Soul music is the most criminally underserved item on the 21st-century pop bill of fare, a fact that makes the presence of veteran singer Nolan Porter even more consequential. Although the Los Angeles native seldom performs in Southern California, he is a major attraction in the United Kingdom, where he'd the subject of popular adoration, enthusiastic BBC reportage and a critically acclaimed 2015 documentary film. Porter has exerted a powerful influence there: Paul Weller recorded Porter’s “If I Could Only Be Sure’ and Joy Division’s “Interzone” is directly based on his “Keep On Keepin’ On.”
The singer-songwriter’s early-’70s output is prized among the international Northern Soul cult, the reward of his very particular methodology — a contemplative, low-key vocal style that’s opposed to the declarative, gospel-informed shout of Otis Redding and James Brown — yet Porter’s smoldering messagery is just as intense and expressive as those more extroverted forebears. While his recorded output was limited to two albums and half a dozen singles, Porter’s brief career was populated by a formidable roster of accompanists, including Johnny "Guitar" Watson, Little Feat’s Lowell George and funk demi-god Rick James, players drawn in by his artful mix of deep creativity and magnetic appeal.
“I was always interested in music, always wrote songs, but I kept them to myself,” Porter said. “I never thought about publishing or recording them. I was testing the waters. I wrote about what I knew — one of my first was about a teacher I fell in love with. I liked to rhyme and it was therapy for me. I came from a broken home — I mean I wasn’t abused, my parents were wonderful people, but they did divorce when I was young.”
Porter took an unusual approach, crafting intimate meditations as he gained experience in a decidedly more formal musical realm.
“My training was classical,” he said. “As a teenager, I sang in a madrigal group, I sang light opera. Brenda Holloway had a similar background, she told me she used to bring her violin out at the end of her set. I loved all of it, but it’s all about my own brand of soul music.”
When he hit 21, it all fell into place. Sort of. “I was discovered by Gabriel Mekler, the producer who did Steppenwolf’s 'Born to Be Wild' and also produced Three Dog Night and Etta James,” Porter said. “He had been a classical piano child prodigy in Israel and met me through the madrigal group, So I auditioned for him by singing Donovan’s 'Sunshine Superman' in a classical bass voice. Man, I was such a square — a true basso buffo.
“So Gabriel left ABC Dunhill and started his own company, Lizard Records. He signed me, Johnny 'Guitar' Watson, Clyde King, The Ronettes, The Blossoms. He had Rick James, who worked with me quite a bit — he pulled my cookies out of the fire more than a few times. I remember one night at the Troubadour, I was bombing and Rick broke out the timbales. He was quite a player on those and just brought the whole energy level up, and I was able to finish the show. He did that a few times. And Johnny 'Guitar' Watson also helped me out, taught me and told me a lot of things.”
The Palestine-born Mekler was a fascinating anomaly, one who had little experience with, or interest in, pop music yet was able to craft bold, modern discs such as “Born to Be Wild” as easily as he helped update established black stars like Etta James and Dinah Washington. With Porter, he took a richly atmospheric, at times haunting approach that lent his records a distinct, memorable quality, perhaps most notably Watson’s achingly emotional guitar on “If I Could Only Be Sure.”
“Johnny played on that and he also sang backup on it,” Porter said. “I had great help, I stood on some very tall shoulders. And I didn’t know anything, I was lucky.”
As a naive youth cast into a vortex of exploitative music business chicanery, Porter quickly found himself tangled up in a hit-and-ruin mess of fast talk and unadulterated bullshit.
“Things were not done right, mistakes were made,” Porter said. “I was sure I’d be a big star. I had three records on the charts but all of them were under different names — Nolan, N.F. Porter and Nolan Porter — no one knew they were the same person. We put out 'Groovin’ (Out on Life)' as Frederick II and it made the R&B chart here and was a big record in Jamaica. The single 'If I Could Only Be Sure' was the No. 1 radio hit in Los Angeles on New Year’s 1971.
“Everybody at Lizard started going different ways, stabbing each other in the back, and it all just kind of backfired. They had taken my name off 'If I Could Only Be Sure' and told me that I was going on The Ed Sullivan Show and they’d restore the credit after that — what did I know? I was just a kid.”
After his debut, Nolan, Lizard went belly up and ABC issued 1973’s No Apologies, but the momentum had been squandered and it all came unglued. Mekler would die in a motorcycle accident within a few years and Porter simply walked away
“But I never stopped singing. I worked with quite a few different groups,” Porter said. “Music is not only therapy for me, it’s almost like religion; it was about art, not money. I mean, from 1974 to 1996 I didn’t know what was going on, at all, I didn’t use my name. And after all these years, I didn’t know anyone listened to my records.
“I had no idea what was going on in England with my music, but now I tour there — we’re going back again in a few months,” he said. “They made that little documentary, it’s an underground film but it got great reviews. I have a wonderful band over there, Stone Foundation, and they just released a terrific album produced by Paul Weller. I didn’t know he had recorded 'If I Could Only Be Sure,' and we began corresponding, finally met and I got up and sing with him at the Fonda Theater.”
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
Porter today is in gorgeous condition and his voice still radiates that singular, peculiar warmth — equal parts tranquility and tension — that is his alone. Better yet, he recently returned to the studio for a kicking new 45, “Go, Go, Go.“
“My new record is a tribute to the U.K. soul scene. And I have plans to make some plans,” he said. “I like to do things right and I want to continue to record in the worst way — I didn’t understand the business end, but now I do, and I could use a little more of that today.
“I never did any drugs, didn’t do anything to destroy myself, so I am just going to keep going. I am very grateful.”
Nolan Porter appears Sunday, Jan. 21, at Jonny Whiteside’s Messaround at Joe’s Great American Bar & Grill.