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Just in time for Christmas: Grammy nominees The HamilTones on finding (musical) joy and (soulful) harmony

Photo courtesy of The HamilTones.
Grammy-nominated North Carolina trio The HamilTones (2E, J. Vito and Tony Lelo) on stage at a pre-pandemic performance.

As NPR Music shared, “2020 was a year defined by the sounds of rage, resolve, mourning and solidarity.” That includes the sound of Grammy-nominated North Carolina trio The HamilTones (Tony Lelo, J. Vito and 2E), who released the record “1964” and shared joyful splendor through “A HamilTones Christmas.” After gracing the world’s stages (both physical and virtual), the acoustic R&B group sits down to share some harmonious memories and hopes for Charlotte in the new year in this encore Amplifier episode.

"2020 taught me that my culture is strong. Which means I am strong. ... If we can make it through 2020, it’s only going up from this point."
– Tony Lelo, vocalist in The HamilTones

Interview Highlights:

On the impact of church and family on their music career:

Tony Lelo (vocalist): We all come from a church background. No matter the denomination, we all have a complete understanding of church: the feeling, the vibe, what it means to people, what it means to us. It’s embedded into our DNA as artists. In every project that you hear (from The HamilTones), you’ll hear a little touch of spirituality.

J. Vito (vocalist): My dad being a pastor, I was brought up to sing in the choir. So, getting used to singing in big crowds at an early age, so it groomed me for moments like this.

2E (vocalist): I came up in a pretty musical setting. Back in the day, my dad went and bought this massive entertainment center with a record player, two tape decks and such. He had a stack of records that I would listen to every day after school. I would sneak to use the record player because I wasn’t supposed to use it.

Lelo: I was fortunate enough to come up in a family that was musically talented. We had a family music group, so we had all the instruments. It was real Jackson 5 type stuff. So I remember being somewhere between 5 and 8 years old, and “Sesame Street” was huge back then. We used to set up all the equipment in my grandparents’ living room as if we were on a full stage, and I would turn the TV up to a 100 and, on the drums, make my own beats to the “Sesame Street” songs. Another one was “Lamb Chop's Play-Along,” as well as “Barney.”

On performing background vocals for Grammy Award-winning Charlotte native Anthony Hamilton:

J. Vito: We all had a mutual friend named Kenny Leonard, who was the musical director for Mr. Anthony Hamilton at the time. He was the glue that pulled us all together. I went in first to sing background. A few months later, 2E came. And when Lelo came in, people just gravitated to the sound that us three had. We came in and had a hell of a blend. Anthony started taking notice of how the audience grabbed ahold to it, and he started highlighting it more in his shows. He was always motivating us, “You all need to do something!” We eventually came to the conclusion that, “Hey, maybe this would work.” And here we are. It’s been …

Lelo: ... around eight years together, but as an actual group (The HamilTones), about five years.

J. Vito: Within those years, we’ve learned a lot about each other, and we’ve learned a lot about the business. So it’s a learning tool in multiple ways for us. Anthony paved the way as far as getting us exposed to the world and these people in different places. He took us there and allowed us to be who we were.

On the self-described “young vintage” sound of The HamilTones:

2E: We were actually going to call ourselves The 3 Temps, which would pay homage to The Four Tops and The Temptations. But we scrapped that name.

Lelo: Obviously, we call it “young vintage.” We’re younger guys with an older spirit because of how we’ve come up and the kind of music we’ve been around our whole lives.

2E: We pretty much put out what we take in. And we take in some pretty good music that gives you the sound of The HamilTones.

On their 2020 holiday record “A HamilTones Christmas:”

2E: Christmas music is my favorite type of holiday music. That music always makes me smell like burning wood. I say that because we would spend Christmas at my grandma’s house, and they had a furnace, and my grandfather and I would put wood in that furnace. That music always brings back those memories. I start crying thinking of Christmas music. This (record) is really special to me.

Lelo: I’ll be honest, I kind of envy these guys. The way they came up, they had a lot of family time. I didn’t grow up like that. I was fortunate, but when I was young, I had a C-level Jackson 5 kind of life. My family gospel group was travelling the East Coast, and in the quartet world where I come from, they don’t care if it’s Christmas Day. It’s a show on Christmas Day. I might remember one time where I got to sit under the tree and take the gifts out like the standard thing that kids get to do. I was at a hotel sound-checking like it was another day. So Christmas didn’t have an effect on me until my wife. She’s like 2E and loves Christmas music. While I didn’t have the kid experience, Christmas music now means so much more because I have my own family and am able to share the experience with them.

On their record “1964," thoughts on 2020 and hopes for the new year of 2021:

Lelo: 2020 taught me that my culture is strong. Which means I am strong. All of the things that we have been through with police brutality and the things we were fighting for before, during and beyond 1964 … we came out as a culture and said, "Something has to change." If we can make it through 2020, it’s only going up from this point.

Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:

The HamilTones - “Never Gonna Let You Go”
The HamilTones - “Celebrate”
The HamilTones - “Hwy 74”
The HamilTones - “I See You”
The HamilTones - “Come On Christmas”
The HamilTones - “Under the Mistletoe”
The HamilTones - “One Wish”
The HamilTones - “My Life Matters”
The HamilTones - “Message to America”

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Joni Deutsch was the manager for on-demand content and audience engagement, at WFAE, where also hosted the Amplified podcast and helped produce such podcasts as FAQ City, SouthBound, Inside Politics, Work It and the Apple Podcast chart-topping series She Says. Joni also led WFAE's and Charlotte's first podcast festival.