Oakland soul-rock outfit Legally Blynd is not a group with much name recognition, except among musicians and insiders. Blame it on its modest oeuvre (one self-titled album since the band's inception in 2005), or the fact that each band member is constantly on tour with some slightly-more-famous person (guitarist John "Jubu" Smith with Frankie Beverly & Maze, bassist Eric "Pikfunk" Smith with Rihanna or Fantasia, drummer Ron Smith with Tommy Castro Band, backup singer BJ Kemp with Raphael Saadiq). You might also blame Jubu for deciding to launch the band in mid-adulthood, when everyone already had families to raise and other acts to support. He managed to amass eight of the best R&B instrumentalists on the scene (guitarist Errol Cooney, drummer Chris Johnson, Hammond organ player Carl Wheeler, and keyboardist David Jackson, in addition to Kemp, the Smiths, and a rotating horn section), give them songs he'd refused to sell to Anthony Hamilton or Kenny Loggins, and still remain relatively unknown.
A well-established songwriter who'd held rhythm section duties for several popular R&B artists, Jubu got the idea for Legally Blynd while touring with Whitney Houston in 1999. They had just finished a show in Italy when Houston approached him and said, in his recollection, "You know what, you should do your own music." The next day Jubu called Roland and ordered a 1680 digital recording machine, which arrived three days later. He composed a rock ballad that night, phoned his brother Eric all a-tizzy, and spent the next six years assembling his band. In other words, he said, "We did everything backwards."
Legally Blynd still managed to generate a cult following, especially within the industry. You might go to one of their shows and see Tweet or Hootie & the Blowfish singer Darius Rucker in the audience (both have collaborated with Jubu). When the band performed at Oakland's Kimball's Carnival in May (a show that was virtually unpublicized, but for a couple MySpace bulletins), its audience comprised mostly Bay Area musicians: jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire, players from the house band at Maxwell's, KCSM radio personality Greg Bridges, pianist Michael Aaberg, who'd just gotten off the Lalah Hathaway gig at Yoshi's. The crowd was sparse but everybody in there was somebody, which made it seem like Legally Blynd was some kind of arcane side project, rather than eight very established sidemen who do the soul-rock thing better than most of their pop analogues.
Never formally trained, Jubu and Eric learned to play in their father's gospel group. Jubu first began noodling on the guitar at age four while sitting in his father's living room, and learned to play through changes by joining the band at Free Gift Missionary Baptist Church in East Oakland. Eric started on drums at age five and played his dad's bass on the side. After their parents separated, Eric and Jubu shuttled between their mother's house on Seminary Avenue in East Oakland, and their father's pad on 8th and Union streets in West Oakland. They attended Lowell Junior High School, which, Jubu says, comprised a 400-student, 90 percent black demographic. They jammed out with current members (or affiliates) of Legally Blynd. They performed on a kids' TV show called Just Kidding. To a great extent, their social lives revolved around music.
Then, in 1984, Jubu matriculated in big, multi-culti, metropolitan Berkeley High School — where you had to make an impression quickly, or risk being a nobody. At that time Joshua Redman and Dave Ellis held court in the jazz band, the courtyards reeked of marijuana, and black students were in the minority. On the first day of ninth grade Jubu went out into the courtyard, found a white guy playing guitar, and asked if he could try a song or two. "He was like, 'Can you play it?' He handed me the guitar, right? So I started playing, and he was like, 'Duuuuude! Dude, that's fuckin jammin!'" From then on he went to the courtyard every day, and would always hear people whispering when he passed: "Dude, that's that black guy who plays the hell out of the guitar."
Jubu started cutting classes regularly, preferring to hang out in the band room and practice. He graduated by the skin of his teeth and managed to snag a full scholarship to Berklee College of Music, but passed it up because he'd already been recruited to tour with Oakland soul group Toni Tony Toné. By then Eric had already hooked up with Sheila E. It was a wrap.
From there, Jubu began to really consolidate his career. In 1998 he got a call to audition for Whitney Houston's band. That year he was also enlisted to perform with Frankie Beverly. The guitarist would eventually write songs for Luther Vandross, Kenny Lattimore, Alicia Keys, Boyz II Men, Mary J. Blige, Mary Mary, Toni Braxton, and Tweet. He wrote Mario's "Just a Friend," the peppy 2002 hit based on a sample from Freddie Scott's 1968 song "You Got What I Need" (later reinterpreted by Biz Markie in the 1987 rap single "Just a Friend"). For that song, Jubu took a melodic, major-key R&B hook and gave it a really elegant guitar part, and with it, helped turn then-teenage Mario into a major star. By then both Jubu and Eric — who spent the '90s touring with Faith Evans, Destiny's Child, 112, Tevin Campbell, and TLC — had become the ultimate men behind the scenes.
At this point, Jubu composes and arranges all the songs in Legally Blynd's repertoire. As a rock balladeer, he's prodigiously talented. Jubu has a natural sense of how to shore up the drama in lyrics about falling in love, being jilted, and running back anyway. His tunes often start with an interesting melodic idea that he'll advance throughout the song, usually opening with a guitar head, then adding horn and keyboard parts to create a natural rise. Audience favorites like "Why Break Mine" — which features a bridge by R&B singer Ledisi — and "My Sunshine" — in which he has the bluesy cadence of Sam Cooke — use classic soul forms that hark back to the '60s and '70s, along with vocal harmonies that betray Jubu's gospel roots. He often composes on the fly, and says his best material usually comes in a quick burst of inspiration. His folksy tune "Call It a Life" took about fifteen minutes.
Pop singers still clamor to buy Jubu's Legally Blynd material, but the singer always demurs. To him, the band is a labor of love. Offstage, Jubu keeps a low profile. He likes bowling and Play Station 3, and has Lil' Wayne's Tha Carter II bumping in his CD player. The band rehearses in an East Oakland warehouse studio with paint peeling off the walls and $1 cans of Budweiser in the soda machine. Among fans, he's considered to be the baddest R&B guitarist in the world — people even wave "I Love Jubu" signs at Frankie Beverly shows these days. But the cult of adoration hasn't gone to Jubu's head, yet, and if you ask for the guitarist's CV, he'll refer you to Google.
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