variety of classic soul and R&B records owned by his father, a former music writer for Creem magazine and the Boston Phoenix. He soon discovered he had a dynamic voice that could send chills — a gritty falsetto that would earn him comparisons to such greats as Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding.
After high school, his passion led him to move to Clarksdale, Miss., to play in juke joints. Then he joined a church gospel group on the South Side of Chicago as an organist. Now he's near the top of a new class of traditionalist soul and R&B acts tearing up clubs around the world.
“A lot of the newer soul singers came to soul through hip-hop but I came to it through blues, gospel and country music,” Reed says. “It was all about the feeling of the song and the emotional content.”
Reed signed with Capitol Records and recorded his most recent album, “Come and Get It!” with producer Mike Elizondo, who's worked with Maroon 5, Eminem and Dr. Dre. He's understandably sensitive about being labeled a “retro” soul act, even though he wears late-'60s and early-'70s influences like Tyrone Davis and Mel & Tim like a loud suit. “I think I'm adding my own spin because I'm writing my own songs and performing the way I do,” Reed says. “Soul music is not one thing, it's a million things. A lot of people don't understand that.”
Reed isn't a total purist, as evidenced by his cover of Motorhead's “Ace of Spades,” nor is he hopping the jam-band train soon.
“I'm good friends with Sharon Jones and those guys, but we're different,” he says. “Those guys are good at locking into a groove — I'm more oriented toward pop songs in a live setting and keeping things succinct. Our band [the True Loves] is good at alternating tempo and volume and being sensitive to that.”
Blistering shows have earned him a dedicated fan base in Europe, where he was Mojo magazine's breakthrough artist of 2009. Now Reed is seeing a shift in his American audience toward younger fans.
“That makes me happy,” he says. “Often it's easier to connect with younger crowds because they don't have preconceptions of what the music should sound like. They just want to have fun.” S
Soulpower and Balliceaux present Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves at 10 p.m. on Friday, March 11, at Balliceaux. Tickets are $8 before the show at Balliceaux and $10 at the door, space permitting.