Grammy winner Gregory Porter flows like ‘water’ into MGM National Harbor with ‘Liquid’ streaming hits

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Gregory Porter at MGM National Harbor (Part 1)
Gregory Porter will perform live at MGM National Harbor on Sunday, Feb. 25.(Courtesy Erik Umphery)

There’s something in the water that keeps bringing R&B and jazz titan Gregory Porter back to the nation’s capital.

The Grammy winner is excited to return after headlining the D.C. Jazz Festival at The Anthem last August.

“I always love doing that festival,” Porter told WTOP. “Somehow the people in D.C. are quite enthusiastic for me and my style and my music, and I so appreciate that. The way that I am as an artist, I’m always just amazed at the reception, that people get me, they get what I’m trying to do with music. It’s just awesome to me. I love it.”

On Sunday, Feb. 25, Porter will perform live at in Oxon Hill, Maryland, just over the river from D.C.

“I’m like a DJ when I write my sets,” Porter said. “I’m thinking of what’s currently happening in the world, what exactly it is I want to say to an audience at any particular time: if it’s about love, if it’s about protest, whatever the ups and downs in the condition of life that’s happening at the moment, that’s what I’m going to play. Yes, I do play my popular songs, but in between songs, there’s always something specific that I want to say to the audience.”

Born in Sacramento, California, in 1971, Porter mostly grew up in Bakersfield, which is known for the “Bakersfield Sound” in country music, but he also grew up listening to jazz, while also singing gospel in the church choir.

“There was no escaping it, you don’t need to escape country music, so Merle Haggard was ever present in the grocery stores, but in my house, my older brothers were listening to soul and funk, Parliament and O’Jays, all that stuff on Saturdays cleaning the house,” Porter said. “My mother played Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., that was the extent of her jazz, but a lot of gospel music. She was a minister [and] I was her main soloist.”

Before tackling a career in music, he聽played football as a defensive lineman for San Diego State University, the same team as future NFL Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk, who was the Aztecs’ running back from 1991 to 1993.

“I was there when Marshall Faulk was there,” Porter said. “His first year he was on the practice squad, early on in spring practice, just destroying the first-team defense. 鈥 He was so good that he moved up so fast to first-string running back. It was amazing. It was exciting every time he touched the ball. 鈥 I injured my shoulder [junior year]. 鈥 Once you injure yourself and you’re not an athlete anymore, I was like, ‘Where is my identity? Who am I?'”

At the same time, his mother died of cancer when Gregory was 21, speaking encouragement on her deathbed.

“My mother was instrumental in encouraging my music,” Porter said. “Days before she passed away, she was like, ‘Gregory, don’t forget about your music.’ She gave me the sanction in order to follow that risky route of getting into music and I’m glad I did. 鈥 She said, ‘When you sing, music is in your heart, so don’t forget about that.’ It was like a light turned on in me. I was a mama’s boy and still am, trying to please her.”

After his mother’s death, Porter moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn in 2004, working as a chef in his brother Lloyd鈥檚 restaurant “Bread-Stuy,” while also performing in little jazz clubs around Harlem and Brooklyn.

“I was playing there and all the time trying to send tapes out to record companies,” Porter said. “I invited a record executive from Mot茅ma Records and she came to this little funky jazz dive bar in Harlem. I played her some of my songs 鈥 and she was like, ‘Yeah, let’s make a record.’ That was the start of it. 鈥 She lost my number, then I had to go in for 18 different meetings in order to get some money to make a record, but finally I was able to make a record.”

That first album 鈥淲ater鈥 (2010) earned a Grammy Award nomination for Best Jazz Vocal Album, including a cover of 鈥淔eeling Good鈥 by Nina Simone and 鈥淪kylark鈥 by Hoagy Carmichael and Johnny Mercer.

“I had those standards, but I also 鈥 put my own songs there and this was the key to my success: my own writing,” Porter said. “Internationally on that first record, ‘1960 What?’ was a hit, it had a dance mix that put me in the ears of teenagers, so I was going to the U.K. and thought I was a jazz nobody but I was being stopped and swarmed by young people who were going to these dance clubs. It was really something, how the music was traveling.”

His second album 鈥淏e Good鈥 (2012) included a cover of 鈥淕od Bless the Child鈥 by Billie Holiday and his own original song 鈥淩eal Good Hands,” which was nominated for Best Traditional R&B Performance at the Grammys.

“‘Real Good Hands’ came about by way of my then-girlfriend’s father calling the house and essentially saying, ‘What are your intentions with my daughter?'” Porter said. “I literally could not speak, but I wanted to say something to him. 鈥 This is what came out: ‘Papa, don’t you fret and don’t forget that one day you was in my shoes and somehow you paid your dues, now you’re the picture of the man that I someday want to be.'”

Porter switched to Blue Note Records for his third album 鈥淟iquid Spirit鈥 (2013), which not only earned a Grammy nomination for Best Traditional R&B Performance for 鈥淗ey Laura” but also won for Best Jazz Vocal Album.

“My mother used to preach about water as a metaphor for love,” Porter said. “I was, in a way, synthesizing something from her sermons to put into my music, so, ‘Un-reroute the river, let the dammed water be, there’s some people down the way that’s thirsty, let the liquid spirit free.’ I’m taking her energy and putting it into the song and, millions of streams later, she’s still there, she’s still living, her message is getting out through me.”

He followed up by winning his second Grammy for Best Vocal Jazz Album for 鈥淭ake Me to the Alley鈥 (2016), featuring the opening track 鈥淗olding On.” Since then, his fourth album 鈥淣at King Cole & Me鈥 (2017) was nominated for Best Traditional Pop Vocal Album, his fifth album 鈥淎ll Rise鈥 (2020) was nominated for Best R&B Album, and his most recent album 鈥淐hristmas Wish鈥 (2023) provided spiritual healing around the holidays.

“I know people just like me who were healed emotionally through music,” Porter said. “I used to imagine Nat King Cole as my father in the absence of my father, so I know that music can do odd, fantastic, beautiful things. It can lift spirits that are on the edge of dangerous depression, it can bring a beautiful crescendo to a moment of love 鈥 it’s a balm or comfort in an hour of grief. 鈥 It’s not even a job anymore, it’s a mission. 鈥 It’s not about the streams.”

Referencing his digital success with “half a billion streams,” his next album title could very well be “Streams.”

“Whoa! Player! I have never thought of that!” Porter said. “Whoa, wait a minute, you just slapped me in the head with something so obvious. Just right there. My first record was called ‘Water,’ my most popular song is ‘Liquid Spirit,’ now streaming. Ooh! I’m going to have to deal with that, man. I might have to give you 10%. I might!”

WTOP's Jason Fraley previews Gregory Porter at MGM National Harbor (Part 2)

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for 鈥渉is savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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