Ty Stone can’t stop moving, can’t stop talking. He prowls the tiny dressing room in a sequined red suit, swigging from a giant energy drink, muttering and barking.
“Bring that light down! It looks like a living room out there.”
“I want the horns brassy.”
“I need that bass hard. That’s the funk!”
Onstage, the 10-piece band busts out into a tight vamp. Offstage, Stone’s energy ratchets up another few notches. He jumps — suddenly, smoothly, urgently. Shimmying his hips, raising his arms, he twitches his feet in their tight, pointed English boots.
“I’m ready for you!” Stone growls. “I’m ready, so you be ready!
“It’s not showtime. It’s star time!”
He bursts from the dressing room and enters the theater from the rear, shaking hands with audience members as he makes his way down the aisle. He climbs to the stage, grabs the mic.
“Get up offa that thing!” he shouts, and suddenly he’s no longer Ty Stone, a soft-spoken 55-year-old who lives in a Bloomington townhouse and works at an electronics factory. He’s the Godfather of Soul, Mr. Dynamite, Soul Brother No. 1, the Hardest Working Man in Show Business.
“When I put on that wig and that makeup, don’t call me Ty,” he said. “I do James Brown better than I do myself.”
Stone, a Chicago native, can pinpoint the day when his life changed. His father bought him a ticket to a James Brown show for his 13th birthday.
“It was $4.50,” he said with a laugh. “Four-fifty. And his band was so tight. He sounded exactly like his records. Exactly like his records. The other bands — they didn’t sound like their records.”
Stone and his friends began imitating James Brown, gathering on a street corner or in someone’s basement, working on their impressions. Sometimes they’d all chip in to buy one ticket to a James Brown show, and then the ticketholder would come out of the concert and teach new moves to the group.
Even before then, Stone seemed destined for a musical life. His uncle owned a ballroom in Chicago, and young Ty saw all the top R&B acts: B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, the Temptations, the Four Tops. He began playing guitar at age 8, and as a teenager began picking up gigs in the Chicago area.
He soon found steady work as a musician on the chitlin’ circuit, touring with national acts as they played for primarily black audiences in the South and the Rust Belt. He played with the Chi-Lites, the Staples Singers, Johnnie Taylor and Gene Chandler. He appeared on the same bills with Gladys Knight, Ike Turner and Dionne Warwick.
“You don’t make no money in those blues clubs, though,” he said. “I talked to the Ikettes [Turner’s backup singers]. They made $35 a night. Ike was so cheap, he made them buy their own shoes,” he added, cackling softly.
‘A made-up mind’
Three times, Stone was on the same bill with his idol. Oddly enough, he never took the opportunity to speak with the Godfather.
“I don’t like to bother people,” Stone said. “I just watched.” And continued to work on his James Brown moves. Stone said Wilson Pickett used to ask him to do James Brown.
At some point along the way, Stone started doing drugs. By his mid-30s, he was a full-fledged addict, living on the street and eating out of garbage cans. He doesn’t shy from that past, but prefers not to dwell on it. Asked how he turned his life around, he credits God and “a made-up mind.”
“A made-up mind is the most powerful thing in the world,” he said. “I always had a dream of doing what I’m doing now. And I followed that.”
By 2006, he’d made his way back into the music business, fronting his own band and performing in the Great Lakes region. They used to feature a couple of James Brown numbers in their shows. After Soul Brother No. 1 died on Christmas Day that year, Stone’s manager suggested that he create a tribute show. The idea clicked immediately.
It was a smart business move. Tribute shows are hot, and the Twin Cities are an especially good market, local producers said. There are several booking agents based here who handle nothing but tribute acts.
“What I hear is that the big bands, their ticket prices are so high,” said Michael Paepke, a Plymouth producer whose acts include Tumblin’ Dice, a Rolling Stones tribute band. “I don’t have to pay $350 to see the Rolling Stones and be in the nosebleed seats. And the guy’s not too old to hit the notes. A lot of these older artists can’t hit the notes anymore.”
Stone was determined that his act would be done right. He spent thousands on tailor-made costumes, custom wigs and his English shoes — from the same maker who supplied the Beatles.
“You put your money where your heart is,” he said. So far, he’s probably spent more than he’s made. But he said he’s getting past the break-even point. Stone performs once or twice a month, preferring to work casinos and theaters rather than clubs. He attracts an older audience that’s more comfortable in those venues, and the ticket prices are generally higher, often about $20.
His wife, Natalie Nieves, is a business analyst, and she takes an analytical view of her husband’s performing life.
“It’s very different,” she said. “It makes me wear a lot of hats: money manager, travel arranger, photographer. Some days it’s fun. And some days I do it because I love him.”
The anointed one
Onstage at Pepito’s Parkway Theater in south Minneapolis, Stone and the band are ripping through a medley of hits: “It’s a Man’s World,” “Cold Sweat,” “Living in America,” “I Feel Good.”
In the first 30 minutes of the show, Stone doesn’t stop moving for a moment. He shouts, he spins, he shakes, he sweats. He drops to his knees. He flings off his cape.
Finally, he leaves the stage to change costume, returning in a blue fringed jumpsuit and a short white jacket. His second set is just as energetic as the first. During “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” he starts calling audience members onstage to dance. Soon, 25 people are grooving with the band.
When the show ends after more than an hour, Stone leaves the same way he came in, heading up the aisle as the crowd of 250 stands and cheers. He makes a beeline for the lobby, where he sets up a merchandise table and meets the fans as they come out. He’ll stay up all night, watching and critiquing the evening’s performance on video, over and over.
“It went well. I’m very happy,” he said, pausing for a photo. “The band did great.”
Stone hopes to take his show to Las Vegas and settle in for a long-term engagement. He said he’s been in touch with Brown’s widow, Tomi Rae Brown, and she may join his show after longstanding legal issues over the late singer’s estate are settled.
Until then, he’s looking for bookings in the Twin Cities area and pouring everything into each performance.
“In the Bible, the prophet said, ‘I don’t want a portion of your anointing — I want it all,’ ” Stone said. “I inherited James Brown. When you see me, you’re seeing the soul of James Brown.”