Home News Local news Black History Spotlight: Jon Lucien

Black History Spotlight: Jon Lucien


Feb. 26, 2008 — Singer, songwriter and instrumentalist Jon Lucien, who died last summer, touched many souls throughout the U.S., the Caribbean, Latin American and Europe with his soft, romantic Latin jazz-influenced ballads.
His voice was rich and expressive, and his best songs are perceptive poetic tales of devotion, trust, hope, harmony and spirituality. He cut a dozen albums, and his second, Rashida, was nominated for two Grammies, one for the title track and one for "Lady Love."
With a rich, soft, baritone voice reminiscent of Barry White but in a somewhat higher register, Lucien's work seamlessly melded jazz, R&B, Caribbean rhythms and Brazilian bossa nova music. Many of his songs are love ballads, but some have political overtones, such as "The War Song," about the Vietnam War.
Elements of acid jazz and funk join with bossa nova strings and percussion in his music, making it difficult for radio stations to pigeonhole his genre. Though best known for his vocal work, Lucien played the guitar, bass and piano and did some instrumental session work with others, as well.
He proved to be a decisive early influence on what would be simplified and marketed as "smooth jazz," although fans say his work has a higher level of artistry, innovation and originality than most classified in that genre. Lucien consciously embraced a soft, soothing quality in his music.
"I would say that my sound is a romantic sound," he told an interviewer in 1997. "It's water. It's ocean. It's tranquility."
In some ways his sound is akin to the late Luther Vandross, his slightly younger contemporary. Lucien's predilection for bossa nova guitar and percussion and his deeper voice give some of his tunes a warmer, less saccharine feel than Vandross. Lucien's voice was deeper than Vandross', though not so deep as Barry White's, but he shared the fluid, affectionate timbre of both.
His blending of musical forms flowed naturally from his Caribbean upbringing, a kallaloo of bits and pieces of the styles of the many musical traditions of the region. Born Lucien Harrigan on Tortola on Jan. 8, 1942, he went by Billy as a youth. Raised in St. Thomas by his blind, guitar-playing dad, he taught himself piano, guitaR&Bass, and was a huge fan of Nat "King" Cole from an early age. You can hear the influence in his choice of songs, arrangements and singing style. His brother, Pedrito Robles, told a Source reporter last summer how Lucien began his career in music.
"At the young age of 16 or 17 or so, he used to play with this group on the waterfront called the Marty Clarke Trio," Robles said. "They used to play upstairs at Sebastian's on the waterfront. He used to play the standup bass; there was a guy named Louis Issac who used to play drums, and Monty Clark was the pianist. Jon used to play the bass and sing."
In 1961, at the age of 19, Lucien moved to New York to sing at a resort in the Catskills. By the mid-1960s, he set about sharing the music in his head with the world at large. His debut album, I Am Now, released in 1970 on RCA, pointed the direction he would follow, as he crooned romantically and enticed U.S. listeners with a trace of an exotic accent, in front of string-laden easy-listening arrangements.
By the release of his second album, Rashida, in 1973, Lucien had cemented his signature style, a kind of R&B with more Brazilian bossa nova than blues, languid samba rhythms, understated nylon-string acoustic guitar, fluid bass lines and his unique mode of scatting.
This approach yielded a number of classic cuts like "Would You Believe In Me," "Lady Love" and the title track, which all found a home on the airwaves in the waning days of progressive FM, back when many radio stations actually played a wide variety of music.
The followup third album; 1974's Mind's Eye, follows a similar vein as Rashida, but received less airplay than its predecessor. Some tracks, like "Listen Love" and "World Of Joy," were considered difficult to pigeonhole into any of the corporate standard radio formats. Another track, "So Little Time," has a romantic theme and smooth vocals in front of an early funk sound.
His next album, Song For My Lady, this time with CBS, is described in his official biography on his websiteas an effort to reach the broader audiences that had proven elusive to his previous RCA efforts. Recorded with major studio session heavy hitters, the album did a bit better in the marketplace. The song "Creole Lady" got some airplay and widened Lucien's audience, though he never became a household name.
As the disco fad hit full swing, record labels lurched after it, promoting that sort of act, making Lucien's softer, eclectic fusion of styles a harder sell with studios. Some reports say Lucien's freewheeling lifestyle slowed him down for awhile, too. Whatever the reason, after '82's Precision, Lucien did not cut another album until '91's Listen Love, in which he recaptured the feel of his '70s music. He continued to make albums every few years through the '90s.
Released in 2002, Man From Paradise, is Lucien's last album of all original material. This album has a certain back-to-the-Caribbean roots feel, with parade songs like "Let's Go to the Carnival," and Caribbean elements, like steel pan, in others, such as "My Passion."
This influential Virgin Islander passed away in August 2007 at the age of 64 after a 38-year career as a singer, songwriter and instrumentalist. The New York Times, the Washington Post and the Times of London are among the major international media who noted Lucien's passing.

Editor's note: Material for this piece came from an array of media outlets, including Lucien's official website, the Washington Post, the New York Times, the Source archives, YouTube and other Internet sources.
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