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Spotlight on B. Slade

The gospel singer-turned-stage actor stars in The Who’s TOMMY, his third musical at the San Diego Repertory Theatre


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You grew up in Spring Valley. Did you do any musicals at Monte Vista High School? I did Bye Bye Birdie, Guys and Dolls, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and Pygmalion.

Pretty tame stuff. Now you’re in Tommy, the world’s first rock-opera. Did you see the original musical at La Jolla Playhouse (1992) or watch the Elton John movie? I didn’t see it at LJP; I was too young to have appreciated it. I saw the Broadway tour, though, and the movie—absolutely. I’m a ‘70s rock musical “head.” I love Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar. It’s amazing the way they went all out for those films—and Ken Russell’s approach to that film! “Pinball Wizard” was ingenious, with the gigantic legs—I thought that was unreal. A lot of people have more affinity for the stage play; I’m the antithesis. I like the film.

Last year, The New Yorker ran a 10-page profile of you (February 8, 2010), calling you the “first high-profile gospel singer in history to come out of the closet.” You lost a lot of friends and fans. Lesson? I had to make sure I didn’t confuse what God’s children do with who I knew Him to be. You’ll start taking things out on God in general when it’s just a few knuckleheads that are ignorant. I inherited something that I didn’t really sign up for. And Gospel music is a subculture within a subculture—it’s like a triple minority, so I was impressed The New Yorker writer spent so much time with the article. I’m still really honored that it happened.

So you relate to the story of Tommy? There are so many parallels with religion. A lot of drama and hierarchy comes along with many forms of systematic organized religion. I’ve been deaf, dumb, and blind as a person to so many things because of that indoctrination. Now I see there’s a form of redemption that comes from within. Just knowing that has already changed my life. Playing Tommy is life transforming for me. When I sing the song “I’m Free,” I get chills. That’s what I believe the audience is going to walk away with—a spiritual experience minus the religious expectation or mediation. They’ll feel enlightened and encouraged and inspired. They’re going to know it’s real for me, because it really happened to me.

Where does the name B. Slade come from? Last year, your name was TON3X (pronounced “Toe-NAY”). Why all the name changes? The story of Brian Slade [a glam-rock star from the 1998 movie Velvet Goldmine] rang true with me because he came from one genre and transformed himself into something completely different. When I say the name, I’m referring to previous incarnations of oneself. I had outgrown the mentality of where I came from and because Tonex  [later stylized as TON3X] was synonymous with gospel music superstardom, I knew it would hold me back from the full expression of who I’d evolved into. To me, “B. Slade” represents the idea that every time you come in contact with what I do, you’re going to be slayed by truth, honesty, and power. Anyway, it’s more of an international rock star name.

Diesel, B. Slade’s soul-R&B-hip hop album—with elements of jazz—releases July 19. The Who’s Tommy, by Pete Townshend and Des McAnuff, plays at the Lyceum Stage July 16-August 14. Directed by Sam Woodhouse.

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