For millions of late-night television viewers, James Poyser is known as the keyboardist for hiphop renegades The Roots on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. Every weeknight, Poyser displays his ability to tackle impromptu intros with ease, like the piano-drenched theme to Fallon’s famed “Thank You Notes” sketch.
But long before The Roots were offered one of the most coveted gigs on television, Poyser had carved a career out for himself as a keyboardist and producer of near legendary status, working with artists including Mariah Carey, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Lauren Hill, Common, and Adele. He’s got chops for days, and the taste to know when, and when not, to use them. Poyser is closely linked with the sound known as Philly Soul, but he actually hails from another part of the world, an ocean away.
“I was born in England,” he says. “My parents are Jamaican, and they moved to England, where my brother, sister, and I were born. I grew up in the Pentecostal church, and music was a big part of that worship experience. There’s always drums, guitars, basses, and keyboards. And there’s always dancing and a lot of loud singing and jumping around. When we moved to Philadelphia, that’s when I taught myself how to play drums, and little bit of bass and keyboards to play along in church. There was a drum set there and I was like, ‘I’m gonna be the drummer!’ I was terrible [Laughs], but I got better. Eventually, I taught myself keyboards and later I went back and got lessons. But I’m pretty much self-taught.
“One thing that I learned playing in that church, where a majority of people were from the Caribbean, was that there was a simplicity to the music that was popular,” Poyser explains. “If you listen to Reggae or other music from that area, it’s simple. The chords are one, four, and five, and once in a while, they’ll throw a two in there! So to make them dance, I had to play it simple. When I played at other Pentecostal churches in America, I noticed that their point of view was different. In those churches, you could be a lot more harmonically adventurous. You could play chord progressions in a hymn that might not make sense in the song, but they worked! But in my church, I learned how to play things simple with feeling.”
Poyser made the jump from drums to keyboards in his teenage years. “I had a voracious appetite for listening to music,” he says. “When I was younger, I had taken the standard, ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ kind of piano lessons with a little old lady, but I didn’t like them at all. She had two little Chihuahuas at her house, and they were fine when I walked in, but on the way out they would bite the back of my legs! So I didn’t like going over to her house. Later when I was 16, I met a guy in Philadelphia who played keyboards, and I thought, ‘I wanna do what he does!’ I had a cassette tape of a song that he played and I spent months learning it, teaching it to myself. Then I learned how to play it in every key, and I decided that I wanted to take lessons.”
Poyser came of age on a mixed musical diet. “I was listening to all kinds of things,” he explains. “But growing up in a preacher’s house, I had to sneak around to listen to things like early hip-hop. But the cool thing about that was, a lot of the Gospel records I was allowed to listen to were real progressive. I also noticed that many of the players that played on gospel records were also playing on the big R&B albums of the time – people like Joe Sample and Greg Phillinganes, who played on everything from Gospel to Michael Jackson and more. I would also go to record stores and read the back covers of albums to findout who the big players were at the time. Back then, I listened to early hip-hop, cool gospel records by people like Andre Crouch and the Winans, R&B by people like Stevie Wonder, as well as Bob Marley. Then I also got into Miles, Herbie and Chick. I was way into the fusion stuff by the Elektric Band and Headhunters. And I’m still going through my jazz phase!”
Poyser attended Drexel University in Philadelphia. “I started-off as chemical engineering major, but I transferred to Temple University and finished-up with a finance degree,” he says. “It’s funny, but to this day, my parents still ask me, ‘When are you going back for your MBA?’ But I was gigging all throughout college, playing with different choirs. At first, the majority of my work was still church-based, but then I started playing various jazz clubs, doing gigs with local artists around town. Then I got called to play with bigger and more well-known artists like CeCe Pensiton and later, [DJ] Jazzy Jeff and The Fresh Prince. I was part of Jeff’s production company for many years, and he’s one of my best friends to this day.”
It was in the early 1990s that Poyser developed a penchant for keyboards and technology. “Back then I was playing a lot of the racks of the day,” Poyser says. “Like the [Oberheim] Matrix 1000 and the [E-mu] Planet Phatt. I was also using the [Ensoniq] ASR-10 and the EPS, sequencing with an [Ensoniq] SP-1200 and an [Akai] MPC. At that time, I didn’t have a home studio yet. I was working out of Jeff’s studio, on a 24-track analog and an early Cubase system.”
Soon after, Poyser would be mentored by the legendary Philadelphia music team of Gamble and Huff. “Mr. Gamble was a friend of one of my partner’s parents,” Poyser explains. “We were working out of my friend’s apartment, and Mr. Gamble said, ‘You guys aren’t doing nothing there. Come down!’ I ended up getting [Philadelphia songwriter] Linda Creed’s old room, which was crazy. There was carpet on the walls—it was all very 1970s! It was also right next to Mr. Huff’s room, and there were artists Phyllis Hyman, Billy Paul, and Lou Rawls coming through all the time. I got to see the way they worked, and I also got to hear their stories.”
Poyser’s longtime association with The Roots also began around this time. “The band’s late manager Rich Nichols, may he rest in peace, wanted me to work with a band they had signed called the Jazzyfatnastees,” Poyser says. “I was writing with them for a while, and then Rich called me and said he was working with a girl from Dallas, Texas, named Erykah Badu, and he wanted to know if I wanted go into the studio with her. I went, and we clicked instantly. We ended up doing a couple of songs on her first album, and I’ve worked on every one of them since. That began my work during the whole ‘Neo Soul’ era – working with The Roots, Common, D’Angelo, Jill Scott, and so forth. I also worked with Bilal, Musiq Soulchild, Mariah Carey, Adele, and others.”