As a young person, Eric Burton, lead singer and front man for the Austin-based rock ‘n’ roll group, Black Pumas, moved around a lot. Over one stretch of time, his family lived in several Los Angeles locales, going from Hollywood to the San Fernando Valley and other spots. As a result, it was difficult for Burton to keep up and in touch with friends. Often, he found himself alone, watching television. But he paid attention to the actors’ voices, their inflections and diction. He remembers impersonating everyone and everything he heard. It may not have been on his mind then, but this skill and the practice of it eventually led Burton to a burgeoning music career and a recent Grammy nomination for Black Pumas’ self-titled debut LP.
“When it hit that we were nominated for a Grammy, I totally cried,” Burton says. “We all came together and screamed. It was a very joyful experience. We were huddled together, sharing kind words. Then we went to a pub in London, where we were at the time, and told the bartender, who gave us free shots of tequila.”
The story of the psychedelic-Motown-like Black Pumas is really about the convergence of two specific and different paths. The founding members, Burton and guitar player-producer, Adrian Quesada, met in Austin, Texas about three years ago and their musical chemistry was quickly and notably off the charts. Burton says the encounter with Quesada, who was already a Grammy-winner, pushed him through nerves to study some of the great singers who came before him to hone his abilities. The result was quick work.
“I’d worked on a lot of music with a lot of different people, producing and contributing to songwriting,” says the nimble guitarist, Quesada. “I was a Jack of all Trades. But I had no intention of starting a new project. When Eric and I connected, though, there was such a spark – Eric has such a spark.”
Burton, who began to sing at a young age, didn’t do so with any financial or material gain in mind. At first, he sang with his uncle, who would use melodies as a babysitting trick when Burton’s mother was at work. Burton’s uncle was a singer, himself, and had recorded his own album of original music, which inspired his nephew. Burton sung worship music in church. He got his first guitar when he was 18-years-old and began to write songs in the mode of greats like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. His textured, wise voice evolved.
Despite losing touch with friends as a young person, in high school, Burton became more popular. He participated in theater. He was “class clown” and Prom King. He did impressions of Bill Cosby and Elmo, entertaining friends. Later, as an adult living in Athens, California, Burton, who says he could not work a 9-5 job, began to busk and sell t-shirts with the help of his entrepreneurial-minded cousin, who had a business degree. Busking took Burton to Austin, where he met a few local music luminaries who helped him find his footing in the artful city.
“I was in hustle and survival mode,” Burton says. “Some people took me under their wings. Eventually, Adrian reached out. I put him off for a week, or so. At that time, I was really into the idea of doing my own thing. But I finally checked out his background and thought, ‘Oh man!’”
To prepare to meet Quesada, Burton began transforming his voice. He studied the greats (“I’m thankful for the history,” he says). He molded his voice based on what he picked up from Otis Redding, Wilson Pickett and others, so that when he finally began to hunker down and work with the brilliant and already established Quesada, he knew that he would be ready. The duo hit the ground running.
“Everything happened so quickly for us,” Quesada says.
With just a couple songs in tow, Black Pumas began a residency in Austin at a small, 100-plus person club. Soon, fans lined up around the block for the regular shows. For Quesada, who began to play guitar at 14-years-old (but says he will always regret not taking piano lessons as suggested by his father at an earlier age), the band’s music was unifying, transporting and incorporated many of the aspects of song he loved growing up, from rock to Hip-Hop.
“That’s how I got into jazz, funk, soul,” Quesada says. “By chasing down the samples in Hip-Hop music. Music, especially nowadays, has the power to heal. It was an escape for me growing up – I was an only child and by myself a lot. It always took me to a special place that I needed to go.”
Today, Burton says life is as complicated as ever. There is personal and global unrest from the COVID-19 pandemic, not to mention racial tensions and protests from police brutality. There is a magnifying glass on everyone’s pains, he explains. And he has his own personal balances and relationships to maintain, of course. Yet, with all this on his mind, Burton says he undoubtedly will continue to write and sing the songs that have kept him afloat ever since childhood.
“My best move is to take it all in,” Burton says. “Harness it, heal myself with it and write a song from a humble place where I’m not dividing myself from someone else – where I’m not working as part of a narrative that wants to be divisive.”
If you missed it, refresh yourself with our review of that 2019, self-titled album.
Photo by Liina Raud via Black Pumas Facebook