Greg Cox couldn’t believe his good fortune. At 19, the Wilson, North Carolina, native had the run of Stevie Wonder’s Hollywood mansion, hobnobbing with a group of young musicians from across the country. The talented yet untested artists were there for the 2009 MTV reality show Making His Band, competing for a spot in executive producer Sean “Diddy” Combs’ band for an upcoming tour.
After auditions in New York, Cox had earned a spot among the finalists in L.A. Competing as a pianist, Cox faced his biggest challenge in the show’s initial elimination round.
“It was tough,” Cox remembers. “The first exercise was this classical challenge — Hanon exercises.”
Created by 19th-century French composer Charles Louis-Hanon, the exercises are a series of scales and arpeggios designed to train pianists in speed, agility, strength and precision. They are a daunting challenge, even for seasoned pianists, and Cox had never heard of them. On live TV, Cox steadied his nerves and sat down at the keyboard to give it his best shot. He failed and was eliminated from the field.
“They had to eliminate someone,” Cox says with equanimity. “They [were] trying to find a way to weed out the group because everybody was talented.”
Now a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer at age 31, Cox is beyond philosophical about his brief exposure on TV 12 years ago. In fact, he embraces that setback, reasoning that it set him on the path that brought him to where he is today. Each life contains pivotal moments that change its trajectory, he says, tracing a series of events in his own life that have led from that long-ago disappointment to success, fatherhood, heartbreak and a renewal of faith.
“There are milestones in everyone’s life that push you to where you are now,” Cox says. Milestone, not coincidentally, is the title of Cox’s latest full-length album, slated for a July 2 release.
He’ll feature the new material at a June 16 concert at Neighborhood Theatre. The show will feature a band comprised of Evan Brice on keyboards, Braxton Bateman on trumpet, Harvey Cummings on saxophone and Cedric “CJ” Thompson on drums. The gig will also be filmed by a video crew.
“[Milestone] is the best album I’ve done to date,” Cox says. That’s a tall order for the producer who has collaborated with gospel superstar Kirk Franklin, Charlotte songwriter Emily Sage, and R&B artist A$H, among others.
His debut EP The Last Start, is a vulnerable and explosive 2012 project that draws upon unstinting self-examination. Released in 2018, Cox’s first full-length album, Etc., delivers on the EP’s promise, examining the personal repercussions of fatherhood and the public fallout from systemic racism. Yet despite these musical high points, Greg Cox may be right about Milestone. Lush and multi-layered, yet emotionally direct, the album has the hallmarks of a masterpiece.
Milestone catapults past his previous recordings, as engaging, heartfelt and fine-tooled as they are. Though Cox would demur at the comparisons, the album boasts a fresh, eclectic and hook-filled attack that blows the cobwebs off the listener’s brain. It recalls when saxophonist supreme John Coltrane stepped beyond the constraints of hard bop into an undiscovered realm of polytonal torrents, or when art pop innovators Talking Heads left the monochrome new wave of Fear of Music for the technicolor Afropop of Remain in Light.
Making of a musician
Growing up in Wilson, Greg Cox was surrounded by music. His mother, Angela Cox, sang along with the gospel and classic ’80s and ’90s R&B records she played. His father, minister and renowned gospel singer Johnavan “Bo Peep” Sauls, is a songwriter who composed material for his gospel group Revive as well as other worship performers. He cuts a commanding figure to this day.
“Everywhere we went, everyone knew my dad,” Cox remembers. Since Cox looked just like his dad, he earned the sobriquet Little Bo Peep. Cox’s parents split up when he was 4 years old, and his mother raised him. While his brother and sister made the high school honor roll, Cox was the family’s black sheep.
“I got whoopin’s all the time for disciplinary actions and academic failures,” Cox says. “I didn’t feel like my mom understood me.”
In the first of a chain of events that set Cox on his current path, at age 15 he asked to live with his father. His mother obliged. Sauls took his son to the Glory Baptist Church of Wilson. There Cox found the musical tribe he never knew he needed.
“There was a plethora of young, insanely talented [musical] prodigies, 12- and 15-year-old geniuses,” Cox recalls. “I was so intimidated by how amazing they were.”
Cox joined the group of young musicians, who went to the church after school and played for hours, sometimes going as late as 3 a.m.
“We’re playing, sharing things and competing — going at each other,” Cox says. “It was like Sparta.”
As the group members grew older, they graduated and started looking for gigs to play. They all heard about the auditions being held in New York for MTV’s Making His Band. Cox learned about the opportunity from his then-girlfriend.
“She wasn’t [saying] ‘Oh, this is so great!’ It was like, ‘You need to go and do something with your life!’” Cox says. He took a bus to New York and aced the auditions. Out of all Cox’s friends who tried out, only his neighbor up the street in Wilson, Jamareo Artis, also made the cut.
Before being stumped by Monsieur Hanon’s finger work, Cox excelled at a few other filmed musical challenges in the L. A. house, but they never made it into the show. For Cox, it was a lesson in the editing “magic” of reality TV. The contest was also a lesson in the ways and means of the music business. Artis went on to win the competition, theoretically earning a spot in Diddy’s touring band — except he didn’t.
Artis never played with Diddy. No one did. After the show wrapped, Diddy’s people hired a music director who booked practiced musicians instead of a fresh-faced kid from a reality TV show.
“They wanted to go with people they knew, not a bunch of strangers,” Cox says.
Today he understands the decision. Fledgling musicians like himself and Artis still had to pay their dues. Incidentally, in a chain of events that couldn’t have been anticipated, Cox’s friend Artis met Bruno Mars outside a New York club where Artis was playing bass in R&B performer Monica’s band. Mars recognized Artis from Making His Band and hired him for his group.
“Next thing you know they’re playing the Super Bowl,” Cox says.
After his brief sojourn in L.A., Greg Cox returned to Wilson. Although he never stopped believing he would be successful in music, this was a dark period for Cox. He went through a break-up and witnessed a Bernie Madoff-style scam unfold at his church that left him questioning his faith.
Further upheaval was engendered by his move to Raleigh. Out of the turmoil came the raw material for his debut EP The Last Start. Grammy award-winning songwriter and performer K.J. Scriven heard this collection of songs spurred by hurt and sorrow and was blown away. Needing a piano player who could also produce, he reached out to Cox, and the pair instantly connected. Cox remembers their first phone conversation lasting three or four hours.
“K.J. is like the Jay-Z to my Kanye West,” Cox confides, noting that, “Jay-Z is like the big brother Kanye West never had but always wanted.”
Cox and Scriven launched a friendly years-long debate about the existence of God. Eventually Scriven won the debate, leading Cox on a renewed spiritual journey that changed his life and shifted his focus. He came to terms with how the church shaped his music and his life. For a lot of performing artists the Black church is the best stage to learn, he says. It’s an incubator for Black music.
“It’s the hub where you’re shaped,” he says. “It’s a space that allows you to develop.”
Historically Black American music has maintained a tension between R&B and gospel, the sacred and the profane, the church and the dancehall. Folklore says Sam Cooke was haunted by the dichotomy between the spirit and the flesh. In legend, blues guitarist Robert Johnson paid dearly for the gifts the devil bestowed on him at a moonlit crossroads.
Cox maintains that divisions in music between the sacred and the everyday are no longer necessary, if they ever were.
“There shouldn’t be bifurcation in what we experience. It’s all one experience,” Cox maintains. “There is no separation anymore.”
To support his thesis, which sees media, life and music as a continual mash-up, he points to a video queue on YouTube where every kind of content sits side by side, regardless of subject, tone or intent. “It’s all just a scroll away.”
When Scriven decided to relocate to Charlotte, Cox, by then married with one child and another on the way, decided to move to the Queen City too.
“I was growing as a husband at the time,” Cox says. “I was taking a look at who I was to myself, to my wife at the time, and to my kids.”
In 2018 Cox released his debut album Etc. The collection reflected Cox’s reinvigorated faith, his own vulnerability and the challenges of marriage and fatherhood. The smooth and soulful “Bigger Dreams,” which opens the album, reflects Cox’s shifting priorities. In his grainy tenor he croons about a cherry-red convertible dream car only to acknowledge that the vehicle is too small to fit his family and his life.
“If my dreams only make my life better, they’re too small,” Cox says. “If your dreams are too small you need bigger dreams.”
“Baby calm down / You ain’t got to talk loud / Scream and shout,” Cox sings in “Three Words,” a song about conflict resolution efforts that ultimately failed. In this remarkably open confessional, Cox acknowledges failings that led to the dissolution of his marriage.
“We [were] fighting each other, instead of fighting for each other. That’s where we ended up.”
From the deeply personal, the album shifts to the openly political. Following a sample pulled from actor Jesse Williams speech at the BET Awards, Cox’s gruff, overmodulated vocal conveys sorrow and outrage in “Play Outside.” The song condemns the 2014 killing of 12-year-old African-American boy Tamir Rice by white police officer Timothy Loehmann. As a father of a young boy, Cox finds the case particularly disturbing.
“Our kids can’t even play outside with toy guns without getting killed,” Cox says. “Police see [Tamir] with the toy gun, they think he’s a felon. When they see a white kid with a gun, police say, ‘Oh, he’s a cowboy. He’s playing cowboys and Indians.’”
Cox says the child’s game he mentions is a potent symbol for white America’s genocidal impulses. Looking back at his criticality lauded 2018 album, Cox sees it as an open extension of himself as a husband, father, artist and friend.
“That’s why I called it Etc. It’s who I am altogether, the good, the bad and the etcetera.”
“Everything is connected,” Greg Cox proclaims. To prove his point, Cox relates the circumstances and connections that led to his surprising collaboration with contemporary gospel great Kirk Franklin, a project that netted Cox a Grammy.
“If I had never met KJ, I would never have moved to Charlotte, and I would never had made my Etc. album,” Cox says. A copy of Etc. got into the hands of Da Truth, a Christian rapper produced by Cox. Meanwhile Scriven had sent a copy of the same album to RCA Records executive Ron Hill.
Sometime later, both Hill and Da Truth were in the same room with Franklin, pitching Cox’s vocal abilities to the gospel star. Franklin decided Cox would be perfect for his song “Strong God.”
Cutting a song for one of his musical heroes was a surreal experience, Cox remembers. Ever since childhood, Cox has been insecure about his singing voice. Now Franklin was sitting in a studio telling Cox that he loved that very same voice.
“First he played the song for me. Then he put me in the booth and said, ‘Do your thing.’”
After Cox cut the first take, Franklin was ecstatic and proclaimed the vocal track a keeper. “He was acting like I’m Whitney Houston in there,” Cox says.
Cox found Franklin to be open and generous. The two performed “Strong God” at the Dove Awards, and Franklin invited Cox to come on tour with him. They shot a music video, and “Strong God” was recently nominated for a BET Award.
“The album got a Grammy in 2020 so I got a Grammy because I sang on the album,” Cox says. The irony is not lost on him. A performer who was so self-conscious about his voice is an award-winning vocalist.
Cox subsequently earned another Grammy nomination in 2021 for Best Gospel Album as a producer for Myron Butler’s My Tribute, but didn’t win the award.
Prior to and throughout the period when Cox was recording and touring with Franklin, he continued to write, produce and release singles, seeking out artists who caught his ear for collaborations.
Cox has cut two songs with Charlotte singer-songwriter Emily Sage, “The Other Side” in 2015 and “Find a Way” in 2019.
“Emmy is an icon to me,” Cox says. He remembers that Sage came to his album release party and they connected after the show. Cox realized his crowd, albeit integrated, contained more Black than white people. Likewise, the integrated audience at Sage’s events included more white people than Black people.
“I thought we [could] put our crowds together, maybe start connections with people, and the community could really integrate here,” Cox says. He believes the project succeeded, noting that “The Other Side” is one of the most played songs on his Spotify to this day.
For “Find a Way,” Cox says he channeled Al Green’s 1971 R&B hit “Tired of Being Alone,” building the new song on the chords that Green used for his hook. After a great beginning, Cox feels Green’s tune goes all over the map. Cox maintains he rectifies Green’s misstep, by keeping “Find a Way” tied to the chords that underpin the best part of Green’s song.
In 2020, Cox collaborated with his favorite artist A$H. After connecting with the singer on her Facebook page, Cox perfected, polished and burnished the song “All Alone” and sent it to her. When she didn’t respond for a week, he thought he’d blown his chance to work with her, but after careful consideration, A$H declared herself enamored with “All Alone.”
After A$H wrote a bridge for the tune, a section Cox calls the best part of the song, the two recorded their respective verses, completed the song and subsequently shot a video for “All Alone” in Atlanta. Cox has nicknamed A$H “The Golden Gate” for her exemplary work on the bridge. The two artists have expressed aspirations to tour together.
The major music event on Cox’s radar right now is the impending release of Milestone. The album kicks off with the slice of progressive soul “Freedom.” Layered currents of voices, keyboards and beats float as free as birds wheeling overhead, yet the ethereal R&B madrigal is tethered to reality as Cox raps a litany of wrongs.
“This the vibe you need when life gets hard / This the vibe you need to go quit your job / Our people pray when they’re swiping the car / They’re making millions while we’re getting robbed…”
On the yearning heartache ballad “Care,” Cox’s fine-grained vocals implore a lover to stay as his repetition of the line “I care about you” takes on the power of an incantation.
The jazzy sassy “Idiot” rides bouncy hip-hop beats punctuated with stabbing horns while Cox’s frenetic wordplay reels off couplets about the draining effects of modern living.
Yet, it is the uplifting “Good Day” that serves as the album’s calling card. Featuring gospel artists Shay and Isaiah Templeten, the tune rides soaring swarming vocals and rolling gospel organ until a splash of tumbling keyboards segue to Cox’s upbeat exhortation.
“Wake up now / Put the cold water in your face / Gotta put the naysayers in their place/ I can feel it in the air…”
Cox wrote “Good Day” when he was touring with Franklin. The song inspired and cemented Cox’s current philosophy.
“It pushed me into a space where I recognized everything is connected. Every experience I ever had brings me to a point where I am now.”
Milestones, these pivotal moments that change the trajectory of your life, are things that should be commemorated, Cox believes. He says his album encourages listeners to look back over their lives to discover tipping points and connections, but it’s even more about embracing the now — all the painful, beautiful and inspiring moments, filled with triumph, failure, heartbreak, and vulnerability.
To drive the point home, Cox’s June 16 concert will feature an 8-foot-tall Styrofoam rock at the center of the Neighborhood stage, a “milestone” draped in white.
Cox says “Good Day” celebrates looking forward to the unfolding day, with nothing holding you back.
“You embrace what’s going to happen because you’ve overcome so much already,” Cox says. “This album is the high mark of everything I’ve done. It’s a milestone!”
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