Thurl Bailey: The Rhapsody Interview
by Rob Trucks | January 7, 2013
Every two weeks, genius-level Q&A artist Rob Trucks, whose work has appeared everywhere from McSweeney's to the Village Voice to Deadspin, will interview a public person of interest -- an author, actor, athlete, political wonk, etc. -- about his or her relationship with music. Today, we've got former NCAA and NBA star Thurl Bailey, who turned out to be one heck of a gospel singer as well. Check out Thurl's personal, soul-heavy Rhapsody playlist above, and enjoy.
Thirty years ago this April 4th, Dereck Whittenburg launched a 34-foot jump shot with two seconds remaining in the 1983 NCAA Basketball Championship game. Unfortunately, Whittenburg was 35 feet away from the basket at the time. But Lorenzo Charles, his North Carolina State teammate, grabbed the errant air ball and dropped it in, which is how the Jim Valvano-coached Wolfpack defeated Hakeem Olajuwon, Clyde Drexler and the heavily favored Houston Cougars 54-52 in one of college basketball's greatest upsets.
The 6-foot-11 Thurl Bailey scored the first two points that night and, as he had all season, led NC State in scoring. Later that summer, the Utah Jazz selected him in the first round of the NBA Draft, and Bailey quickly made the NBA All-Rookie Team. His 16-year journey as a pro both started and ended in Utah (and included two-year stops in Minnesota and Italy), where he officially joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
In 1999, just before his basketball career ended, Bailey fulfilled a lifelong dream by releasing Faith in Your Heart, an album of inspirational songs. Now a father of six and grandfather of three, the ever-busy Bailey still lives in Utah, works as a motivational speaker, is a broadcast analyst for the Jazz, serves on the Board of Directors of the National Basketball Retired Players Association, and runs his own basketball camp, in addition to managing his continuing music career. (Check out his 2010 album, I'm Not the Same.) Here are excerpts from our conversation.
If my research is correct, you stood about 6'5" when you were in the seventh grade.
And even if you weren't a particularly good basketball player at 12 years old, the height alone likely gave you some idea that basketball was a possibility. When and how did singing come into the picture?
That came a lot earlier than basketball did. I remember getting my first Close 'N Play record player. I had two 45s at the time. One was a Jackson 5 45. I think "ABC" was on one side. And the other one was The Osmonds. "One Bad Apple" was on one side.
In the early '70s, The Osmonds were pretty much the most famous Mormons in the world, and knowing how your story turns out, that almost works as foreshadowing.
You know, I always say: When I got drafted by the Utah Jazz, I thought that was one step closer to me being an Osmond brother.
[Laughs] That's about as close as an NBA player can get, I think. When did you think about being a singer? Were you singing in church? Were you singing in the shower?
I [was] singing everywhere. I mean, just singing everywhere. You've got the record player on, and you're not just singing. Because back at that time you either wanted to be Michael Jackson or Donny Osmond. So, you know, with the Jackson 5 record on, I probably had an Afro pick in my hand, pretending it was a microphone, sliding across the floor like Michael Jackson did. I didn't have a huge Afro at that time. You know, it wasn't a Jackson 5 type, but you actually pretended you were those guys. If you were Donny Osmond, you smiled the whole time and showed the big teeth.
But the singing was just something that was, I think, natural. You know, if you loved music, you were going to sing. My family was into music. My mom and dad were big into Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra. I'd get up in the morning sometimes, and I'd catch them dancing in the living room. And so it was one of those things that always was.
"One Bad Apple" came before Donny's voice changed, and definitely before your voice changed. You've got a very deep voice now. Did you have a good singing voice on both sides of the change?
I think I've developed a pretty decent falsetto over the years. The high end is not as -- I don't spent a lot of time up there. The ladies like the low end.
So I've heard.
[Laughs] So you kind of play to your strengths, right?
Your first album, Faith in Your Heart, came out just before you actually retired from the Jazz. How much did ending the basketball career and beginning the recording career have to do with one another? Were you trying to transition, or was the timing coincidental? What, if any, relationship was there between those two?
Well, the biggest relationship is I knew that I couldn't play forever. Don't get me wrong: That was a great run, and it's a dream career to have, being in the NBA, playing at the highest level. But smart people, smart athletes, think about what their transition's going to be like, how difficult it might be, or how easy you think it might be. It's not that easy to just leave that locker room and say, "I'm on my way to do something else." But it is good to have something that you have wanted to do and finally get a chance to do it. Not that you think or feel like it's going to be as big of a success as your basketball career, but you have the capabilities of doing whatever you want to do.
And so that transition was thought out. I didn't know how it was going to turn out, but it was something that I had always wanted to accomplish on that bucket list, if you will. And so I felt it was time. I didn't want to do it during the season. That would take away from my performance, my job, what I needed to accomplish as an athlete, so it was good timing. And well planned, I hope.
So did you go into the studio the summer before your final season?
Yeah, I did. I actually went to a local record company, and what I believe they thought, because they had never heard me sing before, but I believe what they thought was, "Hey, this guy's got a following as an athlete. People will probably buy -- he probably has enough of a following, even if he can't sing that well, they'll buy -- and we'll get our money back." And so they decided to take a chance on me. They hired a writer, who became one of my best friends, actually, and produced my first CD. And it did well.
But that was 1999. I found a New York Times article from all the way back in 1987, and it says that Thurl Bailey, Dell Curry, Rickey Green, Darrell Griffith, Karl Malone and Carey Scurry ...
[Laughs] Oh my ...
... were in a shopping mall in Phoenix, and they recorded a version of The Temptations' "My Girl."
"My Girl." Yep.
You've got to tell me that story.
Well, we were on the road. You know, we have these road trips that we take, and you're in a city for a couple days, and it's a non-game day, and you're out hanging out with the guys, and you go to the mall, and there's a little store, a studio where you can go in. And that's when karaoke was kind of beginning, and we decided to kind of walk in there and mess around and pick a song and see what it would turn out to be, just for fun. So we picked a song, "My Girl," that everybody was pretty familiar with, and we cut it, and we thought it was over. We thought we would just listen to it and laugh at it and have a copy. And somehow when we got back, that copy got into the hands of a radio station. And I remember one day after practice turning the radio on, and there's our "My Girl" song playing on the radio. And it wasn't that good.
There were only probably a couple guys who could carry a tune -- myself and probably Darrell Griffith. But there was a buzz around it. People kept playing it and playing it. And then we gave ourselves a name: The Jazz Brothers. So by that time, Dave Checketts, who was the GM for the Jazz at the time, kind of got in on it. And we got a phone call from Merrill Osmond, of all people -- talking about foresight [laughs] -- Merrill Osmond called, and wanted us to come down to the studio and write a couple songs for us.
So, you know, we came out with a couple songs. One was called "Keep Fightin'." It's kind of a theme for the Jazz, coming out and warming up, and people got into it. I have a poster where we're all in tuxedos and tennis shoes. So we came out and sold a cassette that had The Jazz Brothers on it, and two songs that Merrill Osmond wrote, and so I guess our career as a group kind of started with that. We actually opened for Bob Hope at the Stadium of Fire in Provo, Utah, on the 4th of July one year. And so it was fun. I mean, it was kind of a little knee-jerk adventure in Phoenix, and it turned into something that was cool and people still kind of talk about. We have a video on YouTube that has us singing that song on TV or something, but yeah, we weren't very good.
Is opening for Bob Hope anything like playing basketball in front of thousands of people? Were you nervous? Were you thinking, "Uh-oh, these guys behind me, they can't sing a lick"? Or were you having so much fun it didn't matter what you sounded like?
I think the fact that you've been in front of a stage helps you a little bit, even though it's a different sort of arena. But if I recall at that time, we had recorded it, so, you know, we weren't necessarily singing. I don't think we were singing live in the mics. We were kind of mouthing the words, which was great for us. We weren't as nervous about people hearing us.
But it's still a rush. It's still a rush, because those people are there to see you, and you want to be accepted, and you're opening for this icon in Bob Hope. And so even though we sang just a couple songs, it was just a rush, because I felt -- and I'm not tooting my own horn -- but as probably the most experienced singer, I felt like Karl Malone felt when we played. He's the go-to guy on the basketball court. So I got a chance to feel like, "Wow, this is kind of on me. I really hope we sound good." So in that sense, it's the same kind of rush. And we were doing our dance moves and everything, so when you leave that stage, just like you leave the game, you know that the fans got their money's worth that night.
What about with your own CD? Does music give you back any of the things you missed when you retired from playing basketball?
I didn't really try to compare them. I wasn't looking for the same level of success in music as I was in basketball. I did it because I knew I had music inside of me. And it may be different for other people, but you have something inside of you that you want to express. You know, the music I listen to, the CDs I collect, whether they were jazz or rock or whatever, those are all a part of my personality. They all have meaning to me. So I think I just wanted to do it because you have those things you want to check off your list. "Man, this is what I accomplished. I wrote a song. I recorded it. They actually bought it."
And so I don't think I was ever trying to stay with that same level. Because a lot of guys will be very successful at something, and when it's time to move on, they miss that limelight. They miss the crowd being there. And I was never looking for that. I just wanted to sing and hopefully have something to sing about that people would relate to.
There's a kind of expiration date on a basketball career. Even Michael Jordan couldn't play basketball forever. Is there an age limit on a music career, or can you be doing this at 75?
Absolutely. I don't think there's an age limit or a time limit. Heck, even when you're gone, if you make a difference, it's part of your legacy. You can always pop in that CD. To me, it's about leaving something positive behind, or making a positive difference. Even at 51, I'm creating music that my kids don't mind listening to, because it's got a beat to it. You kind of grow to deliver your message. You know, I can't sing old songs to young people. But the message can still be the same. You just deliver that in different ways.