PJ Morton left his native New Orleans to find his way in the music business. And now he’s found his way back.
During 14 years in Atlanta and Los Angeles, Morton realized his dreams. He’s the keyboardist in Maroon 5, the enduringly popular pop/rock band fronted by “The Voice” co-star Adam Levine, and a respected contemporary R&B singer, songwriter and producer in his own right.
In late 2015, he decided to move back home with his family to launch Morton Records, a label he hopes to develop into the “New Orleans Motown.” From the company’s proposed headquarters in eastern New Orleans, he wants Morton Records to groom young artists and grow their careers beyond Orleans Parish.
“I did the normal migration when I left. I went to college and didn’t really come back,” Morton said recently, calling from a Maroon 5 tour stop in Mexico. “I want to at least give kids an opportunity to not have to leave the way I did.
“When I wanted to get into mainstream music, there was no outlet I could point to that was an example of the next step. With No Limit Records and Cash Money Records, there wasn’t a building that you could go to and say, ‘That’s No Limit. They’ve got big stars, and they make ’em right here.’ I want to show that it’s possible to create stars in New Orleans, and send them out to the world.”
Morton is leading by example. This week, he released “Bounce and Soul, Vol. 1,” a new mixtape built on New Orleans bounce beats, featuring guest turns by Stevie Wonder, Lil Wayne, Trombone Shorty and Juvenile. It is available for free at 45 PJ’s Coffee locations throughout Louisiana.
On Friday, he and his band, the Crusade, headline a homecoming/birthday show at the Howlin’ Wolf. Tank & the Bangas, DJ Raj Smoove, Dee-1 and other special guests are also on the bill.
And on September 5, Morton and his “other” band — Maroon 5 — will play their first arena headlining show in his hometown at the Smoothie King Center.
Beyond his own A-list career, “I want to be on the ground, and build something real,” he said. “All signs were leading home for that.”
The son of gospel star Bishop Paul S. Morton, leader of Greater St. Stephen Full Gospel Baptist Church, Paul “PJ” Morton Jr. landed his first professional gig at age 15 as the keyboardist for the House of Blues’ weekly gospel brunch. At St. Augustine High School, he was the pianist in the jazz band.
While enrolled at Morehouse College in Atlanta, he befriended an aspiring singer-songwriter in his apartment complex named India.Arie. Morton co-wrote and produced “Interested,” a bonus track on Arie’s 2002 album, “Voyage to India.” It won a Grammy during his junior year at Morehouse.
After graduating a semester early with a marketing degree, he hit the road as the keyboardist in neo-soul singer Erykah Badu’s band. He wrote and recorded his own independent album. And then, in 2010, he got the call to audition for Maroon 5. Initially hired as an auxiliary keyboardist/singer for a tour, he’s been a full-fledged member of the band since 2012.
When Adam Levine is busy with “The Voice,” Morton has time to work on his own projects, Morton Records being the most ambitious. He realizes that building a star-making infrastructure in New Orleans is not an easy task: “I am very confident that I’m doing the right thing, and it’s going to work. At the same time, I am very aware of all the pitfalls. I’m cautiously excited.”
That major record labels are in disarray and independent labels are on the rise “is in our favor. I think of it as when there was a Chess Records, and a Stax, and Motown. I think it’s going to go back to strong indie (labels) that will start movements in their towns first, and then grow.”
The mainstream, national success of his friend Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews “is a great example. It helps to have the support of people like that, who understand that it’s bigger than New Orleans, and understand the importance of not just playing three times a week in New Orleans, but when it’s special, bringing it out to the world.”
He specifically wants to build the Morton Records office and studio in New Orleans East, where he grew up, learned to ride a bike and drive a car, and went ice skating at the now-demolished Lake Forest Plaza.
“Since Hurricane Katrina, it’s gone through trouble, and it’s definitely not what it used to be,” he said of his old neighborhood. “I can’t say that my whole initiative is to bring the East back. But I do want to be a part of letting people know that the East can be great. I’m going to be out there making my little piece of history.”
Before he conceived of Morton Records, he was already working with two acts from outside the city: Jcksn Ave, a group of five sisters from Memphis, Tennessee, and the Atlanta-based inspirational artist J.J. Martin. Going forward, he intends to sign predominantly New Orleans musicians.
“That really is the focus. I keep referencing Motown — you had the Supremes and Temptations from the neighborhood. But as Motown started to grow, Marvin Gaye moved from Washington, D.C., to Detroit to be a part of it.
“After we have a strong foundation in New Orleans, if there’s something incredible that I just have to bring to New Orleans and make the record and put the Morton brand on it, I’m definitely not going to close myself off to that. But I want to have at least 75 percent of the label always be New Orleans.”
He hasn’t signed any locals yet, “but I do have an idea. I’ve been paying attention.”
In 2013, Morton released “New Orleans” — his own major-label debut album of soul, pop, hip-hip and R&B — via Lil Wayne’s Young Money Entertainment. That deal came about in part because Young Money’s president, Jermaine “Mack Maine” Preyan, was a former St. Augustine classmate.
Young Money, with its emphasis on rap, turned out not to be the best fit for Morton. He asked for, and was granted, a release from his contract. “I appreciate them not putting up a big fight,” he said. “We always communicated openly. We were able to reach that agreement peacefully, and it’s all love.”
Going forward, his albums will be released through Morton Records. Because once again, PJ Morton is a New Orleanian.
Follow Keith Spera on Twitter, @KeithSpera.