By Charles Hallman
“Always There” (1975) and “Funkin’ for Jamaica” (1979) are legendary songs for Ronnie Laws and Tom Browne, respectively.
A member of a musical family — brother Hubert Laws on flute and sisters Eloise Laws and Debra Laws as vocalists —Ronnie taught himself the alto sax at age 11, and he studied music both in high school and at Stephen F. Austin and Texas Southern Universities. He relocated from his native Texas to Los Angeles in 1970, and after receiving his formative training with jazz pianist Walter Bishop, Jr. and organist Doug Cann, Laws also worked with such legends as the Jazz Crusaders and Hugh Masekela.
Before signing a solo record deal with Blue Note Records in the mid-1970s, Laws also was an early member of Earth, Wind and Fire.
Produced by the Crusaders’ Wayne Henderson, Laws’ breakout debut album, Pressure Sensitive (1975), featured his first hit “Always There.” That song is considered one of the most popular crossover hits of the late 1970s and sounds just as fresh today. His first three of 19 total albums — Pressure Sensitive, Fever and Friends and Strangers — cemented his place as a crossover artist.
Once noted by Downbeat magazine for his “warm trumpet,” Tom Browne, who has 11 albums to his credit, easily has floated between jazz, adult contemporary and R&B charts for over four decades. He studied music at the famed High School of Music and Art/Performing Arts in New York, and jammed with the likes of Freddie Hubbard, Sonny Fortune and Woody Shaw during the 1970s.
He later signed with the newly formed GRP Records in 1978, and his solo debut album, Browne Sugar (1979), then later his follow-up albums, Love Approach (1980) and Magic (1981), earned gold and garnered him Best Instrumentalist, Best Jazz Cross-Over, Best Jazz Artist-Trumpet and Best Jazz Solo Album honors from Billboard.
“When they created music, there wasn’t any categories” such as smooth jazz and the such, notes drummer Corey Mason, one of four locally based musicians who appeared on stage with Laws and Browne during a two-day engagement at the Dakota in downtown Minneapolis July 23-24. “They paved the way for others in urban music.”
Local singer Angela Jefferson provided the vocals on Browne’s “Funkin’ for Jamaica.” “I sang with them last year when they were here at the Dakota,” she recalls.
Originally from Los Angeles, Jefferson moved to Minneapolis two years ago, and through Facebook she introduced herself to Browne, who invited her to sing “Funkin’ for Jamaica” with him a year ago. “I listened to [Browne and Laws] as I was growing up — I feel much honored with working with them,” she says.
Laws later directed the Dakota audience to get up off their seats as he played “Always There.” Browne later chipped in, and then the two concluded the hit with a drum solo by Mason.
“Ronnie gave me my first professional gig when I came out of high school. I started playing with Tom here last year. That was my first time playing with Ronnie and Tom together,” recalls Mason.
The gifted sax man also did his popular “Friends and Strangers” (1978), as members of the audience dutifully provided the vocals.
The MSR briefly talked to both Browne and Laws between sets.
“It was just a bunch of guys having fun. It never meant to do what it did — it just took off,” admitted Browne on “Funkin.’” Although he’s more renowned for the song, “There are a lot of tunes that had a lot more heart going into it,” said Browne, adding that “Bye Gones” (1982), “Rockin’ Radio” (1983) and “Secret Fantasy” (1984) “all got good response but nothing like [‘Funkin’ for] Jamaica.’”
Laws say he believes his best work was in the early 2000s: “A CD project I did called Brotherhood — it is really an eclectic but earthly concept that was very progressive but never got [the same recognition],” he pointed out.
The two longtime artists have been touring together for at least a year, said Browne. “I think perhaps because of our personalities, Ronnie and I have a chemistry that jells really well,” he pointed out. “He [presents] his artistry in a certain way, and I can weave around that to make it work.”
The chemistry between the two musicians clearly showed as they played off each other, not stepping on each other’s musical toes whether it was on covers of “What’s Going On” and “Tell Me Something Good,” or their own individual works.
“He [presents] his artistry in a certain way, and I can weave around that to make it work,” Browne summed up. “It’s a natural blend — our backgrounds are similar, and the music fits.”
“They do work well together,” says Jefferson on Laws and Browne.
“It’s beautiful playing with two legends that are really innovators,” concludes Mason.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.