The story of the production and songwriting duo Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony has some interesting parallels with the tale of George Clinton and his Parliament/Funkadelic collective of the 1970s. Clinton brought his doo-wop group, the Parliaments, to Motown Records in the late 1960s and ended up writing for the legendary label before the squeaky-clean constraints of Motown got to be too much for a musical omnivore like Clinton, and he branched off into his own genre-bending world of funk-rock.
Claude Kelly and Chuck Harmony were paired up by Def Jam Records in 2009 to work on singer Chrisette Michele's album Epiphany. After that, they created a string of Grammy Award-nominated hits for Fantasia ("Bittersweet"), Bruno Mars ("Grenade"), Ledisi ("Pieces Of Me"), and Tamla ("Beautiful Surprise"), quickly establishing a reputation as the hottest producers and songwriters in modern R&B.
But much like Clinton, Kelly and Harmony chafed against the expectations of the music industry, which didn't seem interested in any non-mainstream ideas the duo had.
"I think we got to a place where it was important that the music came first," Kelly says. "We wanted to find a company and a mantra that housed our belief system, and really what it comes down to is that we considered ourselves weirdos — and there was nothing wrong with that at all."
Kelly and Harmony did two things in order to express that weirdness. First, they formed their own group called Louis York, a combination of their hometowns of St. Louis and New York City. They began writing and recording a trilogy of adventurous electronic-dance-pop/R&B/jazz EPs called Masterpiece Theater, Vols. 1-3. Then, they expanded their vision, leaving the rat race of L.A. for Nashville and creating the Weirdo Workshop, a studio, record label, and artist collective devoted to developing musical content across multiple genres.
"Everyone is a totally unique person with a totally unique set of skills," Kelly says. "That's the 'weirdo' part. And the workshop part is that you have to work on yourself every single day. It's a daily mantra for us, a reminder that it's OK to be different."
Louis York has given these two behind-the-scenes performers a chance to step into the spotlight and try things musically that they never would've been able to do in the mainstream music industry.
"I think it's very common to put people in boxes," Kelly says. "People knew us as songwriters and producers, and they expected that that's what we were going to do for the rest of our lives. But if you're a creative person, you get off on the fact that you want to be challenged every time you go into the studio or onto the stage. So it was definitely hard for people to accept that we were so much more."
Not that there was a solid plan in place when the duo started out on this path.
"We didn't even know we wanted to be a band," Harmony says. "We didn't know what would happen with those songs we started writing. The reason for those songs was that we were frustrated creatively with what we were being asked to produce ad
- “We came up with the Shindellas as the female counterparts to us who could really tell the truth, things we know that women of color are thinking about every day and night and no one is talking about on the radio.”
After the creative release of their Masterpiece Theater EPs, Harmony and Kelly decided to expand their vision even more. They created a new, all-female trio in the mold of the classic '60s groups called the
"We had a lot of things we wanted to address after we finished Masterpiece Theater," Kelly says, "including addressing how women were being represented in the music business, which I still think has a long way to go. We came up with the
Kelly and Harmony have created a tour featuring both Louis York & the
"We do it Motown revue-style," Harmony says. "We'll do a song, the
"There's something predictable about the live show experience," Lewis adds. "If you're gonna come out to see a band, it should be a full-body experience, where you don't know what's going to happen next; you don't know what the next song is going to be. Having us all onstage and going back and forth gives people a chance to step into our world and see how that world can be."