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The blue-eyed soul of Michael King


Mark Andrew Busch

Some Buffalo nights can be long and cold, but on evenings when Michael King steps onstage, the band and the crowd are, without fail, whipped up into a hot frenzy of funk and soul so enveloping that the weather outside is forgotten along with the waning hours—everything is forgotten, in fact, as all present embrace the feeling.

To be sure, many come to hear King breathe new life into old favorites like Marvin Gaye’s “Heard it Through the Grapevine” or Gladys Knight’s “I’ve Got to Use My Imagination.” But while the covers King mixes in are eclectic—he plays everything from John Mayer’s “Slow Dancing in a Burning Room” to the Blackstreet classic “No Diggity,” depending on his mood—it’s always his originals that people are still humming on their way out the door.

There are no dull moments on King’s first EP, Open, which was recorded last summer at GCR Audio. Robby Takac, who was present for some of the recording, noticed King’s rare talent right away and sums it up in a single observation: “A lot of babies are gonna get made to this.”

While I can’t comment on that, I can say that though love is the theme and desire the fuel, the songs are hardly all of a type. Some flare and some simmer: “Comin’ For You” is a slow burn and “Wastin’ Time” is a driving, striding blues; “Shoegazin’” is catchy and addicting but “Say That You’ll Stay” is the song you’ll still be singing days later.

As Takac saw in the studio, King has an undeniable talent for melody, but there’s more substance to his songs than slick pop simplicity and purely aural appeal. For King, music is all about the ability to share an emotion, to pull something out of the dark recesses of memory, and, in the process, erase the divisions between past and present, man and woman, stranger and friend.

“I’m a romantic to the core,” he says, something he attributes to growing up watching chick flicks with his mom and sister. Then there were the first two CDs his parents gave him: the Lion King soundtrack and Mozart’s Requiem. After falling in love with these albums the young music lover—then known as Mike Donoghue—began to make weekly bike trips to the local Media Play, and would usually come home with new releases. (His CD collection now numbers 1,200.) In the meantime, he started playing the piano that he inherited from his grandmother when he was in fourth grade. He sang too, of course, and by the time he left middle school, he was a member of seven different choirs.

Then things changed. Donoghue enrolled at Canisius High School, which didn’t have an adequate music program, so he stopped singing and picked up a few new pastimes—everything from football to DJing and drug running. He still loved music, of course, and working at Circuit City and as a DJ on the side hardwired him as an audiophile, but first and foremost he was, in his own words “an asshole and a dumb teenager”—something that forced him out of four different high schools and, ultimately, his own house. “From thirteen or fourteen to seventeen, I was just hell-bent on ruining my life,” says King. Kicked out of his house at seventeen, paying real bills at nineteen, and moving listlessly between jobs, King suffered the particularly painful torture of anomie.

After high school, he worked as a horse trainer, a mountaineering guide, a cook in an Italian restaurant, a steel factory worker, a Circuit City district manager, and, finally, a customer service representative at Wegmans, all while studying computer science and electrical engineering at the University at Buffalo. When King says that he’ll “try anything once,” he means it: he’s also managed to take up running, breakdancing, and gymnastics in his spare time. Described by himself and others as a “perfectionist with a short attention span,” King picked up and dropped dozens of jobs and pastimes, and, in the process was distracted from the only thing on which he was ever able to really focus: music.

But then, of course, along came a girl to get King back on track to finding himself. Her entrance into his life was even more sobering than the bills he had to pay: “I had no degree, no job. She was the motivation not to be a miscreant anymore.”

So for a while—nine years, to be specific—he found love; and somewhere along the way he found his vibe, that sultry soulful sound you can hear on songs like “Comin’ for You.”

King’s real muse, though, wasn’t a girl, but a guitar. Although he started playing the piano in middle school, he didn’t pick up an axe until he was studying at UB, when
an attractive acquaintance of the female variety asked him if he knew any guitar players who would help on her album. Naturally, he lied and said that he would be happy to help her himself. He never ended up working on the album, but he did find himself playing guitar for about five hours every day. The guitar unlocked something in his mind, and in the process unlocked his songwriting potential.

It was during this time—while King was serving as director of UB’s a capella group, the Buffalo Chips, taking the group to win the national finals at New York City’s Lincoln Center—that the idea and the songs for Open began to take shape. In the meantime, King started to test out his chops at local open mics and karaoke contests.

He also tested out various stage names. He tried “Michael King” one night at Elmwood’s Cozumel. After he killed it, as usual, a rather intoxicated woman wobbled up to him, put her arm around his shoulder, and whispered conspiratorially, “You can be the king of me any day.” So Michael King it was.

Eventually, he caught the eye of Buffalo soul singer Christy Smothers and ended up singing backup in her band. In the first rehearsal, he whipped out one of his originals, “Plenty of Lovin’,” and immediately won over bassist Rishon Odel Northington and tenor sax player Will Holton. Both were impressed. “Some background people, you say, they’re definitely a background singer,” Northington recalls, “But he definitely was not.” Guitarist Daniel Ross, whose first gig with King was an open mic they cohosted at Elmwood’s Coffee Culture, was equally impressed. “I got chills, for sure,” he says, and laughs, maybe hearing King’s whisky-smooth voice in his head. “He’s everything you’d want in a vocalist. He sings like a black man. Like Stevie Wonder.”

At the very least, Smothers and the band were impressed enough to let King play “Plenty of Lovin’” the next time they took the stage at Blush on Delaware. King struck up the first few notes and the effect was clear: heads started to bob, sacroiliacs started to swing, and more than a few shouts were heard. “I remember thinking, ‘I’m the only white guy in here,’” he says, but his nerves melted away as the crowd started digging him.

King’s self-consciousness wasn’t without justification, however. Buffalo’s music scene is just as segregated as its population, and there are few areas where crowds cross over. Venues that specialize in R&B are rare, but white boys with a capella backgrounds who can sell themselves as legitimate soul-men are an endangered species. There are some clubs that do cater to diverse crowds—places like Sidebar, Canvas, and the Shadow Lounge, all on the blossoming Hertel strip—but nothing cemented King’s consciousness of racial barriers in his hometown more than his experience at DBGB’s, where a manager handed back his demo—labeled “R&B”—and said, “We don’t want that crowd.”

[Editor's Note: King contacted us via email to clarify this, saying he's since learned that the gentleman who handed the disc back was neither the owner nor the booking agent. King also notes that the club, now known as Duke's Bohemian Grill, hosts weekly R&B programming, including a Neo-Soul night and Groove with Winelight.]

Despite these difficulties, King quickly attracted attention from Buffalo’s jazz and soul elite. Northington, who tours regularly with platinum-selling smooth jazz icon Najee, decided to take King under his proverbial wing. Northington knew that King would meet obstacles, particularly in selling himself in a racially segregated market—“you have people who won’t party together, and definitely won’t live together,” he says—but hearing him sing for the first time, he knew that “he had that thing. Some people are born with it, some people acquire it, some people, it will never be. But Michael, he already had it; it just needed to be honed.”

So the bassist got busy honing. He advised King on everything from how to market his act to how to dress when he goes out to pick up groceries. King recalls a time when he went, unshaven and clad in sweatpants, to pick Northington up after a rehearsal. The veteran bassist stepped into the car and immediately launched into a lecture: “If you’re an artist, you have to present yourself as an artist at all times.”

As if to prove his point, a customer approaches our table at Hertel’s Spot Coffee. “Hey,” he says, “Michael King?” King nods and gives a friendly “hey.” “I heard you the other night,” the man says, “You were killer, man.” Afterwards, King looks a little surprised—I ask him if he’s getting used to that sort of thing yet, and he says that it’s only starting to sink in.

Onstage, Michael King appears as a musician through and through, a poet living in the very stream of his emotions, and always swimming with the current. In person, though, and off the stage, Mike Donoghue strikes one as more of a thinker than a singer. He is thin, taut, and tense; his almondshaped eyes blink out as if couched in caves, and he seems to be perpetually in the act of noticing something. Get him talking, though, and he opens up: various accents slip in to his quickening speech; and when certain subjects are broached, you might just a catch a twinkle in his eye, the same light that grows to a steady blaze whenever he takes the stage.

The more I talked to him, the more I saw the stage King, the musical King, shining through. Of course, as his persona grows and his name gains currency, Michael King might be hard to keep down. The simple fact that Buffalo is often unfriendly to R&B has forced out major musicians like Northington, Holton, and drummer Daniel Powel, who live in Buffalo but spend most of the year touring abroad. Nearby Detroit, home of Motown and a still-vibrant soul scene, calls from across the Great Lakes; meanwhile, King is already planning his next album, while Ross floats talk of touring Germany and Japan. As Northington notes, “You can’t contain a Michael King in Buffalo.”

This may be true, but it doesn’t mean that King has to leave. Only time will tell, and time, at the moment, seems to be moving very quickly. Hertel is suddenly hopping with jazz and R&B clubs, the Tralf and the Town Ballroom still serve as mixers for national and local talent, and the old cats at the Colored Musicians Club might yet welcome this young lion into their midst. Northington is right, of course; King can’t be contained. But I, at least, hope Buffalo will have the sense to drum up some hometown love for one of the brightest singers to come out of the local scene in decades.

You can probably find would-be novelist and cheese enthusiast Aidan Ryan working on his next book at Caffe Aroma. Interrupt him there, or just follow him on Twitter @AidanRyan.

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