A Trailblazer Returns: Philly producer Bud Ross on emerging from retirement in the digital age

Bud Ross | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com
Bud Ross | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com

“I left music for a job selling Cadillacs. Six months ago, I retired and returned to music, my true love…”

Despite being active in the Philadelphia scene at a time when the city was in the midst of a full fledged musical revolution, singer / songwriter and guitarist Bud Ross is not a household name.

Born in Detroit in 1940, Ross’s family moved to Chestnut Hill when he was a toddler. As the sounds of doo-wop and early rock n’ roll swept in and reshaped the country’s cultural landscape, Ross got bit by the music bug and began singing. He first explored his musical gifts performing at school talent shows and “serenading nuns” at the local recreation center with tunes like Nat King Cole’s “Answer Me, Oh My Love.” Like many kids across the country, Bud Ross would form his own groups, writing songs and singing harmony around town.

Bud Ross | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com
Bud Ross | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com

“Philly was the center of the universe” Ross recalls speaking from his home in the Washington Crossing section of Bucks County. “Cameo Parkway was the biggest independent record company in the world with Chubby Checker and The Twist. Dick Clark and American Bandstand was here. We were one of the most influential places in the world.”

After honing his craft throughout his teen years and landing a few gigs singing for prominent local acts, Ross embarked on a career in the record business, working as a songwriter and producer in Philly’s incredibly fertile 50’s and 60’s music scene. Expanding beyond his roots in doo-wop, he quickly established himself as a gifted writer, arranger and producer who could work across genres, turning out pop, rock and R&B tunes for a variety of major and indie labels.

In the mid 60’s, Ross partnered with guitarist Bobby Eli (a founding member of Gamble and Huff’s house band MFSB, who has also worked with everyone from David Bowie to Jay-Z) to form Mean Bag productions. Ross and Eli’s early work would lay the foundation for the unique style of uptempo, string-laden R&B that would later be branded “Northern Soul,” gaining popularity in the U.K. when DJs began playing American 45s at dance clubs. Many of the tunes the Ross crafted in Philadelphia would be heard around the world, with songs like James Bounty’s “Prove Yourself a Lady” and Sloan Bey’s funky racial unity anthem “Look at Your Brother” still fetching hefty prices on the rare vinyl market today.

After decades of success in the music business (including a Grammy nod for for his work with Latin music pioneers, the Fania All-Stars) Bud made the decision to steer his life into a different course.  “Selling Cadillacs was steady, great money,” he says. But he adds “I never really left music. You never really go away from it.”

Enter Evan Souza, a gifted young rapper and producer also living in Ross’ Bucks County neighborhood. The two quickly established a rapport and consistent working partnership.

Bud Ross and Evan Souza | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com
Bud Ross and Evan Souza | Photo by Josh Pelta Heller for WXPN | hellerhound.com

“I met Bud in the winter of 2012 through my sister in law,” Souza says. “When I was getting into music, she told me about him and the records he did. Later on Bud got a Mac and needed someone to teach him how to use it.”

Despite the notable generational gap (Bud is 76 and Evan is 22), both men share a similar work ethic. Evan, who crafts quirky, psychedelic hip-hop tunes under the pseudonym Darko the Super, has been building a reputation in Philly’s underground Rap scene for his prolific musicianship, releasing nearly two dozen self-produced independent projects in the past two years alone. Their unlikely friendship represented a meeting of two musical auteurs and a chance at new start for Ross.

“I help him record new songs and go through emails, also create new profiles for him on music sites,” says Souza. “He’s 76 with a Soundcloud (page) I really respect that.”

The first product of this intergenerational partnership is a compilation called Best of Bud’s, a collection of tunes reissued on U Don’t Deserve This Beautiful Art, the boutique record label that Souza operates out of his home. Across the course of 15 tracks, Best of Bud’s showcases the depth and breadth of songwriting and production skills that Ross commanded in his prime. The music ranges from the slinky instrumental Funk of The Brothers Two “You Got It” to the fuzzy psychedelic-pop bliss of Eskimo Affair’s “Morning Dull Fires”.

Both Ross and Souza hope that Best of Bud’s will help reintroduce Bud Ross to the public while the two work on new music. When asked about his sound and plans for his newly revised music career, Ross seemed focused and ambitious. He sees himself “still working on pop, with a feel and connection to the roots of my musical influences. In fact, I’m involved in a play called Decades with Philly music from the 50’s-70’s directed by Stephen Stahl who’s recently done Lady Day, the musical about the life of Billie Holiday.”

Currently Ross and Souza regularly record new tunes with just a guitar, microphone and GarageBand software. Ross approaching the process with the drive of a man who has returned to his life’s love after a decades long absence. The two strategize and discuss the future, as Souza explains: “At the moment, he has a lot of aspirations. He hears big artist’s names in the media and thinks ‘how can I get them to cover one of my songs?'”

“I remember very early on we were listening to his music and he asked if I the Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift would like it,” Souza adds. “I told him he’s way too good for that.”

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