DON VARNER - IN DEEP AND PERSONAL
Don Varner sadly passed away on 7 October 2002 at the age of only 59. I have delayed writing anything here because quite frankly I haven't felt like doing it.
Don and I become close or as close as you can be at such a distance. Our friendship blossomed in February this year when we took a short holiday together in New York, Don and his wife Francine flying in from Los Angeles to see us. We spent a glorious weekend talking from morning and through the night, and taking in New York. We visited some bars (although Don was a teetotal), we ate together,we shopped, we talked, we spent an evening at Nell's (also in the Company of Ed Jackson).
Don told me many stories of his life, his ups and downs, how it used to be out on the road, who he met, how things were done right back then right back to his doowop days, the UK Soul scene and various things that had happened in that respect, right through to the man today and his gospel material and his calling, and his future plans. All of this will remain with me and I feel very privileged to have been taken into such confidence.
Don, always smiling, you are the man, take care now. One Love
Interview 25 June 2001
Interviews Menu - Interviews
NB- Also see below for methods of buying Don's material
Don - this isn't going to be the usual "Northern Soul" legend interview you usually get from the UK. Let's dig a bit deeper to understand you the man, you the performer and writer, and get down to what makes you tick.
- In understanding the man, you must know where I come from and the experiences that I had as a black man growing up in a very dysfunctional society. The grass was always greener on the other side of the street and the imaginary line that separated us all was only in the mind.
It has often been stated that the soul of man comes in one self, and that's where Soul Music comes from, be it black or white, blue or green, hurt or pain, sadness or joy. All these things make me the man that I am today, having transcended all of these things through God Himself.
As a performer, through many years of experience, having worked with, or shared the same stage with, the best of our time, such as Sam Cooke, Jacky Wilson, Hank Ballard and The Midnighters, The Five Royals, Billy Preston, Ray Charles and many others, I learnt how to deliver a song and touch the audience there before me, whether on stage or through recordings.
As a writer, my creativity is a gift that allows me, without labouring over it, to relate through words of lyrics, stories inspired by life itself. Some songs, I do live with, some are just flowing.
How much do you write and what successes have you had?
- Writing is a constant process. Situations change but, basically, all things remain the same.
The successes that I've had are the ones that I wrote and were released, like Tear Stained Face, More Power To Ya', I Keep Holdin'On by Sam and Dave. Realizing that these songs reached the public at large is what I measure as being successful.
What do you have in the can that you think will emerge over the next year or so. Will this be for you or other artists?
- I have a great number of songs "in the can". All of them originals, written and performed by me. I mention constantly that I never stopped writing and I will never run out of songs. They are all in the style that audiences have come to like so much, which has defined me as a Soul performer.
There will be several releases within the coming year, some sooner than you think...
Any artist can cut songs that i have written or released, as long, of course, as it is done according to due process, licensing, etc...
You have a deep soulful voice but you get great satisfaction out of the creative process of writing. Is this a better "high" that the performing art. Presumably it stays within you longer. Tell me about the creative process and the creativity within you.
- Writing is not a better "high" than performing. It has to work together to get the best result of the story that's written. The high is the performance of the song and the feedback of the audience. Writing gives the satisfaction of expressing myself and the thought process in it.
What do you try and express in both lyric and performance? Does this differ with a gospel song against R&B?
- When I write, i have to choose the words that will make the song come off the way I want it to come off when I perform it. Gospel is a spiritual experience. To write about it, you have to know about it and have a real personal experience of it. It involves the writer at a higher level and does not primarily seek to please the masses. The style of music can make a difference in how it is received and I would call that and inspirational experience.
Tell me a bit about your current product, how it's going down and what's coming up.
- So far, on our label Retour Records, we have released three CD singles, two R&Bs and one Gospel. Our products are available through our site and we have received orders from different places in the world, including Japan. One of the R&B has an original title, I Feel Good All Over, and a modified version of Keep On Doing What You're Doing, the other is our release of Masquerade and Down In Texas. The Gospel single is an introduction to "my" Gospel music and it seems to have been well received too.
My wife, Francine, and I are getting ready to release a single with two titles "out of the vault". They have never been released, let alone heard... They were recorded in 1967 and the liner notes will give all the details about the writing, recording, context, etc...
We are also going to release our first Gospel album which will include seven titles.
All these will be available online, at our site and are released on our label, Retour Records. We are interested in foreign licensing and distribution or subpublishing abroad. All the contact information is on our site at http://www.donvarneronline.com
Songs are usually about experience in life - what are the experiences in your life that help you in your songwriting? Where and what do you draw from?
- I draw from observing the world at large and processing what surrounds me, nature, people, situations emotions, deceptions. It then comes to life when I am able to put it into words...
You get obvious satisfaction when a song or even a particular lyric "hits the spot". What about the flipside to this. What gets you down?
- There is obviously satisfaction in going into the studio and recording a song that your wrote and perform it. The flipside to this is, after all the work and time that was put forth, to find that the songs have been plundered away, used for years and yet, have not really translated into my life, personal or public, after all these years.
It is rewarding for me, as a writer and performer, to find out that there is, and has been, an audience for my work for almost forty years and I am, as such, thankful for it to them.
However, the down side is the way it was handled. I am, obviously, alive and well, writing and singing, and that part of me was taken away, not only from me but also, potentially, from my children. Francine and I have come to call it "the silent killer". Good intentions do not seem to make up for it. I understand the need of the public for the recordings, I don't accept the way they were, and still are, put on the market, with a complete disregard for me, and many others, as creators.
It's a silent killer because it deprives the authors of their rights to know what is going on with their songs, cuts off the communication with the public itself and the flow of energy that results from it. As far as financial consequences.... We have our publishing and record label, we are making more products available and yet, are told that some of these products are "out for much, much less" elsewhere, which is basically a "slap in the face" and "forget you"... I was there all along, easy to find and very visible: thirty years is a long time NOT to find somebody.... I am not down and I am not out. I am enjoying my life with my wife and children, there is more of me still to be heard and seen!
Do you have any particular projects at the moment?
- We are in the process of putting together a tour that will be for all of the Don Varner lovers out there.
Is there any song that you would like to hear by anyone in particular and would you collaborate?
- There is a song that I have written, titled "I Play The Part", and I always thought it would be great by Rod Stewart. I would collaborate on the production part.
I know that Eddie Hinton was a good friend. Can you tell me anything about him and your relationshipwith him. Is there anyone else who has helped you with your writing you would like to mention?
- Eddie and i met in Muscle Shoals at Quinvy Studios. We did not hang out together but we could meet on the creative level when it came to writing and performing songs. It was told, to both of us, by different people, that we were before our time in our songwriting.
Before and after working with Eddie, I co wrote with William Crump.
What do you think of the quality of songs being written on the soul, r&b, gospel scene at the moment. Anyone you particularly admire?
- Most of what qualifies today in the categories R&B and Soul, I tend to not consider as belonging in those categories. The Gospel scene has become more diversified, strictly with the different styles of music however, the message is not always there. I do admire Shirley Caesar...
Any more comments?
- I would to thank you, Mike, as well as Dominique (Hi Domi!) for affording me the opportunity to express my feelings and I assure you: you will hear more from Don Varner.
Again, thank you.
Don is very happy to have had a chance to talk on all these topics and we hope that your visitors will like it.
Until we hear from you,
Love from both of us,
Don and Francine
Now take a look at Don's site
Don Varner Don Varner's Website
A message from Francine
Through it all, we have a total of four brand new CDs up on the site and we are already registering a huge increase in traffic. Some of the hits that we get are coming through your site so, again, a big thank you to you two for doing such a wonderful job in spreading all the news about the Soul world.
Another exciting adventure (follows), it seems like a good way to have the foot in the virtual door of Europe and beyond. If you want to see for yourself, their url is: