Foley may be the most accomplished musician in Dallas that you've never heard of. He's toured with George Clinton, Miles Davis, and performed with several bands on the 1993 Lollapalooza tour. He recorded albums for Motown and performed on countless talk shows and award shows. At 52, Foley, who grew up in Ohio but has called Dallas home for the past four years, has had experiences that most of us will only dream about. Now he is preparing an enormous band for a show at Crown & Harp that will be headlined by Headkrack on January 30.
At age seven, Foley heard Sly & the Family Stone. "Sly fucked me up," he says. Foley was never the same after hearing the band's breakout album, Stand! "I was like a crackhead," he says, with a laugh. "I wanted to listen to anything and everything, strung-out on music." Foley continues about Sly Stone: "He's obsessed with sound and the 12 notes and melody and Ray Charles. That's his thing. If you notice in his lyrics it was never 'I love you' or girl-boy relationship shit, it was all philosophical." Foley and Stone eventually became close friends, staying in contact with e-mails that somehow seem as personal as handwritten letters.
"Stevie finished raising me with all the '70s work he did," Foley says of Stevie Wonder, another primary influence. He recalls meeting Wonder at a function he and Eddie Murphy did for Richard Pryor at a Hilton in L.A. in 1991, where Foley did sound check. "I'm standing around with Eddie and all those people and then it was like, 'Oh shit, it's James fucking Brown,'" Foley remembers. "He was a cool old dude," Foley says of Brown. "An eccentric old dude. You had to call him 'Mr. Brown.'"
While he was with Motown from 1992 to 1995, Foley and Wonder planned to record music together. However, unforeseen circumstances caused Wonder to take a long break from recording. "But I got to sit with him for four hours," Foley says. "Just sitting around playing piano and talking music. That guy raised me. Him and Sly, they raised me."
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When Foley was 12, his mother bought him a bass, and just one year later started playing with local R&B groups, even appearing on a local radio station. After that, he was playing country music with bands for Joe Waters, Crystal Gale, and Johnny Paycheck. In 1987 Foley had a phone conversation with Marcus Miller, the jazz bass guitarist who worked with Miles Davis throughout the 80s, even writing some of the songs that helped define the legend's sound during that period. Foley sent Miller a tape of his work after the conversation.
Two weeks later, Foley received a call from Davis. "He said, 'Send me the tape that you sent Marcus,'" recalls Foley. Davis had been on the phone with Miller, who had Foley's tape playing in the background, and the man with the horn liked what he heard. "On the phone he sounded like Bobby Taylor, a friend of mine who discovered Michael Jackson," Foley says of the trumpeter's famously raspy voice. Davis was actually looking for a guitarist, but Foley had been working on getting a guitar sound out of a bass.
In May of 1987, at the age of 23, Foley joined Davis' band and started touring internationally. Davis essentially used Foley, playing a four-string lead bass, as guitarist for the band. The sets were between 150 and 210 minutes long, with no breaks. He would go on to play 600 shows with Davis before his death in the fall of 1991. "I knew something was going on with him, says Foley. "But he would never talk about it. He would still put his clothes on and talk shit."
Following Davis' death, Foley would go on tour with Arrested Development for Lollapalooza in 1993 and later do sound for Prince in the late '90s. "He called and said he wanted a musician to mix instead of an engineer," Foley says of Prince. "He's an extremist in terms of perfection just like any other cat who pushes really hard," Foley says." Through Prince, he would also meet George Clinton, with whom he's now been touring for the past five years.
Now taking a break from touring, Foley is ready to be part of the local music scene. Foley came to Dallas in 2004 to do consulting for his friend, local businessman Gary Blum. During his time here he also performed a show in Deep Ellum with a band that included Larry Dunn, the keyboardist best known for his work with Earth, Wind, & Fire. Foley realized there was something special about this music scene and eventually made his way back.
On great music scenes, he says, "I think there are only three cities left: Nashville, Austin, and Dallas. These cities cater to live music and live musicians, they really care. In this entire country, I think everywhere else is kind of struggling."
Foley is currently working on his first album in two decades with the help of Bootsy Collins. And, with creativity and inspiration to spare, he's now leading an enormous new band. In preparation for the upcoming performance at Crown & Harp, the group is rehearsing with his original compositions as well as interesting covers of rock, pop, and hip hop songs. The band has three horns, three vocalists, two guitarists, keys, and a drummer.
Foley typically leads the band with his bass, but is just as comfortable on drums, keys or guitar. "I'm so glad I can still connect to younger folks," Foley says, with a grin. "I never like to do the same thing. If I bore my musicians then I'm bored. And if I'm bored the audience is bored." In general, he prefers an ensemble playing an arrangement: "It's a group of people with one mind and one common purpose: To make you feel something."
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But more than anything Foley is just happy to be leading his own band and performing his own compositions. "It's going to be crazy," he says of his upcoming show. "I have too much of everything, I guess." With the new band, Foley is working on sophisticated ensemble arrangements that traverse jazz in many forms, rock, pop, funk, and hip hop. With so many layers, the new sounds are texturally dynamic and harmonic, simply not comparable to anything else coming out of Dallas.
Foley performs along with Yells At Eels, HeadKrack, and Tru Def at 9 p.m., Friday, January 30, at Crown & Harp, 1914 Greenville Avenue, Free Show.
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