Tamara Woods has been in the spotlight since she was three months old, when her mother sent her photograph for inclusion in Hollywood Spotlight Photo Magazine. In between then and now, she’s made stops in the United States Air Force, the retail and nonprofit worlds, and the Fox School of Business before pursuing acting full time.
Now Woods is preparing for two upcoming roles: As Sergeant Diane Torres in her first feature film, “A Sense of Purpose: Fighting for our Lives,” and as Frannie Lou Hamer in “Freedom Smitty,” a stage play about Kenneth Smith, a Philadelphian who helped desegregate Girard College.
Though she has performed all of her life — while dancing at family functions and acting in church plays — Woods, who comes from a military family, knew she wanted to serve her country. While stationed in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom, Woods started doing liturgical dance and singing in the military base’s church choir. She also helped organize a play for fellow military personnel.
“We had a packed house,” she said. “It was just beautiful because you have all walks of life, all colors coming together in the house of the Lord. It wasn’t just U.S. soldiers, and that ignited my passion again for performing.”
When she returned home, Woods juggled working in the nonprofit sector, serving in the Air Force Reserves, taking courses toward her Bachelor of Business Administration degree at Fox, and attending auditions and rehearsals. That hard work paid off. Today Woods’ dynamic background helps inform her career. In “A Sense of Purpose: Fighting for our Lives,” Woods plays a military veteran recovering from sexual assault and post-traumatic stress disorder.
She is also preparing for her role in “Freedom Smitty,” in which she will play a voting right activist and civil rights leader who was instrumental in organizing Mississippi’s Freedom Summer.
“In school for Black History Month, you always learned about Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but there are so many people in my culture who are heroes and who stood up in the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “I had never even heard of Frannie Lou Hamer until now.”
Woods sees her work as a way to give back. She hopes to continue touring with the anti-bullying play, “Why Can’t We Be Friends?” in order to open a dialogue between school officials, law enforcement, and parents.
“I feel as though I’m inspiring, uplifting and empowering someone, hoping that it will make some kind of beautiful change in somebody’s life,” she said.
Here’s a glimpse into a day in the life of Tamara Woods:
3:30 a.m. Start my day with bible readings, prayer, and positivity that make room for productivity and prosperity.
6:00 a.m. Family business. (The work of a wife and mom never ceases.)
9:00 a.m. Create inspirational content and share industry information on social media.
10:00 a.m. Check and respond to emails. Search for auditions and apply. Make phone calls to follow-up on current and upcoming projects.
12:00 p.m. Eat lunch while promoting projects and events on social media.
2:30 p.m. Review a new monologue for auditions. Call to run lines with a fellow actress and schedule our next rehearsal through Skype. Call my agent to follow-up on auditions and put together my reel.
4:00 p.m. Prepare dinner while I wrap up a business call with a filmmaker.
4:50 – 5:30 p.m. Eat dinner with my family, and discuss our day and what’s coming up.
6:00 – 9:00 p.m. Rehearsal for “Freedom Smitty”
10:00 p.m. Prepare for the next day. I check email from my agent for any travel arrangements I’ll need to make.
11:00 p.m. Time for some sleep. (My routine starts all over again at 3:30 a.m. There’s a saying, “The early bird gets the worm!”)
The Philadelphia Clef Club of Jazz and the Performing Arts was looking, in a sense, to change its tune. The Fox School of Business’ equivalent of the Fab Four helped the organization do just that.
Four students nearing completion of their MBA programs in Spring 2016 – Prince Ebo, Meco Sparks, Jim Shovlin, and Tom Finnerty – used their capstone project within the renowned Fox Management Consulting practice to develop a strategic plan for the 50-year-old organization. And the plan, said Anne Edmunds, the Clef Club’s strategic advisor, has been “transforming.”
“At the start of the process, the Philadelphia Clef Club did not have a clear direction and strategic planning process,” she said. “The mission became clear. The direction became clear.”
Because of the plan, the organization’s leadership has been galvanized. Partnerships have been formed between the club and the School District of Philadelphia, as well as other local musical organizations. And perhaps most importantly, fundraising has been ramped up.
Within the Fox Management Consulting (Fox MC) practice, students apply, integrate, and demonstrate business training by delivering professional-grade strategic solutions to paying clients. For the clients, who stem from the private, public, and social sectors both locally and globally, Fox MC offers unmatched cost-effective, research-based consulting.
“It’s the interface between business school and the business world,” said Dr. TL Hill, Academic Director of the Fox Global MBA program. “We’ve conducted more than 300 projects, and in each case, we’re always looking to solve a strategic problem, and provide a business solution for the client and live, experiential learning for our students.”
The Clef Club, described by project executive Omar Woodard as “a jewel of the community,” began in 1966 as a trade union for African-American musicians denied access to other unions – Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane have been among its members — and later branched out into performances and music education.
Edmunds, who runs her own consulting firm, did an initial assessment of the organization in 2014.
“I found they were not fundraising,” she said. “They were trying to be self-sufficient, living on earned income. They were getting themselves in debt, trying to work day to day.”
The four students in question knew little about the club before delving into the project, much less its plight. But Dave Nash, Fox Management Consulting’s Director of Operations and an Assistant Professor of Strategic Management, circulated an email in December 2015 about a potential project involving the organization, and it caught Ebo’s eye.
“I’m a big music fan,” said Ebo, who grew up in West Philadelphia and is the son of Nigerian immigrants. “I said, ‘Why not apply my business knowledge to this special organization?’ ”
Truth be told, he had been preparing for the capstone project from the moment he began studying toward his MBA three years earlier. He remembered being told during orientation that it was imperative to assemble a strong team, and he took that to heart.
He and Sparks, who had several classes together, were the first to cross paths.
“We realized we clicked as far as our work styles,” he said. “We both agreed that we have to come up with a dream team.”
He was left with a positive impression of Shovlin after the two had teamed on a project in a finance class one summer. And Shovlin, who had shared some classes with Finnerty, felt he too would be a good fit. The die was cast. Ebo took on the role of project manager. Sparks specialized in marketing and branding. Finnerty was the self-described “finance guy.” Shovlin zeroed in on strategic planning, though Finnerty also thought his big-picture thinking was invaluable.
“He would step up to the white board and draw things out (during meetings),” Finnerty said of Shovlin. “He did a fantastic job of tying together all of our ideas.”
It proved to be a tight-knit team. Everybody pulled his or her weight. Dissension was never an issue. And momentum quickly built.
“I don’t know how we ended up being so lucky,” Ebo said. “There was too much laughter and good times. It worked out perfectly.”
The task was daunting, though.
“Basically it was trying to do two full-time jobs at once,” Sparks said. “We promised the moon and the stars, and we had to deliver. That was the biggest challenge.”
All four continued working their day jobs. Ebo is the manager of Neighborhood Business Development Strategies for the City of Philadelphia, Sparks a marketing manager at Delaware Investments, Shovlin a corporate real estate manager at Johnson & Johnson and Finnerty the procurement manager at PBF Energy.
None of that stopped them from doing the necessary legwork for the project.
“Our goal was to dive as deep as we should,” Shovlin said. “We wanted to make sure to cover all the key components and not overlook anything.”
By semester’s end they presented a 60-page report to the club’s 11-member board, along with an executive summary, a detailed financial model and a calculator (produced by Finnerty, of course) that would enable the club to price things correctly.
“It stood out as an incredibly thorough job,” Woodard said.
And for the students, an enjoyable one. That was particularly true in Sparks’ case, since she remains a marketing consultant to the Clef Club, but it extended to the rest of the dream team as well.
“Working with a nonprofit was something I wanted to do,” Finnerty said, “not only as a resume-builder but from a mission standpoint. I feel like I did something good that semester. I miss it somewhat. My wife, not so much.”
Product Manager of Growth, Shazam
Hometown: Harrisburg, Pa.
Learning and flexibility: “At Temple, you can learn at your own pace, learn while also working part- or full-time, or learn while pursuing passions outside of the classroom.”
During her sophomore year, Cori Shearer, BBA ’14, went on a service trip to Jamaica that inspired her approach to business and product development.
As part of the trip, hosted through the Howard Gittis Student Center, Shearer and her peers helped children in the local community develop an eco-friendly trash disposal system to combat the lack of disposal resources and irregular waste management maintenance. The experience reaffirmed her desire to devote her time and energy to serving fellow underrepresented populations and to take a people-centric approach to business.
“The trip taught me to challenge my unconscious biases and to always try to understand barriers faced by others in certain markets,” said Shearer, 24. “Some of us have unchecked privileges that blind us to problems in the world, which prohibit us from understanding people. If we can’t understand people, how can we hope to develop products that meet their needs?”
Shearer, Product Manager of Growth for the popular music discovery application Shazam, applies this experience when she helps the company think about user diversity and platform access in product decisions.
Her journey to Silicon Valley, like her enrollment at Temple University, was unexpected. Shearer, who originally intended to pursue a career in the performing arts, fell in love with technology after taking her first management information systems course during her sophomore year. Her knowledge and passion for the field quickly developed as she became more active in the department, and began to participate in and even place at hackathon competitions.
In her junior year, Shearer attended a conference in San Francisco where Tim Westergren, Pandora Radio founder, delivered the keynote address. Westergren’s insight and charisma inspired Shearer.
“I remember saying to myself afterwards, ‘I want to work for him one day,’” Shearer said.
A year later, Shearer made that happen; she graduated from the Fox School of Business, bought a one-way ticket to San Francisco, and landed a summer internship as a technical program management intern at Pandora. Afterward, she officially began her post-grad career as a product specialist at the discovery engine StumbleUpon. Now, a year later, Shearer celebrated her work anniversary at Shazam, which she joined in September 2015.
In addition to her full-time job, Shearer devotes free time to mentoring and volunteering with organizations such as CODE2040 and Girls in Tech, which are dedicated to the advancement and the inclusion of underrepresented groups in tech.
“As a person of color and a young woman, I understand the barriers others face not only to enter but also to advance in this industry,” Shearer said. “I appreciate the opportunities I now have to help others navigate it.”
Shearer said she doesn’t believe in luck in the traditional sense. She credits her success and career growth to her “say yes” mindset, which she developed at the Fox School.
“I’ve had the privilege of experiencing success early in my career because I put in the preparation, I’ve remained resilient, taken advantage of opportunities and not people, and have surrounded myself with mentors and allies,” she said.
BBA ‘12 | Founder and CEO of Affinity Confections
A taste for competition: Over the summer, Green pitched casting agents for “Shark Tank.” He’s also been selected as a finalist for Temple University’s business-plan competition, Be Your Own Boss Bowl.
By all measures, Joe Green, BBA ’12, is a successful young entrepreneur who followed his passion for baking to create Affinity Confections, a growing Philadelphia-based company that offers premium-made sweets with unique flavor combinations in smaller, bite-size portions.
But try as he might, there’s still one thing in which he’s not been successful: convincing his grandmother to give up her delicious apple cake recipe.
“I explained, ‘Listen, I’m building a business,’” he said with a laugh. “I bring it up often. And she just won’t give the recipe to me, no matter how much I ask.”
Some things, perhaps, are just too cherished to share with the world. But his grandmother is still the most-important figure in shaping Green’s future, teaching him how to bake when he was a young boy and passing on important lessons like, “You’re only as good as your ingredients.”
She even used to sell some of her cakes to friends or at small events, setting the foundation for Green to carry on the family’s baking legacy on a larger scale.
“If it was raining or cold outside and you’re a kid stuck in the house, what do you do?” said Green, who was raised by his grandmother. “I did all the usual things kids do, but if my grandmother was in the kitchen, I was right there with her. That was something I enjoyed and was my creative expression.”
While his skills in the kitchen grew and he learned the fundamentals of baking, he knew he needed to learn how to take those skills to the next level. That’s where the Fox School of Business came in.
From grasping the ins and out of the business world as an entrepreneurship major to learning on the job during a mandatory internship with Night Kitchen Bakery in Chestnut Hill to emerging as a finalist in Temple University’s renowned Be Your Own Boss Bowl, Green credits Fox with giving him the tools to start his company just a couple years after graduation.
“It’s one thing to be naturally talented at something or have a good background with it,” he said. “But it’s another thing to have that business acumen to really make it a viable business.
“Conceptually, baking is a good comparison to the business world itself,” he added. “It requires a lot of patience, a lot of time, and because it’s like chemistry, you’ve got to get those formulas right.”
Launched in 2014 after more than a year of product development (and testing the concept through a snack bar on Temple’s campus), Affinity Confections has certainly been more than viable. Green delivered what he thought to be an engaging pitch to casting agents for the hit ABC show “Shark Tank” when they recently visited Temple.
And although he’s proud of the tasty and fresh seasonal confections he’s developing, the company’s excellent online reviews, and strong track record of commercial and residential delivery, his eyes are now on the next phase: finding a brick-and-mortar location where Affinity can bring in its products from its West Philadelphia production facility and establish a footprint in the city.
From there, his ambitions are even greater.
“My aim is to be a staple in the city,” Green said. “When you think about Philadelphia, you think about cheesesteaks, pretzels, and water ice. I want people to put Affinity Confections in that category.”
Performing on the biggest stage has never fazed Raheem Brock. He played in front of 74,000 fans, and a television audience of 94 million, when he and the Indianapolis Colts won Super Bowl XLI in February 2007.
These days, after retiring from football, Brock is tackling a different career; he’s trying his hand at acting. The Fox School of Business alumnus is receiving professional training in the hope that he can land a starring role (or two) in the near future.
“From everything I’m told, it’s what I already knew – this is a grind,” said Brock, 38, who has relocated from his hometown of Philadelphia to the New York metropolitan area. “You just don’t know when your break is going to come. I’m just working to be great at what I do, and improving my craft to become a well-respected actor.”
Brock also keeps busy with his music production company, BeastModez Entertainment. Here’s more from a recent conversation with Brock:
Q: Was it an easy decision, retiring from football?
Brock: “It’s never going to be easy. Football is something you have a passion for all your life. You make it to the NFL and, really, you only have a few years to play before you’re told you’re too old. It’s something you love, and then it’s over. It’s tough for any guy to handle, and it was a tough situation for me. I was acting a little bit while I was playing ball, and I only started fulltime acting after I retired.”
Q: What drew you to acting?
Brock: “I don’t know, because I didn’t have the confidence to do it when I was younger. But I love it, so I jumped off the cliff, so to speak, and jumped right in. When I was at Temple, I took a dance class and, at the end of the semester for a project, we had to put together choreography for the end of a scene. I was nervous about it, but I was into it. I think that’s when I first starting thinking about acting, being on stage.”
Q: In what direction is your acting career headed right now?
Brock: “I’m taking a lot of classes and meeting a lot of casting directors. I post a lot of stuff on social media, so people can see I’m serious about what I’m doing. I’m enjoying the journey.”
Q: So you’re getting formal training in acting?
Brock: “I took acting classes in Seattle, while I was playing for the Seahawks. The coaches didn’t know about it until after the season. It was at the University of Washington. Lately, I’ve been taking classes at Pearl Studios NYC and the New York Actors Connection.”
Q: Has living in New York opened you up to opportunities?
Brock: “I had to move out of Philly. I felt like I had grown out of the city, in terms of acting. It’s a great area and it’s home, but there’s so much opportunity in New York. The competition is tough, which makes you work even harder – and I like that. I thought people in Philadelphia were telling me what I wanted to hear. I was acting in five different independent films in Philly, and I wanted some constructive criticism so I can grow as an actor. So I came to New York. They don’t play around here. They’re straightforward, which I love.”
Q: Do you see yourself as a leading man-type?
Brock: “I feel like I am finally ready to play some lead roles. I like playing the bad guy. I like dramatic acting, and I’m working my way into doing some theater now. Actors always say that being on a stage in front of a live audience is where they’ve learned the most, so that’s where I would like to be. I am working with my teacher David Epstein on Shakespeare. I really love it. The hardest thing for a professional athlete, especially a football player, is finding something that you love and have a passion for as much as you did for the sport you played. But I truly love acting; I feel like it gives me life.”
Q: What was your major at Fox?
Brock: “I started out as a Computer Information Science major, and I was writing programs, designing websites, and things like that for students and teammates. I was doing great in it, too. But for some reason I let friends and family convince me on how hard it’s going to be to graduate in CIS, even though I was receiving As and Bs in the classes. So I changed to marketing. Both CIS and Marketing have helped me in record-label management of my artist, and working with the restaurants. But I love computers and continued growth of technology.”
Q: Do you miss playing football?
Brock: “I miss the guys. I miss playing primetime games. I miss that pressure to be great. I was fortunate to play on a team that dominated the NFL for a decade. I had (Hall of Fame coach) Tony Dungy, who was just what I needed. He was a father figure, and that was missing from my life. I was surrounded by first-round draft picks who are soon to be in the Hall of Fame, if they aren’t already – Dwight Freeney, Robert Mathis, Marvin Harrison, Edgerrin James, and Peyton Manning. We had some great times together, and played a bunch of classic games that are re-aired constantly on NFL Network. I definitely miss it.”
Q: What was it like to win Super Bowl XLI?
Brock: “It was a great feeling to finally get that ring. We had this reputation of having a great team during the regular season, but always falling short in the playoffs. Finally getting over that hump was a sigh of relief, really. We would start off 8-0, 10-0, 12-0, 14-0, and sometimes lose the first game in the playoffs. Winning that Super Bowl opened up a lot of doors for me – and still is to this day. I’m grateful that my hard work paid off.”
Businesses in today’s globally competitive and rapidly changing technological environment are increasingly resorting to multi-disciplinary approaches to problem solving.
Regardless of a student’s prospective career field, the Fox School of Business are fosters the development data analysis and creative-thinking skills at every level. makes the strongest employee.
As part of its efforts to support interdisciplinary studies, the Fox School lends support and faculty leadership to activities that are open to students from Temple University’s 17 schools and colleges: the Temple Analytics Challenge data competition, and the Temple Art of Business/Business of Art (AB/BA) student professional organization.
Visualizing data-based solutions
The Temple Analytics Challenge started in 2013 as an outlet for students at Temple to develop their data analysis, information visualization, and communication skills. It focuses on making sense of big data through visualization, a key component of data analytics cited by experts as a promising path to job opportunities.
Participants work on scenarios using data from corporate partners, analyzing the data and presenting their findings in a way that is meaningful and understandable to a wide audience. Not only do students have a chance to work with real-world data and problems — this year’s theme is “Improving Global Health” and corporate partners Merck, Alexion Pharmaceuticals, and AmerisourceBergen are participating — they also have an opportunity to win up to $2,500 from a total pool of $12,000 in prize money.
“The Temple Analytics Challenge, by integrating analytics, big data, and visualization with real-world important problems, provides students with valuable, employable skill sets,” said George Llado, SVP and CIO of Alexion. “We are very excited to see how the students tackle the challenges of world health.”
The competition is not exclusive to Fox students, and is open to entrants from all 17 of Temple’s schools and colleges. In the past, winners and finalists have come from the Tyler School of Art, the College of Liberal Arts, the College of Engineering, the School of Media and Communications, the College of Public Health, and the Fox School.
This level of interdisciplinary competition doesn’t just benefit the participants. The corporate partners are looking for solutions to real-world problems. While the industry partners might be better versed with approaching the subject from a business-school perspective, they might not look at their data the same way an art or engineering student would.
The Fox School’s Institute of Business and Information Technology (IBIT) and the Office of the Senior Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies sponsor the Temple Analytics Challenge, which is in its fourth year.
“A powerful aspect of the Analytics Challenge is that it gives all Temple students the opportunity to develop new data literacy skills,” said Laurel Miller, Assistant Professor of Management Information Systems (MIS) at Fox, and a co-organizer of the competition.
“There’s an empowering aspect to this,” said Dr. David Schuff, Professor of MIS, and the Challenge’s creator and co-organizer. “I’ll often have students come to me who are interested in participating but unsure whether they have enough data analysis skill. We infuse the competition with workshops and one-on-one counseling to make sure all students have the support they need and the sense that this is something they can do.”
Melding art and business
Beyond the Temple Analytics Challenge, the Fox School bridges the gap between students in the art and business communities through the Art of Business/Business of Art (AB/BA) student professional organization.
Each year AB/BA members host guest speakers, an art-and-business networking event, and a university-wide creativity showcase, MESH: Redefining Art at Temple.
Speakers include: George Ciukurescu, FOX ’15, who played bass for the band Valencia, and is an accountant with PricewaterhouseCoopers; Conrad Benner, who founded popular Philly street art blog Streets Dept.; and Tiffica Benza, FOX ’01, and Ashley Peel-Pinkham, owners of Philadelphia Independents, an Old City shop that sells souvenirs made exclusively by Philly artists.
AB/BA members also help each other sell goods at Philly’s annual Punk Rock Flea Market, Tyler Alumni Art Market and Spruce Street Harbor Park.
By participating in AB/BA, Fox students with an art background can mentor Tyler students in business practices,” said Laurie Fitzpatrick, the organization’s faculty leader, and an Assistant Professor of Marketing and Supply Chain Management at Fox. “Together, they can be in touch with the art world. Just because you’re in business school, there’s no reason you should stop painting or stop writing. Your art is part of your life.”
Conversely, for art students, AB/BA is an opportunity to embrace the business world, which methodologies and practices that can seem intimidating, Fitzpatrick said.
“It’s been really fascinating to watch the business students in our group interact with the art students, and watch different ways of thinking come together,” said Fiona Fackler, a former president of AB/BA. “At meetings, we foster conversations and new friendships between students who may not normally interact on a daily basis.”
“It can be difficult to associate with people outside of your major, so it’s nice to step out of those boxes we build, to see people a little differently, or try to get to know people more deeply over shared interests.”
Shane Henderson is driving through Los Angeles when he takes a call … and a trip down memory lane. His words help Henderson swerve 11 years into the past, back to 2005 when the sophomore Marketing major at Temple University’s Fox School of Business signed his first record deal.
Henderson, 30, is the former frontman and vocalist of Philadelphia-based pop punk band Valencia. Signed to indie label I Surrender Records by Rob Hitt, former drummer of punk outfit Midtown, Henderson and four other members of Valencia began a journey that would include three albums, a major record-label debut, five stints on the world-famous Vans Warped Tour, thousands of fans from as far away as Australia and Japan, and their own headlining U.S. tour.
“There are just so many memories,” said Henderson, a native of Newtown, Pa. “I’m proud that my band allowed me the opportunity to do these things.”
Henderson has nearly 15 years in the music industry as a performer, producer, and promoter. He picked up an instrument for the first time as a toddler, cycling through the viola, saxophone, drums, and guitar. Valencia formed in 2004 with Henderson on vocals, fellow Temple student Maxim Soria on drums, George Ciukurescu on bass, and Brendan Walter and JD Perry on guitar. The band gained a following in the Philadelphia punk scene while shopping around its demo.
“During my entire freshman year, we had three shows every weekend,” Henderson said. “I’d perform all weekend, and then be back at Temple for Monday’s classes. I had to learn to compartmentalize everything.”
The band signed to I Surrender Records in 2005, and Henderson, three semesters into his tenure at the Fox School of Business, made the decision to pursue a career in music. Valencia immediately played the 2005 Warped Tour alongside platinum-selling rock artists such as Fall Out Boy and My Chemical Romance before releasing its first album, This Could be a Possibility, less than a year after signing.
As the band gained momentum, Henderson assumed primary marketing responsibilities. Leveraging what he’d learned in his Marketing courses at the Fox School, Henderson formed a gameplan for the band that included a cohesive visual aesthetic — from selfies on social media to direction on the filming of music videos — and interacting with fans online and offline.
“Some bands hide behind social media, but we would always come out and talk to the kids,” Henderson said. “To this day I have amazing friends who I made while standing beside the merchandise table.”
Valencia released its sophomore album through Sony-owned Columbia Records, and saw the band tour with Blink 182, Boys Like Girls, All Time Low, and others while traveling to the Australia Soundwave Festival and the Fuji Rock Festival in Japan. The band ultimately went on hiatus in 2011.
Henderson has since refocused his attention to Promise of Redemption, an acoustic solo project he began as a 16-year-old. Last summer, he released a 10-inch vinyl record with seven new songs.
“I started writing and realized I had something here,” Henderson said. “It’s going to break the barrier for creating an all-acoustic side project.
“It’s a crazy industry, and you won’t always have a job, but the most important thing is to stay consistent and know what you’ll sacrifice to not push paper all day.”
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.