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Wee / Norman Whiteside
Wee’s Norman WhitesideCourtesy of Numero Group & Norman Whiteside

The 70s soul artist whose music gained a new life while he was in prison

Norman Whiteside’s ‘genius talent’ was almost forgotten, until artists like Frank Ocean and Kanye West started sampling his work while he sat out a 31-year sentence

“Norman Whiteside,” declares Rob Sevier, co-founder of Chicago-based record label Numero Group, “was the Frank Ocean of the 1970s.” For the past 15 years, Sevier and Numero Group have dedicated themselves to reissuing black music that failed to find a mass audience in its day – yet discovering the songs of hustler-turned-singer Whiteside ranks among their greatest achievements. Whiteside, a soul singer from the 1970s who effortlessly combined the feelgood melodies of Stevie Wonder with the dangerous funk of Sly Stone, released just one masterpiece, You Can Fly On My Aeroplane, before his career was derailed by a three-decade stretch in prison – but after being sampled prominently by everyone from Kanye West to Frank Ocean, his legend has unexpectedly continued to grow.

“There were only four black artists given the budget or creative freedom to make conceptual soul music in the 1970s: Stevie Wonder, Isaac Hayes, Sly Stone, and Norman Whiteside,” says Sevier. “I know people have heard of the first three, but why have they never heard about Norm?” To soul music aficionados, this remains one of the great unanswered questions – and to answer it, you need to go back to the summer of 1976, where a then-22-year-old Whiteside was a determined young artist leading a collective of musicians, known simply as Wee, into a studio in Columbus, Ohio. Under Whiteside’s skilled direction, Wee were able to craft their sole studio LP, You Can Fly On My Aeroplane, which was released on the indie label OWL in 1977, with its creator confident it would shift the course of black music.

You Can Fly On My Aeroplane is the kind of record that sounds instantly familiar, its nine songs inducing a state of dreamy euphoria. On the chilled title track, Whiteside fantasises about an aeroplane scooping him out of the ghetto and up into the infinite blue skies above, where he believes he is “destined to roam”. On “Alone Reprise”, Whiteside makes his synths sound like they’re crying. And on “Put It In Real Good”, Whiteside sings about sex as a cerebral act, crooning: “Just let me take my brain and put it into you.”

Although this music caught fire locally, the record, released in the winter of 1977, was deemed too leftfield by major labels, including Mercury, Atlantic, Motown, and Stax, who each believed Whiteside was unable to make a hit and rejected him at auditions. You Can Fly On My Aeroplane gathered dust, with copies becoming scarce due to its lack of national distribution. Frustrated and poor, its creator turned to robberies and hustling, and he stopped making music altogether by the early 1980s.

On April 3, 1985, Whiteside was sent to prison for forgery and conspiracy to commit aggravated murder for the drive-by shooting of 18-year-old Laura Carter, a Denison University student unintentionally caught in the crossfire of a gang dispute in 1982. Carter, a talented lacrosse player, was being driven by her father downtown to dinner following a victory in a game earlier in the day when she was hit by a stray bullet, which fatally pierced through her left lung, from a nearby gang fight. Her life was later immortalised in Christopher Cross’s mournful hit “Think of Laura”.

Police acknowledged that Whiteside was never present at the scene of Carter’s death, yet still claimed he oversaw the purchase of the murder weapon – a charge he has always vehemently denied. Having served 31 years of a 37-year sentence, Whiteside was finally released after a successful appeal on September 1, 2016, which was boosted by an online petition by friends, family, and musicians, who claimed his imprisonment was a miscarriage of justice.

In 2008, while Whiteside was in prison, convinced his music was destined to be ignored, Numero Group approached him with the promise of helping You Can Fly On My Aeroplane connect with a new generation of listeners by reissuing it onto vinyl and streaming services. By 2010, there was tangible evidence of Whiteside’s impact on contemporary music – Jay Electronica prominently sampled the lush keyboard arrangement of “Aeroplane Reprise” on “Fat Belly Bella”, the underground rapper’s heartfelt tribute to then-lover Erykah Badu. In turn, Electronica’s song caught the attention of Kanye West, who used the same sample on “Bound 2”, a brief dose of light on 2013’s Yeezus. Thanks to the Kanye West co-sign, You Can Fly On My Aeroplane became the go-to LP for hip hop producers looking for samples, with artists such as Logic (on “Intro”, which samples “Aeroplane (Reprise)”), Stalley (“Boomin”, which samples “Try Me”), and Knxwledge (“Knfly”, which samples “Alone (Reprise)”) equally infatuated by its fresh sound. This sampling spree reached its peak when Frank Ocean was introduced to Whiteside and Wee’s music during the sessions for 2016’s Endless.

“I have this tradition that whenever Kanye puts out an album, I look up all the samples,” says LA-based producer Michael Uzowuru, the man behind the boards on Frank Ocean tracks like “Nights” and “Rushes To”. “After hearing ‘Bound 2’, I went onto Spotify and found the Wee record. It sounded like a lost masterpiece.” One song in particular, “I Think I Am In Love With You”, stuck long in Uzowuru’s memory, with the song (which appears as a bonus track on Numero’s reissue) and its stripped-back piano and vocals perfectly summarising that raw, joyous feeling of falling in love for the first time. “The fact it had no drums was so dope, as that’s a sound I gravitate towards when sampling. It sounded nostalgic, but also had such a dreamlike quality to it.”

“Norman Whiteside was the Frank Ocean of the 1970s” – Rob Sevier, co-founder of Numero Group

Inspired by what he had heard, Uzowuru crafted a four-minute beat around Whiteside’s vocals, which he then played to Ocean, who particularly enjoyed the singer’s tender, feminine pronunciation of the lines: “And when I feel a certain way / My heart just wants to say / I think I’m in love with you baby.” Although the producer’s beat would be cut down drastically by Ocean, it ended up appearing as the 12-second “Ambience 001 ‘In A Certain Way’” interlude on Endless. “For me, one underrated aspect of ‘I Think I’m In Love With You’ is how it was recorded and mixed,” explains Uzowuru. “The way the piano just sits so perfectly and the chords being played are so clean; it puts you in another place mentally and, without wishing to betray Frank’s creative process too much, that’s kind of what we wanted to achieve with Endless.”

You Can Fly On My Aeroplane doesn’t sound like someone’s first project at all,” he adds. “Norman is obviously a very brilliant person to have put together an album like that (at such a young age). I don’t know, maybe he really was a genius.” It’s easy to see why Uzowuru might accidentally refer to Whiteside in the past tense. After all, so much changed in the world during his 31-year sentence that he now feels like a character frozen in time.

Whiteside has now been free for less than two years. When I prepare to speak to him, I wonder if I’ll hear from an angry man who might still feel like the world is against him. Yet, as I reach him at the sheltered housing he’s currently occupying, Whiteside is infectiously joyous. “I love it here!” says the 64-year-old, letting off a trademark cackle. “I’m not the kind of person who needs to be living in a mansion. After 31 years of sleeping next to a toilet, it doesn’t take a lot to make you happy. Remember, I used to cook grilled cheese on an iron!”

Whiteside tells me how his obsession with music started at a young age, when he heard The Kingston Trio’s cover of “Hang Down Your Head, Tom Dooley”, a song about a 22-year-old woman murdered by a Confederate soldier. “The fact the song had this dual meaning really blew my mind,” says Whiteside. “I wanted to make music that was deep like that.” Soon after this Whiteside graduated to drummer in a three-piece family band. He would also cut lawns for his aunt in exchange for piano lessons and take on a gig as an in-house songwriter at a local label, CapSoul.

Despite his limited experience, a confident Whiteside turned up at OWL Studio on the Sunbury Road in Columbus in 1975. Almost immediately, OWL’s owner Tom Murphy sensed something special. “The first song I cut there, ‘I’m All Changed’, sounded so much like Sly & the Family Stone that the local radio station in Ohio played it and introduced it as Sly’s new single,” says Whiteside. “After that, Tom said to me: ‘How about you no longer pay me for studio time? I’ve got a baby grand piano, I want to see what you can do with it.’ He gave me complete creative freedom.”

Remembering these sessions, Whiteside tells me, “You Can Fly On My Aeroplane was about the dream of being able to escape from the ghetto and take somebody you love on an aeroplane ride to heaven. It’s an aspirational record for Black America.” Of Frank Ocean’s favourite, “I Think I Am In Love With You”, he adds: “I made up that song on the spot. I had no words and just started improvising with harmonies on the piano with a few of our singers. I didn’t even realise Tom had clicked the record button. Years later, someone told me John Legend was inspired by that song when making ‘Ordinary People’.”

Despite his attempts at being a professional recording artist, Whiteside also had one hand in the street, after being introduced to “life on the wrong side of the tracks” by a friend called Jackie. Jackie was a sex worker with some lucrative high profile clients, and she used them to help him press his records. “Tom couldn’t afford to press no records,” Whiteside says. “Some of Jackie’s johns were real wealthy – they were politicians, gangsters, drug dealers – and because they were interested in her, they financed me. You could say You Can Fly On My Aeroplane was the first record crowd-sourced by the ghetto.” References to this lifestyle occasionally intersect with the record’s beautiful melodies. “Try Me”, a slick R&B song, sees Whiteside promising an unnamed woman, “I will never turn you out to another!”, an overt reference to pimping. 

Being involved in a criminal lifestyle would eventually catch up to him. When “two acquaintances” bragged about a dispute with a local gang member that ended in a fatal shooting, Whiteside claims he shook his head and assumed it was evidence of yet more black-on-black crime. He says he was “horrified” when he later turned on the news and saw an innocent girl had been accidentally shot while her parents were visiting, quickly realising what really had happened. Of the homicide of Laura Carter, Whiteside recalls: “They said I masterminded the whole thing and the judge made out like I was Charles Manson. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.” As a working class black man unable to pay the mounting legal fees, Whiteside insists he had little choice but to accept his sentence.

You Can Fly On My Aeroplane was the first record crowd-sourced by the ghetto” – Wee’s Norman Whiteside

Whiteside’s life changed for the better when Kanye’s “Bound 2” was nominated for a Grammy in 2014. He was listed as a co-writer on the song. “The prison guards thought I was crazy when I told them I had been nominated for a Grammy! Kanye’s music is the high we used to finally get me out of prison. Hip hop sampling literally changed my life.” Numero Group’s Rob Sevier believes that, had Whiteside released his music in the internet age and not the hits-driven business of the 1970s, the blogs would have made him a superstar, just like they did Frank Ocean and Odd Future. “Sure, the internet might have made it easier for me to find an audience – but l also might have obtained something that would have ruined me, and that’s called fame,” Whiteside counters. “I am comfortable with my path. This here is God’s plan.”

Whiteside says he hasn’t seen much financial kickback from the “Bound 2” sample (“Kanye probably doesn’t know who I am!” he concedes), but he doesn’t resent it, claiming he isn’t motivated by money. The frugal life he’s currently living is ultimately irrelevant, while he feels he’s accepted the disruption caused to his relationships with friends, family, and loved ones due to his stint in prison (Jackie died of a heroin overdose while Whiteside was inside). “I’m just happy to have my dignity back,” he says. “Will being bitter help me eat this afternoon? I equate bitterness to time – if I start using my time to be bitter, then I can’t be productive.”

On Aeroplane highlight “Alone”, Whiteside optimistically sings: “In love / I will be / Just until you set me free / Someday.” Now that day has arrived, Whiteside has played a few live shows and has recorded new music (new song “I Be F’d Up” has the following low-budget video); he also says he’s even working on a new album. He tells me the impact of his 1977 songs on generation-defining artists has made him feel “brand new” again. “Hits come and go, but music made with love lasts forever,” Whiteside says. “People have told me Aeroplane is in the same conversation as There’s A Riot Goin On and Innervisions. Not bad for a brother from the street, huh?”