Jazz singer acknowledges faith roots

Double Grammy award-winning Jazz singer and songwriter Gregory Porter was very influenced by his mother, Ruth, who was a preacher and brought up eight children on her own.

Gregory Porter
Singer Gregory Porter in New York City to discuss his new album ‘Nat ‘King’ Cole & Me’ last December. (Photo Steve Zak Photography/WireImage)

Gregory told the BBC series Fern Britton Meets that most of his lyrics are filled with Christian themes like love and the equality of all people in God's eyes. The equality theme is not surprising, given the hardship Gregory's family faced in his early years.

He was raised in poverty, with a mostly absent father. "I would be listening to Nat King Cole and imagining that he was my father," Gregory recalls sadly.

The Porters were called names, a burning cross was put on their front lawn, bottles of urine were thrown into the house, smashing windows, and his brother was shot twice "when some young racists were looking for someone black to hurt that night".

Bitterness and insecurity could have eaten Gregory up and destroyed his life. How did he become the loving and successful person he is today? Through his mother telling him, "You are valuable, you are worthy, and there is nobody above you." As a result, none of the insults really stuck. "That was fortifying, knowing that I was a child of God," Gregory recalls.

Gregory grew up in church and accepted Jesus as a young boy, being influenced by his mother's preaching and seeing the real need for "always going wherever the need was deepest, wherever the battle was."

But Gregory's journey into the world of music was not an easy one. He sang in church, but did not think of a career in music until he had a conversation with his mother on her deathbed.

"She had been diagnosed with breast cancer and had been sent home to be with her family," Gregory recalls. "She was connected up to the oxygen, the thing was cranked right up, but she still could not breathe."

Still, Ruth found the strength to tell her son that he should try and become a professional singer.

"It was something I had never even considered until then," Gregory admits. "I just could not see how it could work."

Two days later, Ruth died, but her words proved powerful.

"When she passed, I was gone," Gregory confesses. "I did not sing for a long time, for almost a year. I went to be with my brother, to get some inspiration to get up in the morning. Then I remembered what she had said to me.

"I started going to jazz jam sessions, three times a week. That was just a way of getting out of this funk of pain over losing my mother."

However, Gregory spent years struggling to support his family as a jazz singer, not signing his first record deal until he was nearly 40. But he never lost faith in his music or God.

When one of Gregory's albums, Liquid Spirit, won a Grammy award in 2014 for Best Jazz Vocal Album, he remembers the moment. "It's hard to describe a dream come true of a dream you didn't think was possible," he says. "I found myself on stage not fully sure how to conduct myself."

Gregory is often recognised for his trademark black cap and balaclava. While he does not go into the details of the facial scars it covers caused by injuries he suffered when he was younger, he admits that it has become his "signature look to rock".

Gregory learned to put his faith into practice from his mother, who set up her own church in the worst part of town, to reach drug addicts and prostitutes with God's love.

Gregory tells that on one occasion Ruth had seen a woman high on drugs running through a park, naked and screaming. She had stopped the car, told the kids to grab towels out of the boot, covered the lady, held her in her arms, stroked her head and calmed her down. She had spent hours with her, until the drugs wore off.

"At the time I thought, 'why does my mother have to be this kind of woman?'" Gregory says. "But now, I promise you, she was teaching without saying a word. So when I sing a song like, 'Take me to the alley', that experience in the park is what wrote that lyric. It was my mother's action that put that inside of me; seeing how to be selfless, giving, and Christ-like in a way."

Gregory's brother Dion continues his mother's ministry in a church named after her. As a result, there are fewer addicts and prostitutes in that area today.

His sister, Lawanda, adds: "When Gregory is up there singing, it often feels like that's my mother up there, preaching."

Gregory is married to Victoria and has a two-year-old son, Demyan.