Hearing is believing
There’s something about certain voices that automatically makes listeners confident that they know what the singer looks like. Long before MTV, let alone YouTube, listeners could quite possibly go months before having any idea what the singer of a well-known song looked like. And when they actually did see a picture or a performance, it was often an utter shock.  For example, racist radio listeners in Memphis in the 1950s were near the point of violence thinking Elvis Presley was a black man. A much pleasanter but equally surprised audience reaction happens on a local level nearly every time Orlando Napier performs, because no one would ever imagine that the tall, lanky and clearly Caucasian, 24-year-old would have a world-weary soulful voice that sounds like a reincarnated Ray Charles.

Late bloomer
With the pipes on Napier, it’s stunning to find out that he’s only been singing for four years, claiming that he always thought he had “a bad voice.” More of an athlete than an artist during his formative years, his father was the musician in the family, playing in a cover band that focused on R&B and funk standards. After graduating from high school, the younger Napier drifted from job to job, and spent time in England before landing back in the Santa Barbara and Ventura area when he took up the piano. From the piano, he graduated to writing his own songs, which led to his eureka moment when he began singing. After taking a song writing class at the city college, Napier began fronting his father’s band as it evolved from covers to his growing set of originals, in the process developing a healthy following at venues like The Watermark on Main and Zoey’s.

Battle of the blues
Though he is a self-professed bluesman, Napier’s songs are far from three-chord, cry-in-the-corner blues. There’s as much Al Green-inspired soul as there is Beatles-based pop sensibility, and his live performance has an in-your-face intensity that’s more common in the rock world. It’s that performance aspect that no doubt helped land Napier top honors at the Central Coast Battle of the Blues. The contest win is sending the singer and his band to Memphis next week to appear at the International Blues Challenge (IBC), a 150-plus artist festival and competition. While a win at the IBC would put Napier on the world map, he isn’t pinning all his hopes on the event. With two EPs under his belt, including the recently released Vampire Nights, Napier remains  focused on writing and demoing for his debut full-length record due later this year.

Voice from beyond
As for Orlando’s out-of-body pipes, and the stunned response of first-time listeners who aren’t quite ready for the vocal prowess of an earth-rattling, veteran Southern bluesman to come out of a skinny California kid, he claims no responsibility. “Yeah, people tend to not expect it,” Napier laughs. “I don’t know where it comes from really. It’s like there’s an antenna on my head that picks up some frequency, and every time it comes out it sounds different. I dig the reaction though.”                                 

To listen to Orlando Napier’s music, visit www.myspace.com/orlandonapiermusic or find him on iTunes.

chris@armyoffreshmen.com