Old-school soul singing is not dead--not if Malford Milligan has anything to do with it. The front man with blues-and-soul-rock band Storyville, Milligan brings a passion to his singing style rarely heard since the heyday of Otis Redding and Sam Cooke.
The latest import from the talent-rich Austin, Tex., music scene, Storyville performs Saturday at the Coach House. Milligan's cohorts are Lone Star State heavies Tommy Shannon (bass), Chris Layton (drums) and guitarists David Grissom and David Holt.
Among them, these musicians have worked with Stevie Ray Vaughan, John Mellencamp, Johnny Winter, Joe Ely, Carlene Carter, the Mavericks and more. Seasoned pros all--except Milligan, who despite his 35 years is a relative neophyte in show business.
He's also quite possibly unique as the leader of a Texas roots band. An albino, African American Buddhist, Milligan conveys his perspective on life in his songwriting, with personal, sometimes painful lyrics.
In "Bluest Eyes," the title tune of Storyville's debut album that Milligan adapted from a Toni Morrison novel, he writes:
"Born of self-hatred
Born of self-contempt
Pull the flesh from the bone . . .
But if I had the bluest eyes
Maybe she'd love me
And if I had the bluest eyes
Life would be kind to me."
"Immediately after I finished that book at 4 in the morning, I started writing that tune," Milligan said in a recent phone interview from a Los Angeles motel.
"I definitely felt pieces of my life in that book. I'm an albino whose first school experiences were in all-black schools. But from my experience with people, they've all been through similar things to what I went through, so I don't think I'm the exception to the rule. I feel like I went through the normal childhood (bull) that everyone else goes through. I just happened to be an albino, but my cultural experience is black as a mug."
His educational experience included sociology studies at the University of Texas, where he also began his career in music in the '80s. Of his late start, he explained: "I grew up in a working-class family. Making a living doing music didn't seem like something that was an option."
That option became a reality for Milligan when he started playing weekend gigs with a group called Stick People.
"We were doing wild stuff in odd time signatures, and I got to experiment with a lot of different singing styles," he said. "Music seemed like a hobby at the time. But more and more, I felt like it was something I wanted to do, I wanted to be, it was my place. I felt incredible on that stage."
Milligan, who was fast becoming the talk of Austin, signed as a solo act with November Records out of New York City last year. As he gathered the cream of Austin's music scene to record his debut album, something clicked beyond the average singer-backup musician relationship. Storyville was born.
"It was a gradual process," he said. "Chris and Tommy and I talked about putting a band together, and it scared the hell out of me, frankly. Here I've got these incredible people--people who are legends--playing on my record, and the next thing you know, we're talking about a band. I was kind of in awe, but I was also like, 'Damn, I really want to do this.' "
He did, and the group has been touring steadily since to promote the album, which was released late last year to good reviews. Milligan was particularly excited about performing his first series of shows in Southern California, savoring the sheer joy he receives from being on stage.
"It's not even a love anymore," he said. "It's something that I have to do. If I don't sing, I go nuts."
* Storyville and the Chris Duarte Group perform Saturday at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano in San Juan Capistrano. 8 p.m. $10. (714) 496-8930.