“Rough Cut Stone”: Family is Foundational for Jazz Singer Gregory Porter

In this episode of Essential Conversations, Grammy winner Gregory Porter talks about his brother and mother’s influences on his music career. Plus, an origin story from Don Was.

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Gregory Porter has achieved levels of success most musicians only dream of, and he owes almost all of it to his family.

Porter has won two Grammys for Best Vocal Jazz Album (Liquid Spirit, 2014; Take Me to the Alley, 2017) and performed alongside the likes of Stevie Wonder and Quincy Jones.

He once serendipitously caught the ear of Don Was at a club. The next day, in his first act as president of Blue Note Records, Was signed Porter to the prestigious label.

But that wasn’t the first time Porter’s talent was recognized. That credit goes to his family, who encouraged and inspired him to pursue a career in music, despite the risks and challenges.

Porter is one of eight children, and his mother was a minister. Around the age of 12, his voice began to develop. Before long, Porter was joining his mother as she traveled to preach on weeknight services. He became the family singer.

From that point until their last moments together, she was his most ardent supporter.

“From her deathbed, she said, ‘Gregory, don’t you forget about your music.’

“That gave me a license to pursue it,” he says.

“She made me, she shaped and molded me, and gave me moral fiber. The idea of irreplaceable love is from her.”

Porter remembers his brother fondly, who he lost to COVID-19. From coming of age to helping get his career started, Porter’s brother had a monumental impact on his life and his music.

“We went through everything in life. We suffered a lot of strangeness, a lot of slings and arrows that came our way… two little black kids… eight, nine, ten years old. And we looked out for each other. Some of that energy, of our protecting… finds its way into my music,” Porter says.

In “Thank You” from the 2020 album All Rise, Porter wrote a lyric about inspired by his brother.

“Rough cut stone, I couldn’t polish myself. It had to be done by someone else.”

Now, Porter smiles when he hears his son humming the melodies to his songs.

Whether he wants to follow in his father’s footsteps, says Porter, will be up to him when the time comes.

In this episode:

  • Gregory Porter on losing his brother to COVID-19 and how it changed his role in the family
  • How support from his brother and mother encouraged and inspired him throughout his career
  • Passing his love of music on to his son
  • Don Was tells the story of how his first act as president of Blue Note Records was to sign Gregory Porter
  • Writing songs from his Grammy-winning albums at the last minute, twice

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  • David Leins
    David Leins is a Podcast Coordinator and Producer at WDET. He also oversees the StoryMakers program. When he isn't making radio and podcasts, David is probably on a hike somewhere marveling at the trees.