Lee Langston musters an army of local talent

Spend an afternoon with Lee Langston and you find yourself charmed by his easy smile and his comforting openness. Somehow, you start telling him about your own hopes and dreams and heartbreaks, though you’ve come to talk about his work and his projects. Langston is intuitive like that. He asks questions. He wants to listen. He believes in the power of exchange.

Over the past five years, Langston has been building a name for himself around town as a Renaissance man. A soul singer who got his start playing at the former Harper’s on the Vine, in the historic 18th and Vine District, he gigs with other musicians and also organizes and produces other acts’ shows. Asked to sum up the all in his catchall approach, he laughs.

“There’s not even one answer for it,” Langston says. “At any given time, I’m hosting something, I’m rehearsing with my band, I’m at a gig with my band — Lee Langston and Prototype — or I’m being called to be a part of someone’s ensemble or I’m putting on a tribute show or I’m producing some kind of show under my entertainment company [Langston’s Hues Entertainment].”

Some of what Langston puts on are tributes: shows for which he puts together a slate of local talent to honor one artist’s catalog. What started three years ago, with a Lauryn Hill tribute, has become a calling card for him.

“As an artist, you always want to see the things that you do grow,” Langston says. “A lot of times, we desire to put on these amazing shows, but the financial backing isn’t always there, so it’s always awesome when corporations come to you. Companies started approaching me to organize shows for them, and it was great because it would allow for me to pull in all these artists that can’t get enough opportunities to get onstage.”

Case in point: the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which has called on Langston to organize a tribute to Luther Vandross for its November 9 Buck’s Bash. The event honors the memory of baseball legend Buck O’Neil on what would have been his 102nd birthday.

“I’ve been a fan of Lee’s for a while,” says Bob Kendrick, president of the NLBM. “We did a salute to Charley Pride [the country singer and baseball player] in April, when we awarded him the Jackie Robinson Lifetime Achievement Award. And I called Lee in, and he was so excited about the opportunity. That’s the first time I had the opportunity to work with Lee, and that’s when I told him about the idea about a tribute to Luther Vandross for Buck.”

The Vandross show is especially elaborate. In addition to his own singing role, Langston has drafted fellow soul singers Sean Tyler and LeVelle as well as funk keyboardist Doriel Demps, drummer Quintin Donley Sr., bassist Deandre Manning, guitarist John Bridgewater, and sax player Jamal Hill.

“Typically, with any tribute show that I put together, I put the music on loop,” Langston says. “I let it loop, and I’m thinking about what vocalists do I know that will connect with this group of songs and that group of songs. I am blessed beyond all belief that all the vocalists and artists I know, if I reach out to them for a show, they’re happy and eager and ready to work because they know that we’re about to put on something big.”

Langston views his role of producer as more of a community appointment. His band and his cast rotate members, based not only on schedules and availability but also on his desire to keep plenty of names in the mix.

“A lot of times, people don’t realize how difficult it is to be an artist or a musician,” he explains. “If there’s a musician in need, you know, of all the musicians that I work with, they’re the ones I’ll call for an ensemble project or something like that. Those gigs are going to help them get through whatever storm they’re in.

“There are all these different pockets of amazing in Kansas City,” he adds. “Some of them are intertwined and some of them stay separated. When I see other artists that are trying to find their way and trying to be seen, and I feel like they have talent and the city needs to see it, then I want to give them a chance.”

Categories: Music