The 'James 'Plunky' Branch' Interview
Associated with some of the most widely recognizable
names within the commercial entertainment industry,
encompassing both music and film, James "Plunky"
Branch has done a lot more than simple elbow-
rubbing with such icons as; Bill Cosby, Ray Charles,
Patti Labelle, and The Pointer Sisters.
He has also recently released his new CD (his 14th!)
titled, "Saxy Mellow Moments," which is on his own
N.A.M.E. Brand Records, and distributed by City Hall.
A stellar musician and performer, he is, additionally,
the fearless leader of Contemporary Jazz recording
act, "Plunky & Oneness."
On a Fall evening, I had the pleasure of sharing a
Q&A session with him regarding his career...how far
(and from where) he has come, to where he is headed.
I believe you will, likewise, enjoy learning about this
gentleman as I, indeed, have.
[Kenny Love] Okay, let's first begin by learning how
you got the name, 'Plunky'. (grins)
[PlunkyB] Well, the name does not have a musical
origin. When I was a newborn, my father would toss
me in the air and coo, "Plunky-Plunky-Plunky," and I,
in turn, would laugh. Then, whenever people came
over to see me, he would tell them, "If you want to
see him smile, just say 'Plunky', which they did, and
which I did. The nickname just stuck with me. All
my life, I've been known as 'Plunky'. In school, all my
teachers called me that. It has also been a good
moniker for me as a performer. I guess it's just, sort
[KL] And, how long has the act, 'Plunky & Oneness',
[PB] Well, I have had a band for the past 28 years. It
started out in San Francisco as a project called 'Juju',
back in 1972. In 1975, we migrated back to New
York, then down to Richmond, Virginia, my hometown.
Soon afterward, we changed the name to 'Oneness
of Juju'. And still later, it became 'Plunky & Oneness
of Juju'. Lastly, around 1990, it was shortened to
simply 'Plunky & Oneness'.
[KL] Please elaborate on the various states that
affected each name change.
[PB] Well, the evolution of the name reflects certain
changes in the music, philosophy and personnel.
'Juju' was a group that featured a fusion of African,
Afro-Cuban, and Avante Garde Jazz music. It was,
basically, my wild and screaming, John Coltrane-
influenced sax playing over a bed of Afro-Cuban
percussion, piano, and vibraphone. It was a high
energy, political, and spiritual musical experience.
The name, 'Juju', also refers to a West African
religion, much like Voodoo, as well as refers to a
modern Nigerian Pop music and the inherent
spirituality in all African Music.
[KL] As New York can be quite forthright regarding
acceptance or non-acceptance of artists, how was
the band and its unique style received there?
[PB] When we moved to New York, 'Juju' had an
impact on the 'Loft Jazz' scene, which was going
strong in the early 70's. Ours was such a high
energy and politically-sincere music that people in
NYC were just amazed and taken with our unique
sound. Ornette Coleman took us under his wing
and became a kind of mentor, allowing us to stay
at his place and work in his gallery and create our
[KL] And, when did you all return to Richmond?
[PB] In 1975. Eventually, the group influenced the
music scene of the Richmond- Washington, DC
area. But the area also had an effect on our music
as well, influencing us to incorporate more R&B
elements into our repertoire and our compositions.
So, we changed the name to 'Oneness of Juju' to
reflect the fact that all of the music which we were
incorporating still had that same spiritual element,
the same rhythmic intensity and motivating essence.
[KL] So, given your musical background, one would
tend to believe your career also includes your being
a college Music Education major and educator. Is
[PB] Actually, I attended Columbia University in New
York, but was, instead, a Chemistry major. I left
school to pursue my musical career. I have, however,
taught music and have been an instructor at two
universities in Richmond, as well as a guest lecturer
at a number of schools. But, these opportunities
have arisen out of my experiences with touring,
producing, and performing. Being on the road and
performing music is an education within itself. You
can not only become a musicologist, but also a
businessman. In order to survive out there (on the
road), you have to be a psychologist, agent,
comedian, politician, banker, loner, and above all,
[KL] In the past, your material has run a very diversified
gamut, often crossing the genres of R&B, and even
Rap. But, with the new release, I've noticed that you
seem to be narrowing the focus somewhat.
[PB] I still do a wide variety of music. However, I now
try to adhere to a more cohesive presentation. Yet,
until recently, I produced recordings that contained
many different styles all on the same disc, including
jazz, funk, reggae, rap and soul. Now, I am more
likely to produce work that is more specifically
targeted to a particular audience, or the recording
will have a specific mood and use.
[KL] Such as with 'Saxy Mellow Moments'.
[PB] Yes, that's a perfect example. And, as the
name implies, it is a complete recording of mellow
music which sets a mood for love, relaxation, and
[KL] I know that it's only been released a few weeks,
but how is it doing for you so far?
[PB] It has been very well received, and is already
being played in regular rotation on 35 stations
across the country, as well as in London and
[KL] You've also produced quite a number of
recordings...what does 'SMM' bring that count to?
[PB] 'SMM' is my 14th album and I will be releasing
two new albums after the first of the new year.
[KL] Wow! That is, indeed, quite a catalog that few
major label artists can boast of, especially, with one
particular label, isn't it?
[PB] Yes, but I record for my own label, N.A.M.E.
Brand Records, which is a big plus. Some of my
recordings were also done for two other labels,
Strata-East Records and Black Fire Records. One
recording was also released on the Budah- Sutra
[KL] What are you hoping to accomplish with 'Saxy
Mellow Moments' that you haven't with previous
[PB] With 'SMM', I hope to be able to show a mellow
side to my approach to music while getting a wider
audience to become aware of it and my group. I
hope that people will hear it and want to see the
group perform live, and I also hope that they will take
an opportunity to check out my earlier recordings and
even want to hear my new works.
[KL] Okay, this is where I get to the star-studded stuff.
(smiles) What's it been like on tour with such
entertainers as Ray Charles, Patti Labelle, etc.?
[PB] All of my touring and major concert work has
been a gas! So many stories, so much music, so
many cheering audiences, and so much love shared
by the musicians. I have actually opened many
concerts for some of the biggest names in black
music, and have toured with Bobby Byrd (formerly
with James Brown) all over Europe. I also performed
with African superstars, Fela A. Kuti of Nigeria and
Asante from Ghana. And, I am extremely grateful
and blessed to have had such rewarding experiences.
[KL] Into, yet, another direction...Bill Cosby...Fat
Albert Incarnate himself...you have done what many,
if not most, musicians can only hope to dream about...
playing in the studio band of a major television show
with one of the major entertainers of all time! How
did that all happen?
[PB] Bill Cosby's musical director for 25 years has
been Stu Gardner, who happens to be from
Richmond. Stu gave me my chance to work with the
Cosby show music.
[KL] Hey, I'm all for a little nepotism. (grins) I've
always been interested to learn how the music we
hear is coordinated with television shows, as far as
synching up the audio to video, and I'm sure our
readers would be interested in this process as well.
[PB] Interestingly enough, when we were doing the
music for the shows, we recorded it in Washington
DC, though the show was taped in New York. The
producers would send the show's video down to Stu
and he and his partner, Art Liszi, would write the
musical bridges and segues. A week before each
show would air, we would go into the studio and add
the music. It was all quite an experience and very
rewarding to work on what was, at the time, the
Number one rated show in the country.
[KL] Touring...namely, Stateside vs. Overseas...any
advantages or disadvantages to either?
[PB] Well, yes. European audiences tend to be
more educated about the music. Even soul, jazz,
and blues are "studied about" over there. On my
European tours, I meet people and musicians who
know all about the history of the music and even
about the session players for the recordings. The
audiences in Europe do not take the music for
granted, I guess, because they know that it is not
always readily available.
[KL] Yes, I've heard this very same thing for quite
[PB] They also tend to treat musicians with more
respect, and I guess that comes from having a
tradition of Classical music and the arts in general.
In Africa, the music tends to be more of a communal
experience, with the audiences becoming a part of
[KL] Your video, 'I Can't Hold Back'...was that the first
one you filmed?
[PB] Yes, 'I Can't Hold Back' was the first full fledge
video I did. But these days, I am shooting more and
more of my gigs in digital video in order to be able
to do more things with video, on the Internet, on
enhanced CDs, and on television. Digital video is
the next big wave, especially, as more people are
getting broadband Internet access.
[KL] Okay, I've put it off for as long as I can...what is
your assessment of the current shakeups and
shakedowns that seem to be ongoing within the
commercial music industry?
[PB] Well, there is so much going on that it can be
more than a little disconcerting. With the mergers
and over-consolidation of the major companies,
both record companies and radio entities, there are
profound changes in the offing, even if there were no
new media making waves. But, of course, there are
the online music delivery systems, production tools,
and promotion possibilities that spell a whole new
vision for music and entertainment.
[KL] So, who's, potentially, looking victorious to you
in the aftermath?
[PB] I think that the major corporations have the
most to lose and feel most threatened by the new
[KL] Yes, in fact, they have their entire 'way of life' to
lose, if I may apply that analogy to this sector of the
industry. One of my favorite film stars, Clint
Eastwood, has a line in one of his movies,
'Heartbreak Ridge' that goes, "Gentlemen! Life as
you know it has ended." I believe this line best sums
up the music industry, with particular respect to the
labels formerly known as 'major' entities.
[PB] But these same companies have the most
resources to capitalize on these new technologies
[PB] Yet, they have been slow to develop innovations
because they have been doing so well with the old
ways that they, primarily, controlled. And, as a result,
they are in a reactionary position.
[KL] They also made two critical mistakes...the first
being that they didn't take the Internet seriously and
believed it was a fad, primarily due to their 'old' way
of doing things, and the second being that, until
recently, they obviously considered musicians too
mentally challenged to grasp technology to produce
such great results so quickly. They really should
have awaken back in the early '90's when production
technology became so affordable, and artists began
producing comparable major label quality product.
This, kind of, reminds me of the mother hen that
worked so diligently, asking who would help her get
the garden ready for winter, and all the other animals
refused. Then, when the harvest was ready, all
wanted to eat, but she denied them a seat at the table.
[PB] And, on the other hand, the independent
musicians and innovative media presenters have
really shaken things up and, perhaps, let certain
genies out of the lamps, so to speak. And, who
knows what is just around the corner, in terms of new
technologies, new delivery models, new media, new
music, and new market strategies? It's an exciting
time, but it is also an unnerving time for music and
[KL] So, out of all these organizations bickering and
fighting over what, how, when, where, and the way
things should be conducted and occur within the
music industry, if you had to declare a winner based
on what you have seen thus far, on whom would you
bestow the declaration? (chuckles)
[PB] (Smiles) Actually I believe that the winner will be
the audiences and the music lovers, because I think
that there will just be so much more good music that
is well produced. But, I'm an innovator at heart and
non-purist musician. So, I am happy to play with new
instruments and new toys and I am overjoyed that the
means of production have come down in costs to
where many musicians and songwriters can now
produce music in their project studios that competes
in quality with the most expensive studios in the world.
[PB] Music today, also enjoys the benefit of being
digitally recorded and distributed far and wide at a
lower cost per song. So, again, I think that it is the
music lover who, ultimately, wins. As long as there
is some way for the music's audience to find the
quality stuff and not be overwhelmed by the sheer
quantity of what is available.
[KL] Given the affordable technological and musical
accessibility you now have as an independent artist,
is there any amount of money you would consider in
exchange for releasing 'N.A.M.E. Brand' to a major
label as a subsidiary? I guess that's a nice way of
asking, "Would Ya Sell Out?" (laughs)
[PB] Yes, I would if the right situation comes along
because that would free me up to become more
specialized again. But the main ingredient would
not be the amount of money, but the amount of
artistic control and freedom I would acquire by doing
so, along with which services and resources would
be placed at my disposal. And no, I wouldn't "sell
out," but I might allow an outside entity to "buy in" to
my line of products (recordings) and partner with me
in order to advance my production capabilities, and
to promote my name and image so that I could tour
at a higher level. And, in this day and age of
mergers and consolidation, no company is too large
to be bought out, or partnered with.
[KL] I'm in much agreement with you on this point...
Okay, final question...any plans of releasing other
artists on 'N.A.M.E. Brand'?
[PB] I have already released one CD on Scott Harlan,
a Fusion bassist from the Washington DC area, and
we will be releasing his second CD in the first quarter
of 2001. We will also release a CD on African
percussionist, Asante, next year. Additionally, we are
starting a whole new line of New Age music called
'Nubian Age Music'. For this line, in addition to my
own recordings, we have just completed the
production of two female artists, Ivy Okolo Shadi of
Washington, and Dr Ife Aisha of Chicago. I have
also begun producing a rapper who goes by the
name of Pure Black and I am looking at some other
vocalists, as well as doing some funk and hip-hop.
So, I have a lot on my plate to keep me busy, and to
look forward to.
[KL] That's fantastic! Plunky, it's been a most
pleasurable and informative evening with you. I'm
looking forward to experiencing much more uplifting
work from you.
[PB] Likewise, and thanks.