David Pic Conley, consummate flutist, vocalist, song writer and musician is back on track. He has produced for singers such as Melba Moore, Burt Bacharach, Stanley Jordan, Regina Belle, Aretha Franklin and George Benson. In 1976, Conley joined the group Port Authority in Los Angeles. A year later he joined the group Mandrill and released the album, New Worlds.
In 1998, with writer/producer/guitarist David Townsend and singer Karen Copeland, David Pic Conley founded the Soul/R&B Multi-Platinum group: Surface. Surface was known for their hits “When Your Ex Wants You Back”, “Stop Holding Back” and “Falling in Love”, which peaked at #84 on Billboard’s Black Singles chart.
In 1984, Bernard Jackson replaced Karen Copeland as the lead singer and became the sound of Surface that we know today, releasing several R&B hits like “Happy” and “Shower Me With Your Love” that peaked at #5 on the Billboard Hot 100. He also wrote and produced the smash hit “Ain’t Nothing Going on but the Rent”, made famous by Disco Queen, Gwen Guthrie.
David Pic Conley continued his career collaborating and producing. In 2008, David and the No Rulz Band featuring: Nelson Rangel (flutist), Bernard Jackson (singer), Hubert Laws (flutist), Paul Jackson Jr. (American Idol) and vocalist Levi of Blackstreet, released the album “Bird Of Paradise”, which was his foray into Jazz.
David Pic Conley chatted about his career of four decades, his new group Resurface, South African apartheid, the challenges he faced and the conquests he’s made as a visually impaired musician.
RM: You are a flutist, percussionist and bass player?
DPC: Yes. Well, it was a Mini-Moog. It was a synthesizer that I used that played the bass sounds on a lot of records. That’s my thing, the Mini Moog.
RM: You are originally from Newark, New Jersey?
DPC: Born in Newark, New Jersey.
RM: Could you expound upon your early years and why you decided to become a flutist?
DPC: This wasn’t a decision of mine, it’s kind of one of those interventions that we all question. Actually, I was walking down the street and one of my boys, his name was Darryl, and he had a flute in his hand and he was selling it for twenty dollars and I bought it for ten. But when I bought it, I looked at it and I said I could sell it for twenty-five. So, I took the flute into my basement. I was like wow, this is really pretty. I tried it and it made a sound. Then I started to move my fingers around and play the notes. I started figuring out little melodies like ABC. So, that was the beginning of my flute days. I was nineteen at the time. I had just graduated from High School; Clifford Scott in East Orange. That’s where I grew up in East Orange.
RM: Your music runs the gamut, from R&B, Soul, Bossa Nova and Disco. Tell me about your collaboration with Mandrill. You played on one of their albums?
DPC: I loved them. Yeah, I played on an album called New Worlds. I played tenor sax and the flute player from the group, Carlos Wilson was actually my mentor and teacher when I first started playing flute. I played tenor and I played the percussion like Bongos and I sang with them.
RM: I love your Bossa Nova CD.
DPC: A friend of mine in England wanted to put a band together and he said he wanted to do Bossa Nova. I said I never really did Bossa Nova before. It was a struggle. I was struggling learning that music. I took it as a challenge. On one of the earlier songs, a woman was singing it and I had to learn the music from her voice. Her voice was not like an American voice. It was definitely Portuguese and the way she was singing it. Her inflections were so unique that I wanted to capture some of that. I was definitely trying to be her. There was a little curl to it, to her voice. I was like man, if I can get to this. So that’s where I was going with that one. After that, I started approaching everything like a singer.
RM: You wrote and produced “Ain’t Nothing Going on But the Rent”.
DPC: Yeah, Gwen Guthrie! She ruled the Garage! I would go see Gwen at the Garage and she would have everybody captivated! She ruled. I actually met her in the studio. I was told that she was going to be there, so I just went up and went to meet her. She asked “who are you”? I said I am Pic Conley. I play flute, I write songs. She said “you write songs”? I said yeah. She said sing me one and she recorded it and put it on her album! So that was the beginning of my relationship with Gwen Guthrie. With me, David Townsend and Bernard Jackson: we wrote songs for her. It was really cool. Unfortunately, she got cancer and passed us. God Bless her. She was an extreme talent and an extreme influence on a lot of stuff I have done in the past. She was one of my background choices for the other productions with other people, almost anybody that I was working with.
RM: Did you write songs for Surface?
DPC: I wrote the first three, with Karen Copeland and David Townsend. Bernard Jackson was the other member of Surface and quite a prolific writer himself. There were very few songs that he wrote and didn’t actually sing. So he pretty much wrote almost everything that we did.
RM: Speaking of being a writer, you were a staff writer for Gems, BMI.
DPC: That was a result of the three of us getting together and figuring out that we could do some magic by teaming up and writing songs together. “Falling in Love” turned out to still be my favorite song that I ever had a part of, it’s a beautiful song. When Bernard came everything was perfect. So he is the one that made it, made us more of a prolific team. That was what eventually got us our record deal. We started writing songs for New Edition, Sister Sledge, Isaac Hayes, Rebbie and Jermaine Jackson and Gwen Guthrie of course, because she’s my hometown girl!
RM: When did you realize that you were making it with Surface?
DPC: At the beginning though, when you talk about Surface you should really focus on David (Townsend) and Bernard (Jackson). But if you want to go back personally, when I first felt it was because of ‘Falling in Love”. It came from what was the biggest DJ’s in New York City if not the country. They called him the “Chief Rocker” right? Frankie Crocker. WBLS, that’s how it started. I did the record, which didn’t mean anything other than that the fact that we did have a record deal, and a record. So Frankie Crocker’s office called me up and I was told Frankie wanted me come do Studio 54 and sing at his party and would play my record. Yeah Man! Studio 54, just a dream for me. So check it. We hang the phone up and not more than I can say five minutes, I am listening to WBLS anyway cause that’s my station. Frankie comes on and says “Hey guys, I want to play a new record, a friend of mine David Pic with a group called Surface and here’s the song “Falling in Love”. I fell out and then, I’m like damn, he played the record. You talk about… I feel a little giddy now reliving the experience. Ok, I’ll calm down. Lol. But I am a little excited anyway because I am getting ready to jump on a plane to do a video. I haven’t done a video in years.
RM: You had a following also in South Africa, with the group Surface. Do you still have an International following?
DPC: Yeah we do as a matter of fact. We released a couple of songs this past year with some nice responses, little exposure but good responses. I am surprised you know about the African situation. We were actually boycotting South Africa at the time. We had a record called “Falling in Love” that went gold in South Africa. So it was an odd thing, but it was a celebration too. So it was bittersweet because we couldn’t go there to sing to the people. They were offering us a lot of money to come. But we were told that “if you go you will be blackballed”. So I didn’t want to take a chance of being blackballed in a business I just entered. So I said no.
RM: Blackballed by whom?
DPC: The South African promoters. We had a record that they (South African people) loved there and we were kind of an attraction. They asked: Do you want to come over and sing the song for these folks? It was just one song but they loved it. So we said no, but at the same time everybody in the business was saying: If you go to Johannesburg or the main spots in South Africa we will blacklist you. I don’t know if this was rumor or fable or truth but all I knew was that we were boycotting them for sure. We didn’t appreciate the way they were treating the people there.
RM: If you had performed there would it have been basically a white audience?
DPC: No, no. That’s questionable. Because you had to have permission, I was told back then. If you were a certain color, you could go to certain areas. In other words, even if you were white looking with green eyes and your whole family was dark skin and they lived in a certain area you couldn’t just go there. You had to have permission to go there at that time. So I can’t tell you that they would have been all white because there were blacks that would be allowed if they had certain certifications to be there. And I don’t think they would have allowed the darker skin near the whiter people. The same way it was back in the day here. It was no different. Remember Black people could not be with White people at one time during a concert. When they finally let it, they had a line that they drew to separate the whites on one side of that rope and the black folks were on the other side of the rope. This was back in the day (1983).
RM: There were several Surface videos, this must have been exciting to you.
DPC: Me, I was never into videos at all. Maybe it’s because my sight and the visual thing was kind of taking a back seat in life. So when you talk videos I couldn’t be part of the creative process. The visual thing was failing me so I don’t know how any of our videos really, really look.
RM: How is your sight now?
DPC: Well I am definitely blind. I am not black blind though, so I do see shadows but without a cane it’s just kind of dangerous for me to just walk around. So I definitely need my cane to get around. I cannot tell you if Clive Davis walked by or Pee Wee Herman walked by. I wouldn’t be able to see them.
RM: What do you recommend for a person with limited sight in this business?
DPC: I will tell you right away, the first thing you’ve got to do is you certainly have to have your voice over, Jaws Talking Software everywhere you touch. So that’s the one way you can communicate with the world. The IPhone has brilliant talking software. My first suggestion is …boom go there. Of course on your computers, if you’re going to do Mac, they have Voiceover, I am getting into Voiceover now so, I will conquer it in a minute. The PC side, Jaws is talking software for the blind. It does everything in the computer, programs, looking around, documents, go on the internet, you got your internet searches that you can go to. You have your links and you can communicate with that software, it will talk to you and tell you what is on the screen. Once you do that, then you can get into all your social media. Hey, and now we can get on Facebook, boom! You can do twitter now, you mean we can tweet? Sure can. You can tweet from your phone now. It makes it easy for you.
RM: Are you associated with any visually impaired organization?
DPC: There’s only one that I have aligned myself with this year. That’s The Junior Academy for the Blind, and that’s in Los Angeles. With them I wanted to do more with them because they had the students. So when you’re speaking for the kids who want to find out, “Man how did you do this with limited sight, what did you do?”, and “This is cool”, and this is cool teaching those kids and giving them some inspiration. You know what, I never saw the video cameras when we were doing the videos. But I’ll tell you one thing, I’m in all of them. So I didn’t let it stop me. I was extremely near sighted, but at that time I could see and I could read books. But eventually,once that disappeared,I eventually moved to tapes, then records and after records there were screens. It is a tech that some low visual people can use that’s called a Visual Tech. What that basically does is, that you put the book under it so it blows the book up on a screen so big that if you have limited vision you can still read. You don’t have to crossover to listening to tapes or CD’s anymore. So you have that option, but the whole social media thing when you’re into music is finding out (a) what you have to offer, put it up on some of your media sites where people can take a listen or take a peek or take a read and see what type of responses you start to get. It goes from there. When I was out there, when I was coming up and I was going blind, I sure would like to know David Pic Conley in 2016. I would sure like to know that guy. You know what I mean? I went through it. And I want to share it with anybody that wants to listen. It’s a big deal!
RM: Are you collaborating with any of your former bandmates on your new releases?
DPC: Unfortunately on the Resurface thing, unfortunately not. I wish we were. David Townsend, passed away in 2005, one of the third members (of Surface). Karen Copeland, she passed away also. Bernard is quite alive. We are not doing Surface right now, so I find the need to keep it movin and now we are doing Resurface.
2015 is welcoming David Pic Conley’s group called RESURFACE. This isn’t the well-known musical group back in the day, but a new endeavor. With a fresh style, the duo (Conley and singer John Feva) will be releasing the album this year. One of the R&B singles is “Diamond and Pearls”. This is a sweet song that puts a perspective of tenderness back into the lyrics of a male singing to his beloved. I would call this single Somance or Somantic, something I just made up to describe the combination of soft, romantic lyrics, upbeat melody and harmonious vibrations. Truly a sound that is welcoming and so needed to balance today’s hyper-sexualized airwaves. Another single “We Can Fly” will be released on the airwaves this month.
RM: What are your immediate plans now?
DPC: Tomorrow, a photo shoot of the CD cover and on Sunday we are doing the video for the first single called “We Can Fly”. The CD will drop next month. You want to get an idea from the masses and the atmosphere and the stars register that you did something for the day, and one will walk away from it and say I like what I’m hearing. Hopefully, you’ll get those comments, you know. We hope everything happens. We have our first radio commitment (for “We Can Fly”) today. It is on Sirius XM on the program called Out the Box – number 48, Heart and Soul Radio. The song will debut Saturday, March 28. The countdown starts 10 am. It repeats Monday, March 30th, 1:00 and 12:00 noon and then we go into light rotation on Heart and Soul Radio. People might want to jump on board and leave a comment.
RM: Do you have a website or web address that I can share with our readers?
DPC: Of course. Surfaceresurface.com
RM: So readers, David would like to know your thoughts. What would you like to say about your musical evolution?
DPC: I’m still alive and blessed to be able to do this music. Right now, I’m waiting to hear what folks have to say about how their receiving what I am doing. I feel great about what I’m doing. I think it’s pretty fabulous. I love the combination of people that we put together, John Feva the lead singer of Resurface.
RM: Any message for the flutists out there?
DPC: Oh, the flutists! We don’t talk about them much anymore. I have been playing the flute for over 40 years. What I do now is I dial up on YouTube, James Galway advanced lessons. I learned so much from listening to this man teach. This is the first place I would send any flute player. You certainly want to learn his discipline. Also, Hubert Laws is one of my favorites. You know, I should be doing a CD with Bobby Humphry. I also learned a lot from Bobby. I listened to Bobby Humphrey and I love her music. It would be nice to have an African American male/female flute duet CD to listen to. That would be nice.
Listening to the enthusiasm of David Pic Conley was uplifting. I also love to hear Laws or Humphry, Mandrill and Surface. Now, I will be listening to Resurface and their new singles. As far as an African American male/female flute duet? I don’t know if there is such a CD. So David, maybe Ms. Humphrey is out there, just waiting to be asked.