Eli “Paperboy” Reed and the True Loves are rehearsing at Q Division Studios in Somerville, picking songs for an upcoming gig. Reed, in his impassioned tenor, is scream-singing, “Come back, I need you!/I love you!/I want you!” The band are ripping through a classic-sounding R&B/soul song. Reed digs it: “It allows me to work the crowd.”
STRAIGHT SHOOTER: “A lot of today’s music is ironic,” says Reed, “and I don’t have any of that.”
Does it make the cut? They vote. Six yeas, one abstention from guitarist Ryan Spraker. “It sounds too much like we’re playing an old song,” he says. Well, it is an old song. It’s a cover of “Oo Wee Baby I Love You,” which R&B singer Roscoe Robinson cut 42 years ago.
Fact is, a lot of Reed’s own songs — he’s got 11 on his upcoming (April 29) CD, Roll with You (Q Division) — sound like old songs, if by that you mean classic ’60s soul and R&B. Think Al Green, James Brown, Otis Redding. There are pumping Stax/Volt-like horns, crescendos galore. Songs of hurt and desire, pledges of love everlasting. Of Reed — who with his True Loves joins Death Cab for Cutie and a host of other bands at the WFNX/Phoenix Best Music Poll concert on May 10 — no less an authority than Nick Lowe has said, “It’s so exciting to hear someone so young playing old-fashioned R&B. . . . Could he be the male Winehouse? Why ever not?”
The 24-year-old Reed was no more born on the Delta than John Fogerty was born on the Bayou. Eli Husock was born and raised in Brookline, and he now lives in Allston. His father, former Phoenix writer Howard Husock, exposed Eli to blues and soul as a kid, giving him a harmonica at 13. Reed later taught himself guitar.
The story of his soul-and-blues apprenticeship is by now familiar — the “series of bizarre coincidences” that began with a college scouting trip to Memphis and ended with a nine-month stay in the Mississippi blues mecca of Clarksdale. “I didn’t even go there to play music. I found there was this thriving blues and R&B scene. I knew a lot of songs, I was eager, and I didn’t care that much about money.” The first band he played with asked Reed to be their singer/guitarist/frontman. That, by the way, is where “Paperboy” came into it. “I used to wear a scally cap all the time, and everybody’s got a nickname down there. I don’t wear the hat anymore. But I liked the nickname.” Soon thereafter, he adopted Reed as a stage name. He spent nine months in Clarksdale.
In 2003, Reed moved to Chicago, enrolled in the University of Chicago, and sang gospel in several churches. He came back to Boston during spring break. “I got together with some friends from high school. I was starting to write songs, and I had become more of a performer. We recorded Walkin’ and Talkin’ [on Double E, a mix of covers and originals] in 2004. We put it out, thought we’d play around here, so we did.” School was out.