Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

From juke joint to big stage, Yankee soul man croons of love and sex

By Wayne Drash and Sarah Hoye, CNN
Click to play
Soul man: Love songs "get me"
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Eli "Paperboy" Reed released his first album under a major label last week
  • Reed learned to sing in juke joints and gospel churches
  • Album's producer helped bring stars Eminem and Dr. Dre to the world
  • "I played it for Justin Timberlake. ... I was like, 'Dude, you've gotta check this kid out' "

Clarksdale, Mississippi (CNN) -- The soul man howled into the microphone, his voice busting through the ceiling of the dimly lit Mississippi juke joint. He sang of love and sex, cheating scoundrels and lying fools.

"... Doin' the booooom booooom! ..."

He danced, he grooved. At times, his voice hit notes so high, the walls of the ramshackle place shook. "Cat got lungs!" shouted one in the small crowd.

Soul wannabes enter juke joints with caution: Stabbings and flat-out beatings have befallen artists who don't meet expectations.

Yet on this night, not far from the fabled crossroads where, according to legend, bluesman Robert Johnson gained guitar mastery in exchange for his immortal soul, there was a most unexpected surprise: A Massachusetts Yankee tore it up at one of the toughest joints in the Mississippi Delta.

Eli "Paperboy" Reed sang for more than three hours for an audience of no more than 15. Men named Red, Bubba and Sledge nodded with approval. And word on the street was out: Been a long time since somebody like the Paperboy has come through!

It's been more than 18 months since that performance. The Paperboy is now hitting the big stage.

The guy is a strange throwback of the time. ... He's the real thing.
--Daryl Hall

Signed by Capitol Records last year, he and his band, the True Loves, released their first album under a major label last week. The album, "Come and Get It," combines soul-ratcheting spunk with 1960s-style ballads. At its core is an age-old R&B tradition: lyrics of love and being driven wild by women.

When he hits stride, Reed unleashes raw sexual energy through deep-bellied hollers, explosive bursts from his band and auctioneer-like rapidity. "... There's gonna be an explosion, baby. Gonna be a-, gonna be a-, gonna be a- ... Owwwwwwwwwwwwwww!!! ..."

Kicked back in his apartment in Brooklyn, the 26-year-old Reed laughs about how far he's come. "There was a lot of very lucky coincidences that I fell into," he says.

And he's got big-time backing.

Mike Elizondo, who has produced stars like Eminem, Dr. Dre and 50 Cent, is the producer for "Come and Get It."

While Elizondo is best known for his hip-hop music production, he is ecstatic about this new gig. He first heard of Reed from a business partner about two years ago and then watched him on YouTube. "My jaw was on the floor."

"I played it for Justin Timberlake and a couple other people. I was like, 'Dude, you've gotta check this kid out.' "

Blues, gospel and the 'strange cat'

The son of a former music critic, Reed got into music at an early age. By the time he was 13, he was practicing the harmonica eight hours a day. He'd cut up around the house with his father, who strummed the guitar while his son belted out.

Wearing his grandfather's hat, Eli Reed earned the nickname "Paperboy."
Wearing his grandfather's hat, Eli Reed earned the nickname "Paperboy."

In high school, instead of poring over algebra books, Reed studied the likes of Sam Cooke and other R&B greats, listening to their tone, as well as the heart and soul they put into their music.

He played saxophone and guitar in a jazz band in high school. When he performed, he wore his grandfather's hat, and soon got dubbed "Paperboy" for his 1950s newsboy looks. The name stuck.

Shortly after high school graduation, at the age of 18, the Jewish kid from Brookline, Massachusetts, set out from his parents' home to the heart of the nation's blues country.

He was heading to the Mississippi Delta to work for a jumpstart blues radio station. But shortly after he arrived, his partner went broke. He was soon on stage at local juke joints, fronting a band and playing four hours a night.

"I found myself thrust into it from the word go, playing all the time," he says. "I pretty much immersed myself in this culture 24 hours a day."

He stayed in Mississippi for about a year before heading to the University of Chicago. But his real education wasn't at the university; it came on the South Side, where he teamed up with gospel singer Mitty Collier and began singing at her church.

He says his skin color -- he was often the only white guy performing for crowds in Mississippi and Chicago -- was never a hindrance. In fact, he says, African-Americans often respected him more than whites did.

"Once people see that you're enthusiastic and love the music and that I could sing ... everybody was very forgiving of it."

At juke joints, he says, the audiences were working-class folks "just there to have a good time." They never got out of hand with him or the band, he pauses, "unless they're really drunk." When he gets a chance, he still goes back to Red's, the first juke joint he ever played in Clarksdale.

Along the way, Reed has picked up fans from Natasha Bedingfield to Nick Lowe to Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates.

Earlier this year, Hall had Reed perform on his Web show "Live from Daryl's House," where musicians play along with Hall at his place in New York. Hall ranks Reed in the top 5 of those who have played on his show. "I look for unique people and I look for really talented people, and he fits that bill all the way," Hall says.

"The guy is a strange throwback of the time, but he doesn't do it like an Elvis impersonator. He's the real thing."

Reed has since traded in his paperboy hat for a pompadour. His outfits now more resemble characters out of the hit TV show "Mad Men."

Hall says he was so stunned by Reed's looks that he pulled out pictures from his youth to show the budding musician. "He was dressed in almost identical clothing as me," Hall says, laughing. "He's a strange cat."

But, he adds, of Reed's authentic style: "I don't know how he does it, to tell you the truth. He's a musical time traveler."

Producer Elizondo agrees. "He's doing something that nobody his age is doing."

The new album -- with most of its songs written by Reed -- was recorded live in Boston over 12 days. Six days were spent tracking the rhythm section, and another six days to track the band's horns and strings.

"Sonically, it stands up to anything that's out there," Elizondo says.

Like everything in the music business, the verdict is still out on if Reed catches on in the mainstream. To that end, Hall says that "there is no mainstream that matters" anymore.

"It's all about enthusiasm and fanaticism to your particular thing," Hall says. "And that's more important than being mainstream. It always was, really."

And there's no doubt about Reed's soul. Hall and Elizondo say his audience will grow at the grass-roots level as more and more people hear his stuff.

When they see him live, Elizondo says, "it'll be a party from beginning to end."

Boston Red Sox fans will get their first taste of that next Tuesday, when Reed sings the national anthem at Fenway Park.