Southern soul hitmaker wins music production awards created out of small town Mississippi studio
Published 5:32 am Sunday, August 1, 2021
Working from his small studio in McComb, Antonio “Tony T.” Turner is the brains behind the music of some of the hottest Southern soul artists who pack venues by the thousands of people and garner downloads and audio streams by the millions.
Turner runs Vigor Records, which has a production studio, recording studio and offices inside the historic former Kellwood textile mill.
“As a producer I’ve built a network of DJs, promoters, record labels I’m in contact with,” he said. “Radio (disc) jockeys, they respect the music and a lot of times they’ll play it just because my name is on it.”
He’s worked with artists from near and far, including Arthur Young, a trucker from Summit whose song “Funky 40” has had more than 1.5 million views on YouTube in six months.
Others in Turner’s production discography may not be household names but they’re most certainly a big deal to the fans of Southern soul, a musical genre that blends down-home, old-school blues with modern synthesized music production.
Turner has composed and recorded music for Omar Cunningham — “he’s a blues-slash-Southern soul legend,” Turner explains — Bigg Polkey — “he’s one of the top artists in that genre now” — and DJ Trucker — “he does millions and millions of streams and he has millions of followers,” to name a few.
“And countless others, man. There’s so many more I’m working with right now,” Turner said. “We do all of the rap artists in the area. We do most of the gospel artists in the area.”
Turner, 35, grew up in Woodville and got into music when he was 13.
He started out playing guitar before being recruited to play keyboard with Gloster-based gospel group The Veal Brothers.
“They had an opportunity for a keyboard player, so I taught myself how to play keyboard,” Turner said.
He toured with them and joined the gospel group Castro Coleman & Highly Favored in 2006. Turner went on to play bass and keys for Coleman’s forray into blues, an opportunity that led to worldwide exposure.
“We traveled the world together,” Turner said.
He also appeared alongside Coleman for a small role in the James Brown biopic “Get On Up,” starring the late Chadwick Boseman as Brown. In it, Turner played the part of Brown’s bassist, Bernard Odum.
Turner has been working in the old Kellwood building — now known as the McComb Business Mill — for about a year now. He’s not alone in his work, though. Gloria Thompson is Vigor Records’ manager, Reginald Magee is the head of its gospel division, Stacy Beal handles marketing and Lisa Wright is the publicist.
And in the past year, his work has received much acclaim. He won the 2020 Golden Triangle Producer of the Year Award and the King Russell Underground Southern Soul Award, which he proudly displays above his 32-track mixing board.
He also was nominated last year for the ZBT Awards, the Jackson Music Awards, Premier Gospel Awards and the Gulf Coast Gospel Music Awards.
Turner’s approach to music production, much like the Southern soul genre itself, is a blend of old and new traditions.
A song begins with the musician singing or humming an idea for a melody.
“Normally the artists come in with a song idea. They pitch me the idea and I start playing it from scratch,” he said.
After the singer belts out a few bars, Turner plays a melody on his keyboard.
“A lot of times artists might come in with just a chorus or they might just have a melody,” he said. “If I don’t like it I won’t even record it. I’ve developed a keen ear to what most people like.
“I’ve to got try to bring their vision to life because all they have is a melody.”
Turner produces the instrumentation on the synthesizer and his five-string bass, and sometimes he uses live musicians to whip the song into shape.
“I layer all of the tracks myself,” he said. “Sometimes, depending on the production, I do have other musicians who come in and play on tracks also.”
At the moment, he’s working with about 40 artists.
“We’ve got artists flying into Mississippi to record,” Turner said.
Most of them post their songs on the internet, and Turner helps with the video production aspect, too.
“I do everything from making sure the photo shoots look right, making sure the album cover looks presentable,” he said. “It doesn’t just stop in the studio.”
YouTube and Facebook are the two biggest platforms his artists use.
“It buzzes faster because of the fan base that’s already there,” Turner said.
Revenue comes in the form of digital advertising based on the number of streams, he said.
In addition to running the recording studio, Turner also is the director of music for four different churches — Take Dominion, Union Missionary Baptist, New Dimension and God’s Tabernacle in Pine Grove, Louisiana, which keeps his Sundays busy.
“And after that I’m back in the studio on Sunday evenings,” he said.
While working the faders in the production booth is a different role than his past life as a touring musician, Turner feels like he’s hit his musical stride.
He’s been where other artists want to be, and now he’s working to get them there.
Turner said Southwest Mississippi is teeming with largely untapped talent that’s sure to keep him recording for a long time.
People like Young, the singing trucker from Summit, have what it takes to make it big, Turner said.
“He should be doing this for a living,” he said. “I think it’s challenging, but I think the ones that really want it, you’ve got to hit the road.”
A producer friend from Alabama recently invited him to the Grammy awards presentation, and Turner said he’s definitely going. It’s his life’s mission to go back, not as a guest but as a nominee — at worst.
There’s plenty of talent here to get him there, he believes.
“This area, it’s got some talented folks. I really believe in the musical talent of these artists in this area,” he said.