Guitarist/producer Eli “Paperboy” Reed understands the emotional thread between blues, gospel, R&B, and country music. He has created his own lane doing what he loves – bonding poignant elements of timeless American music. His countrified soul record Down Every Road merges Merle Haggard with early-’60s R&B, and his work with the Harlem Gospel Travelers proves that passionate guitar playing is vital regardless of genre.
You’ve got the less-is-more R&B, blues, and gospel guitar thing down.
I’m a collector of gospel, country, R&B, and soul music. So much of what informs my playing is the time I spent listening. I try not to learn things verbatim. Instead, I try to internalize, stylistically, what they’re all about. When I sit down to play, it sounds like me, and that’s been my approach from the beginning. I don’t transcribe Freddie King instrumentals, but I love to play along. When it comes to gospel music, there are so many regional guitar styles I love to immerse myself in.
The intersection of Chicago blues, gospel, and R&B isn’t discussed much.
I love Reggie Young for the soul records. I love Bobby Womack. He’s a big influence on me as a guitar player. His playing was a beautiful complement to his singing and songwriting, and he is completely underrated as a guitar player. I also love Eddie Hinton’s playing. When I first started playing, I listened to tons of country blues like Tommy Johnson and Houston Stackhouse.
Covering Merle Haggard on Down Every Road was inspired.
I grew up on country music and had tons of country records at my house. I always felt like the songs Merle Haggard wrote were universal. As I got into the intersection of country and soul music, I began to hear these songs arranged in different ways. I didn’t want to change the songs – I wanted to arrange the songs so they were in a new context. For me, it made perfect sense to take these songs in this direction, and people have responded positively. On “Workin’ Man Blues,” I gave it a real Pops Staples vibe.
It’s hard to beat “It’s Not Love, But It’s Not Bad.”
I got to play those songs at the Grand Ole Opry, which was a dream come true. It was fun to play them at the mother church of country music. “It’s Not Love, But It’s Not Bad” was a big hit for Merle, but to play it in such a way where they accepted it was an honor.
How did you start producing the Harlem Gospel Travelers?
In 2015, I was dropped by Warner Brothers Records. So, I got my band together and made what became My Way Home, which came out in 2016. I felt like things had gotten out of control with the major labels. The record I made for Warners was essentially a pop record – there were a lot of songwriters, a lot of producers, and a lot of cooks in the kitchen. I’m very proud of those records, but I wish they had gotten to more ears than they did. When I came out of that period of my career, it seemed only natural that I step into the producer’s chair. I knew what I didn’t want (laughs), but that’s more than half the battle. I wanted to make music with people I loved and trusted.
I started with the Harlem Gospel Travelers soon after that. They were my students, and their work inspired He’s On Time, which came out in 2019. It was a collection of things we’d worked on in the classes I was teaching at a music education program in Harlem. From there, I produced a singer/songwriter, Sabine McCalla, who had made some cool records in New Orleans. The second Harlem Gospel Travelers album, Look Up!, was the first big production I worked on. I hope it gets some attention so I can do more.
Do you have an ethos as a producer?
My ethos as a producer is to get out of the way and let the songs and performances speak for themselves. I wanted to give the Harlem Gospel Travelers a canvas to work with. They can be quite modern in their vocal approach, so I wanted to combine that and give them a timeless quality. I bring ’60s gospel funk to the table. Thomas Gatling wrote seven of the songs. We worked on the arrangements, and I had to ensure the production matched his vision. The songs and production aren’t old or new; I’m hoping it falls into an “Always” kind of space.
What’s on your schedule for 2023?
We have another Harlem Gospel Travelers record coming in the spring. I’m also working with a female group I’m hoping to sign to my production company, then I’ll make my next record. I’m leaning toward a blues record and possibly working with great Mississippi blues singer and guitarist Anthony Sherrod. I’m working on my dream projects.
This article originally appeared in VG’s January 2023 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.