1 of 2

Buy Photo

Photo courtesy of Laurel Merlino

Raised in the church, Bakersfield-bred Gregory Porter remembers what his mother said to him when he told her he wanted to sing secular music: "She said that was fine. God made love and it's OK to sing about it."

2 of 2

Buy Photo


Grammy-winning jazz vocalist Gregory Porter was part of the cast of a Highland High School production of Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" in the 1980s.

Singer songwriter Gregory Porter's Grammy win last Sunday was a surreal moment for the home-grown jazz artist. "Amazing, amazing in a lot of ways," the road warrior said by telephone last week as he prepared to board a plane. "I still feel like this little kid playing in the dirt in Bakersfield. This is a cool feeling."

Porter, 42, won best jazz vocal album for "Liquid Spirit," the critically acclaimed album released on the legendary Blue Note Records label in September.

It wasn't his first time at the Grammys, but it was his first win. A single from the same album, "Hey Laura," was nominated in the traditional R&B performance category. Previously, he'd been nominated for best jazz vocal album for his debut album "Water," released in 2010; and for best traditional R&B performance for the song "Be Good" from his 2012 follow-up album of the same name.

For those of you keeping score at home, that would be one Grammy nomination -- at least -- for every album he's ever done.

"I am ecstatic, freaking ecstatic," said his sister, Lawanda Smith, a gifted singer in her own right who performs at an array of Bakersfield venues. "I'm so happy that he's getting recognition for what our family has always known about him."

Porter is being hailed as the city's newest hometown musical hero alongside the likes of fellow Highland High alum Jonathan Davis of Korn and country legends Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

"It's so good for our area because we have world-class icons who are putting Bakersfield on the map," said Steve Eisen, chief executive officer of the Bakersfield Jazz Workshop, a program that celebrates jazz and cultivates local artists.

Porter's dense international touring schedule won't allow him to attend the spring's annual Bakersfield Jazz Festival, but festival founder Doug Davis said he's working on getting Porter another year.

"We're all just really proud of him, and when he gets back to Bakersfield at some point we'll treat it as the big homecoming it should be," Davis said.

Porter was 7 years old when he moved from his native Los Angeles to Bakersfield. He is the seventh of eight children, raised by a single mother who preached at a series of tiny storefront churches in east Bakersfield.

He attended Eissler Elementary, Chipman Junior High and Highland High School, graduating in 1989.

Porter's first job was an early morning paper route for The Californian. He and a brother shared a route of 88 homes after lying about their ages to get the gig.

Porter's memories of growing up here are bittersweet.

There was a lot of overt racism when the African-American singer was young. He couldn't take the girl he wanted for his date to the prom because she was white, and someone once burned a cross on his family's front lawn. Immediately afterward, neighbors brought the family vegetables from their gardens.

"It was their way of letting my mom know that they were sorry about what happened, and they were looking out for us," Porter said.

And then there were those little churches, which Porter credits with building his character and his musical foundation.

Even today they permeate Porter's music, which draws heavily from blues, jazz, R&B and most especially, gospel.

Porter's musical mentors were his mother, who had an operatic voice, and the elderly east Bakersfield preachers who oversaw the church choirs he grew up in. They were originally from the South and brought those roots with them.

"When you're 9, 10, 11 years old, I didn't want to be singing with a 70-year-old man in an old church with no air conditioning," Porter said. "But I was being steeped in this Southern gospel tradition. There was one preacher, I'll never forget him, who sounded just like Sam Cooke, and I was hearing echoes of Lead Belly and all sorts of other blues singers. I look back on those years, and those were golden experiences."

Critics have compared Porter to West Virginia-born Bill Withers, another soulful singer with a deep voice, as well as Nat King Cole for his phrasing and diction.

Porter likes to joke that he internalized Cole as a father figure in the absence of his dad, who wasn't a big part of his life after his parents divorced.

"... music you can play in the car with your kids'

Porter writes his own songs and is defiantly positive, returning often to themes of love and spirituality. He called his new album "Liquid Spirit" because the tracks are intended to quench a thirst for songs that are uplifting in a sea of negativity.

Porter views all lyrics through the lens of his late mother, the minister. "I don't want to disrespect her memory," he said. "I want to make music you can play in the car with your kids or your grandmother without being embarrassed."

That's consistent with the way Porter has been all his life, said childhood friend Peter Parra, 42, who was a Highland graduate and now teaches there.

"In fourth grade Mrs. Porter was our den mother for Cub Scouts, and she was a strong woman who instilled character in all her kids and in us," he said. "The whole family is just really nice. I can't remember Greg ever saying anything negative, or anyone saying anything negative about him."

Music wasn't supposed to be Porter's career. He was a respected athlete, playing both basketball and football for Highland. After graduation he went to San Diego State University on a football scholarship and studied urban planning.

Porter sang, sometimes joking around with his closest friends, but he didn't sing publicly outside of church until a talent show at Highland.

"He did this a cappella performance of 'Amazing Grace,' and afterward there was a moment, sort of a stunned silence, and then the crowd went nuts and gave him a standing ovation," said Laurel Merlino, 44, who was in drama club with Porter at Highland. "Nobody knew he could sing, but we all knew we had just seen something really special.

"I was so happy all these years later to hear about all his success because it would have been such a waste if he hadn't used that talent."

Career change

Porter's football career ended when he injured his shoulder. Robbed of sports, he started performing in San Diego area jazz clubs.

Porter recalls the day he told his mother he wanted to sing, and confessing that he was interested in secular music.

"She said that was fine. God made love and it's OK to sing about it," Porter said. "I talk about a lot of the same things other singers do, but I'm finding other ways to say it. You can talk about love and romance and even physical passion, but I'm more interested in the poetic route than the crass pull-down-your-pants stuff."

It was in San Diego that Porter met pianist and saxophonist Kamau Kenyatta. Kenyatta subsequently introduced him to the famous flutist Hubert Laws, who used Porter's vocals on one of the songs on his 1998 tribute album to Nat King Cole.

One of Laws' sisters heard Porter and was impressed enough to get him an audition for the musical "It Ain't Nothin' But the Blues." He got a part, and the show toured the country to rave reviews before landing a run on Broadway that garnered four Tony Award nominations.

After the musical closed, Porter stayed in New York, where he still lives with his Russia-born wife and 1-year-old son. He made the rounds at jazz clubs there and before long landed a record deal with Motema Music. Last year he moved over to Blue Note, the iconic label and home to such jazz legends as Miles Davis and Art Blakey.

Porter said he's a little surprised by the speed of his ascent and flattered by the constant comparisons to his childhood idols. He's quick to point out, though, that whatever success he's enjoyed, he's earned being authentic, from the music to his ever-present suits to that doggone hat.

Porter is never on stage without his trademark black Kangol flat cap. He even records in it in the studio.

Asked why, Porter said coyly it was one of the great jazz mysteries, then added, "It's kind of a security blanket for me. Yeah, that's it, it's my jazz blankie."

And he makes no apologies for it.

"I'm not worrying about what anyone thinks of me," Porter said. "I just try to be true to myself, to my family, to my faith. And that seems to be working. It's worked out pretty well for me."