Photo by Jackie Lee Young
By Erik Thompson
This is the Black Pumas’ moment. And they are making the most of it.
Singer Eric Burton has gone from busking for strangers and random passersby on the Santa Monica Pier to performing at this year’s Grammys, where his band was nominated for three awards, including Album and Record of the Year.
Guitarist/producer Adrian Quesada has already experienced tremendous success of his own within the music industry. Quesada’s band, Grupo Fantasma, won the 2010 Grammy Award for Best Latin Rock, Alternative, or Urban Record for their album, El Existential. But Quesada was interested in experimenting with a new sound and taking his music in a different sonic direction, and was looking for a singer for some songs he was writing at the time. That was around the same time that Burton made his way from California to Austin, Texas, to get more serious about his own music.
In 2017, the stars aligned when Burton was introduced to Quesada by a mutual friend. Quesada sent Burton a few recordings that he was working on to see if something clicked, but when he didn’t hear back from him for a couple weeks, Quesada figured Burton wasn’t interested. It turns out, Burton was just working on the best vocal arrangement he could for one of the tracks, and shared it with Quesada in a totally unique and unexpected way.
“All of a sudden, out of nowhere, he calls me and sings an idea on the phone,” Quesada says with a laugh. “I was like, whoa, this guy is coming in hot! And not only is he into it, but he’s singing on the phone. And he was like, "What do you think of that?" I couldn’t hear it very well on the phone, but I knew we had to get together soon.”
Despite only knowing each other for a short while and still trying to figure each other out creatively and musically, both Burton and Quesada knew immediately that they had tapped into a special sound together. And soon the Black Pumas was born.
“I felt it right away, man,” Quesada says of their initial session. “We were just going to work for a day or two, it wasn't like we really had a big plan or anything. Right away I could tell there was this synergy, and it was exciting. It was exciting from that very first day.”
Early fans of Black Pumas could feel it right away, as well. Their weekly residency at C-Boys in Austin not only helped the band hone their soulful, dynamic live sound, but it also spread the word that there was a fantastic new band in town and Black Pumas instantly became a must-see live show with lines stretching around the block to get into the intimate club.
“Adrian and I were enjoying making the music, and it had a certain impetus to it that we both really connected on and vibed with, just between us two,” says Burton of the band's early days. “We didn't know exactly how performing these songs live was going to go. But once I was able to kind of put down my guitar, and be elevated through the rest of the band, we became like a different kind of a beast.”
It didn’t take long for the rest of the music world to fall under their intoxicating musical spell. The stages as well as the national spotlight on Black Pumas both got substantially bigger as the hype around the band spread like wildfire. They were nominated for Best New Artist at the 2020 Grammy Awards (part of an absolutely stellar class of nominees that included eventual winner Billie Eilish, Lizzo, Lil Nas X, Yola, and Rosalía), and performed on an array of late-night TV shows and high profile tours to promote their scorching self-titled debut record as well as their electric live show.
That growing acclaim culminated in the band receiving three Grammy nominations this year, with Black Pumas being nominated for Album of the Year, and "Colors" receiving nominations for Record of the Year and Best American Roots Performance. That recognition from the music industry and their peers certainly took some of the sting away from not being able to tour and play live shows due to the pandemic. But the band have their sights set squarely on their future now.
While most bands would be satisfied with the phenomenal success Black Pumas have achieved in such a short amount of time, Quesada and Burton are hard at work writing and recording a new album and ready to get in front of their fans again with live shows planned for this summer. Their creative partnership thankfully shows no signs of slowing down, and Black Pumas’ stirring, vibrant sound will be just what we all need to shake off the long lost year and have us rejoicing in the redemptive power of music once again.