It's a mild Friday evening in May, and the patio at Pure Sushi in downtown Scottsdale is packed with patrons in business casual, sipping sake and discussing everything from the economy to fashion.
Sonny Long is standing inside the restaurant, looking out at the plush, white leather couches through the establishment's all-glass walls. Smooth elevator jazz seeps from the sound system, adding to the surreal vibe. The walls, tables, chairs, even the patrons are all white, and the big, flowing white drapes over the patio resemble drifting clouds. It feels as if Mariah Carey could prance through here at any moment, all covered in glitter and paparazzi camera flashes.
Long's dark skin and clothes contrast with the dreamy, alabaster surroundings, but that's not the only reason the R&B-fusion artist stands out tonight.
For one, he's got a huge guy wearing all black standing beside him, whom Long refers to as his bodyguard. He's also accompanied by a spiky-haired brunette in a curve-hugging dress. Long says she's his publicist.
As they make their way onto the patio, the trio receives a few curious glances from a couple of middle-aged women seated nearby. They look over Long as much as they're able — his "bodyguard" stands in front of him until he's seated and then stands silently beside him with his arms crossed. He looks patient and dutiful, ready to spring into action — just in case any of the aging hipsters here decide to try to lob raw fish at somebody's face.
When you know you're a superstar, you gotta be ready for anything.
It was Long's choice to meet at Pure. He leans back on one of the restaurant's white leather couches and says that he's got only 30 minutes for an interview because he has something to do somewhere else in Scottsdale — but he won't say what or where.
With his pearly white smile, ripped physique, and slick swagger, Long seems part smooth salesman, part cheesy lounge singer drunk on his own act. He's dressed in designer jeans and a new AC/DC "Highway to Hell" T-shirt tight enough to accent his biceps. He's also wearing sunglasses. He's always wearing sunglasses, even when it's dark outside or he's inside a dim nightclub. The way he's ordering around the wait staff at this swanky Scottsdale sushi joint, you'd think he came here regularly and dropped a lot of cash.
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Long's just getting warmed up, talking about how he received a key to the city and was honored with "Sonny Long Day" by Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, when a couple of employees at Pure start moving around some tables near where he's sitting. Long, apparently concerned that the sound of the tables scraping across the concrete will drown out what he's saying, halts the project.
"Excuse me, guys, can you wait a minute?" Long says. "We're doing an interview here."
Long's bodyguard turns toward the staff and holds up his hand to say, "Stop." The restaurant staff obeys and shuffles off with puzzled looks on their faces. Best not to upset the patrons, especially when they're paying $15 per California roll at the trendy restaurant.
But Long hasn't ordered any food tonight. He says it's the first time he or his companions have been here, but all that they've ordered is water. Maybe Long spent all his money on his entourage or maybe they're just not hungry, but it's unusual to see a musician make such a grand entrance and not holler for a bottle of Cristal (or at least a bottle of wine) for his crew.
He compares his entrepreneurial ambition to Diddy's, his eclectic musical stylings to Prince's. But Diddy probably would have ridden in on a 20-foot flatbed truck with a bevy of dancers in silver spacesuits, and Prince, in fact, is the only other musician we've met who had a bodyguard with him. But Diddy can pay for the dancers with his $346 million fortune, and Prince probably needs a bodyguard because he's sold about 80 million records and is worth about $250 million.
So how much is Sonny Long worth? And why does he need a bodyguard? Is he for real?
"Hey, I'm gonna answer the question like this: Sonny Long, I do me," Long says. "The things that I do in my life, in my world, may not apply to what you do in your life or your world, but . . . We shall see. The music speaks for itself."
But there hasn't been much music.
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy and her companions make a long journey to the Emerald City to visit "the great and powerful Oz," whom they believe can give them whatever they lack. They finally arrive in the wizard's chambers, shivering at the sound of his booming voice and a large, smoking hologram, only to find that the wizard is actually an unremarkable little man behind a curtain using special effects to appear god-like. The wizard orders them to "pay no attention to the man behind the curtain."
Sonny Long is like the little wizard behind the curtain, using smoke and mirrors and bodyguards to appear larger than life. He sometimes seems unaware of the transparency of his game — during the photo shoot for this story, Long insisted on throwing up his hand in an "L" sign. Most people equate that sign with "loser," but he insists it stands for "Long."
Long talks about all the "big plans" he has for his company, SL Vision, a company he says is not incorporated but is trademarked and funded entirely by him. But SL Vision is not registered with the Secretary of State or the Better Business Bureau, and, in fact, there are at least three other companies worldwide using the name "SL Vision" (a Web design company in France, a Sri Lankan church in Canada, and a social project by the Sierra Leone government called Sierra Leone Vision). Long talks about how he's going to start a fashion line, but there's no evidence of it beyond some pairs of sunglasses he carries around and says he designed.
He says he's going to record with renowned R&B artist CeCe Peniston, but she would confirm only that they've been talking about possibly collaborating in the future. He says that he recently met with representatives of Diddy's label, Bad Boy Records, in New York, but nobody at the label would answer repeated calls and e-mails to confirm his claim. He says that Miami hip-hop label Slip-N-Slide Records also has approached him about a record deal, but label A&R rep Otha Davis tells New Times that Long hasn't developed enough as an artist yet. He also says unsigned artists sometimes pay to get their music featured on parts of Slip-N-Slide's Web site — particularly "On Da Grind," where Long's latest single was featured.
Long says his parents were both national recording artists but initially refused to even give their names. He says he's the founder of an athletic scholarship for youth, named in honor of his late cousin Terrence Harraway, whom Long says was the victim of a still-unsolved 1994 murder. But Long can't name a single recipient of his scholarship, and there are no records of any actual beneficiaries.
Long didn't give the names of his bodyguards, and his publicist, Pepper Berry, hasn't represented any other artists. Where did Long find them? All Long will say is, "When you work with people, it's important that they share your vision."
He's never had any major press. In fact, he hasn't given a public performance in the Valley, or anyplace else, since supposedly opening for Houston rapper Mike Jones at Arizona Beach Club in March 2006. He's never released an album, despite his assertion that he could "release a CD every day if I wanted to."
Basically, Sonny Long has done nothing, yet he's a legend in his own mind. He says he's worked with Valley hip-hop breakout Willy Northpole (who's signed to Ludacris' Disturbing Tha Peace label and will release his new album on June 23), but Northpole calls bullshit.
Northpole says his father and Long's father were best friends, and the two artists grew up together in Phoenix. "I have no reason not to like Sonny Long. I consider him a friend and I've known him for years, but he just lies too much, and I can't respect that shit," Northpole says. "There's no way I would ever do a song with Sonny Long."
When told that New Times was planning a feature on Long, Northpole says, "A lot of these guys out here are full of shit. They're good guys, but I wouldn't waste your time with that. Sonny was saying years ago that he was signed to Bad Boy Records, and I know the guys at Bad Boy Records, and they don't even know who Sonny Long is. He has no affiliation with Bad Boy Records."
But what about Long's publicist and bodyguards? "It's all bullshit," Northpole says. "And on top of all the bullshit, the music sucks. So why bother?"
Sonny Long has pursued a story in New Times since at least May 2005, when he told a reporter his album would be out that September (obviously, it wasn't). Pepper Berry approached music editor Martin Cizmar two months ago, requesting a music feature on Long. His press kit contains a laundry list of parties Long's hosted since 2005, but lists only one performance — the 2006 opening gig for Mike Jones, which we couldn't confirm. Pressed for a promoter to contact to verify that Long actually played that gig, Berry later asked that we not mention the Jones show at all.
Not that Long has no cred whatsoever — both R&B star CeCe Peniston and Long's producer, Hejus Trife, who's worked with Willy Northpole, among others, vouch for his talent and chance of success — but he makes a lot of claims, from the line of sunglasses to an athletic scholarship to even a job selling insurance, that sound good yet can't be backed up.
But does any of that really matter?
Maybe not, because Long managed to receive recognition in April 2008 from Mayor Gordon's office in the form of "Sonny Long Day" and a key to the city because of his supposed athletic scholarship.
Long's press kit contains the proclamation from Gordon. It reads, in part, "Whereas, the artist and entrepreneur brings together people from all ages, backgrounds, and races to form a united and strong community in Phoenix . . . Keeping the youth of Phoenix striving for their goals and pushing for excellence in education and business relations . . . helped spearhead a fund known as the Terrence Harraway Scholarship Fund . . ."
In the press kit, there's a photo of Long standing beside Gordon. Gordon's office vouches for the proclamation, but Scott Phelps, spokesman for the mayor, admits that they did not know about the scholarship until Long contacted them and that Gordon was not familiar with Long's music. But, Phelps says, Long "seemed like a very nice young man."
Sonny Long offers few details about his personal life. He says he's single and he has kids, but he won't reveal anything else about his children, including their age and gender.
At the outset, he refused to name his parents, saying only they were both "national recording artists." When asked why he wouldn't reveal their names, Long talked about how people need to protect their families, and cited the shooting of Tupac Shakur and the deaths of Jennifer Hudson's family as examples.
But it doesn't seem that anybody has a reason to want to hurt Long or his family. Aside from a couple of traffic tickets, the guy has no criminal record, and even the people who call him out, like Willy Northpole, acknowledge he's a nice guy and say they like him as a person.
After some persuasion, Long relents and reveals his parents' names. His mother, Delores Ramsey, was the daughter of a minister and did, in fact, release two out-of-print independent gospel albums (Amen! in 1995 and Give Thanks in 2005) before pursuing her current full-time career in nursing. Long's father, Gary Whitehead Sr., was a member of Phoenix soul act The Whitehead Brothers (not to be confused with the Philadelphia-based duo of the same name).
So it's not surprising that Long's love affair with music started at an early age. Ramsey says when he was about 6, he started singing around the house, just making up silly songs to be funny. "But he had a talent for it," she says. "I always thought he had a unique voice. Having been a singer myself, you recognize things like that."
When Long was 7, Ramsey put him in a fashion show and talent contest she'd organized at the VA hospital on Seventh Street and Indian School Road. "He modeled and he danced," she says. "He was absolutely wonderful."
Ramsey describes her son as a model child who always got straight A's in school. "He never got sick. He was at school every day. He had perfect attendance," she says. "He was always very disciplined. He's always been a great writer and a great speaker, even when he was young. He's always just had a lot of confidence."
Long says he started writing original songs in grade school. "Since I was 4, 5, 6 years old, I've been coming up with songs in my head," Long says. "My first song I had was a song called 'Smooth Brother.' It was, like, 'I'm a smooth brother / dressed undercover / never forget that I'm the ladies' lover.' That's back in like third grade."
He modeled himself after the biggest pop star of the '80s, Michael Jackson, and still has a red leather jacket like the one Jackson wore in the "Thriller" video. His first shot at recording his voice was when he was about 12. He says he'd take two boom boxes and line them up, side-by-side, and record himself singing the vocals on one tape while the instrumental version of a cassette single played on the other.
Asked when he recorded his first song in a bona fide recording studio, Long doesn't really answer but reiterates his boom-box story and says, "And then it developed from there."
It's been 17 years since Long, now 29, first recorded himself on a boom box, but "it developed" is as specific as he gets about what he's done between then and now.
One thing he has done is release three songs via the Internet, and on July 7, he says, he'll be releasing a new single.
A new single isn't quite "a CD every day," but, for Long, it's big news.
On a Sunday morning at the Kiwanis Park Recreation Center, Sonny Long is jogging around an indoor basketball court — wearing sunglasses, of course. He's promised to sing a couple of lines from his supposed new single, "Dance to the Music," while New Times videotapes it for the paper's Web site.
But when the camera starts rolling, Long suddenly changes his tune. He talks about how the new song is going to be like Marvin Gaye's "What's Goin' On" in its themes of unity and struggle, but he says he won't sing lines from the single because he wants to "save that." So, instead, he sings a couple of lines that he says he came up with in the car on the way to the court.
He snaps his fingers to keep rhythm and begins to sing: "To my Arizona people who are struggling . . ."
Long's voice is strong and soulful, reminiscent of the smooth R&B stylings of artists like Anthony Hamilton or Luther Vandross, but he's still a bit rough as far as vocal control. Toward the end of his a cappella performance, he starts to reach for a high note, but it gets away from him and he has to recover with a couple of extra notes to bring the tenor down. It's a decent display of vocal talent, but nowhere near as clean as the studio music he's released.
And the music Long's released is sparse — those three songs on the Internet.
His last single, a Timberlake-style hip-hop/neo-soul hybrid called "So Sophisticated," was one of the featured songs at On Da Grind, a Web site created for up-and-coming artists by Miami hip-hop label Slip-N-Slide Records. Long's song was featured on the site after he sent a press kit to the label's A&R folks. Slip-N-Slide A&R rep Otha Davis confirmed that some artists pay certain fees to get their music featured at On Da Grind but wouldn't say whether Long paid for his exposure. Long says he didn't but could've paid for On Da Grind's "extra services" if he'd wanted to.
Some digging on the Web turns up a pair of older, more risqué rap songs on a music site called iSound.com, which allows artists to register and upload their music for free. Long's songs on the site are "I Like the Way," a paean to "poppin' Ecstasy" and "hittin' it from behind," and "Hustlaz Muzik," an ode to, well, hustling. The songs are more rap-oriented than the soul sound of "So Sophisticated," but Long says his "vision has changed" since recording those first two songs, and he doesn't plan to include them on his upcoming album, which has no release date. (His changing vision is also the reason he gives for not releasing an album in 2005, when he first told New Times he was going to.)
To his credit, Long's not without some important supporters. One of them is local producer Hejus Trife, a member of Valley hip-hop syndicate Man Up Squad, which also includes locally renowned rapper Cinque and Capital Records recording artist Jiggalo. Trife also recorded the song "Body Marked Up" with Valley artist Willy Northpole, now signed to Ludacris' label — on the strength of that one song, according to Ludacris.
Trife says he's worked with Long since 2005 and that they've recorded more than 50 songs at Trife's Muzik House Studios. "Sonny's style is what he says it is — gumbo. It's a little bit of everything," Trife says. "He's an extremely multi-talented artist that can sing and rap."
Long's claim that he plans to work with CeCe Peniston checks out with the R&B star, but they both say the collaboration's still in its formative stages. Peniston says she met Long "in the clubs" about five years ago.
"We've listened to each other's music," Peniston says. "We asked each other what kind of direction we want to go in — up-tempo, down-tempo — and what kind of subject matter we wanted to talk about."
Peniston says Long has a very good chance of making it in the music business. "I believe that whatever you put into the universe, whatever you believe to be true, I believe is always possible," Peniston says. "So I believe he has the ability to do whatever he puts his mind to, because that's how I am. I'm very driven and very determined. You have to believe in it yourself, and other people will believe in it, too."
Otha Davis has been in charge of Slip-N-Slide records' online talent contest, On Da Grind, for four years. He says Long, who submitted "So Sophisticated" to On Da Grind, is one of the more popular ODG artists and that "there's definitely potential there," but he stops short of saying Long's ready for a record deal.
"Really, it's just a matter of, a lot of the times, just getting better-quality tracks and just working with producers on that aspect," Davis says. "I don't feel that 'So Sophisticated' is quite that track yet, but he's definitely headed in the right direction."
When talking about his music, Long likes to use culinary terms. He frequently expresses his disdain for "microwave artists," in contrast to his own slow-cooked approach. He wasn't born anywhere near the Bayou (he says he was born and raised in Phoenix), but that hasn't stopped him from referring to his sound as "gumbo music," with a potpourri of ingredients like in the popular Cajun dish.
"When you eat gumbo, you're gonna get shrimp, you're gonna get this, you're gonna get that," Long explains. "[My music is] not gonna be just rap. It's not just gonna be, 'Oh, he's R&B,' or, 'He's this.' It's gonna be more like, 'He's like the next Michael Jackson. He's like Sade. He's a Prince. He's a James Brown.' These are artists that are timeless artists because you can't classify them in any category . . . Music, in my opinion, should never be categorized anyway, because music is from the soul."
On a breezy Wednesday evening, Sonny Long is sitting at a poolside cantina on the roof of the W Hotel in Scottsdale. The sun is setting over the resort, and hipsters in hundred-dollar shirts are lining up at the bar and sipping cosmos near bonfires.
Long, dressed in a designer button-down shirt and jeans, colorful Ed Hardy shoes, and his requisite sunglasses, is nursing a fruity orange cocktail and talking again about his "brand."
When asked in a previous interview how he planned to get the market ready for his brand, Long had answered, "You don't build a house on fuckin' dirt. You get that cement and you lay that shit down. You go out there and you spend every dollar you've got to hire a publicist. You spend every dollar you've got to hire people to protect your life if you're worth millions. I'm not saying I'm worth millions, but nobody knows."
Long was initially loath to disclose his day job. He ultimately said he works in the insurance industry but refused to name the company or even give his title there. So surely he pays his publicist and bodyguard, right? And surely he wouldn't be offended by the question if he's already said spending "every dollar you've got" to hire publicists and bodyguards is necessary, right?
Wrong. When asked whether he pays his publicist and bodyguard, he says he does. When asked whether he pays them money, he's clearly offended.
"I'm not even gonna answer that question, because I don't know the reasoning behind the question," Long says, scoffing and shifting in his seat. "It's not important to me. It's not a big question, but the thing about it is, my people are taken care of. They're here because they're here. Whether they're paid with paper, or whether they're paid with knowledge, they're here because they're here."
"These are my friends," Long continues. "I can't have my friends around me?"
A lot of people have their friends around them, but their friends aren't assuming the roles of publicist and earbud-wearing bodyguard. If he were just going out to dinner and the press weren't around, would he bring his friends to an upscale place like Pure Sushi in Scottsdale?
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"That depends if they're hungry," Long fires back.
It's the first short answer he's given to any question over four interviews.
Obviously, Long views himself as a visionary, a wearer of many hats: recording artist, promoter, entrepreneur, philosopher, educator, philanthropist. The lanky, 6-foot singer also considers himself a budding "NBA point guard" — even though he says the last time he played competitive basketball was at South Mountain High School at least 11 years ago.
"I'm gonna try out for the Suns," Long claims. "For real, that's one of my goals. There's been no talks yet. There's no talks. It's something that's been on my goal list. I was a basketball player. I love basketball to the point where, you know what, why not? I've got one life to live. I wanna do everything that's on my bucket list. I wanna be the best musician, I wanna be the best father, all these things. I'm gonna go for it.