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Donn Bynum

Rarely does a musician start his career at the top. Even more rare is staying on top for three decades, but that’s exactly what Donn Bynum did. Still down to earth, this mega star is debuting with his own creation-capturing the hearts and minds of all his listeners.

Playing with Bootsy Collins, The Commodores and The Brothers Johnson, Bynum knows his stuff. He’s taking his experience and putting into his audience’s hand, via his new release, Do You Feel Me.

JazzReview: You began playing piano at age four and turned to sax at 12 years of age. This is quite an accomplishment. How did you begin---sitting at the piano?

Donn Bynum: I would have to say my parents were my initial inspiration. My mother worked late so in nursery school,-- there was a piano player in nursery school during that time, who would play the music for us to do the children’s dances at lunch time put your left foot in, take your left foot out .We actually had a live piano player playing for us as we did those types of things.

Fortunately, the one playing the piano stuck around while my mother worked late and she gave me piano lessons. That was a way for me to stay there a few more hours and learn at the same time while my mother earned a few more dollars. So, that was actually the initial jump start to my music career, I would have to say.

One of our relatives donated a big, upright, choir piano to us and we found a way to get it into our house in Cincinnati. That was a way for me to practice and play around and sort of pick up things (musically) .Elementary school was pretty much the same. I entered into the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music around the second grade. I took music lessons there as a child. All of this seems amazing now that I look back at it. That sort of catapulted me to where I was in the sixth and seventh grade, when I began picking up the clarinet, switched over to the saxophone-And, the rest is history.

JazzReview: What caused you to switch to sax from piano? That’s quite a leap.

Donn Bynum: In middle school, they offered instruments for concerts and marching bands, things of that nature. I picked up the clarinet. I believe that was the only instrument available at the time. One of my buddies, who was also in the music program, talked me into switching from the clarinet to the saxophone. So I picked it up and my growth became phenomenal. I surpassed him. He got so angry with me, he stopped playing saxophone. (a nice big chuckle).

I kept going and going & started playing in my first band around the seventh or eighth grade. And, just kept on from there. I have so many stories about that shows I played-where I jumped off the stage because I thought that’s what my mother was signaling me to do. So, I did it. I jumped off the stage and started dancing. At that time the James Brown dance was so popular, I started doing the James Brown dance and the mashed potatoes and all that.

After the show, I was trying to figure out why the rest of the guys in the show were laughing, and I finally got to my mother and asked her why she encouraged me to jump off the stage. She told me "No. I wasn’t trying to get you to jump off the stage. So, that’s why you did that! I was trying to get you to zip your zipper."

JazzReview: That’s hilarious. I’m sure with you dancing out there, no one noticed your zipper!

Donn Bynum: No. (chuckle) They stood on the top of their chairs and shouted... ("Oh, my goodness!")

JazzReview: Did you, at that time, envision yourself on stage with some of the world’s greatest performers? Or, did you see yourself as a little kid trying to tap his way through piano lessons?

Donn Bynum: I always saw myself on stage with cameras and people totally enthused and enthralled.

JazzReview: Well, you certainly got there.

Donn Bynum: I certainly did. Before I got out of high school, Bootsy Collins picked me up .I just had a fantastic time out there and I’m looking forward to the rest of it.

JazzReview: That was part of my next question: The late, great bassist, Bootsy Collins is attributed with changing the face of music by developing a whole new beat, spinning the original funk and contributing to James Brown and George Clinton’s "P-Funk."

You were invited to join Bootsy Collins’ "Rubber Band." at the early age of 18. What were you feeling when such a musical icon invited you into his fold?

Donn Bynum: I was extremely honored by that.

JazzReview: How did that come about? You were still in Ohio at the time?

Donn Bynum: I was still in Ohio. You know, he was the biggest thing in Cincinnati. My band was playing at a club or something, in town some place he and his brother had part ownership in, or were somehow affiliated, with this club. He saw me play and the next day my group was rehearsing at my mother’s house and I broke a reed so I went out to buy a reed and lo and behold, Bootsy and his brother, Catfish, were at the store picking up some bass strings and equipment. He turned to me and said, "Wasn’t that you I saw at the club last night? You were really great! Give us your number."

JazzReview: What a story! How did you feel? Did you just about fall out when he said that?

Donn Bynum: Ahh I was blown away! For him to think of me in that light. I went back and told the guys and they, of course, were upset and jealous. And, they fired me in my own bedroom! (laughing good naturedly, at the past event)

JazzReview: As if that experience wasn’t heady enough, you went on to play with the world famous Commodores and the Brothers Johnson. Did you realize what a star you had already become at such a young age?

Donn Bynum: That was wonderful, as well. The Commodores came right after college. My mother told me, "When you finish school, there will be a lot of people pulling at you. Just be sure you get your degree first."

I’m glad I followed her advice. When I came out, I was playing at a club in Cincinnati and once again, --that time I was playing jazz, and one of my colleagues, Reggie Calloway from Midnight Star, came to hear me play. We were good friend, had gone to college together and all that.

So, the Commodores called him and asked if he knew of a good saxophonist. He recommended me highly and called me and asked me if I was interested in playing with the Commodores. Of course, I was blown away-again!

I said, "Are you kidding me?" He said, "Well, I understand you are in grad school, working on your masters in urban planning. I said, "Yes, I am." And, he said, "Well, how’s your mother going to feel about that? What are you going to do-drop out of school?" I said, "Well, it sounds like a once in a lifetime opportunity" He said, "So, is it okay for me to give them your number?" I said, "Okay?"

Ten minutes later, I got a call from Cecil Willingham who was the road manager of the Commodores at that time. He sounded very official on the telephone, saying, "Is this Donn Bynum?" I said, "Yes, it is." He said, "This is Cecil Willingham, road manager for the Commodores. I understand you play sax, keyboard and drums. Is that correct?" I said, "Yeah, that’s right." He said, "You have any tapes to prove that?" I said, "Yes, I do." He said, " I need to hear that." I said, "When would you like me to come to you?" He said, "Right now!"

He was in Dayton, Ohio-pretty close to Cincinnati. So I got into the car to drive up there. I got a flat tire on the way. I called a mechanic to bring me a tire. We didn’t have time to change it. I left the car on the side of the road and you didn’t expect this kind of story, did you? (great big laugh)

So, we made our way to Dayton, Ohio and met Mr. Willingham, officially. We brought my parents into the living room, made them comfortable, then he took me into the back room. Again, he got extremely official and said, "Okay, where are the tapes?" He made no bones about it.

So I got the tapes out and started playing them for him and he was listening and sort of nodding, that sort of thing. Then, he said, "Okay, what else you got?" So finally, he said, "Do you have anything with your singing on it?" I said, "I have this one tape with a song I’m writing and I’m on keyboards on the tape and, I can also sing it outright for you.." He said, "Well, okay" and folded his arms, very official like okay, "I want to see if this is going to be any good." I started playing the tape. He heard the piano and I started singing and before it got to the chorus, he shut it off.

I thought, oh my gosh. My heart sunk. He sat there, holding me with bated breath. Then, finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he said, "You are bad! You got the job!"

JazzReview: Oh, whoa! I think I would have fell out. Were your knees shaking?

Donn Bynum: Oh, yeah.

I should have fallen out. He showed me their itinerary for me getting a passport in one day. He flew me to New York for my passport. Got there-my first time in New York, and I went to Rockefeller Center where the security guard was waiting. He escorted me to a back office where someone’s main office was. There were a lot of firsts that day.

There was a priority letter waiting for me at Sal Michaels’ Entertainment Agency. A lot of people were sitting around, wondering who the heck I was, walking past them, as they all waited for an audition.

I got my passport and was back in Cincinnati the same day. I went back to the University of Cincinnati where the Dean was excited for me the Commodores-oh, my gosh!

Two weeks later, I’m in Tuskegee, Alabama with the guys and I was just blown away (again) by everything. I’d met the guys a year before when I was still in college. Lionnel had taken the time out to talk to me. I had no idea one year later I’d be playing with these fantastic guys, who are outstanding artists in their own right.

I had two and a half years touring with them through Europe, Asia, all of the US. I believe we did Canada as well. Then things started slowing down a bit. They let the horn section go as they began doing everything with keyboards and synthesizers. That meant I had to go find some other things.

I ended up with the Brothers Johnson for a while. Then, the Commodores called me back. They were talking about going to Africa and Milan (B. Williams) decided he wasn’t going to go, so Walter (Clyde) Orange called me to come back and play the keyboard, at the time. I said, "I’d like to go to Africa, but not to Johannesburg because Mandela was still in prison and apartheid was still in place." He assured me we wouldn’t be playing in Johannesburg. So, I agreed and we had a great time in Botswana, Mobia and Ascencia. That was a nice short run with the guys.

We also went to Florida, played a few places there and a few other spots. It was only about five or six months with them that time. But, then Bootsy called me back and I got on the road with him. I was kind of rotating back and forth between Bootsy’s Rubber Band and the Brothers Johnson. After that, I decided to release my own CD.

JazzReview: During this time, did you realize what a star you had become? You were an integral part of these bands-not a sideman.

Donn Bynum: Oh, absolutely. When I finally realized that is when we did the Motown 25th Anniversary. I met all those people front and center-Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, the rest of the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, Richard Pryor, Dick Clark-I had a headache when I left the coliseum that night. There I was on stage playing drums with the Commodores--playing "Brick House." I looked out into the audience and looked right into Jim Brown’s (?) face and I realized, ‘Hey, I must have something here.&&& I was playing with the "A" group.

JazzReview: What a revelation!

After reaching such a peak in your career-what did you think would be next? You were already on top, with two break-away original groups which held the music world captivated for more than 20 years. What was it that made you decide to do a debut album at this time?

Donn Bynum: After being a sideman for so long, and after being, basically, a support group for so long, I figured with all the training I’ve had and all the experience I’ve had, it’s about time. It’s time for me to start showing what I’ve learned and gather all the experience I’ve had and put it all into one melting pot, putting it out there to the public. And, hope the public is ready for me.

JazzReview: When I first heard your voice on the album, I thought of Will Downing, with a smooth, silky, romantic voice. Then, I noticed you have the timing and delivery and depth of Barry White. So, I’d say you are a cross between Will Downing and Barry White.

Donn Bynum: That’s a big compliment-a tall order. Will Downing and Barry White?

JazzReview: Oh, definitely.

Do You Feel Me, filled with plenty of diversity, is your debut solo album. What was at the heart of this creation? You’ve included some romantic ballads, some p-funk, plus "Fish and Grits". How did this come about-one song at a time? Or did you just sit down and do it?

Donn Bynum: Oh, no. It took over a year-a year and a half or so to put everything together, a song at a time. I collaborated and put it together with my co-producer and good friend, Lew Laing. He’s an excellent producer. He had some tracks and I had some lyrics so we just put our heads together and our ideas together. Do You Feel Me is basically what I’d been going through with divorce, being single now. and, having two children who are living with their mother. And, having them visit me occasionally and me visiting them occasionally.

I was just wondering what it would be like to have a new love interest in my life and to share these overflowing feelings and love and compassion for a person. Just wondering if that (feeling) would be reciprocated? That’s where "Do You Feel Me" was born. When I hold you close to me, I’m wondering if you’re feeling the same thing I’m feeling? You hold me and the words coming out of your mouth are similar to what I’m telling you but, is that what you feel, really in your heart? So, that’s where "Do You Feel Me" came from.

JazzReview: You draw your listener into the album with the soft and sultry, title track, featuring your own smooth vocals over your alto sax and Paul Jackson Jr., on guitar. I think you have achieved what you aimed for, very well.

Just as sensitive, but without the rich vocals, "D’s Melody" features your alto sax, Gary Reed on guitar and Gary, "Big Dog" Stanionis on percussion. Please tell me a little about the guy known as "Big Dog." Anyone with a name like that has a story.

Donn Bynum: He is just like Paul Jackson, Jr. is-they are both excellent craftsmen and their personalities just captivate you. That came across in the tracks. They are both just wonderful people and they had a marvelous contribution to the project. I could not have done it without them.

JazzReview: Bringing the listener to a more up-tempo beat, "Midnight In Rio" features your co-producer Lew Laing on drum programming & keyboards. He offers a sweltering solo on this tune-just as you stretch out on alto sax. Please tell me about Lew Laing.

Donn Bynum: Lew Laing was just fantastic in his offerings and his dedications to the project. I had to do quite a bit of driving to get to the studio. It was a labor of love, I would have to say, during that year and a half it took to culminate this project.

"Midnight in Rio" was very refreshing to both of us because it was happy and upbeat, with a calypso flair. It was nice to come back from the studio every day and listen to that and to what we had done with that to grow the project.

And, oh-"D’s Melody," I just over-emotionalized that, I suppose. I don’t know if I overdid it? I was just feeling so many things that day. It was raining and you know, like painting with a paintbrush and a million colors. When I drove home listening to that, I felt it was just so touching and riveting and touched so many heart strings and so many things I’d gone through. And, what so many of my friends and associates had gone through--And, life in general.

JazzReview: Absolutely It’s extremely sensitive. It touches everything inside a person’s heart.

"Funky J" swings. You play alto sax and flute for this one, bringing in Bernie Worrell on synth-keyboards, Darrell Crooks on guitar and Raymond Johnson on drums. Bernie Worrell is known as a funk-master who appeared with you on the song, "Make My Funk The P-Funk" during a studio session. He is also featured on "New Age Funk". Please tell me about Bernie Worrell.

Donn Bynum: That (Funky-J) was very exciting and fun to do. And, my good friend, Bernie my band-mate from Bootsy’s Rubber Band, just drew so much electricity into that song and the other songs he played on. Bernie is just so-oh, my goodness! He’s an alien. He’s an alien with immense talent. It’s always fun to do things with him. And, to see where he’s going to take the song.

JazzReview: He’s been around for quite a while too-he’s a funk-master.

Donn Bynum: Oh my gosh. I have the utmost respect for Bernie Worrell.

JazzReview: Matt Hamel comes in for soft, caressing vocals on "Anniversary" accompanied by your sweltering sax for a funky, yet smooth listening experience. How did you put "Anniversary" in the middle of all this?

Donn Bynum: It’s a song I enjoyed for so many years. I was just trying to find a way to use that, to incorporate that into my arsenal of emotions. It kind-of defines who I am as far as being a potential mate. When I was married, I would get my wife flowers on the 14th of every month because we were married on April 14. I gave her so many flowers, ‘till she finally said, "Look. No more flowers!" (big chuckle)

JazzReview: You’re a hopeless romantic, aren’t you? .

Donn Bynum: Yes I am-just a hopeless romantic.

JazzReview: That’s a good thing. Women love that.

"Fish & Grits" is traditional breakfast fare in some parts of the south. How did you come up with this as a title for your song?

Donn Bynum: My parents are from Alabama so I know all about fish and grits. (ha) And, all the southern cuisine.

JazzReview: The album closes with "I Need You To Survive". Where was your heart during this song? Who was this dedicated to? I have a feeling this is deeper than a romantic song.

Donn Bynum: That brought in my spiritual side. I couldn’t have done anything without God’s help. Some people may lean on other things. But, for me, God is the only way to go forward. I wanted to at least attempt to praise Him for the immense talent I fell He has blessed me with and for the future He has set forth for me. I didn’t feel I could do that song justice vocally. I knew I needed someone who could draw that totally out of the water-Harry Thompson on lead and background vocals along with Brittani Cole, then I accompanied them on alto sax.

JazzReviewYes, it was marvelous. Will you be touring now, with this album?

Donn Bynum: I need to do a promotional tour. I’ve had several offers. All that is on the table. I have a few spot dates lined up. And, I’ll just have to keep you posted on upcoming events.

JazzReview: Yes, please do that.

Is there anything you would like your fans to know about you?

Donn Bynum: I guess they will find that I’m just a hopeless romantic, like you said. And, that I’m a diligent worker. And, there’s a lot more in store where that came from. I’m hoping my fans will each find something in my CD for them, somewhere in there-something they will be able to identify with. And, that I’ll be able to represent that as well, on stage.

JazzReview: I like that. You know, with all you have done-you’ve been with Bootsy Collins, The Commodores, Motown, Brothers Johnson-you’ve been at the top of the top for a long time.. Yet, you have stayed grounded. You’re a down to earth guy-straight-up, so to speak, regular folk.

Donn Bynum: Well, thank you. You know, first of all, there’s my spiritual upbringing I was brought up in the church. And, my parents were excellent role models. They are still together, celebrating their 50th anniversary, this year. They’re excellent role models. They just stuck together. So many people just give up. I still have faith in the human race and I feel if we just stick together, we can find common ground we can agree on. So when you call me down to earth, I guess that’s what I’ve always been, what I’ve always experienced and what has been modeled to me over the years. I think if you have a good upbringing, you always come back to the truth.

JazzReview: So many people get star struck when they reach your level of success. But, you have managed to avoid all the trappings. Is there anything else I’ve missed?

Donn Bynum: I think we’ve covered it all. I would like to know what my fans would like from me. I would love them to contact me--on my webpage or e-mail me, or hit me up on My-space.

JazzReview: Thank you so very much for your time. I enjoyed this interview.

A regular guy, filled with passion, romance and ready for chapter two of his life, Donn Bynum has been on top of his game for three decades. Still creating. Still enchanting. Bynum captivates his audiences and is ready to capture someone’s heart. Do You Feel Me is but a sample of things to come for this brilliant talent.

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Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Donn Bynum
  • Interview Date: 8/1/2008
  • Subtitle: Do You Feel Me?
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