Where there are musicians and artists who've hit it hard, there are untold others who never got their just due. And so many of the latter hail from these parts because, well, we're badass, always have been. Take Flint native Regional (pronounced like "Reginald") Garland. The soul singer-songwriter tried like hell to make it in the music biz for years, even after suffering a collapsed lung in the mid-'70s. He sang with various groups and composed and arranged songs for even more. But bad luck haunted him throughout his career. His frightfully dense backstory is detailed swimmingly in the liner notes of a new compilation, Mixed Sugar: The Complete Works, 1970-1987, which recently dropped on Now Again. The comp reveals Garland's deep skill as a soul composer and singer, who's both muscular and gentle, showcasing Curtis Mayfieldesque crooners ("Hey James," "Get on Down"), gorgeous funk ("Ghetto Girl") and steamy ballads ("Why Now") that the Isley Brothers would've been wise to cover. Even his synth-heavy pop soul experiments in the '80s are worthy.
While his records have fetched pretty pennies as collector's items over the years, Garland never rose above regional notoriety. But those who know understand how powerful the songster is, how his songs had real weight. Hell, even Sean "P. Diddy" Combs sampled some of Garland's horn arrangements on "Makin' It Hard" on Press Play in 2006. We talked with Garland recently to get a firsthand perspective on his life and career.
MT: Your history can amaze. You've been with many labels, tried many different things. Some of it's fiercely original.
Regional Garland: Back in the day, I was with several companies. I had my own labels, too. Ear Wax, Buicktown and Touch & Go. Nothing ever really came of it, but I tried. I could follow orders, but I didn't really want to follow the [music] theories. I always heard different things. People would say: "You can't do that. ... Well, people ain't supposed to rob banks either! That's illegal. But they do it." That's how I felt. I wanted to break the theory. I tried doing things with my horns, tried to make music do different things. Well, if everything's the same, nothing is going to ever happen. I tried a lot different things. It was, as they say, "out-of-the-box." But I tried it.
MT: What was your first impulse to do music? Are you from a musical family?
Garland: Really, it was my brother. He had a group. I was in elementary school and he was in junior high. I wanted to be like them. Me and some guys my age tried to form us a little group. It really didn't go anywhere but we were doo-wopping on the corner like everybody else at the time. We didn't sound that good. [laughs] I didn't know anything about singing. I'd hear records; my mother had old records around the house that we'd listen to. But, my brother started working with me. He'd tell me; "No, that's the right. You're sharp. You're flat." At that time, I didn't know what it meant, but I listened to him and I started to do my own thing with it.
MT: What about your first real music gigs?
Garland: My most accomplished group early on was the Vandelles. We got booked on big shows at the I.M.A. Auditorium [in Flint]. I was 11 years old, so that was big time for me. I was out there with the Shirelles, the Chantles, the Edsels and James Brown. Everyone came through the I.M.A. Auditorium. After that, I thought I was something. But the guys said I wasn't serious. You know, I was 11, and the little girls were around and starting liking me. So, I blew it with them. They were serious and I wanted to play around. They kicked me out of the group. It hurt my feelings and I didn't do anything for a while. But, I eventually formed my group.
MT: Even though you may not have had the success you planned, you've got to be proud with all of this.
Garland: I feel good, looking back at it all. My brother constantly says: "I wish our mother could be here to see some of these things that are going on now." I spent a lot of money trying to make things happen that didn't. But I don't regret it. If I had to do it all over again, I think I'd try the same thing again."