Nikki Romillie, photo from the Pride ‘n’ Politix CD insert
It’s one tiny word. but once you hear it come from Nikki Romillie, you ain’t gonna forget it.
To call Romillie a mere singer is somehow inaccurate. He is, of course, a man with a voice. But for me, what’s cool is that he’s a man who has creative autonomy: there’s no one telling him what songs to write, what keys to sing them in, who to sing them with, what to name them, and what to call the genre he’s singing within. For an artist–as well as a Listener–that’s pretty damn freeing.
I first heard Nikki’s voice over 20 years ago, but I didn’t know whose voice it was. Back in 1991 when I was an entertainment journalist, I received in the mail a pre-release cassette with a plain, white insert card on which was typed “Pride & Politix/Atlantic 5/23/91” and below was the list of tracks on each side, twelve total. Nothing more.
When I saw that one of the tracks was What You Won’t Do For Love, a chill went through me. Because I hate covers–they’re never better than the original, and the Bobby Caldwell original was a favorite of mine. So I made a mental note to stay close to the player so I could skip over that one.
After popping the cassette in the player, I stepped away to go about my business. But I didn’t get far: the very first note of the very first tune yanked me back, demanding that I pay attention to the soulful male lead vocal. It sounded like it was from someone who knew how to sing yet wasn’t pretentious. Although there were harmonies, that lead vocal held me through all twelve tunes.
When What You Won’t Do For Love came up, I positioned my finger over the MAKE IT STOP! button. (If *you* want to listen, click “play” below.)
But once again, I was mesmerized. Damn! I thought. That’s not just a cover, it’s an effing *interpretation*–that is how you are *supposed* to do a cover! So my respect for this mystery group increased a million-fold. I’m a sucker for language and words, and every song on the tape impressed me.
It wasn’t until I received the finished CD, titled Changes, that I had any further clues to who Pride ‘n’ Politix were, although apart from the names of the high-quality session musicians, the CD insert was pretty damn cryptic. Sepia-toned photos of three dudes named Robyn Smith, Nikki Romillie, and Carlton Romillie. Presumably, these three were the group. A few credits for the session musicians–Jerry Hey, Alex Acuña, Bill Reichenbach–names I recognized as veterans of the Los Angeles side-musician scene. Some acknowledgements. But no artist bios. No liner notes. The clues I was forced to rely on led me to conclude that they were British: a London recording studio was mentioned. The cravat (or was that an ascot?) on Smith. The phrases in the lyrics and the impeccable pronounciation of the words. And, I took a wild guess that the Romillie men were probably brothers–as well as brothas.
But that’s where it ended. I was completely unsuccessful in finding out anything about Pride ‘n’ Politix. Every now and then I would take the most unusual of the names–which was Nikki’s–and check to see if there was a new album or something; but I came up with nothing. Still, I respected that. Because sometimes, a brother just needs to focus on his work without being pulled and tugged in a million directions. And in the end, all I could do was just listen and appreciate the music. Which, after all, is what music is for, right? The musician should just keep honing, keep creating, and be in control of whether, and how much, he is left the hell alone.
Fast forward to 2011. Somehow, in clicking around on the Internet I found an artist who matched Nikki’s description–except that this dude was living in Europe, recording under the name Colonel Red. After some forensic listening and photo-comparing on my part, I was convinced that Colonel Red and Nikki Romillie were one and the same. I was tickled to find that he seemed to be making music when, how, and with whom he damn well pleased. And technology had risen up to meet him: he don’t need no steenking record company! From listening to the online clips, I could just feel that he was reveling in his independence, and that made me smile. He had just released a new solo CD, Sweet Liberation, and after listening to it once (particularly Deny, the tune that finally convinced me it was really him), I purchased the download.
As I listened, I squealed with delight. Because that “thing” was still there–that “thing” that’s the reason that after over 20 years, Changes is *still* one of my favorite CDs, in both my physical and electronic libraries, on “random” play, so I get to hear it many times a day. I went to his Facebook page and posted a small, gratitude-filled mention.
I’ve now learned that since the days of Pride ‘n’ Politix, Nikki has been working nonstop. Because he’s independent, he can criss-cross between jazz, funk, hip-hop, latin, soul, whatever his muse dictates. He can work with anyone he wants, without losing the base. In fact, he’s in charge of building the base, and technology is his friend. Social media and the Internet allow him to directly connect with his current and potential fans, through downloads and videos.
Nikki’s music is affected by this too: he sounds joyful because he is. freedom is definitely euphoric. as he recently stated, “major label success is no kind of success… I love my now kinda success! I can give a personal touch to everything I create.”
And I’m proud, delighted, and honored to say that Nikki Romillie and I have become close friends, connected through the magic of our kindred spirits–and cyberspace. I appreciate how he trusted his intuition to allow that to happen… intuition that is, always, the artist’s best friend.
Nikki Romillie, twenty years later: the artist now known as Colonel Red… voice still stunning (Photo credit: Femke Van Heugten)