Emerging out of the influential Chicago scene of the mid-80s, Ten City – originally comprising singer Byron Stingily, guitarist Herb Lawson, and keyboard player Byron Burke, under the aegis of producer extraordinaire and ‘silent partner’ Marshall Jefferson – struck big with 1987’s Devotion, following that up with a string of vocal house classics: Right Back To You, Suspicious, and the seminal That’s The Way Love Is, arguably one of the best house tracks of all time. 🙂
Ten City split up in 1996, with Stingily going on to enjoy solo success (not to mention taking up a position as a school principal) and Jefferson reaffirming his position as one of house music’s most influential producers.
Now, a quarter century on from their last output, and reformatted as a two-piece, Ten City are back, with Stingily and Jefferson releasing new single Be Free [available here] on Ultra Music at the end of January, and following that up with a reworking of That’s The Way Love Is [available here]… all of which whets the appetite for a forthcoming album, Judgement, which will be released in June.
909originals had the chance to catch up with Stingily and Jefferson, to discuss the Ten City legacy, the positive energy of house music, and what prompted their long-awaited return.
Thanks for talking to us. Marshall I know you weren’t well recently – how are you feeling now?
Marshall: I was messed up. I had double pneumonia – that means both my lungs were filled with water. I don’t really know how I got it. It hit me for three months, and then right at the tail end of it I got food poisoning as well. I couldn’t even talk without coughing until about three weeks ago go, but I’m good to go now.
Ten City has an amazing legacy, it’s good news that you’re back because I think the world needs it at the moment – that sort of positivity that’s in the music and the lyrics. Before we get into the reasons why you’re back making music, obviously we’re still in this COVID maelstrom. How have things been for you both, mentally, financially..?
Marshall: I’m doing ok and, Byron is doing ok.
Byron: Mentally it has been hard, because with me in my day job as a principal, one of the things that I love to do is to build connections with students. Now when I go to work every day, everything is a virtual Zoom, and my students are in their homes. So that’s taken some adjusting to.
Also not being able to go out to restaurants and things that you took for granted – gatherings with family and friends. We humans are social creatures, and not being able to interact socially has been a bit of a strain.
Me and Marshall have been doing this a long time, so financially I’m doing ok. Whether I do a new record or I don’t do a new record, I’m ok financially on those terms.
That’s the beauty of doing this album. Sometimes with music you get so caught up in it and you’re doing it to make a living. With this album, neither one of us had to do it so we could make money from it. I feel that this album had a chance to come out of just joy. We’re doing it because it’s something that we love to do and not something we have to do.
We approached our first album [1989’s Foundation] like that – because it was fun and we were happy to be in the studio, creating something. This album had enabled us to get back to that.
Marshall: We’re just happy to be working with each other.
Would this album have happened if there wasn’t COVID? That now you have the headspace and the time to think about doing something like this? Or, is this something that was planned a while ago?
Marshall: I think it was coming anyway. It was December 2019 that we started talking about it.
Byron: We started talking about it in December, and then last March, the week before America went into lockdown, Patrick Moxey of Ultra flew to Chicago and met with me. He had already met with Marshall. Both he and David Waxman met with us about doing an album.
Then we went into COVID lockdown. But we had already began negotiations and talking about doing an album before COVID.
You had been working collaboratively on various things though, right?
Marshall: No. We always thought we were going to work on something, and we talked about it. I was overseas and Byron was in Chicago, and we just assumed that some day we would get together. And then decades went by…
Byron: We talk on the phone at least once a week. We talk about each other’s projects and things like that, and we crack jokes about each other.
Marshall: We talk about various things in life. We are in contact with each other constantly. You know how you think you’re eventually going to do something, but you never get around to it?
I can understand that, plus because you’re good friends, you want to keep business and your relationship separate, am I right?
Byron: It’s funny, because one of the first things when they came out here to meet with me in Chicago, they were like ‘we would like to do a Ten City album’ but they said there was one catch, ‘in order for us to do it, we want both yourself and Marshall to be involved. You don’t have a problem with that, do you?’
So I was like ‘hell yeah, I’ve got big problems with Marshall Jefferson!’ [laughs]. That was the catch, and I said ‘if that’s the only catch, then that’s fine’. We’ve talked about doing this for years and maybe it takes someone else to push it forward.
We always wanted to do it with the right platform, and when Ultra approached us, they could provide the right platform – they could get our music all over the world.
You can do a lot of things yourself nowadays, and I know a lot of people believe strongly in ‘do it yourself’, but we’re both so very busy at the moment, particularly with me being a school principal.
Before Ten City I did lots of promotions for various record labels, but I don’t have a lot of time to run around and do those kind of things, and neither does Marshall. So to have a label with a full staff that can give it the attention and promotion and get it into everyone’s hands, it provided the right platform to make us feel like our music will get a chance to reach people.
Was that the same for you Marshall – that they said you are going to have to work with Byron again if you’re going to make this work?
Marshall: I was happy they said that. Like I said, I had always assumed we would work together. I think both of us just looked up and realised it’s been two decades, what happened there?
I thought we were going to work on a bunch of stuff – not necessarily Ten City – but just write songs together. Like getting Lennon and McCartney back together.
Be Free came out a month or two ago. Was that almost like a tester to see how that would work before you did an album? That the idea was to release Be Free and then look at doing an album?
Byron: The album was finished before Be Free came out. Actually, that reminds me, when Ultra said to us that we had to work together, the other thing was that they wanted to include Devotion and That’s The Way Love Is on the album, and ‘you can do whatever else you want after that’.
That ‘you can do whatever else you want’ part felt really good.
Be Free was a good representation of the Ten City sound for 2021, with the live horns and live strings. We didn’t want the first thing we released to be a remix of one of our older tracks. Marshall had some great songs that in mind for Ten City, such as Come Together; I’ve been listening to it over the past ten days when I’ve been in my car.
There’s another song that CeCe Rogers worked on called Love Is Just A Game, I really love that. It’s reminiscent of Earth Wind and Fire doing house music, as somebody told us.
How long have you been sitting on these tracks, Marshall?
Marshall: Come Together is a couple of decades old. Love Is Just A Game was written last year.
Was there unfinished business when Ten City ended in the mid-90s; that it didn’t really end with the finale it should have? Is that another reason why you wanted to do it again?
Marshall: No, not really. It ended because we stopped working together, basically. I had things that I was doing and he had things he was doing. I actually recorded two albums that never came out, and Byron did what seems like a string of number ones. We just stopped working together, and now we’re working together again.
You mentioned about Be Free being the first single, rather than a big remake of That’s The Way Love Is or Devotion. When you are going back to those tracks, what are you changing on them? They are perfect house tracks, you don’t want to do too much to them when you’re updating them, right?
Byron: That was a fine balance. Initially I wanted to do something that was different from the original, and wanted to make the songs more ‘2020’. I wanted to make them more futuristic and bring different elements of today into it. Both the record company and Marshall said we have to stay close to the original blueprint.
But I was like ‘I don’t want to do exactly what we did back then, you still have the old version to listen to, so what’s the point?’
I did one version of Devotion that was a bit harder, and Marshall kept saying ‘let’s do it like the original’. When we submitted it to the record company, they said they wanted it as close to the original as possible, and they would get the remixes done. I was like, ‘oh boy’.
What they wanted to go for was something that would appeal to nostalgia, and those memories; also they wanted to have their own version of these songs. They were like ‘we’ll get the new young hot remixers to remix it, you guys leave that to us’. So that was sort of a compromise.
So there’s an updated version of the track out there that remains unreleased?
Byron: That’s correct.
Marshall: That’s the version with DJ Spen.
You talked about not working together for two decades but you know each other a lot longer; it’s probably closer to four decades now. Am I right in thinking it’s mid-80s when you first started working together?
Byron: Yes, it’s been four decades.
I read somewhere – I think it was in an interview that you gave, Byron – that when you first started working together, you weren’t too keen on each other’s music. Is that true?
Byron: No, that’s not true. I was a huge Marshall Jefferson fan at that time. I had three favourite house artists – one was Marshall Jefferson, then Larry Heard, and then it was a guy called Chip-E. Marshall loved my lyrics but didn’t like my music.
Marshall: It wasn’t your music, technically.
Ok, so you liked Marshall’s music, and Marshall liked your lyrics, so it was a case of ‘let’s do something here’?
Byron: Marshall is the one person who can do a house song from start to finish, and he doesn’t need anyone else. Marshall wrote, produced and arranged CeCe Rogers’ Someday – he wrote the melody and did all the music and played all the instruments. Marshall can do a song all by himself without me – I don’t want to come across like he ‘needs me’ to do his lyrics. He’s more than capable of writing great lyrics and great songs.
I think that together we really push each other. I’ve done some good songs – nothing like Move Your Body – but I’ve done some good songs on my own. I think that the two of us combined is a really good combination.
Marshall: I heard him sing on this record call Funny Love [by Dezz 7], and I thought his voice was nice, but the lyrics were sensational. When I started working with him, I think we had done a couple of sessions before we did the song I Can’t Stay Away.
That’s when the power came out. He brought out the diaphragm on that session. That’s when he started singing in the higher frequencies.
Byron, were you a trained singer at all back then, maybe you were singing in school or in church?
Byron: I played in bands all through my teenage years; new wave bands. I had the blonde mohawk hairdo and all that kind of stuff.
When you started working together, how did you decide that rather than just be a production duo you would form the group? Did the record deal come before the group was formed?
Marshall: Technically, the record deal came before the group. Byron came on tour with me on the East Coast and we did nine gigs in two days. Byron said to me, ‘hey, let’s stay the week and meet with some major labels’, and that’s what we did. We met with some major labels and got a record deal at the end of it.
I never would have done it, but Byron made the most of the opportunity. When we got the record deal with Atlantic, they said ‘give us something’… and we gave them something.
On the first album, Foundation, you have soul, disco, funk, electro – all these different combinations. Did Atlantic Records know what to do with you in terms of marketing, because you were different difficult to pigeonhole?
Marshall: They decided that they wouldn’t promote us. They wouldn’t spend any money on promotion and just make money off sales, since we sold without promotion.
Byron: It was different back then, because house was new. There were a couple of groups before us that had gotten deals – Jesse’s Gang had got a deal on Geffen, Bang Orchestra with Vince Lawrence had a deal on Geffen, and JM Silk had a deal on RCA.
Once they got out there and got their record deals, they all went in different directions and kind of went in more of a pop style. I think we were the first group that said that when we got a deal we were going to stay true to the Chicago house sound.
Marshall: It was mostly about staying true to the dancefloor.
Byron: We tried to stay true to the dancefloor. We were very appreciative of Atlantic – they signed us without even a demo. He really believed in us, and we got signed. This was a time that people weren’t signing house music groups, so Atlantic was at the cutting edge when it came to that. They looked at our music and realised that if they put out a song like Devotion, it could sell 80,000 to 100,000 copies without spending a whole heck of a lot.
We were young and didn’t really know the business, but they were gradually building us up. We got to a point where we had a Top 10 pop record with That’s The Way Love Is, and Devotion was a Top 20 pop record.
We would have liked to have been promoted to the same level that we saw other groups on the label being promoted. We felt at the time we were under promoted, but Top 10 in the pop charts is not too shabby. Top 40 pop records are not too bad for the label.
Marshall: We were appreciated, though. I think I was told that Atlantic had while we were there, the ‘black music’ department turned a profit for the first time since 1967.
We interviewed Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley a while ago, and one of the things that he mentioned was that when Jack Your Body really took off in the UK, with the whole acid house thing he didn’t really get the opportunity to capitalise on it. His label didn’t realise what was happening, and he had to fly over there on his own expense. Was that the same with you guys and That’s The Way Love Is, when it blew up in the UK? Did you know about it?
Byron: Because Steve ‘Silk’ Hurley’s record was Top 10 and also Farley Jackmaster Funk’s Love Can’t Turn Around, we knew that there was a market for Ten City.
I was begging Atlantic Records to give us money to go and do a promotional tour, but they told us it was not in the budget. Soon after that, grandmother called me on the phone… and told me to ‘go and get a razor blade’. I cut the hem on the curtain and $10,000 fell out!
We used that money to come over and stay in a hotel – the Columbia Hotel in Hyde Park – and we did our own promotional tour. As soon as it went Top 10, the record company called me and said ‘We did it! We brought it home.’
And you were like, ‘well you owe my grandmother $10,000?’
Byron: I did pay her back her $10,000, yes. The point is – we had to do a lot of things ourselves.
At the time of their release, could you see the potential of songs like Devotion and That’s The Way Love Is? When you wrote them, did you think ‘we’ve got something special here’?
Marshall: With That’s The Way Love Is, everyone that heard it that it was going to be a hit – at least everybody that I played it to. I remember Earl Young came over from Philadelphia to play on it. He heard the bassline and the drum machine and keyboard that we had, and he said ‘this is number one. This is a hit – we’re going to get some gold on the walls’.
Byron: When we did Devotion, I knew that it would be a hit record and I remember telling Marshall that I think it’s going to be a record that people will still be playing 30 years from now. When it’s played here in Chicago toray, people still throw their hands in the air. To have a record that people do that to 30 years later feels really good.
With That’s The Way Love Is, Marshall said it was going to be a hit, but I didn’t necessarily think so. But he was right.
Actually he was also right about one other thing – when we went into the studio to record the first album, Marshall said ’30 years from now, we will be able to record in different cities’. I was like, ‘what are you talking about?‘. As he said, I could be at home in Chicago doing vocals, and he could be in Europe, and we could have strings and horn players in other cities. We could have the baddest people in the world playing on a record, and we’re going to be able to do it in different cities.
The way we recorded this album was exactly how he predicted – that 30 years from now we would be able to do an album like this. When we were recording the new album I was tripping out because he actually said all these years ago that we would be able to do this.
Marshall: It’s because of the pandemic, right? He could do vocals in Chicago, I could do the music from England, CeCe Rogers did some keyboard work from New Jersey and everybody else did their part. Nobody was in the same room.
Byron. The string players were in Virginia, the horn players worth in Chicago, one of the bass players was in Florida. Then we had people in England doing backgrounds and different parts. It was crazy.
Byron, what you were saying about the music having longevity, that in 30 years people would still be listening to it. There’s something about Ten City’s music; it’s got topics that everyone can relate to – ‘boy meets girl and they fall in love’ – but it’s not a cliché. There’s a lot of thought that has gone into the music and the lyrics, and a lot of positivity – it’s music to feel good to. Is that one of the reasons why you think the music has retained its allure over the years?
Byron : We tried to do positive songs with positive feelings. Even That’s The Way Love Is is a song about breaking up, but it’s saying ‘look, maybe you will break up with someone, but another love will come along, and that’s the way love is’. You might have it one day, and you don’t have it the next. People go their separate ways.
But it’s also a song about hope. I have had people come up to me over the years, and say that song gave them hope through a breakup or divorce, or a difficult time. Or that the song Devotion meant this or that to them. I’m just like ‘wow, our music really means something to people’.
I did a show a couple of years ago – it must have been a couple of years ago because of COVID – and this guy walked up to the stage with a cane. He was really struggling. But as soon as the strings came in for Devotion the guy dropped his cane and started dancing. It froze me in my tracks on stage. ‘I’ll be doggone,’ I said. The power of what music can do – in that moment, that guy felt like he was young again; he was able to dance again and do his two step.
When the song was over, he leaned down slowly and picked up his cane and went away. I said to myself, either he’s getting some insurance money from somewhere, or it must be the music. It made me feel overjoyed that our music has meant that much to people and touched people’s lives. To give people good feelings like that makes it all worthwhile.
We’ve had times over the years where the music business got away from us – I can’t speak for Marshall, but sometimes it was like over the years that we felt we were doing good music, positive music and it felt like it was not fully received in the way I would have liked it to have been received.
But then, one time somebody asked me to submit a discography, and I started writing down all the tracks – this one got the number 8 in the pop charts, and this one’s got to number 13 in the pop charts in the UK, this one came in at number 20. When I started looking at all the numbers, I said ‘wow, we’ve left a legacy’.
Marshall: I just want to jam with my boy, you know? It’s funny that he mentioned the dude with the cane; with a friend of mine, I was playing Devotion at a party and she was on crutches. When the song came on, the crutches were gone! I think she might have held onto one of them.
There you go, the healing power of Ten City! In terms of the new album, was there ever a though to reach out to the other guys in the group – Herb Lawson and Byron Burke – and get them involved?
Byron: I honestly don’t know if at some point they will be brought back into the fold. They’re kind of open to it.
People don’t know this, but originally Ten City was supposed to be just me and Marshall. Atlantic asked us if we could form a group with just the two of us, but Marshall didn’t necessarily want to be part of it. He already had his group, On The House, with Rudy Forbes and Curtis McClain – the guys he did Move Your Body with. So I brought the other two gentlemen in.
But to be honest with you, they both have things that they are dealing with in their lives at the moment, and they’re not really fully available to be part of this. But we both have open minds and maybe later we will get to do some shows together. We’ll see.
Marshall: Herb actually plays guitar on Come Together and Devotion, so he was involved in a couple of the tracks on the album.
So the door is open, as Byron said.
Marshall: Actually, when we first went to Atlantic, they wanted to sign Byron to a solo deal. He decided to turn into a group, because he was like, ‘I always wanted to be in a group’. I said, ‘man, it seems like a good idea now, but you’re gonna have to split the money four ways!’
Byron: In hindsight – I’m an introverted person and a thinker, and I’m 6-ft 3; some days I say I’m 6-ft 4. So I’m a big guy singing in a high voice. I didn’t think that as an artist, at the time, I was interesting enough. I was just one of the guys, I’m an average guy.
At the time, there were artists like Michael Jackson, Prince and Madonna and I didn’t really see myself as Michael Jackson, Prince or Madonna. I felt that a group would be much more interesting. Not to be funny, I knew I was a pretty good songwriter, so I wanted to put this mythical group together. I thought that would be more interesting.
But then, as it went on, I felt I became more confident, and I was thinking ‘you know what, I don’t need a group, I can stand on my own two feet’. I am an artist who has a lot to say and I am just as interesting as anyone else. But I guess that in the beginning, there was a little self-doubt.
Marshall: Someone told me once that every single musical group ever created breaks up. Every single one of them.
Byron: No, what about Frankie Beverly & Maze, or the Four Tops?
Marshall: They’re the exception, but you’ve got very few exceptions. All groups break up. It’s evolution. Personalities change once you get successful. It’s just a natural progression – a group will break up for whatever reason. These things just happen when you have different different personalities.
Marshall, it sounds like you would have given Byron advice not to do a group, just to do it on his own?
Marshall: I did at first, but once the group started I was pretty much silent on that part. I wasn’t going to turn around and say ‘dump these dudes’.
Byron: Yes you did! But no problem, you remember it differently.
I can picture Marshall just sitting there, waiting for things to fall apart [laughs]. Obviously you’ve both been involved with house music since Ten City broke up, and you’ve probably noticed that the sounds are changing – the kids are going back to using analogue equipment, and they’re going back to real instruments. There’s an appreciation of the sort of house music that Ten City fits into, at the moment.
Marshall: Yes, because they’re more scientific now. They found out that all those old analogue instruments actually sound better then what they’re making now. There’s a resonance in the sounds that digital can’t duplicate right now. It’s getting closer. But if you want really good sound, you’ve got to buy one of those old keyboards because the new ones just can’t duplicate them. They’re not sounding good. You have those old oscillators and stuff like that.
You see some people now with these big synth boards, going right back to basics. There’s a real rediscovery.
Marshall: There’s science behind it. But if you’re trying to duplicate the resonance and the extra sounds now – it’s getting closer but it’s not quite there yet. They need to go full on analogue.
Byron: I’ve been on break and I just took a 10-hour drive somewhere, and I was listening to a lot of old soul music. I was listening to one of the Isaac Hayes albums, with Before I Get To Phoenix on it, and I was listening to the strings and the way they were led. It took someone to sit down and create that soundscape – the strings and the horns, and you can even hear the actual room that they recorded in, the microphones that are being used, and the reverb and things like that.
I think on some level, people studied for years how to get a guitar a certain way. Now, people study how to turn a knob.
It’s a bit different when you have that human feel and human element. As genius as someone like Stevie Wonder is, I listened to some Stevie Wonder vocals recently – some raw vocals – and I could hear the imperfections in certain notes. It might be slightly off. And that’s Stevie Wonder you’re talking about.
When you have a choir of 100 people, that’s 100 voices, and not everyone in that choir is a perfectly pitched or perfectly tuned singer. It’s those people that are slightly off that adds the human spirit. Or, when you hear Miles Davis – what’s the difference between Miles Davis and others? You might have some people who are technically as good, but it’s his spirit that’s in that music.
Together we have a kind of spiritual connection – when me and Marshall do music together – and a connection that we have with the musicians that we use, and us coming into you each other’s lives. I was telling Marshall yesterday – I was being a bit corny – but it’s it’s not by accident that we happened to cross paths in life at the time that we did. It’s a spiritual connection.
Marshall: I’d like to add that it’s 7am where Byron is, so we’re both still waking up – that’s why he’s getting all philosophical.
It looks like a beautiful day where you are Byron by the looks of things, the sun is shining.
Marshall: He’s just come off a 10-hour drive, so he had time to appreciate the beauty and the spirit in the music he was listening to.
Byron has always been very spiritual. I wrote two songs with him in the car. The first one was Devotion, that was when we were out on a double date, and the second one – we were in the car and he just said the words to Open Our Eyes. I was like ‘oh man, Byron, that is dope!’ I got the spirit hearing the words right there in the car, so I had to rush home and do the music.
Things are starting to look a bit more optimistic now, with the pandemic starting to dissipate – we can be a bit more hopeful that in the second half of the year there’s going to be a return to normality. What do you think will have changed as a result of the pandemic – is there anything that will stay the same, or are we looking at a bit of a reset?
Byron: I think there’s going to be a dance music Renaissance, because what’s gonna happen is that the people are going to want to have a good time. And they’re going to want to get get out and listen to some really good music. I think dance music will be as big as it’s ever been once this is all over.
Marshall: What happened after the last pandemic, 100 years ago? Right after that finished you had the Roaring 20s and everyone was going crazy doing the Charleston and stuff like that. Everyone came out their homes and had a party. That’s what I’m expecting now. I’m expecting a dance music explosion – people will want to go out and party and have a good time, just like back then. And that was a much worse pandemic than this one – I’ve seen figures where 100 million people died. In this one, we had five million or six million. That’s bad enough, but nowhere near 100 million.
So when we come out of this one, it’s going to be pandemonium. People are just gonna go crazy.
From ‘pandemic’ to ‘pandemonium’, then. Is there anything that you think will have changed – some people have been talking about places like Ibiza, where you had this VIP culture, and maybe that’s going to go, and everyone can join in the party now? Is there anything that will be fundamentally different to what was there before?
Marshall: I think people will explore ways of doing parties remotely. You can have a party in Ibiza, and a party in Germany at the same time with the one DJ. I see that happening. Maybe the DJ will be in Paris. You could have Carl Cox playing in four different places at the same time, and you could show him the crowd in Germany and Switzerland and America. As long as you can see the crowd and the response you’re getting, you could do some interesting things.
Let’s wrap up by talking about the new album, Judgement. The release date is June, is that right?
Byron: Yeah, that’s right. There are 10 tracks on it.
So that’s eight original compositions. Maybe not at the moment, but do you see a plan to take this on the road in the future – will we see Ten City live?
Byron: We’ve got on already one place booked that I’ve never played before, and we had an offer about doing a concert with Ten City, Jamiroquai and the Brand New Heavies in Las Vegas. People have been calling us about various festivals, so we’re just looking forward to getting on the road together and having adventures on the road – and getting an all-star house music band together, you know?
We have people like Josh Milan working with us, he’s singing on one of the tracks on the album. We have CeCe Rogers – maybe people like that could join us for a few shows. We’re just looking forward to having fun.
Any festival that has Ten City is going to have the party going, and we need that sort of positivity. If we’re all going to get caught up in the ‘pandemonium’, as Marshall was saying, maybe this would be the perfect soundtrack for it?
Marshall: Wait until you see those people when they’re able to party again. It’s going to be epic.