The Hamiltones Bring the Love
inArtist Storyon June 1, 2021
By Nick Loss-Eaton
The Hamiltones have GRAMMY nominations on their shelves for performances with the great R&B singer Anthony Hamilton, but those shelves aren’t in LA or NYC or Nashville. Instead, J. Vito, Tony Lelo, and 2E reside in Morrisville, Greensboro, and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively, not far from where each singer grew up.
Like many Black musicians in the Tar Heel State, the band members got their musical starts in church. Vito says his musical beginnings came “by my father being a pastor. He sang gospel. My mother sang in the choir.” 2E echoes this: “Same for me. My dad was a minister for music. Mom and dad were singers and musicians. I came up in a musical type of family.”
Though their roots are in gospel, the group calls its current sound “Young Vintage,” a new sound with an old vibe.
“We like to say a lot of times that it’s got that thing,” Vito explains. “It’s a different swagger. It’s a different approach. It’s a different kind of passion. You can hear the soul in it, you can hear the hard singing, all of that stuff is important. That’s just something that North Carolinians have—the flat-foot singing. Good down-home country singing and heartfelt music.”
Young Vintage, Lelo clarifies, “stands for the fact that we can do the vintage sound and also do the younger sound.”
From their break backing Hamilton on tour and on record, they later joined Americana Music Award Lifetime Achievement winner Ry Cooder on tour. That trek opened their audiences to Americana, blues, roots, and folk music and demonstrated, to them, how this music is all connected.
“I would say that was kind of the beginning of our folk journey,” says 2E. “That was a whole world that we didn’t know much about. Just listening to how he controlled the audience and how he would tell his stories and his setup on stage had a nice influence on how we do things.”
They see their participation in the live-stream music series Freight Train Blues, honoring Elizabeth Cotten, as a part of that constellation of interconnected musics and cultures. Their concert in the series will air June 4 on the Music Maker YouTube and Facebook pages.
“For us to be able to be from North Carolina and that we’ve attached ourselves to something as dominant and as meaningful as Freight Train Blues, that in itself I’m happy to be a part of,” Lelo says. “To be able to do it in honor of Ms. Cotten and for the Freight Train Blues, it’s a pretty dope experience and it means a lot.”
According to Vito, the setting and the series provided inspiration for the group.
“This performance that we had for the Freight Train Blues was so intimate, it just felt great,” Vito says. “I felt like it was just an intimate moment. We all felt something, I believe, after that performance.”
The Hamiltones have seen their music in a broad spectrum for a while now, an attitude sparked by touring Africa with Hamilton
“I was born here, but my heritage starts there, period,” Lelo says. “To be inside of it, to see my people, the beats that make them move, to gain an understanding of the rhythms that make them vibe. To see the appreciation they have from the music. It’s the only time I’ve ever cried on stage. It was humbling to be able to go there and perform for my people and experience my people.
“Anybody that looks like me, Black, proud of it, if God ever grants you the opportunity or the finances to take that trip, I would say go,” he continues. “Whatever culture God blessed you to be a part of, you should try to get back to where it began so you can see more about who you are.”
Lelo says the group operates on one overriding spirit: “We’re out on love. We love you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
To that end, they have started a virtual open mic via their social media pages every other Tuesday night where they interact with fans and share the spotlight with newcomers. This is them paying it back and taking it full circle, according to Vito.
“We were shut down and so many people like to hang out and listen to live music and it just made sense,” he says. “That [open mic nights] is where we three came to be. We found a creative way to bring that back to the people that love us most.”
Being online events, both the open mic and Freight Train Blues extend well beyond their home state, but you can be sure you’ll hear North Carolina roots in everything the Hamiltones do.