Whether writing or recording, producing or playing, James Poyser, BBA ’93, is living his dream in the music industry
The lower level in James Poyser’s home is designed for entertaining – but not in the traditional sense.
The room resembles a music museum. Keyboards, nearly a dozen of them, occupy the space within his home studio. A guitar rack is in there, too, sandwiched between the wall and a mixing board. And within arm’s reach is Poyser’s digital keyboard, on which he conducts a chunk of his in-home work.
Gold and platinum albums accentuate the basement walls just beyond Poyser’s studio. Encased in glass, the albums are like a living resumé, dotting the award-winning achievements of his 24-year career in music.
Poyser, BBA ’93, took an unorthodox route to music stardom. That path included earning an undergraduate degree in Finance from Temple University’s Fox School of Business.
Poyser is the keyboardist and pianist for The Roots, the Philadelphia-reared, world-renowned hip-hop band. His passion for music began as a child in Sheffield, England. He’d use his mother’s knitting needles to play drums on her upturned pots and pans. Today, that passion takes shape five days a week on NBC’s The Tonight Show, on which The Roots serve as Jimmy Fallon’s house band.
Behind the scenes, he has famously collaborated as a studio musician, songwriter, and producer for the likes of Mariah Carey, Erykah Badu, and Adele, among others. He’s toured the world, and his work has received three Grammy awards and 10 Grammy Award nominations.
“The relationships are the most-rewarding aspect of this career of mine,” Poyser said, from his home in the Philadelphia suburbs. “They are lifelong. Music has given me the chance to have so many brothers and sisters who will be around long after my hands can’t move.”
FROM SMALL GIGS TO THE BIG TIME
Born in the United Kingdom, Poyser’s family of five moved to the United States when he was only 9. They relocated to West Philadelphia, where Poyser’s father, Felix, organized the New Testament Church of God with only seven congregants.
Religion played an instrumental role in molding young James’ life.
“It was all around me,” Poyser said. “A big part of the worship experience is music. I would see these musicians, and the motion of their arms and feet, and I’d say, ‘I want to do that.’ It seemed like a natural thing.”
Poyser started out with piano lessons and “the little-old-lady experience,” he said of his first piano instructor. As a result, he grew disinterested and temporarily gave up playing. A child his age later reignited that spark. On cassette tape, Poyser recorded his peer’s playing of a song on the keyboard, and Poyser listened to the tape over and over. He not only taught himself to play the song, but how to play it in all 12 musical keys.
Poyser took his music career to a different level during his days at Temple University. Back then, he would schedule regular jam sessions with music majors from the Boyer College of Music, and deliver sidewalk performances outside the Student Center. His college career began across town, as a chemical engineering major at Drexel University. On a trip to Rohm & Haas with classmates, though, he said to himself, “I don’t want to do this for a living,” and transferred to Temple.
“I knew the strength of Fox, and finance was a practical degree that could apply to whatever career path I chose,” Poyser said. “My love would lead me to a career in music, and I figured I’d need a business education to be able to negotiate contracts or run my own production company.”
From there, a series of connections helped Poyser “put the pieces of the puzzle together,” he said, including an interaction with Jeffrey Townes, who’s better known by his stage name.
“I was playing at various churches for community choirs, playing in wedding bands, and teaching piano when I met Jazzy Jeff,” Poyser said. “Jeff asked me to go on tour with his group Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince. When we returned from the tour, Jeff asked me to work on a few records in the studio with him and, the next thing you know, I was a staff songwriter for his company A Touch of Jazz. Then I branched out. I had two partners (Chauncey Childs and Victor Duplay), and we started our music production company out of Vic’s apartment and Axis Music Group was born. Vic was friendly with a guy – that’s what he told us – and he thought we could get access to his recording studio.”
That “guy” was Kenny Gamble, one-half of the Philadelphia writing and production team Gamble and Huff that formed the legendary Philadelphia International Records. That partnership gave Poyser access to Kenneth Gamble and Leon Huff, and musicians who like Poyser were on the rise.
“I’m not surprised at his success,” Gamble said of Poyser. “Some musicians can read and play the charts that you place in front of them, while others can add something creatively to the track. James’ creativity has allowed him to write, produce, and play at a high level.”
Through Jazzy Jeff, Poyser said he “ran into” members of The Roots. Their manager at the time, the late Rich Nichols, asked Poyser if he’d welcome the chance to write with the band. While working with The Roots, Poyser struck up collaborative relationships with rapper Common and neo-soul artist Erykah Badu. Poyser’s career catalogue spans the likes of Lauryn Hill, Carey, Jill Scott, Rihanna, Adele, and Aretha Franklin, too.
It may sound simplistic for a career musician, but Poyser points to “listening” as his key to success.
“It’s all about good synergy and listening to one another, and not just in a musical sense,” he said. “If you’re paying attention, the song will tell you how to play it. If you’re making a left turn here, everyone in the room needs to make that left. That way, you’re producing a piece of music that’s not coerced or fake. It’s real. We’re not forcing a piece of music to come out.”
Poyser’s schedule in the studio doesn’t always allow him to tour with The Roots, but he’s played on each of their albums since Things Fall Apart. He’s appeared in primetime since 2009, when Fallon tapped The Roots as his house band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. That agreement continued when Fallon, in 2014, took over The Tonight Show. Poyser is even the focus of a weekly segment called, “Jimmy’s Thank-You Notes,” for which Poyser delivers the musical accompaniment while trying not to break a smile.
“I remember (Nichols) called me and said, ‘Would you be into this?’ and I said, ‘Of course.’ I couldn’t turn it down,” Poyser said.
Poyser’s rising profile does not faze his son Jadyn, 9.
“He doesn’t care one bit,” Poyser said, giggling. “It’s like, ‘Oh cool.’ There was a commercial that came on, and Jimmy is on the screen, and Jadyn looks up and dismissively goes, ‘Hey, there’s your boss.’”
“THE PIANO, TO HIM, IS A BOX OF MAGIC”
Every day breeds new opportunity for Poyser, who oozes with creativity.
It would be easy for him, while riding AMTRAK, to sink into the soothing tones of familiar songs, or get lost in his overflowing email account. Instead, he views his commute from Philadelphia to New York City five days a week as an excuse to generate music.
Technological advances have helped Poyser turn a quiet-ride car into a mobile studio. Through headphones, he listens back to the programing and editing work he’s completed on his laptop. Poyser made headlines last January when he and Jazzy Jeff released for digital download Snow Beats EP, a four-song collection on which the duo had worked while stuck indoors by more than two feet of snow. They laid down drumbeats, piano, and synth over four hours to complete their work.
“At times, I’m in the middle of something when I reach my destination,” Poyser said of his commute. “I’ll say to myself, ‘We got here too soon!’ I just try to jot down a few notes so that, when I have some free time, I can go to an empty room and pick up where I left off. There’s never a chance for downtime. You have to stay creative. Today, guys are writing hit records on their iPhones.”
From that standpoint, Poyser seldom takes downtime. That would explain how he’s able to meld his playing career with his passion for production and songwriting, through which he’s shared creative space with some of today’s top artists.
Badu, for example, won’t step into the recording studio without Poyser. She has called upon him as a co-producer on all five of her albums. She calls Poyser “my studio husband,” because of their efficacious chemistry.
“The piano, to him, is a box of magic, and he just continues pulling stuff out of there,” Badu said. “The chords, the combinations, the sequences – he’s like Schroeder from Peanuts. He has his head down, his tongue is out a little bit, and he’s excited about what he’s playing.”
While working on her album “Mama’s Gun,” Badu said she became so focused on achieving perfection that she wouldn’t leave the studio. And Poyser, unwilling to disappoint Badu, stayed there with her.
“James never complained,” she said. “I caught him with a beard because he hadn’t gone home to shave. We worked tirelessly for two weeks, straight toward the end of the album. He looked worn down, and a friend came to me and gave me a sticky-note that James had passed him. It said, ‘Help me!’ That made me laugh, because his wit is as strong as his playing.”
Poyser is equal parts serious and self-deprecating. He can lavish eloquent praise upon his boyhood inspirations – legends like Miles Davis and Marvin Gay – and, in the same breath, wonder aloud how much makeup is required “to take the shine off my big bald head.”
Given his high profile, he’s surprisingly unostentatious and down to Earth. He does, however, allow himself to get carried away when it comes to his craft. From the baby grand piano in his living room, to the massive keyboard collection in his basement, it’s clear to outsiders what Poyser does for a living.
He smiles widely as he starts to tell a familiar story about one of those keyboards: Herbie Hancock once joined Poyser in his home studio and, when Hancock offered to tune Poyser’s Fender Rhodes, Poyser had another favor in mind. He asked Hancock to sign the inside of the keyboard. Upon request, Poyser removes the lid of the Fender to reveal Hancock’s autograph.
“This is my room,” Poyser said of his home studio. “My favorite (time) is when I’m playing for myself, alone, and I don’t know what I’m doing. All I know is that my hands are moving.”
Beyond the scope of music, Poyser is active on social media. And despite his standard, soft-spoken tone, he is quite outspoken on Twitter when it comes to his beloved basketball team. He heaps support upon the Philadelphia 76ers, who are going through a tenuous rebuilding process.
He views social media as another outlet for his creativity. He never wants to lose that edge.
“People are taking chances and doing new things in music,” he said. “I don’t want to be the old guy, shaking my cane or my fist, saying, ‘You meddling youngsters!’ If there’s something to learn, it’s how to stay current and stay inspired.”
He’s even kicked the tires on pursuing an advanced degree in orchestration “if I win the lottery,” he said. Going back to school, he said, would make his parents beam with an even greater sense of pride.
“I loved my Temple experience, because that set me on a course that gave me the confidence to know that I wasn’t going to fail,” Poyser said. “I knew God had a plan for me. My parents have always been encouraging and supportive of my career. But they are old school, so from time to time, my mom will say, ‘When are you going to get a real job,” and my dad will say, ‘When are you going to go back to school for your Master’s, son?”
No time soon, Poyser said. There are too many gigs to play and songs to write.