Interview of this Jackson, Mississippi based singer by Mike Stephenson in October 2013 at Hal & Mal’s club in Jackson. Many thanks go to Peggy Brown for arranging the session.
I was born in 1982 in Pontiac, Michigan my father was from Virginia and my mother, her family were originally from Brazil, but she was a first generation citizen of the US and she was raised mostly in Michigan and then later in Tuskegee, Alabama and she went back to Michigan. So I’m kinda southern but with a lot of northern roots. Basically I come from an upper middle class upbringing; my father worked for General Motors and my mother was in social work. She was a trainer for the US government as well as some private sectors with a programme called Families First. And when I went to London with her it was because she was dealing with the government and implementing the programme and what it is, is the last step before you remove children from the home. My father now is a pastor in Mississippi and he lives in Memphis so I did grow up a preacher’s kid.
My grandparents were pastors and so were my great grandparents and I grew up in the Christian church. However I did not sing in church which people find interesting. I was at church all of the time but I didn’t want to sing in the choir. I think I joined the choir one time for maybe two weeks and then I quit. I am classically trained. The schools that I went to, one in particular, by the time I was in fourth grade (I was nine years old) and even before that, it was explained to my parents that I had a natural knack for music so by the time I got to fourth grade was when my actual training started and I became involved in the choir and things of that sort. My choir teacher went to my parents and told them I have a gift and that it needed to be nurtured so that’s when I started my classical training. I had a classical teacher from whom I learnt how to breath and use correct phrasing and all those different things, and sing in Latin and French and we had some spirituals and African songs and I competed and travelled and basically developed my musical know how and I enjoyed it. So I didn’t really grow up in secular music so I don’t have the story of growing up with the sounds of Muddy Waters or stuff like that. I didn’t hear blues until much later in life and back then I didn’t know what it was. I did grow up on contemporary gospel like Rance Allen and the Clark Sisters and stuff like that.
I didn’t really hear any secular music growing up probably until I was about twelve or thirteen and that was when I was at school hearing certain things. Every once in a while my father would sing certain things that he grew up on and he grew up on the blues and folks like Ray Charles and Little Richard. I would take snippets of him singing that music and it was only until the last couple of years that I would go and do a show and listen to the other artists on the show and I thought I can remember my daddy singing that song like ‘High Heel Sneakers’ and I didn’t know what he was singing back then, I just thought he was making up a funny song. I remember he used to sing a song called ‘Don’t You Mess With My Toot Toot’ and he used to say that he shouldn’t be singing that song around me and I had no clue what he was talking about. When I was fifteen when I was in High school the jazz band director came to me and asked if I was interested in singing for the high school jazz band and there I learned about jazz in its purist form. I got to sing some Billie Holliday I got to sing some Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and we did a lot of big band stuff and it was great and I learnt stuff like the ‘A Train’ and from there I fell in love with jazz.
At fifteen I went through negotiations with Warner Brothers. I was discovered in a Myers grocery store. I was looking for jazz CDs because by then I was completely immersed in jazz and this gentleman looking across at me asked me what I knew about jazz and he asked me to sing him something and so I sang ‘The Man I Love’ and he stopped me and he asked me to take him to my mother. So I took him to my mother and he handed her a card and it turned out he was a an A&R for Warner Brothers. So we went to negotiations and those types of things, and the best thing he ever could have done for me as an artist at that time was he had some books on the business of music and he gave me Berry Gordy’s autobiography and he gave me books about publishing and all that type of stuff, and he told me that I had to read them and he would test me on them or else I wouldn’t go into the studio.
So I was reading about the business; he put me in school and asked me questions about certain circumstances and I would have to answer them. He also gave me a four track recorder and he told me to write and I was a poet and poets are very long winded. So he really helped me with my poetry and helped me break it down into song form. He then gave me a book on song writing. So I had a lot of people that came into my life that showed me different things. Warner Brothers wanted to model me after Phyliss Hyman, this was the year after she died, and they listened to my voice and the way I looked and told me they were going to make me the next Phyliss Hyman. So we ended up not going with the contract. My father did not want me to be tied down at that point in time as he wanted me to become what I wanted to become, and that if this is what I decided I wanted to do when I was eighteen years old then they can sign me but until then he wanted to protect me and show me values and beliefs so that when I become an adult I can make good decisions. I was very angry with my father at that time but looking back on it, it was one of the best things he could have done for me as I was not ready for a recording contract and career then at fifteen years old.
So I went from jazz and the Warner Brothers recording and then I got really deep into the spoken word world so I went for that. At eighteen I became a rapper and did that for a little while and I did some recordings during that time. Throughout my entire upbringing we were bouncing back and forth between Michigan and New York, we had a lot of time in both places so I consider both places as home. But at that time when I was graduating from high school I was going to go to school in New York but I had my oldest son before I graduated from high school. So my family was going to move to Mississippi so my father could become assistant pastor at a church. So I didn’t go to New York for further schooling and me being a kid from Detroit and New York, coming to Mississippi was like unfathomable. So I got to Mississippi in 2000 a little depressed and I went to Mississippi college and I was so upset as I didn’t want to be in the state. I ended up by chance running into some individuals who had a place in Mississippi called Southern Studios which was a jazz, poetry, reggae type artist place run by Ezra Brown who is an amazing saxophone artist. He is in New York now but when I fist met him that was in Jackson, Mississippi.
I started going to Southern Studios in part because I didn’t know anybody so that became a musical family and we did a lot stuff and that’s where I initially came in contact with the blues. Ezra was initially from Florence, South Carolina and he grew up with the blues, which I did not. So it was through him that I started to become acquainted with the blues and I went on a Valentine’s date and ended up at Hamps Place here in Jackson on Northside Drive and I then started singing at Hamps Place on a Wednesday night with Ezra, and I was very green at the time. I didn’t know any blues standards and didn’t know any r&b music. I knew jazz singers and they told me, that’s not going to work. So basically I asked them what they played at the club and they told me it was blues and r&b so I went to my house and I used to have single CDs and one song I heard that sounded bluesy to me was a blues type hip hop song. So I wrote a blues song to it thinking that I don’t know the songs the guys wanted me to sing I would do an original which I did not know was something that you just don’t do. So I went to the club the following week and we rehearsed the song, and I did the song and the crowd went crazy, so I was hired at that point to sing at Hamps Place with the band who had been together for twenty years and they taught me so much.
They taught me stage presence, they taught me a repertoire of songs ranging from blues to jazz to r&b. The band were Forest Gordon, Bill Morris, James ‘Hot Dog’ Lewis who plays for Bobby Rush, Mike Russell played guitar and they were one time called The Wind Chimes and they did very well in the seventies. So they were playing every Wednesdays at Hamps Place and are still there. I performed with them for about five years and during that time I met Patrice Moncell and Patrice took an interest in me and started teaching me as well and showing me how to talk to the crowd and suggesting certain blues covers I should do. Then I started singing background for Peggy Scott-Adams and doing background in the studio for a bunch of blues records with Cap, Harrison Calloway. Basically I would go in the studio and they would tell me what to sing and I would sing it and I was clueless as to what artist it was for. This was in a studio here in Jackson just off Lynch Street.
Then I started doing the Jubilee Jam and so we were opening up for everyone. When I was touring with Peggy (Scott-Adams) we opened up for Denise LaSalle, James Brown and just a plethora of awesome people so it was exposing me to that world and then I stared singing at 930 Blues Café in Jackson with Stevie J and that was around 2003. I started to become very exposed to the blues culture. I still wasn’t sold on, it I have to admit. I didn’t really connect with the music deeply. Then in 2005 I had another child and he was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer brought on by immunisation. So in 2006 I started to learn what the blues really is and at that point I started to draw emotionally from it. I started to feel comfortable with it.
I left Mississippi and went back to Detroit in 2006 and I sang there at a place called Lola’s and I became a headliner there singing blues and jazz and r&b and soul. I started singing at the Music Hall and stuff like that and I ended up running into a reggae rock band and they invited me to a show at Ann Arbor and I performed with them at that show and then became part of their band and started touring with them for about five years. The band was called Outlaw Nation. The lead singer Christian Simeon was very steeped in the blues. He was from Shreveport, Louisiana and he started exposing me to a lot of blues music. I see reggae as blues with a Caribbean flavour and I started to realise the roots of all music is the blues. So all of that is what started me to explore the blues. I stared listening to Big Maybelle, Big Mama Thornton, Bessie Smith and I was listening to some of their lyrics and I thought ‘wow’ things like cutting that man’s throat and send me to the electric chair and I also listened to Etta James that I draw so much from.
I was also listening to Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker and Lightnin’ Hopkins and I started immersing myself in the blues even though I was out on tour with the reggae band. Touring with that band was my first experience at that, going out for three months, then home for a month, so I was experiencing tour life and that gave me plenty of opportunities to listen to music. It was like an education. I realised that reggae rock would not provide me with longevity as an artist. It was a time for me to listen and learn. At the time I was signed to a record label called Rolling Fork Records and they asked me if I had considered the blues and at that point it started a seed that maybe I should sing blues. I can sing either blues or jazz and I would have longevity in either one but I felt that pure jazz was not going to be as exciting as blues so I decided to go the blues route. So we started recording and trying things, trying to find my blues voice. This was in Detroit and New York, I was doing a lot of travelling between both. We locked in on a couple of songs and if you go to my Reverb Nation which is reverbnation.com\jjthames and on that I have my first attempt at singing the blues. The response from people was amazing so I continued to go down that route but my relationship with Rolling Fork Records didn’t work out.
I put a record out in 2008 which was a neo soul jazz record and I was going by the name of Jenesis at the time. The record is on I Tunes. Basically I did a lot of recordings but I never finished the record with Rolling Fork and my relationship with them dissolved based on creative differences. Due to financial issues, as I had been doing music for so long and getting paid and now all of a sudden I’m not, so I was then working a bunch of jobs and figuring out what I was going to do and how am I going to continue to record and al those types of things. Basically I was coming to a point of not having a place to stay and I talked to a friend in Mississippi and she said to come back to Mississippi and stay with her, so I came back to Mississippi and that was in December 2011. I also had a relationship that went completely to hell and that was my first experience with heartbreak.
So I came to Mississippi to lick my wounds and at that point in time, from 2006 to 2011 I had moved twenty seven times and had been homeless three times and had worked numerous jobs, sometimes four or five at the same time and still trying to pursue my musical dreams and it was a really tough time. Emotionally by the time I got back to Mississippi I really understood the blues. I knew what they were, I knew what it was like not to be able to pay your bills, to be cheated on and lied to, and I knew what it was like to have love lost and work your fingers to the bone and all that. So when I came back to Jackson, Mississippi I saw it as really digging my roots. I didn’t have any record prospects. I didn’t have any shows lined up. So I went back to Hamps Place and started singing there every Wednesday again and people started to hear I was back in town. Then I started singing at The Penquin, which is on Jackson State campus and I was singing there almost every weekend and that gave me an opportunity to try out different things and stretch my wings and the thing that was touching my heart was blues, so I decided that I was going to sing the blues.
A fried of mine suggested that I should go to Hal & Mal’s Blue Monday sessions so I came on a weekly basis. On my fourth week of coming I was singing ‘Hound Dog’ and this guy with dreadlocks came on stage and started singing with me. Well it turned out that was Grady Champion and afterwards he told me I had something very special and so we started talking and communicating and it turned out that he had just started a record label, DeChamp Records, and he had some blues lovers that had invested in it and with his track record of hard work and touring and building his name, he took me under his wing and started taking me out on his tours, which gave me a platform from which to go from and it’s been an explosion ever since.
So I am signed to his record label and it’s myself and Eddie Cotton on the label at this point. Basically they have given me free rein and they have provided me with wonderful musicians from Nashville for the recordings as well as some musicians from Mississippi. We recorded the CD, ‘Tell You What I Know’, at Sam’s House Studios which is at Madison, Mississippi and they allowed me to do my own thing so we did some traditional type blues and some soul/ blues and one of the songs on the CD is very dear to me and that is the title song ‘Tell You What I Know’. I wrote the song when I was living in a shelter with my children and the song says it’s been a long road with tears. I have written eight of the numbers on the CD and two others have been written by Jim McCormick who is really into country and he has written for a lot of great artists and last year two of his songs were number one on the Billboard charts. When they brought the songs to me I was kinda unsure as I felt I was a blues artist not a country artist but I went ahead and did it, and once we actually did the songs I understood that country is not far from blues. Grady Champion plays harp on the record, Eddie Cotton plays guitar and Sam Brady produced and plays keyboards.
I’m doing a promotional tour with Grady so as to showcase me. I’ve had a lot of response when it comes to social networking on Twitter and Facebook so it’s an honour for me, who has not been steeped in the blues when blues fans come to me and say that I’ve got it. I still come to Hal & Mal’s when I’m in town and I am an avid supporter of the Central Mississippi Blues Association and I will be competing soon to go to the International Blues Competition in Memphis for January 2014. Grady won that in 2010. I also do some shows with Stevie J at times as well and I’ve worked with Jarekus Singleton and King Edward, Castro Coleman Mr. Sipp, Eddie Cotton, they are all absolutely amazing musicians and great to work with.