The organization Playing For Change offers a new video/global recording, a cover of R&B icon Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” that was started back in 2005. Following the Playing For Change paradigm, the piece features musicians recorded around the world including the late Roger Ridley, his sister Alice Tan Ridley, and PFC regular Grandpa Elliott.
Mike Ragogna: Mark, overall, how is Playing For Change doing?
Mark Johnson: Playing For Change is doing great as we are about to release a new Songs Around The World video every month for the next year and launch our upcoming Listen to the Music video series and new album. The PFC Band and the PFC Foundation are celebrating their 10-year anniversary and we are looking forward to continuing to connect the world through music.
MR: Mark, Playing For Change’s latest video, a cover of Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home To Me,” is the last to feature the late Roger Ridley and Grandpa Elliott together. They first appeared on the organization’s video hit “Stand By Me” that, to date, has accumulated over 122 million views. First of all, it must be a little bittersweet presenting this video after Roger Ridley’s passing and did he ever get to see a final cut?
MJ: Roger Ridley was able to see the final version of “Stand By Me” Around The World but he never saw “Sitting On The Dock Of The Bay” nor “Bring It On Home To Me” Around The World. I remember asking him during the recording, “With a voice like yours, you sound like Otis Redding, why are you singing on the street?” He replied, “Man, I’m in the joy business, I come out to be with the people.”
These songs are a tribute to talented street performers everywhere who bring joy to everyone and anyone who passes them by.
MR: Can you spend a second offering a story or two about Roger before we get back to “Bring It On Home To Me”?
MJ: Shortly after Roger passed away, I received an emotional call from his widow, Ernestine, in tears, thanking us for the “Stand By Me” video. I had given Roger a DVD with the final video and apparently he had not yet shared it with his wife. She was in mourning and one day, she accidentally turned on the DVD player and the “Stand By Me” video began to play. The first thirty seconds or so of the video are just Roger playing by himself in Santa Monica and then, all of a sudden, musicians start to be added to the track around the world. She was so amazed and thankful that Roger would be remembered for this video and for his music and voice reaching the entire world. The day she called me was one of the proudest days of my life and it’s an honor to be able to contribute to the legacy of a man and a musician who gave so much to so many of us.
MR: Your new video—actually started in 2005 in Santa Monica—features performances by seventeen musicians from all over the world. Is there a story and timeline you can recount from gestation to its final release?
MJ: This was an interesting song because it evolved so much since the original recoding in 2005. I wanted to reunite Roger Ridley with Grandpa Elliott like the “Stand My Me” video but we wanted to surround them with some of the greatest musicians in the world. We reached out to legendary drummer, James Gadson [Bill Withers, Beck, Marvin Gaye] and bass player Reggie McBride [Stevie Wonder, Etta James] to be the rhythm section for the Song Around The World to give it the best groove possible. We then contacted our friend, Federico Ferrandina, an Italian composer, to write string and horn parts for “Bring It On Home To Me.” The crew and I headed to Matera, Italy and the streets of Havana, Cuba, to record and film strings and horns for the video and then approached the amazing Karl Denson to play the saxophone solo. Once we had these pieces in place, we had to find one last singer for the video. One day a few years ago, I received a call from Ernestine Ridley letting me know that Roger had a sister named Alice who lived in NYC and she was interested in contacting Playing For Change. I then received a link to hear her sing on “America’s Got Talent.” I fell off my chair as she sounded like a female version of her brother! The crew and I flew to NYC to film and record Alice Tan Ridley in Central Park and added the final piece to the puzzle. Brother and sister singing together in a split screen, “...until I’m dead and buried in my grave,” gives me chills. It’s amazing to be reuniting Roger and Alice for one more song.
MR: Is there a permanent or slightly rotating roster of the PFC Band? Please can you go into how it formed, grew, and what is the function of that body of artists beyond recording music and videos?
MJ: The PFC Band features eleven musicians from ten different countries and many of them we met while creating our Song Around The World videos. In the beginning the band was formed to show the tangible idea of Playing For Change live on stage right in front of you. All these different artists in the band from all these different countries all had their own careers and talents and they decided to merge them into something bigger than themselves. They are the PFC Ambassadors and when they tour they also visit children’s hospitals and homeless shelters to remind us music is much more than just entertainment. We usually tour with the same core group of musicians and then invite local artists to join us on stage as we tour the world. To us, world music is when the world plays music together. All the different cultures, languages, and identities make the music and the live concerts stronger.
MR: Roger’s sister Alice Tan Ridley also appears in the video. Her having been associated with America’s Got Talent and being the mother of Gabourey Sidibe, the star of the series Precious, how was her contribution treated in the video, especially considering the delicateness of her appearing with her late brother?
MJ: I could not have dreamed of a better voice to complete this song and this final PFC video with Roger Ridley than his sister Alice. They both have so much soul and their singing comes from a deep place. I really feel like it was destiny to wait so long to finish this video so we could wait to meet Alice Tan Ridley and reunite her with her brother Roger. Some dreams do come true.
MR: Sax player Karl Denson also is featured. How did that come together?
MJ: I have been a fan of Karl Denson for many years and once we were ready to add the solo to the song, we decided to reach out to his manager, Erik Newson, and give it a shot. We heard back that Karl was interested and then we met him in Jackson Square, New Orleans, to record and film the solo.
MR: Are there any other gems like this hiding in the Playing For Change vaults? Is there any more musical footage by Roger Ridley in existence? Any shot that non-musical footage might make its way into future videos?
MJ: Fortunately, since we started, we have recorded and filmed music in about 50 different countries and so our archive is full of gems and unreleased performances. This is the final Playing For Change video featuring the late, great, Roger Ridley.
MR: From a technical perspective, how has Playing For Change’s international recording process evolved since the early days? Has the mission behind these videos and audio releases evolved as well?
MJ: When Whitney Kroenke and I first started Playing For Change I was also working in the studio with two of my friends and mentors, Jackson Browne and Keb’ Mo’. Each one of them offered some wisdom that has guided our recording process ever since.
Jackson said, “Some of the best music happens right before you learn it…” This concept opened us up to making Songs Around The World live and in the moment by capturing that first performance when a musician hears the song and then plays their instrument from instinct and from their heart.
Keb’ Mo’ said, “Sound is a feeling first, if it feels good it will always sound good.” I’ve always loved this perspective of making music where you provide a positive recording/filming environment along with good microphones and nice headphones so the musicians feel better and play better and everything sounds better as well.
One interesting thing that is unique to recording Songs Around The World is that people tend to listen more and play less than I experienced in the studio. The musicians know the song will eventually have lots of performers playing together and they are a part of something bigger than themselves. This reality offers the musicians a chance to really focus on how they can contribute to whole song and find a part to make it better.
I have used the very same microphones and microphone preamps since we started in 2001. The difference in our recording process is how we power our mobile studio. We started with golf cart batteries to power everything, and then car batteries and now we use smaller lithium batteries so we can go anywhere and multi-track record music around the world.
MR: Now that Playing For Change has become a formidable musical institution, where do you see it heading in the future and will its mission change further?
MJ: Everything we do with Playing For Change is born out of the idea that no matter how many things in life divide us, they will never be as strong as the power of music to bring us together. In music as in life, the things that make us different make us stronger. We create Songs Around The World to re-connect us to our shared humanity. The PFC Band tours the world as the tangible example of the world coming together through music and the PFC Foundation is the way we leave the world better than we found it, one school, one heart, and one song at a time.
MR: What kind of success is the PFC Band and the PFC Foundation’s building music and art schools internationally having?
MJ: This is where the magic happens. The PFC Foundation and the PFC Band are celebrating their ten-year anniversary as the band was formed to help fundraise for the building of our very first PFC Foundation music program back in 2008. We now support fifteen music and art programs around the world and we work to connect our programs together with each other so children from different cultures can learn about the world around them through the lens of music and art. The PFC Band just finished touring in Japan and performing at the DirectTV Arena in Argentina and are getting ready for more shows around the world in 2018.
MR: Mark, what advice do you have for new artists?
MJ: You have to show up and put in the time and learn from your experiences in life so you can evolve and grow as an artist. I was given a Tibetan coin from my brother many years ago and the text on the coin translates to “Supreme success through perseverance.” That’s my advise to anybody who wants to follow their dreams.
MR: What does the future bring for all things Playing For Change?
MJ: We are about to release our new video series and album titled, Listen To The Musicincluding twelve new Songs Around The World featuring over 200 musicians from 25 countries. All the music was recorded and filmed live on location. Some of the musicians involved in the new videos are Buddy Guy, members of The Doobie Brothers, Dr. John, Jack Johnson, Paula Fuga, Warren Haynes, and John Densmore. We have been working on this new video project for the past 5 years and we cannot wait to share it with everyone so we can continue to grow the PFC Movement and connect the world through music.