Two things happened this year that made Texas soul singer Leon Bridges realize his life had dramatically changed.
During a headlining show this past summer in San Francisco, the crooner could barely hear his own voice over the sold-out crowd, who were singing along with every song.
“It totally freaked me out,” he says. “It feels like I just wrote these lyrics. And now people know all the words?”
The second life-changing moment happened at his 26th birthday party, also this summer, at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. One of the guests was iconic music producer Quincy Jones. “He was telling me stories about working with a 14 year-old Ray Charles,” Bridges remembers. “And I was like, what is my life right now? How did I get here? Wasn’t I just washing dishes, like, yesterday?”
It wasn’t yesterday, but it was last fall when he was still supporting himself as a dishwasher and busboy in Fort Worth, Texas—his hometown—and playing open mic gigs wherever he could. (For his first live performance, at a coffee shop, he was accompanied by hip-hop beats from his iPhone.) He might still be there today, playing in his dishwashing apron—he often didn’t have time to change, running straight from the restaurant to an open mic—if he hadn’t decided to go 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 happened upon some high-waisted denim at a thrift shop, and decided he must have them. “It was the only pair of jeans I’ve ever owned,” he says. “I like clothes that are high-waisted.”
While hanging out at a Fort Worth watering hole, a woman approached him. “She says to me, ‘You should meet my boyfriend. He’s into vintage high-waisted Wrangler jeans, too,'” Bridges remembers. “I was like, ‘Okay sure.’ It was a weird moment.” Her boyfriend was Austin Jenkins, guitarist for the critically beloved Texan rock band White Denim. The two musicians bonded over jeans, and after Jenkins came back the next night to watch his new denim buddy’s open mic set, he told Bridges, “We need to record some songs.”
And that, as Bridges says, “was the start of everything.”
He recorded demos of his recent compositions in Jenkins’ warehouse studio, two of which—“Coming Home” and “Lisa Sawyer,” a song about his mother—were uploaded to Soundcloud and quickly went viral. Before long, he was in the middle of a record label bidding war, all vying to sign the young dishwasher with the Sam Cooke voice. He picked Columbia, and released his debut, Coming Home, in June. Since then, he’s been on a global tour, which has taken him from Belgium to France, Ireland to 21 cities across the U.S.
He doesn’t mind the Sam Cooke comparisons—it was hearing Cooke’s records that inspired him to teach himself to play guitar and focus exclusively on a soul sound—but he’s certainly not trying to be a Cooke doppelgänger. “It’s just like when people say LeBron is the next Michael Jordan,” Bridges says. “The only thing those two guys have in common is they’re both good at basketball.”
His personal style—which, like his music, leans towards 50s and 60s retro—is also not a premeditated marketing scheme. “This is not a mask that I put on because the record label told me to,” he says. “It’s not a stage persona.” He favors vintage suits, polished derby shoes, wide-collared bowling shirts, and of course, high-waisted pants. You won’t catch him in sweats or shorts or a t-shirt. “Not even at home,” he says. “Not even at the beach or the pool. This is what I wear. I was wearing these clothes long before I got a record deal. I’d rather die than go out in public in a pair of tennis shoes and sweatpants.”
There’s a smoky sexuality to Bridges, but there’s also something adorable about him. This is a guy, after all, who writes lyrics like “Ooh, baby, don’t you know you’re a cutie pie.” And then sings it convincingly. He makes “cutie pie” seem like an erotic thing to call somebody. In 2015!
“That’s why I love soul music,” Bridges says. “Cause you can call somebody a cutie pie and it still sounds cool. Nobody writes like that anymore. If somebody sang about a cutie pie in a modern R&B song, it’d sound cheesy and stupid. But in a soul context—” he belts out the line, singing it with such velvety confidence, you can almost hear the knees of a thousand female fans wobbling.
Bridges laughs, like he’s still realizing his own power. “It’s cool, man,” he says.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the November 2015 issue of Maxim.)