Black Pumas Bring Down the Hammer Behind Powerhouse Singer Eric Burton
The frontman might not admit it, but he's a professional
Led by singer Eric Burton and producer/guitarist/project umbrella Adrian Quesada, Black Pumas are producing a music video for electric psych-soul single "Black Moon Rising" in the large back room of Arlyn Studios, not far off the touristy bent of Congress Avenue. The occasion and location prove quite a contrast to last week's encounter with the two on a basketball court. Competitive rage has ramped down into professional humility.
As gamers know, one can learn much about someone before, during, and after a bout of hoops. For example, do not leave Quesada open. He's an unassuming fellow, but that jumper is going in more often than not. Frontman Burton, meanwhile, is relentless in every direction, not unlike a smaller, unrefined version of Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook.
Burton played with an early evening hangover and in high-top Vans, which isn't at all choice footwear for the hardwood. He's sinewy, with a back so curved he runs upright and breakneck, similar to gold medalists Jesse Owens and Michael Johnson – all gas and fury, no brakes or quarter. Seeing him at Arlyn, outfitted as the dreadlocked rock star he is, or at least doing a first-class imitation, Burton's reserve now stands out.
As he discusses his current circumstances, a well-wisher tells him something to the effect that the band is on its way and that he's doing particularly well. Slightly taken aback, he responds by pointing at Quesada and the other players, saying, "No, these guys are the professionals." Practically in unison, he's told, "No, Eric, you're the professional," to which he nods and trails into a soft thank you.
Doesn't he know?
Quesada's faculty and notable feats are well documented (revisit "El Wizard Adrian Quesada's Multiplicity," July 18, 2014), but Burton remains the Black Pumas' mighty hammer. His soul-stirring vocal ability ultimately shapes the group. And yet, he demonstrates an obliviousness, or faux ignorance, to the notion that he's not simply part of the show, but the main event.
"I know," he acknowledges. "I don't look like how I sound, and [Laura Cervantes and Angela Miller of the Soul Supporters] don't have a problem pointing that out every time we do anything together. They say, 'What are you doing singing like that, boy?'"
Born Oct. 7, 1989, to Ruth Harrison and Darren Burton in California's San Fernando Valley, Eric grew up bouncing between the Los Angeles metro area, West Virginia, and New Mexico. His uncle Steve Harrison, Ruth's brother, served as a primary father figure for Eric and his siblings: Gigi, Chris, and Elijah. They all derive from a line of frequent fliers, Eric ascribing his "nomadic" existence to the family being "comfortable with our makeup as human beings naturally wanting change.
"If I could attribute a character or a vehicle to my family, we're like jets, built to move, to fly," he says. "We spent time in Los Angeles, and you know, with [L.A.'s] energy, I'm thankful for that vibe my family brings, because when I was younger we didn't have a ton of money. [But] my uncle refused to let us live in the hood."
Behind the careful language endures Burton's latent desire for stability, grasping at the notion of found grounding. Traveling missionaries factor into the family ledger, mostly within the Southern Baptist-affiliated Carver International Missions. Led by Eric's grandmother and matriarch, Mary, the Harrisons went as far as Liberia in West Africa to minister before landing in California.
Seeing their time in California run its course for the children and his sister, who'd seen her share of difficulty, Uncle Steve took up another mission opportunity at an orphanage in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Situated between the Sacramento Mountains and Holloman Air Force Base, the desert town is best known as the site of the first nuclear bomb testing, codenamed Trinity.
"This was nonexistent to me, but nothing was opening up [in Los Angeles]," says Steve. "They said, 'Come out here, and you and your family can live in this four-bedroom house on the 60-acre property.' I didn't have to pay any bills, and they helped me get a job. It was a win situation for everybody."
The improved, bohemian lifestyle likely altered the fortunes of Eric and his siblings, who graduated from the nearby high school and attended various colleges. Artists themselves, his mother and uncle encouraged the kids' creativity to exceptional degrees and taught them how to make a way if there wasn't one readily available.
"My uncle would let us paint the furniture," recalls the singer. "He was open to inspiration in highly unorthodox ways. One thing that made an impression on me was when he would put a cardboard box over his head and come up with melodies. He could get a full spectrum of sound, beat-boxing or singing all the elements of the song – bass, guitar, everything.
"I understand it now, but back then, I just wanted to play basketball."
As an occasional church vocalist, Burton didn't take singing seriously until an early romantic crush and then more seriously still in high school. Kathy Wallis, a former teacher at Alamogordo High, identifies him as a "well-rounded and polite" student who held high ambitions of becoming a performer – which was emphatically not what his family initially desired. After a short stay at New Mexico State University as a primary education major, Burton told Wallis he would pursue his calling by cobbling together money for a Greyhound bus back to California.
"I asked him if he was sure, because I thought it was dangerous," recalls Wallis today. "He said, 'Nope. I can get a bus ticket for about $65, and I'm going to see what I can find.' I asked him if he knew anyone, and he said, 'Nope. I'm just going to meet some people, make friends, and play some music.'"
Already performing live covers of John Denver and Otis Redding in New Mexico, Burton viewed his return West as a twofold operation: Lighten the family's economic load and navigate the choppy music industry waters. He turned up faithfully at coffee shops and open mics, and busked at the Santa Monica Pier and nearby Third Street Promenade. He even netted an American Idol experience, this time taking a bus to Houston, where he did well enough in the audition process to make it back to Hollywood before being eliminated.
"I relied on my ability to be like my grandma and just go," he emphasizes. "You know, go fly and see how it goes. I connected with [San Antonio-based contestant Dylan Loza], who's an amazing singer, and his family took good care of me. I ended up missing my bus, and they bought me another ticket. I think about it now, and it's always been that way.
"I just go, and things turn out, you know?"
Burton doesn't have a precise answer concerning the consistency with which he makes his own luck. He's not without fear, but his unwillingness to settle won't allow relaxation or any side-saddling into whatever fate. Credit that deep competitiveness.
"It's helped me to believe in myself, wherever I am, and to know what I have is special regardless of what anyone thinks about it," he asserts. "In the end, I have to live with myself. I may not see this group tomorrow or be around that particular person long enough to undergo the judgment of what someone thinks of me, or for it to make any difference."
Eventually, he befriended a couple of fellow buskers and formed a temporary trio in 2015 that traversed the West Coast and Southwest. He calls the brief interval the "best time of my life." He also recognized an opportunity to push himself toward more significant frontiers.
"We said, 'Let's take a break from the volleyball, the beer, and the pretty girls, and try to go where there's a little more resistance for a bigger prize.'"
Postcards From the Edge
There exist YouTube clips from Burton's time in New Mexico, featuring compelling singer-songwriter bits. From those videos of a fresh-faced Burton to the near-present day, he's acquired a booming, counterweighting burl. Concurrently original and familiar, it's a voice as much at home in a Midwestern, Seventies-era funk outfit or a late Sixties, Bay Area psych/funk/rock act as it is today.
Once the SoCal trio reached Texas, they split, one off to Italy and the other back to California to work for a music publisher. Undeterred, Burton settled into Austin to continue busking Downtown. In 2017, through a mutual acquaintance, he met Quesada of Grupo Fantasma and Echocentrics fame.
The local industry vet had some long-stashed demos, partly influenced by the Wu-Tang Clan's usage of obscure soul samples. These became Black Pumas' eponymous debut on noted major indie ATO Records, home to Alabama Shakes, Benjamin Booker, Chicano Batman, Hurray for the Riff Raff, Okkervil River, and more. Burton forced Quesada's budding material into full bloom.
"Honestly, right away I knew, 'Okay, this is going to be something,'" says the latter. "My wheels were turning on the first song [Eric sang], but I tried not to jump the gun. I kind of bit my tongue at first. I think when we hit five [songs], we said, 'Let's pursue this.'"
Quesada believes in the convergence of their congruent talents and aligned comportment.
"He complements me because he has a way of being present, fully immersed," says the Texan. "I'm thinking about yesterday and tomorrow, and Eric is here, right now. You can throw him right in, and he will come through in a way [where I would be] overanalyzing. So I feel that's the balance, kind of a yin and yang, because both of us teeter on the edge."
Joseph Campbell once said we aren't seeking meaning in life, but rather the experience of being truly alive. Our physical experiences should "have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive." During late lunch at East Austin sandwich shop Gourmands, Burton flows a stream of consciousness on a brief, vital raving:
"I learned not to be so attached to a particular setting, a certain group. I learned how to be alone sometimes and entertain myself," Burton admits. "But then as it pertained to making friends, I realized that everyone's the same kind of weird. We all have the same needs, the same feelings and emotions. I learned how to serve those needs in different people at a young age.
"I'm trying to make the best art I can that moves me. It happens internally, judging myself: 'How honest are you being, Eric?' Like, 'Is this the right choice that's going to put you in a state of bliss, or worship and praise, like in church?'
"One of the coolest things I saw when I was a young kid was people in church entering this state of consciousness that blew me away. I'm trying to find that place again, [one] that isn't telling people what to do or judging anyone, because we all have been there. That's more important than being cool or a superstar.
"How do I, how do we, re-create that? How do I re-create that love?"
Black Pumas celebrate the release of their full-length debut at Antone’s on Friday, June 21.