One night in 1991, while he was in Japan, Andy Stokes found his calling.
On tour with his funk group, Cool'r, Stokes had a night off in Tokyo. Through a friend, he was invited to catch Parliament-Funkadelic, which happened to be performing in the city's neon-gleaming expanse. From backstage, Stokes watched as George Clinton and company roared through a string of P-Funk classics. "I was like a kid in a candy factory," he says. "I was just happy to be in the building."
As it turns out, Clinton and fellow luminary Charlie Wilson had caught Stokes' set with Cool'r the night before, and came away impressed. Seeing Stokes in the wings, Clinton began to goad him on. When the band ripped into the next jam, Clinton ushered the budding Portland singer onstage and handed him the mic.
"I'm tired," Clinton puffed. "You front the band."
Moments later, the kid who started out singing James Brown to a broomstick in his parents' living room was crushing "Atomic Dog" for a sold-out crowd. "I could not believe it," Stokes says with a chuckle. "There I was, wearing lime-green shorts and a Batman shirt when George pulled me out there. If I died after that, it would have been fine by me."
Fortunately, something else happened. After the gig, Clinton took Stokes aside and urged him to go solo. "He told me, 'You've got something special inside you. You've got to bring it out,'" he says.
Back in Portland, a renewed Stokes began assembling his own group. Twenty-five years later, the Andy Stokes Band gigs regularly throughout the region. In addition, Stokes has been known to perform in capacities that are unconventional for an R&B singer: He's been on Grimm, he's sung the national anthem before Trail Blazers games, and he even voiced a California Raisin.
And, of course, he's made records. His new EP, Full Circle, was produced by Ralph Stacy, who's worked with the likes of Luther Vandross and Babyface. It's well-stocked with buoyant guitars and textured synths, all accompanied by Stokes' lush harmonies and baby-making leads. The project was put together by Marlon McClain, bandleader of one of Portland's earliest and most notable funk acts, Pleasure.
The title Full Circle stems from an incident that occurred in the early aughts. According to Stokes, identity theft wiped his accounts clean. "I lost everything," he says. "One day I was driving a convertible. The next day, I was calling the bank to take it away. And there was nothing the bank would do for me. I was out." After years of incessant gigging, Stokes has begun recouping his losses, with Full Circle a testament to his plight.
"Through it all, it's the fans that stayed behind me," he says. "It's the music that saved my life. When the time comes, I want to be the artist that puts Portland soul on the map. This town has had my back, so it's the least I can do to return the favor." BOBBY SMITH.
SEE IT: Andy Stokes plays Jimmy Mak's, 221 NW 10th Ave., on Saturday, Dec. 10. 8 pm. $12. Under 21 permitted until 9:30 pm.