Tribute shows typically pay homage to an artist’s best-known songs, and usually the honoree is not in the same room as the tribute band.
That wasn’t the case for Lee Langston when he and his band paid tribute to country singer Charley Pride. A former Negro Leagues baseball player, Pride was in Kansas City in April 2013 to receive the Jackie Robinson Legacy Award, and Langston and his band were hired to perform some of Pride’s music. During the show, Pride was front and center, watching with much interest.
“I was nervous,” Langston said. “I remember thinking, ‘I have this music legend right in front of me, watching me, and I’m going to be singing his music to him.’ … After the show, he shook my hand and said, ‘You did an awesome job.’ ”
Pride is just one of several legends that Langston has honored with a tribute show. Friday night in the Garage at Knuckleheads, he will lead a 10-piece band in a birthday tribute to Stevie Wonder.
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“We don’t go back to extreme, vintage Stevie,” Langston said, “but we hop all over his catalog. There will be plenty of songs people can sing to.”
Langston has honored several artists with tribute shows, including Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, D’Angelo, Luther Vandross and Marvin Gaye.
Neo-soul is the music he loves most, but it’s not where Langston got his start. Church was his portal into the world of music.
“I’m a preacher’s grandkid,” he said. “The church was a big influence. My father was in a family of like 13 or 15 kids — I haven’t met all of them — and they’d crowd into my grandparents’ living room and just go, go, go, sing, sing, sing, mostly gospel songs.”
But as he grew older and entered his 20s, Langston, a 1995 graduate of the Paseo Academy of Performing Arts, developed a strong yearning to sing secular music, specifically neo-soul.
“My heart was always in secular music,” he said. “I always wanted to sing love songs and things like that.”
He was also influenced by the music his mother listened to, particularly Roy Ayers. “I’m a complete Roy Ayers fan,” he said. “It’s the reason I lean toward certain kinds of music, like East Coast hip-hop, where the feel of the music centers on actual instrumentation as opposed to overproduced studio tracks.”
In 2008, he stepped into the world of secular music when he started performing with singer Monique Danielle. They’d been longtime friends through the Center for Spiritual Living, where both are part of the music ministry.
“A friend, Myra Harper, who used to have a soul-food restaurant over at 18th and Vine, Harper’s, hired Monique and I for a New Year’s Eve event,” Langston said. “We were singing and having a good time and Myra goes, ‘You should be doing this. You should be gigging.’ ”
So he started a band, Langston and Prototype, a three piece — bass, drums, keyboards — that backed Langston.
“When I started, my band and Soul’s Poem, a girl band, were the only groups doing completely neo-soul music instead of Top 40 or oldies,” he said.
They developed a following and soon were performing in other venues in the 18th and Vine District. “A buzz got started and people latched onto it,” he said.
In August 2010, Langston was invited to be part of a tribute to Common’s “Like Water for Chocolate” album by its organizer, Les Izmore of Hearts of Darkness and other music projects.
“I was one of the singers,” Langston said, “It was so awesome. And after going through that and witnessing the process, I thought, ‘I can do this.’ I’d always had the desire to do a tribute to Lauryn Hill.”
A year later, he booked “An Evening Dedicated to the Songbook of Lauryn Hill” at Crosstown Station. Langston recruited a small army of musicians, including jazz trumpeter Hermon Mehari, singers, including the ladies of Soul’s Poem, hip-hop MCs and spoken-word lyricists.
“I was just hoping to have some fun and that some people who followed my band would come out,” he said. “But word got out, and it was packed, wall-to-wall. Some people were mad they couldn’t get in.”
Both the process and the success of the Hill tribute gave Langston the bug to do more, so he proceeded with other neo-soul artists and developed a reputation along the way. Thus, the Negro Leagues Museum hired him to do the Pride tribute and tributes to Vandross and Gaye.
Langston also became part of an association of musicians and performers that put together a Michael Jackson tribute that has been revived about 10 times, including a show at the Garage. After that show, Langston approached owner Frank Hicks about doing a Wonder tribute show, an idea proposed by a friend and fellow musician.
Hicks got back to Langston with a proposed date: May 13, which, coincidentally, is Wonder’s birthday.
“Initially, I couldn’t do it,” Langston said. “I was supposed to go to Los Angeles that day for my best friend’s birthday. But the more I thought about doing it on (Wonder’s) birthday, the more perfect it felt. So I called my friend and arranged to go to Los Angeles the day after the tribute.”
He has enlisted another A-list band that includes vocalists Danielle and brother and sister Anthony Saunders and Paula Saunders.
Sometime this year Langston hopes to release a solo project on which Anthony Saunders has been his primary collaborator. Saunders has worked with some big-name stars, including Justin Bieber and Brandy. He has provided the music tracks over which Langston writes lyrics.
“Anthony gave me the first piece of music I could write to,” he said. “His music speaks to me. It evokes emotions.”
His first original project will be a personal one, Langston said. “It will speak about my experiences but in ways everyone can relate to,” he said.
All those cover projects have taught him things about songwriting and what it takes to create something that is timeless and durable.
“When I listen to so many versions of the same song, I always wonder where that person was and what was going on at the time it was written,” he said. “I’ve learned that there’s an honest space you have to go to when you’re writing.
“Erykah Badu says, ‘I’m an artist so I’m sensitive about s***.’ So you have to get to that sensitive space and be ready to really open up yourself.”
The Stevie Wonder Birthday Tribute begins at 8 p.m. Friday at Knuckleheads Saloon, 2715 Rochester. Tickets are $15 in advance, $20 at the door. Go to knuckleheadshonkytonk.com for more.