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Heart and soul
For Savannah R&B vocalist Leslie Adele, music is all that matters
Leslie Adele, onstage with A Nickel Bag of Funk. (Photo: Ann Sosbe)

There’s a good reason Connect readers have voted A Nickel Bag of Funk the city’s top rhythm ‘n’ blues/funk band four times in the annual Best of Savannah poll: Nobody does it better.

Although numerous musicians have passed through the ranks in Nickel Bag’s six years of existence, all of them fine, intuitive players, the constant – the very reason that nobody does it better – has always been Leslie Adele.

The band’s founder, vocalist and focal point is an onstage dynamo. Nickel Bag covers all the greats, from Stevie Wonder and Prince to Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, and creates dynamic original R&B. On the bandstand, there’s gospel, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll and hip hop, a bubbling musical stew with the powerhouse Adele at the mic, stirring the pot – and defying you to not pay attention.

A graduate of Savannah High, Adele attended the University of South Carolina, where she earned degrees in sports medicine and secondary education.

She comes from a family of doctors – “I was supposed to be the next one” – but medicine wasn’t her strongest passion.
For three years, she taught at Charles Ellis, but teaching didn’t fulfill her, either.

These days, although she has a day job to keep the bills paid, the 31–year–old Adele is all about the music. A Nickel Bag of Funk performs several shows each month in area elementary schools, and the members are active in local charities, including a Union Mission program which offers music lessons to – and purchases instruments for – homeless children.

The 2011 band includes drummer Jermaine Baker, bassist/keyboard player Javenn Edwards, vocalists Amar and Amani Wilkins (they’re siblings) and Adele’s longtime musical partner, Wiiiilie Anthony Jones (yes, that’s how he prefers to spell his first name) on keyboards and bass.

Yet another reason there’s no other Savannah band quite like this: All the musicians trade instruments several times during any given show (Adele herself plays guitar, bass, drums and keys). Currently in production is a Nickel Bag documentary and concert DVD.

Then there are the rehearsals. Lots of them. She’s got a reputation, Adele admits, as a stern taskmaster – but she always tells her musicians that when they work with her, they’re getting serious schooling in professionalism. She tells them they’re going to Funk U.

“Every show is important, whether it’s in at Tantra or in the Georgia Dome,” she says.

“We practice for 10,000. We prepare for 10,000. Because when 10,000 people come, we need to be 10,000 people ready.”

What is soul?

Leslie Adele: It’s somebody who actually feels and believes in what they’re saying. Soul music can be a country song, or a rock song – soul music can be any particular drama as long as it’s coming from your soul. The style is not what makes it soul music. It’s the feeling and the intent behind it.

For me, I have to sing things that are relate–able to me. If I’m singing about heartache, I have to find something in the song that connects with me. And that’s actually because I’ve had my heart broken. It comes from a place that’s true. If I can’t feel it, I don’t sing it.

I get a lot of flak from crowds sometimes when they give me requests and I say “No, I don’t sing that.” It’s not a matter of whether I know the song, or whether or not I have the ability. If I don’t feel it I’m not gonna sing it. If it’s something superficial, you don’t need me to sing it. You can listen to the ringtone.

You named the band after the chorus of the Digable Planets song “Nickel Bags.” Why?

Leslie Adele: It came from the fact that the original band had five of us. I was trying to think of something that would mean five, but not come right out and be five. You know, you had the Jackson Five, the Ben Folds Five. I didn’t want it to be so plain and out in the open that it was five. I wanted it to be a kind of double entendre, to let people gain from it what they will.

Unfortunately, a lot of people lean towards the drug term, and that’s not it. You usually have to correct people and say no, it’s because there’s five of us.

It works and it doesn’t work – initially, when we tried to do corporate gigs, people thought we were a group of stoners. But it is a conversation topic and a jumping off point, and it gives me the opportunity to educate the person who asked. It gives me a little bit of an icebreaker, if you will, for people who don’t know the band.

Tell me about your influences.

Leslie Adele: When I was coming up I was embarrassed about my voice. I don’t have a typical female voice – it’s not light or wispy, it’s strong, deep and very powerful. I always thought it made me strange that I had this booming singing voice. When I as 9 I would sing in the background of my church choir. I wouldn’t want to lead songs.

I’m a true tenor. And in some spots I can very cleanly sing baritone.

As I got older, I started listening to Chaka Khan, Mahalia Jackson, Etta James, Gladys Knight, Toni Braxton – all these women that had strong, booming voices. They weren’t wispy like Whitney Houston or Mariah Carey, with the higher voice.

So why didn’t you become a doctor, or stay working as a teacher?

Leslie Adele: It was something that I was good at, but it wasn’t anything that I was passionate about. I didn’t flunk out; I made really good grades! But it wasn’t anything I could see myself getting up every day and being excited about.

Every day when I get up, and there’s a show that night, I’m excited. It makes my day. I live for Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays – if I’m having a bad week, my week immediately picks up the day before a show. Even though it’s crazy, and my schedule is nuts, and I’ve got 50 million phone calls to make, the phone is ringing constantly, text messages ... I get my hair done and figure out what to wear ...

It’s exciting for me and it’s something I look forward to. It’s not a job, it’s just work.

Was this a sudden, light bulb realization – “it’s music all the way” – or a decision that you reached over time?

Leslie Adele: I’ve always been a musician. When I got to high school, though, my athleticism took center stage and music kind of took a back seat. I was forced to choose between the band and basketball, and I chose basketball. But music was always there.

In my freshman year in college, I blew my knee out, and there was the possibility that I couldn’t play basketball any more – or sports, period. That’s when I changed my major to sports medicine ... might as well be a doctor.

I just tried on different things to see what fit, and music was always in the background: Remember me? I’m still here. Haven’t left you.

I always tell people that music is God’s whisper to me. When I need to hear a word from God, I hear it through music.

A Nickel Bag of Funk

Where: Tantra, 8 E. Broughton St.

When: At 10 p.m. Saturday, June 18