Leon Bridges is standing in front of a 30-foot-tall eyeball in downtown Dallas, and if you wanted to sum up the last few months of his life, you couldn’t find a better image. Everyone in the world these days, it seems, is watching, waiting for what the young singer will do next.
On this warm April evening, Tony Tasset’s giant Eye sculpture serves as the centerpiece of an extravagant party across the street from The Joule hotel, closing out the weekend of the Dallas Art Fair. Cocktail waitresses in jumpsuits and goggles bounce around couture-adorned art dealers and collectors as they navigate an adult playground replete with a giant swing set. Bridges is the evening’s entertainment, and the whole lavish affair feels like his very own debutant ball. His debut album, Coming Home, will drop in June. No one knew the name Leon Bridges seven months ago, but now everyone expects him to be North Texas’ next big thing, maybe another Norah Jones.
And yet, in the midst of this wild scene, the 25-year-old singer stands unnoticed near the bar. Bridges is about 6 feet tall, with a perfectly manicured wedge of black hair atop a slender face with high cheekbones and a warm, broad smile. Tonight he is wearing a crisp, white button-down shirt tucked tightly into high-waisted dark gray slacks. Which is significant: what Bridges wears is nearly as important as what he sings. His music is most easily described as Sam Cooke reincarnated as a shy and unfailingly polite singer-songwriter from Crowley, Texas, and it perfectly complements the musician’s man-out-of-time fashion sense. Bridges tells me that in the morning he will board a plane for New York and a photo shoot with Vogue.
But there is something rough around his dapper edges. After he climbs onstage, Bridges seems unsure of how to acknowledge the crowd. “Where my brown-skinned girls at?” he asks this clog of Dallas socialites before he and the band launch into the song “Brown Skin Girl.” As a shimmering rhythm and blues groove blares out of a collection of vintage amplifiers, Bridges settles in, his hips moving in a controlled, elliptical rhythm. He reels up on his toes and falls back down on his heels again to the beat. Then he launches into the title track of his album.
If you’ve never heard of Bridges, listen to one line of “Coming Home” and you will understand in an instant how, within weeks of his recording a couple of demos in a warehouse in Fort Worth, executives from dozens of labels had their eyes locked on this kid, clamoring for his signature on a contract. “Coming Home” is unmistakably a hit.
“Baby, baby, baby,” Bridges croons, landing the last syllable with a pop of his heels. “I’m coming home.”
By the time he hits that last “baby,” a strange feeling wells up inside you. You have heard this song before. No, that’s not quite it. You feel like you’ve always known the song, like it has always just existed, etched into your memory even before it was written. Bridges’ voice, rich and buttery as fudge, phrases each syllable magnificently, pirouetting in and out of chord changes.
In this song, Bridges’ sudden rise to fame doesn’t feel unlikely. It feels inevitable.
When Bridges began popping up at just about every open mic in Fort Worth a couple of years ago, music-scene regulars took notice. Cliff Wright, who played bass in the band the Orbans, first heard Bridges playing at a Potbelly sandwich shop during lunch. Quaker City Night Hawks singer Sam Anderson met Bridges after he began showing up every week to their Thursday gig at the Magnolia Motor Lounge. Bridges finally asked Anderson if he could play a few songs between the band’s sets.
“He was so soft-spoken,” Anderson says. “You could tell there was nerves going on. He didn’t say much in the microphone between songs. But the performances were always there. He played three or four songs, and after he came off, I said, ‘You didn’t tell me you were awesome.’ ”
When Bridges arrived on the scene, he went by the name Lost Child, and his set consisted mostly of gospel songs. He had been listening to people like Usher and Ginuwine, had a moment when he made an attempt at playing neo-soul, and then, quite deliberately, settled on a sound. It came from a song he wrote called “Lisa Sawyer,” a soulful ode to his New Orleans-born mother that is steeped in the sound of the year—1963—when she was born. After hearing “Lisa Sawyer,” a friend asked him if he liked Sam Cooke.
“I felt bad because I had never listened to Sam Cooke,” Bridges says. “So I started digging. I went on Pandora and started listening to Motown and Sam Cooke. After listening to all that music, I started to see that that’s where I needed to be.”
Where Bridges believed he needed to be was in the music of another era, lost in the soft melodies and understated cool of a generation whose music had long since taken root in the cultural substratum, evolving through everyone from Marvin Gaye and George Clinton to Michael Jackson and Grandmaster Flash.
“But my generation wasn’t able to experience that,” Bridges says of his pursuit of his classic sound. “Me being a black man, I was like, Why aren’t any brothers doing this kind of stuff?”
Anderson took Bridges under his wing, bringing him to song swaps and inviting him to play with Quaker City Night Hawks. It wasn’t Bridges’ music, however, that would really kick-start his career. It was his pants. Bridges was wearing high-waisted Wranglers and drinking beer on the patio of a place called The Boiled Owl Tavern when he was spotted by the girlfriend of Austin Jenkins, a guitarist and co-founder of the band White Denim. Jenkins was in a cowboy hat and his own pair of Wranglers, and his girlfriend made a fuss. They still have the picture she took, of the shy guy at the bar in his cool pants, not yet understanding that flint had just discovered steel.
Two weeks later, Jenkins stumbled across Bridges again, this time playing between Quaker City Night Hawks sets at the Magnolia Motor Lounge.
“He played ‘Coming Home’ first,” Jenkins remembers. “There were maybe five people still in there, and I was totally floored.” Jenkins went up to Bridges immediately afterward and asked if he wanted to record.
After Jenkins left, the bartender turned to Bridges. “You know he’s in White Denim?” he asked.
“Who’s that?” Bridges responded.
Even people who know White Denim, a psychedelic-rock act that came out of Austin to achieve some acclaim in the mid-2000s, weren’t aware of the scheme Jenkins and his bandmate, drummer Joshua Block, were hatching. Jenkins had moved back to Fort Worth in 2011, followed by Block a few years later. They had been acquiring vintage equipment—amps, microphones, a hulking soundboard from the 1960s that had been used to record the Grateful Dead—for an ambitious project. They wanted to record an album as albums used to be recorded in the heyday of rock and roll, mostly live on just a handful of tracks, with no overdubbing and little processing.
“The idea was a live studio,” Block says. “To take advantage of all the limitations and all the luxuries that you get when you use that kind of equipment.”
For their retro studio, they found a back storeroom of the old Supreme Golf Warehouse Outlet, which had been converted into apartments, Fort Worth Bike Sharing’s offices, and a bar called Shipping & Receiving. They used a plywood partition wall to separate the sound booth from the recording space. The band moved air ducts and other debris to create sound barriers, but mostly they let the room function as another instrument, the natural delay time in the empty space providing a Phil Spector-ish wash of echo over the entire recording.
The first session took place in late August. There was no air conditioning, and the room was hot as hell. Instruments were set up on a carpet made of putting-green turf. In the center of the green, there was a stand and microphone. No one brought any expectations.
“Honestly, it was just: let’s see if all this shit works,” Jenkins says. “This guy has a great voice. Let’s see if something can happen here.”
The first track they recorded was “Coming Home.” As they played, patrons from the bar wandered in, and some were conscripted to sing backup vocals. Residents in the apartments above the warehouse came down to watch. People clapped after takes. “There was a wild, crazy energy,” Wright says.
As they recorded the song, Jenkins noticed that Bridges wasn’t just singing his parts; he was reworking some of the arrangements of his vocals. Freed from having to accompany himself on the guitar, he tweaked the phrasing of the melody lines and adjusted the lyrics to fit between other things happening in the arrangement.
“We were on fire,” Bridges says. “Right then, I knew this was something special.”
No one could have expected how coolly and calmly Bridges would take the whole thing. Here was this shy kid surrounded by musicians 10 or more years his senior, veterans of countless recording sessions, tours all over the world, and they were playing his songs. Bridges slid into the middle of it, swinging his hands at his sides to the rhythm of his homespun soul songs.
“He was completely fearless,” Block says. “He knocked the first tune out of the park, then the second tune, then the third tune.”
Some people call Bridges a natural. But to understand how this singer was able to perform so well in this unconventional recording session, you have to know that no one who really knows the young man calls him Leon Bridges.
Leon Bridges was created at some point between 2012 and 2013, the name taken from the mononymous actor Leon, who played David Ruffin in The Temptations, the four-hour NBC miniseries first broadcast in 1998, and whom you might say bears some resemblance to Todd Michael Bridges, who was born in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1989.
By the time his family had arrived in Texas, around 1992, via a short stint in New Orleans, Todd’s parents had split. In 2002, Todd and his two siblings—older brother Wallace and younger sister Ivy—moved with their mother, Lisa Sawyer, into a 1,500-square-foot house on a gently curving street in Crowley about a mile from the city limits of Kelly Clarkson’s hometown of Burleson. A single mom living miles from her support network of extended family, Sawyer kept her brood close. Todd’s childhood was filled with simple pleasures and family. They invented games, lived at the library, and ate their mother’s Louisiana home cooking instead of fast food. Todd saw his father on weekends and spent summers with him. But at home, it was his mother who kept a tight, loving rein on the household.
“Todd saw the sacrifice,” Sawyer says. “As a single parent, we did everything together. There were more needs than money many times, but we got through. We had a strong faith in God. We were definitely a family unit—played together and cried together.”
Around age 11, he began to show an interest in dance, copying moves he saw on TV and listening to music while his mom was at work. When she came home, he disappeared into the garage to dance more. He tells me—and has claimed in other interviews—that he and his siblings were forbidden to listen to anything but gospel music. “Anita Baker, that kind of stuff,” he says. But when I bring this up to Sawyer, she’s incensed.
“I call him Pinocchio, and I said, ‘I’m going to beat you across your Pinocchio head if you say that again,’ ” Sawyer says. “And all he does is laugh.”
She admits there were a lot of gospel songs on in the house when the kids were growing up, but she also has a large record collection—“from Mozart to Mariah to Whitney to Babyface.” She just had standards: no profanity and no lyrics that were offensive to women. And Sawyer could sing. She sang at church, and she would sing with her son. When Todd got his first job as a park attendant at Six Flags Over Texas, they would sing together as she drove him to work, pretending they were on Broadway, trying to make each other laugh.
Todd Bridges enrolled at Tarrant County Community College, where he intended to pursue dance. Instead, he started spending time with musicians like Octavian Johnson, a pianist who would set up his keyboard in the school cafeteria. A half-dozen singers at a time would crowd around Johnson for freewheeling jam sessions that would play out like rap battles in the key of Usher, each singer jumping in the circle to improvise melodramatic R&B lyrics about anything from picking up girls to pairing Kool-Aid with sandwiches.
In videos of these sessions from 2010, Bridges is dressed in a pinky-purple t-shirt and white jeans, with a cap turned backward and brim flipped up. He mostly hangs off to the side, harmonizing as his classmates jump in and out of the ring. During a particularly raucous and hilarious jam called “Campus Cruiser,” he finally tries to kick in a lyric after about 10 minutes, only to be interrupted by a friend who jumps in front of the camera and sings in a faux-Auto-Tuned quaver, sending the rest of the crew into hysterics.
Bridges couldn’t figure out how to steal the limelight in the competitive musical arena of the Tarrant County Community College cafeteria, but Johnson recognized that he could sing. He encouraged Bridges to pursue music, and even though he insisted he was focused on dance, Bridges kept showing up to the sessions.
“Girls would ask him to sing to them all the time,” Johnson says. “We would sit down in the cafe, and all these girls would come to listen to him sing.”
Johnson brought Louie the Singer, a pop R&B act from Fort Worth that packs the House of Blues with squealing preteen Latino girls, to TCC for a gig. After the show, Louie met Bridges and asked if he wanted to sing backup for him. Johnson was already gigging around, bringing in $100 to $150 per night. Suddenly, singing started to seem like a possible profession for Bridges.