August 22, 2006

Confessions of a California Raisin: Vernon ‘Ice’ Black brings his FamilyStoneExperience funk to town

Vernon Ice Black What do Aretha Franklin, Mariah Carey, Herbie Hancock, Maze and the California Raisins have in common? Three words: Vernon “Ice” Black. The talented multi-instrumentalist usually gets a call when a producer or a big-name artist is in need of a crack musician.Black played bass for Hancock and guitar for Franklin and Carey. If it comes down to it, he can even sit in behind the drums. Oh, did I mention he’s also a producer with his own company, Ice Black Productions? The man said being versatile is his way of having fun.“Musicians are fortunate like athletes,” Black said in a recent interview with LEO. “We get paid for playing a kid’s game. I picked music up because it was fun. We don’t work the guitar, we play it. I had no idea it would take me where I am now.”Black will be in Kentuckiana this weekend, laying down the funk guitar for Gregg Rolie and FamilyStoneExperience. This funk supergroup includes original members of Sly and the Family Stone (Jerry Martini, Cynthia Robinson and Rose Stone) and Santana (Rolie, who sang on Santana classics like “Black Magic Woman” and “Oye Como Va”). Fred Ross, a former backup vocalist for Franklin and leader of the San Francisco group Sass, is also in the band. Black began playing with FamilyStoneExperience last year. “Fred called me because they had two guitarists who were going to be out for a few months,” Black explained. “The original idea was to help them out through the summer. Then things just got twisted and I’m still here.“The thing is that I grew up a big Sly and the Family Stone fan. That whole sound is so much responsible for who I am today.” Vernon Black, 48, is from Kansas City, Mo., a town full of music. It gave birth to legends like Charlie Parker, Count Basie and Joe Turner. One of four boys in his family, Black gravitated to music at an early age.“There was always music all the time in my hometown,” he said. “Everybody was always singing and playing records. I started out playing the drums when I was about 11. Later, I picked up the bass, and a month after that, I picked up the guitar. I used to have a guitar on one side of the bed and a basketball on the other side. Those were my two great passions.” By his senior year in high school, Black had put basketball aside and music was his focus. After graduation, he moved to San Jose, Calif., to work with a friend doing commercial jingles. The relationship was successful, resulting in jingles for Levi’s and, later, those infamous California Raisin ads (yes, Black was an original California Raisin). It was a connection with producer Narada Michael Walden, who produced Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love,” that led Black to join Franklin’s band. From there, it has been one high-profile gig after another.“Being a professional musician can be a struggle,” Black said. “Some people are lucky with a capital ‘L,’ but more times than not, it is a struggle to make ends meet. You just have to keep doing what you love to do.”At the moment, Black has almost more work than he can handle. His production company has four artists, including him, who will release albums soon. He has also been doing gigs with former Stax Records legends Booker T & the MGs, and there are plans for them to record new music. On top of that, Black is working on a project with the Brides of Funkenstein, an offshoot of Parliament Funkadelic that originally included Louisville native Richard “Kush” Griffith.“I pride myself on being versatile, and that makes it hard for me to focus on just one genre,” Black said. “I might do funk, funk-rock, straight jazz.”For now, Black is focused on FamilyStoneExperience, and he promises the group’s live show will live up to its name. “We play all of the old hits, but the arrangements are different,” he said. “We enhance them and stretch them out a bit. If a song was originally three minutes, we’ll take it to four or five minutes. It’s fun to take the audience along for a ride.” Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com