It was Halloween night of 2010 when I had my first Ten City experience. An 11-piece band walks up onstage at the elegant Alhambra Palace and takes their places. Lead singer Byron Stingily (discogs) is looking majestic dressed as the Phantom of the Opera with his cape and mask. From the moment he sings his first sumptuous note in that distinct falsetto voice, the crowd goes nuts.
Ten City is back.
So I heard you had lost your voice for a while! What exactly happened?
I had lost my voice for a couple of years where I couldn’t sing. I had developed what they call nodules, which are like calluses on my vocal chords. I basically rested and didn’t talk a whole lot. So in the interim my voice came back and now it’s like nothing ever happened. Some days I couldn’t even talk, it would be really painful. I couldn’t sing, I couldn’t hit high notes.
I had just written a song called “Walk Away” and when I went to the studio, I couldn’t sing it. That’s when I wound up starting Stingily Music. I had the singer EL, who was there to do background vocals, and it wound up at #1 on Traxsource and several different download sites and we got quite a few licensing deals. So sometimes when difficult things happen, it causes you to try different things.
I also went back to school during that time and got my masters degree. I’m a school principal during the week and I’ve been doing this for the last 3 years. I run a school for kids that have been kicked out of all the other schools. I really enjoy it and I feel like it’s helping change lives.
What made you start singing dance music?
I was a club kid growing up – that was what everybody knew me for prior to singing. It never dawned on me to sing because you never saw the artist. You never saw videos on them. You would hear these records at the club and love them but you never got a chance to really see the artist. Even groups like First Choice or someone as huge as Sylvester…
Some singers get mad, saying that the DJs get all the props, but the DJs are at least real about it and have a love for the music and the culture and understand the history of it.
We were doing music which was considered a “subculture” at the beginning. People didn’t understand it. “Do we go to black radio? Do we go to pop?”
Compared to working with the majors, how do you like running your own label?
I like it! One thing is that nowadays, I do music strictly for the fun of it. And it’s kind of taken me back to the beginnings of my career. When I first started out with Ten City and went into the studio with Marshall Jefferson to do “Devotion”, we were just going in to have fun. It was just amazing – like, “Wow! I’m in the studio! I’m getting a chance to be creative!” I wasn’t really thinking about trying to do a hit.
And that’s when I had the most success. I feel like right now I can go in and have fun and not care if it’s a hit record or not. I really feel like I’m doing my best writing ever. I just wrote a song with David Morales, and it has a huge potential to be a pop hit.
We’ve heard both the good and bad of the major label experience. What was it like for you?
I think it was a great experience. Marshall Jefferson and I were in New York and went to Atlantic Records and met with their A&R person there at the time. He said the next thing I did, he would sign it. So Marshall and I did the song “Devotion.” To be honest with you, I didn’t really want to be an artist at the time. I thought that doing a group would be more interesting. I’m a big guy and being a big guy with a high voice like that, I didn’t know how it would be perceived. All the artists at the time were like Prince, Michael Jackson and Madonna and I didn’t really feel comfortable in my own skin. So basically Ten City was a concept that we put together… We added Byron Burke and Herb Lawson and it was a good combination.
Always an easy road?
Well you’re competing for marketing money, video budgets and then sometimes we were doing music which was considered a “subculture” at the beginning. People didn’t understand it. “Do we go to black radio? Do we go to pop?”
I went and got $10,000 from my grandmother and told her I needed this money. We lived in Europe with that money for two to three months and did every little free promotional show we could. We did a lot interviews. And then when “That’s the Way Love Is” hit #8 on the pop charts, I remember getting a call from the president of the label saying, “We did it! We brought it home!” But we had to go out and do a lot of the footwork ourselves! A lot of people don’t know all the hard work that went into it.
What was it like initially when you ventured out on your own?
It wasn’t easy. We were at Columbia at the time, but I really didn’t want to do another major label. I wanted to be with a smaller independent so I went with Nervous and my first couple of singles didn’t do that well.
Then Zack Toms had a track called “Get Up Everybody” and I sang verses to it and it ended up a Top 10 record in Europe. Then I wound up having three or four number #1 Billboard records – “Sing a Song”, the remake of “Mighty Real” and a remake of “That’s the Way Love Is.”
A lot of artists say to us that they don’t get a whole lot of love in Chicago but once they go overseas they’re treated like royalty.
It’s because you’re not special in your hometown. It just seems that over the years, we always had to go to other places and get respect. I still feel like that. I go out and do shows once or twice a month. And when I go out there – they fly me in, take good care of me, put me in the best hotels, take me to the best restaurants, have drivers pick me up. And then I do a show here in Chicago and it’s like, “Hey can you come down here and sing a couple of songs for just this and we’ll give you a bucket of chicken?” But they’ll bring someone in like Crystal Waters, CeCe Peniston and pay them whatever, and it’s no problem.
You want to be loved in your hometown. Some of my best memories are when I felt appreciated in Chicago. Like when we finally heard our song on the radio in Chicago, that was one of the best feelings ever! Doing the show in Columbus Park one time, when there were 30,000 people out there… When I have gotten love here, I remember it and it stays with me.
We never used to listen to other people and now all of a sudden we started to. That was just a point in time when we had doubt and got lost. It was all, “Nope, not good enough. Nope, we don’t like it – it’s not a hit.”
My first time seeing Ten City live was at the Halloween show at Alhambra Palace last year and I thought it was amazing! How did that event come about?
Me and Herb put up all the money ourselves on that. I just got tired of all these promoters calling me offering me that bucket of chicken and said, “You know what? I’m going to put up the money and do it all myself.” We put up a lot of money believe it or not, with radio ads and paying all the people in the band. I didn’t want to talk about that but, I lost so much money that it was ridiculous. At the end of the day it felt good because that was what Ten City was always supposed to be about. I’ve always wanted to present Ten City like that.
The one thing that everyone says about your music is that it’s timeless. We play your songs now and they don’t feel dated at all – it’s enduring.
I don’t want to be that old artist that’s talking about the new stuff but… some of the things they’re saying on records now! The good thing about some of the older records is that even if they were talking about sex, they used innuendo. Take Prince’s “Little Red Corvette”. He put thought into it. I’m a romantic so to speak, and I believe in love at first sight, being deeply in love with each other. That is who I am. So I write songs like “Devotion”, “That’s the Way Love Is”, “Superficial People” because that’s how I look at life.
With all the blessings you’ve had in your career, do you remember any particular low that was one of the hardest times in your life?
Well, one of the lowest times was after our first album. At first, they gave us a budget and let us do whatever we wanted to. We turned in about 20 songs. And they only accepted two of them, and that was very frustrating. I remember breaking down crying.
That really was a big change because I started questioning myself. We never used to listen to other people and now all of a sudden we started to. “Maybe we need to sound like this person…” That was just a point in time when we had doubt and got lost. It was all, “Nope, not good enough. Nope, we don’t like it – it’s not a hit.”
Have you ever been to the Chosen Few Picnic?
It’s funny because I was out there last year. Don’t get me wrong, Rochelle Fleming is one of my favorite artists, the First Choice songs were my favorite songs. But when she was on stage last year I was like “Wow… we’re right here from Chicago, and these guys are my friends… How come they’ve never asked us to be down here?” and I really wanted to do the picnic so bad seeing all those people. But things have a way of working themselves out and Wayne and Terry showed up to the Halloween show and the rest is history.
I am so excited about doing the Chosen Few Picnic this year. I just cannot wait for it to get here. We’ve put a lot of work into it. And I humbly say that I don’t think that there’s a musical group that was an ambassador for House Music more than Ten City.
Byron Stingily is releasing “Father” on Omni Music with remixes by Terry Hunter, Mike Dunn, Garphie and Kenny Dope. Ten City is tentatively scheduled to do several dates in South Africa in October.