Meet Porter Carroll, Jr., a multifaceted artist known for his roles as a singer, songwriter, drummer, percussionist, and bandleader. Originating from New York, his musical journey began in high school when he founded Newban, a nine-piece band that evolved into the renowned Atlantic Starr, dominating R&B and Pop charts in the ’70s and ’80s. After 15 years of success with Atlantic Starr, he transitioned to songwriting and collaboration, contributing to hits for legendary artists and venturing into the world of TV theme compositions. Porter’s diverse career encompasses graphic design, a stint in advertising, thriving role on Daryl Hall’s “Live from Daryl’s House” TV series and touring with Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Daryl Hall and John Oates. Presently, he’s captivating audiences with “The Evolution of Cabaret,” a groundbreaking nightclub act that reimagines cabaret entertainment, inviting all generations to savor his musical journey. Catch him live at Broadway’s 54 Below on March 29th, 2024, and witness the essence of this active artist’s extraordinary journey through the arts. Today, Muzique had the opportunity to exclusively interview him.
Can you tell us about your journey from being a part of Atlantic Starr to your current role as a singer, songwriter, and bandleader?
It’s a long one, that’s for sure, filled with all of the typical highs and lows of being any kind of artist. However, and I’ve begun to share…”I’ve had so many high points in my career that I could never complain about my story”. Being the person who asked each original member to join a band that would later become Atlantic Starr was step one. That soon evolved into (all of us) taking a chance on a career in music! YIKES! This was daunting for a neighborhood high school kid with little to no formal (music) training. Within the first few months, the band started booking shows—then each member decided to either leave or not enter college. Needless to say, this series of events created a few unhappy parents. Luckily, and relatively quickly, not only family members but our community accepted the fact that we were dedicated upstarts and showed support. I got by that stage by the skin of my teeth. Now that I’m at the other end of my career, it turns out to be the most gratifying professional decision and experience I’ve ever had. This became my brothers and little cousin, Sharon taking on the world and finding a lasting place in music history. I always call it, “community action at its best”. We just happened to play music. That’s Atlantic Starr. Going through that fourteen-year process exposed me to the inner workings of the music business and helped shape me as a person with defined career goals. I left A.S. to pursue songwriting. Having been a drummer and with technology rapidly changing the way music was going to be made—and taking jobs away from folks who played the instrument, it became apparent to me that I not only wanted to make a change, it was essential that I do so. Prior to leaving A.S., I felt obliged and felt it was my right and duty to make my bid to correct a few business issues I thought we should address. When that failed, I took that as a sign that the time had come to change my path. By far, it was the most challenging and near-devastating act of business and friendship I’ve ever experienced before or since. But it saved my life. Upon leaving the band, I spent two years in my apartment trying to learn to play enough piano and home studio recording to put a four-song presentation together. That resulted in a long-term songwriting/publishing contract with CBS/Sony Music Publishing. I began writing for Luther Vandross, The Temptations, Denise Williams, Will Downing, Bob James, BET theme songs, Soap Opera tunes, and even Jane Fonda, among others. Looking back, I shake my head even attempting to compete with the greatest songwriters of that time, but the experience of reinventing and finding success in this new role was again, gratifying. When that ended in ‘92, I made another hard pivot into the world of graphic design and advertising for another major publication. The Gannett Corporation. This was strictly by chance but again and it turned out to be the right move to make at that time. It was another fourteen-year career move that moved the needle, and I’m still connected to some of the great artists and people I met there. Finally, kicking and screaming (like many older folks) I joined Facebook. Social Media was new (to me) and I just didn’t feel comfortable taking another deep dive into the unknown. So….I join and then clicked on “People You May Know”. Within a year, I reconnected with my Sony Music songwriting partner, Eliot Lewis, who was now a member of a very famous band. He FB Messaged me shortly afterward, and that led to an invitation to join Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, Daryl Hall & John Oates. With that, I also became a regular on Hall’s “Live From Daryl’s House” TV show. I’ve toured the world with a great group of people and as you may imagine…it’s been a Godsend. An unbelievable ride! A 180-degree turn into music royalty. I found that in between touring schedules and TV tapings, I had time. I developed a great relationship with guitarist, Wali Ali. That relationship was the genesis of what would become The Evolution of Cabaret. A cutting-edge nightclub act that reimagines the supper club experience. Wali had to depart recently to pursue a flourishing career as an attorney. This put me in a position to become a bandleader again.
How did your experience as a drummer and percussionist shape your musical career?
After my mother and family, the drums are my first love. Oops, I guess that’s not really my first love then, right? But you get my drift? 🙂 The drums have proven to be the battery for everything that I’ve ever done outside of my home. It’s also been the vehicle that’s taken me around the world. I was blessed with a gift that has shown and given me one valuable lesson after another, on and off stage. It brought people to my mother and father’s home to start a famous band and jump-start my adult life. I couldn’t ask for more from an instrument. However, I never saw myself as a percussionist, which I would later be called. That still baffles me—I have such respect for that art form (which is very different from playing drums) that it’s hard for me to receive accolades for a discipline that I stumbled into and have never really caught up to. Though this isn’t a part of the question…I am comfortable being called a singer. I’ve put in all my hours there.
What inspired you to create “The Evolution of Cabaret” and what can audiences expect from this unique show?
I grew up in a household filled with music lovers, and we lived just 20 miles north of Manhattan, NY. My mother and father are part of the Great Migration from the south. They came to Harlem, and then into Westchester County, NY for work and better life opportunities. Their movement to the north exposed them to another side of Black Culture that few in the country were privy to. Through them, my sisters, and the African American/Civil Rights movement, while growing up exposed to White Culture via the Westchester, NY school system, I saw the very best in life and entertainment, firsthand. Live! I was taken to one big-time show or event after another by family members and my schools. I’ve really begun to see how this subconsciously shaped my entire personality and career path. Funny, I blame my sisters (Diane and Janet) for derailing my potentially strong academic career all the time by showing me too much cool stuff as a little guy! lol Nah…I lost interest in my ABC’s pretty early on. Totally my fault all the way. Perhaps in exchange, I have to say…that Diane was my gateway to the highest level of nightclub entertainment. She would see Sammy Davis, Mathis, Sinatra, Eartha Kitt and other greats, in person, and leave their programs around the house and talk about the great song selections, ease of execution, and style they’d exhibit. I continually refer to her detailed points for my shows today. And for me, she was the precursor to the phrase… How do you get to Carnegie Hall? We all know it …Practice, Practice, Practice. She taught me the importance of repetition. To any young artist…you can’t get out of the starting blocks without embracing that rule. She was the one who really understood and showed me how polished an artist had to be if they were going to engage a sophisticated audience without props and/or pyro. One of those highlights I mentioned earlier was …she was there when I was fortunate enough to play the prestigious Hall named Carnegie many moons later. Being exposed to almost all things New York in music, cabaret was always a curiosity. However, if I were to participate, it had to be done differently than the traditional. Having total respect for the genre, I knew that if I was going to take that leap, it had better be well thought out and exciting without disturbing the peace. And I’d have to have a story to tell on stage. That’s a huge component within the art form. It was all a very fine line to dance. With that, the first order of business was to create a popular band. Then, become a songwriter. Once I joined H&O believe it or not, I had time to develop some projects of my own again. Cabaret was now on the radar. I wanted to use the music of my youth for authenticity of story and expertise, but also, the patrons of those beautiful supper clubs are now my age. There could be comfort in “change” for them. My overall thought was, perhaps the genre could be expanded. The question was…would the hard-core cabaret audience accept someone of my background and taste in their traditional cabaret rooms? Could I offer something new, while respecting the spaces and genre? Once presented, could I be viewed as broadening the cabaret experience or just opposite? I was worried but compelled to find out. Also, Bobby Short was always fascinating to me. How could this African American male (who was tall btw) thrive in such a high brow environment? Culturally, I wanted to follow in his footsteps. Maybe I could move the needle as he had. That’s what inspired and keeps me intrigued now. So, I wanted to create a laboratory while patrons were dining first-class. Generally, I thought…I’ll use lots of reimagined music arrangements from the second half of the 20th century to create curiosity, yet comfort the listeners by never changing a melody they could sing along to. Imagine this while they’re enjoying a 5 Star experience from Broadway to Saint Tropez. That was the mission/goal. Could I do that?
You’ve had the opportunity to work with renowned artists like Luther Vandross and Daryl Hall. How has collaborating with such legends influenced your own musical style?
These gentlemen were/are giants for legitimate reasons. Super talented men without question. However, in my case, the influence from them was not the real get. It was the confidence they both gave to me through recording my compositions, having conversations with and having me in the band next to them and other great musicians. These two legends inspired me more than influenced my style.
Your transition from music to graphic design was quite a pivot. How did this change impact your creative outlook?
As soon as I entered the design studio at the Gannett Corporation, I was surrounded by young, smart, and talented artists who were all graduates of top NY design schools. SVA, F.I.T, SUNY Purchase, Pratt and The New School among others. The talent was off the charts! I think they got a kick out of me being this 40 something year old, ex-recording artist dude they could hear on the radio at any given time. With that, I may have been a bit of a novelty they didn’t mind teaching and sharing ideas with about anything artistic, and life in general for that matter. I grew to love being there. For the first time, I could really see myself learning a skill from scratch as well. That was another first for me. Drums and music kind of came naturally. This was completely out of my element. I couldn’t draw a “crooked” line! Thank God for them and the computer. My sister (Janet) is the fine artist in my family. Her talent, concentration, and focus on a drawing were second to none. She’s gifted. She taught me how to look at an art subject critically and how, what I’ve “carefully” seen, can be applied to a creation. Meaning …look at it—but also take in what’s beyond the obvious and incorporate that into the work. That’s ultimately how to create depth. That was news to me as a kid. I was just thinking about music back then. What did she mean? How could I apply this way of thinking to music? Though she wasn’t a musician, she also listened to music the same way. She could hear deep into an orchestra arrangement on a Beatles, Temptation, Sergio Mendez, or any broad range of music she was into and articulate it. As a young child, she understood the importance of creating depth in any kind of art, if it was going to attract a viewer or listener and have staying power. Now, here I am, years and years later, surrounded by all of these young creatives who were similar to her and they ALL loved music! Like she did! I felt I might be in the right place. These Advertising Designers, gave me confidence by appreciating my experiences in music and they encouraged me to re-enter the field if ever I felt the urge. They felt I still had something left in the tank. Side bar…I fought them on that for years but moving right along…They were kind enough to expose me to new music, and literally taught me a skill that would enhance my understanding of design and advertising that I would consistently refer to later on. The other discovery was …how money is made via advertising. I think it’s safe to say, advertising rules the world in how it shapes what you want, and ultimately buy. It controls thinking. Through these artists, I was gaining an understanding of my past and recognizing that I needed to be cognizant of what they were sharing if I ever re-entered music. In addition, a huge adjustment to my outlook on everything was something I learned from the young Advertising Sales Executives. They called me out and said “they didn’t talk fast—I was listening slow”. WOW! I thought and think THAT WAS BRILLIANT! From THAT, I knew the world had rapidly changed again and I had a big choice to make about my approach to life and creativity. Mostly, I needed to grow regardless of age. Without a doubt, this was another eye-opening time period. I use those words and skills to this day in promoting and thinking about anything I may do.
Could you share some insights into your experience working on theme songs for TV shows like “Video Vibrations” and “Midnight Love” on the B.E.T. Network?
Those were the only two shows I’ve ever had the privilege of being involved in, in that capacity. I’d love to do more. I wish I could say they were targeted working assignments but that would be disingenuous. I was very fortunate to have had a friend, Alvin Jones at B.E.T. who loved these two songs that were on my only solo LP recorded in 1985. It was the stars aligning. No more. No less. He simply used these two compositions for his long-running cable shows. I still get very nice comments about that music as a result of his kindness.
What motivated you to re-enter the music industry after your graphic design career and join Daryl Hall and John Oates in their projects?
That was totally unintentional. After my fourteen years in corporate and on track for early retirement, I was blindsided and got caught in a major layoff. Print publications had officially been taken over by digital media and I was smack dab in the middle of the sweep. It was and remains a devastating part of my life. I was forced to learn something new again. The first step this time was…join all of the social media platforms and begin the process of what is now being called “reinventing”. The movie “Up in the Air” starring George Clooney told a lot of my story. I’ll tell you. Straight up. At 55, I was in no mood to start over with diminishing skills and now age, could become a major factor in my life like never before. It was that click on Facebook’s “People You May Know” that would change everything and catapult me back into the music business. But who could predict it would be at the highest level? It was like divine intervention. It was as if the Gods said, give this man a break. He got dealt a challenging hand, let’s give the old guy a new lease on life. I am one of the most fortunate people on the planet. Who gets to play with the number one selling duo in the history of music after being out of the business for over 20 years and currently out of a job for 3 1/2 years? And mind you, I’m now just shy of 60 years old? Me.
“The Evolution of Cabaret” is gaining attention in New York’s supper club scene. What makes this show stand out and resonate with audiences?
I hear it’s an exciting show that doesn’t get in the way of a traditional cabaret night out. I follow the rules, just differently. I bring a genuine, authentic modern approach to the supper club experience, starting with the playlist and real-life stories from the popular music perspective. Every art form gets infused with new ideas. I’m working on that with this concept.
You’ve been described as a “Singer’s Singer.” How do you maintain the authenticity and imagination that modern music lovers are craving?
As a singer, this nightclub venture is who I am, naturally. And I listen and study the greats all the time. Nat King Cole being at the top of the list and too many others to name. But more importantly, nothing is forced. I find that staying in relatively good health allows me to maintain the real heart and soul of what I do and who I am. I wake up this way. As my mother would say…“everything in moderation”. I know that’s not the sexy, Rock and Roll way, but it’s kept me around long enough to try new things at an advanced age. Specifically, I heard the great Marcus Miller describe what Miles Davis told him…”trust your ideas”. Whenever that voice of doubt comes into my mind and heart, I remember those words from Miles by way of a friend, M. Miller. All this allows me to draw from the massive amount of music and life I’ve been exposed to and share it. What I do is just a reflection of who I am and where I’ve been, aided by family and friends who care.
With such a diverse career, from performing to songwriting and graphic design, how do you manage to balance your various creative endeavors?
Having a beautiful and brilliant wife is a huge advantage. We do the checks and balance thing, generally. We don’t have children but we’re surrounded by a large, loving, creative, encouraging and perfectly imperfect family (thanks for that phase, John Legend). Through all of that, I’ve been given the space and time to try new and maintain ideas, as well as shift gears whenever needed. I also have the privilege of great friends that understand me and what I’d like to do. So, managing a diverse career is just a way of life, rather than any major adjustments or management.
Can you share some highlights or memorable moments from your time with Atlantic Starr and your extensive recording and touring career?
There are so many. I have to leave out a bunch… Please, bear with me, friends and fam. Haha • Getting signed by Herb Alpert after auditioning on his soundstage at A&M Records in the heart of Hollywood within 18 months of arriving in LA from NY has to be at the top of the list for me and my neighborhood band. We were just kids. • Steve Wonder coming to see us at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood. Then, backstage he happened to be standing next to me and began singing one of our songs in my ear! Hearing “Am I Dreaming” like that was mind-blowing. • Being on the cover of Billboard magazine was a big deal for the young folks from Greenburgh. • Our hometown gave us a street! “Atlantic Starr Way” gets driven down wherever possible. lol • Going number one on the Billboard charts was a milestone. • Playing with Hall & Oates on their induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame at the Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn, NY. And it airs on HBO. Oh, and while waiting for our limo afterwards, Steven Spielberg popped up next us. Too funny! • Playing for the President of the United States and he and his wife looked like my family members. That was a humbling first on many, many fronts.
You’re set to appear on Broadway’s 54 Below. What can attendees look forward to during your performance on March 29th, 2024?
The sophisticated audience from all walks of life can expect and fresh approach to cabaret. The show is a comprehensive idea of how the supper club vibe can be. It’s a brand new take on classic music from a singer who cares about the music, his audience, his background, the setting he’s in and pays homage to the traditional art form along the way. The set is peppered with a joke or two and he’s got a GREAT band! It’ll be a fun night for all kinds of cool people. For sure.
As a songwriter, what themes or subjects do you find most compelling to explore through your music?
My subject matters are pretty simple. It’s primarily love. I’m of the belief that you pretty much get back what you put out in life. So, I try to stay on the bright side of the street with my writing. And who can’t find something good to say about love, right? In one way or another, I’m always writing about love. That seems to work for me. I love love! But beyond that, I find myself writing about self-discovery, hope, and joy. I’m often inspired by real life experiences, both my own and those of the people around me. So, if I can distill those feelings and experiences into songs that resonate with others, that’s a beautiful thing.
Thank you for the opportunity to share a little bit of my journey and passion with you all. Looking forward to seeing you at 54 Below!