A Jewish rocker rediscovers his sonic roots — by teaching gospel music in Harlem

A Jewish rocker rediscovers his sonic roots — by teaching gospel music in Harlem

Eli “Paperboy” Reed is a Jewish songwriter who mines a number of classic genres such as blues, soul and gospel.
Photo courtesy of Yep Roc Records
Eli “Paperboy” Reed is a Jewish songwriter who mines a number of classic genres such as blues, soul and gospel. Photo courtesy of Yep Roc Records

NEW YORK — It’s a very humid Friday evening at an outdoor plaza at Manhattan’s tony Lincoln Center. But despite the oppressive weather, some 200 people have gathered to hear live gospel music.

The singers, seven African-American teenagers, are dressed in plaid button-downs and polos and appear a bit timid as they stand onstage waiting for their cue to begin.

Standing on stage left is a white man with slicked-back hair wearing a dark suit and holding a cherry red electric guitar. He starts to pick and strum the instrument, and the teens loosen up. They launch into an array of gospel tunes like “Shine on Me” and “Don’t Let the Devil Ride,” rotating solo verses and clapping their hands.

“I’m just happy to be their teacher,” the guitarist, Eli “Paperboy” Reed, says after a round of loud applause.

The 32-year-old Reed, who has released four studio albums of bluesy, soulful pop rock, is the main attraction this evening. His own songs, which he played with a full band following his students’ set, brought dozens of audience members out of their chairs and into a dancing frenzy, despite the withering heat.

While Reed kept the Christian themes going with his commanding Motown-style voice (“This one is about your sins!” he yelled before one tune), he’s actually Jewish — and hails from the very Jewish Boston suburb of Brookline, Mass.

A couple of weeks after the Lincoln Center concert, Reed spoke at a café near his current home base of Kensington, Brooklyn, eschewing the retro preacher-rocker look for a white T-shirt, sneakers and clear-framed glasses.

Nevertheless, Reed’s latest album, “My Way Home,” released in June through the independent Yep Roc Records label, sounds like the product of a grizzled veteran crooner. The well-received record mines a variety of classic African-American genres, from blues rock to gospel, and stays meticulously true to them — perhaps even more so than recent blues revivalists like Jack White or the Black Keys.

Reed, whose real name is Eli Husock, admits that teaching gospel music to teens, which he has done for three years through the Harlem-based Gospel for Teens program, led to that genre’s seeping into “My Way Home.” But it turned out that teaching gospel became a savior of sorts for him, too — and not in a Christian way.

In 2013, Reed’s father — a former music writer who now works for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank — first introduced him to the program. At the time, Reed was at the zenith of his career — he was gearing up to release his second album on a major label (“Nights Like This” on Warner Bros.) and had seen a few of his songs featured in commercials for Nike and Toyota.

He agreed to volunteer for the program, and set out to teach some teenage boys the gospel quartet style, which allows singers to take turns soloing and helps them develop vocal confidence.

Then Reed was struck with unfortunate news: a series of layoffs at Warner Bros. depleted the resources behind his album. Eventually he was dropped from the label, and suddenly the Gospel for Teens class was his main gig. (Notably, Reed still refused payment for the work, even though his fellow teachers were paid.)

“In the post-Amy Winehouse era there were a lot of major labels that wanted to sign soul singers, so I had a lot of people competing for me at that time,” he said. “But when the company was sold, the bottom fell out of the whole thing.”

After a difficult period last year, Reed decided to record a new album on his own. The result, “My Way Home,” has jump-started his career.

“When you teach something, you kind of have to dissect it and think about it in a different way,” Reed said. “[The class] made me think more and more about how that music has influenced me as a writer.”

Reed said he loves teaching gospel and agrees the music might sound deeply Christian to some. However, he firmly identifies as Jewish, and to him gospel is more “inspirational” than religious.

“Obviously there’s language that you can’t avoid, but I’m hoping that the understanding of that language has been that people can interpret the lyrics in their own way,” he said. “And not ‘Jesus Christ is their Lord and savior,’ which is not what it’s about for me.

“But if someone is a Christian and hears this record and it affirms their faith, that’s fine with me. I would rather make music for everybody.”

Reed said he’s always been comfortable working in the world of African-American music. His father, Howard, who wrote for the Boston Phoenix — and is becoming more Jewish with age, Reed says — turned him on to soul music when he was a kid.

After high school, Reed spent a year in Clarksdale, Miss., to help restart a local oldies radio station. When that fell through, he ended up playing music regularly with a bunch of local musicians, such as blues drummer Sam Carr. The musicians gave him the “Paperboy” nickname for the “Newsies”-style hat he liked to wear.

Reed then spent a year at the University of Chicago, a school entrenched on the city’s South Side — the mostly black and low-income region stigmatized as a hotbed of gun violence.

Instead of attending class, he focused on developing his soul music show on the college radio station. Reed spent his time hanging fliers for his show by local barbershops and stores. He would cultivate an impressive following, and local musicians began asking that their music be played.

After meeting Mitty Collier, a singer who put out several singles on the legendary Chess Records label in the 1960s, Reed began playing piano in her newly formed storefront church.

Reed became disillusioned with school — he said the students didn’t appreciate the rich culture of the South Side — and returned to the Boston area to begin his own music career. His first album of original material, “Roll With You,” earned him an international tour, and his ensuing album, “Come and Get It,” was released on Capitol Records.

Offstage, Reed is a walking soul music encyclopedia who name-drops influences like Wilson Pickett and Otis Redding. His No. 1 idol — as a “singer, guitarist, songwriter and performer” — is the late Bobby Womack, who wrote several hits in the ’70s.

Reed can also effortlessly explain the rich history of Jews involved in the history of soul and blues music — such as Phil and Leonard Chess, the immigrants behind Chess Records, along with “literally every single independent record label,” he said.

Being Jewish, he said, undoubtedly impacts his understanding of music “from a cultural point of view.”

“My [Jewish] grandfather, for instance, loved Handel — so you can appreciate the artistry of something separated from the religious elements,” Reed said. “It’s all about trying to get to the heart of what’s important musically.”