Two things happened this year that made soul singer Leon Bridges realize his life had changed dramatically. During a headlining show this past summer in San Francisco, the crooner could barely hear his voice over the sold-out crowd, who were singing along with every tune.
“It freaked me out,” he says. “It feels like I just wrote those lyrics. And now people know all the words?”
The second head-spinning moment took place at his 26th birthday party, also this summer, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. One of the guests was Quincy Jones. “He was telling me stories about working with a 16-year-old Ray Charles,” Bridges says. “And I was like, What is my life right now? How did I get here? Wasn’t I just washing dishes, like, yesterday?”
Last fall, Bridges was working as a dishwasher and busboy in Fort Worth, Texas—his hometown—and playing open-mike gigs. He might still be there today if he hadn’t gone out one night wearing a pair of high-waisted Wrangler jeans. Which is ironic, because Bridges doesn’t normally wear jeans. “I only wear slacks,” he says. But he’d happened upon the fateful denims at a thrift shop and decided he must have them. “It was the only pair of jeans I’ve ever owned,” he says.
He was hanging out at a local watering hole when a woman approached him and insisted he meet her boyfriend, a collector of vintage high-waisted Wranglers. Her boyfriend was Austin Jenkins, guitarist for the Texas rock band White Denim. The two bonded, and after Jenkins came back the next week to watch his new denim buddy’s open-mike set, he told Bridges, “We need to record some songs.”
And that, as Bridges says, “was the start of everything.”
At Jenkins’ studio, he recorded demos of his recent compositions, two of which—“Coming Home” and “Lisa Sawyer,” a song about his mother—were uploaded to SoundCloud and quickly went viral. Before long, there was a bidding war among record labels, all vying to sign the young dishwasher with the Sam Cooke voice. Bridges picked Columbia and released his debut, Coming Home, in June. Since then, he has been on a global tour.
While he doesn’t mind the Sam Cooke comparisons, he’s certainly not trying to ape Cooke’s style. “It’s like when people say LeBron is the next Jordan,” Bridges says. “The only thing those two have in common is they’re both good at basketball.”
Photos by Photographed by Luis Sanchis