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John Colbert, better known as J. Blackfoot, has now appeared at the Porretta Soul Festival in Italy on five occasions. Once again he was among the all-star cast at this year’s festival where he had a chat with Paul Harris.

“Man, I had so many, from Elvis Presley to Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, Sam Cooke, Jackie Wilson, James Brown and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland. I loved Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, he sang the blues but it was a different kind of blues, he had a little rhythm to his blues, rhythm and blues”.

Amazingly, J’s first recording was made whilst a prisoner in the Tennessee State Penitentiary. On release in 1967 he got involved with David Porter and Isaac Hayes at Stax in Memphis where he impressed Otis Redding who was about to go on tour with his backing band The Bar-Kays – the tour from which he did not return. “After the plane crash they [The Bar-Kays] was regrouping. Ben Cauley [trumpeter], the only survivor in the plane crash, and James Alexander [bass player], he was the number two, he just wasn’t on the plane, he took a commercial plane - we was all kids together, we was friends, so they came and say, ‘We need you in the new group’.

I got in the new [Bar-Kays] group and I was there for about seven months until I started recording with The Soul Children. I went to Stax to be a solo artist and the only reason I wasn’t a solo artist was David Porter and Isaac Hayes didn’t think that I was ready – I didn’t know enough about the road, to go on the road by myself - so they say, ‘Well, hey, let’s put a group together with four lead singers’ and they knew Norman [West] had been travelling on the road a lot – he was much older – so they put us all together and they wanted four lead singers, soulful lead singers, a different thing. There was, I guess, The Fifth Dimension but they was a little classy kinda, they [Porter and Hayes] wanted a churchy type of group. That’s why they chose us. I had ten good years with The Soul Children. We broke up simply because the ladies got tired, one of ’em [Shelbra Bennett] had left earlier to pursue a solo career and then Anita [Louis] just got tired of the road and she started working for Federal Express and she’s now retired from there and working with, I believe, GM”.

[After breaking up] “I didn’t do anything. People was trying to get me to do some things but I was really hurt that we broke up so it took me a while to really wanna get back out there but I knew I had talent, I had more talent than I needed but I just said, ‘I’m gonna lay awhile’. People kept on trying to get me back out there and Ben Cauley had a band and he came to me and said, ‘You sing good man, so please just come on the road with me and do some shows’.

So I started doing some shows with him. I started singing around Memphis and everywhere I went I was tearing the place down. I got more freedom as a solo artist, I always wanted to be a solo artist from the beginning. I [originally] went to Stax to be a solo artist. [By this time] the music had changed some but not that much. A true soul singer like myself, if it do change it don’t make any difference because I can sing anything so that makes the difference. When you can sing anything and you feel what you sing, people will enjoy you so I was right back in it. As soon as I hit the stage the first night I was ready. It was like I hadn’t left.”

“Me, Homer Banks, Spencer Wiggins, Percy Wiggins, we all come from the same neighbourhood. We used to be in talent shows together. I used to meet Homer at a friend’s house. He would sing a song, I’d sing a song. We was real close and Homer had produced an album called ‘Friction’ on The Soul Children, him and Carl Hampton. Anyway, he was coming back from California, he had been there about five or six years, and a friend of mine told us, ‘Hey man, Homer Banks is back in town’. I went over to his house and he said, ‘Hey Foot, I want to try to do something man, I want you to be my first artist man, I always loved your singing from a kid’. We went in the studio and the first day I cut [a demo track] for a lady to record, ‘I Don’t Remember Loving You’, it wasn’t [meant] for me.”

 But it was released and “it wasn’t a national hit but it was a local hit. And here comes ‘Taxi’. A young lady who used to dance with Isaac Hayes, her name was Helen Washington, told us ‘Homer got a song, it’s a hit’. When I heard the song I knew it was a big hit because I knew it was a good song. Now, he was gonna give the song to Johnnie Taylor but I told him, ‘Man, I don’t want Johnnie Taylor to have that’. Anyway I went on and cut the song, the record came out – smash [#4 R&B, November 1983]! It brought me back so I’m [now] the solo star.”

J Blackfoot cd TODAY
Recordings have continued to be made over the years (but none as successful as ‘Taxi’) and J is still doing a lot of travelling. “There’s a young guy that’s coming up now they call Sir Charles Jones and I did a song with him called ‘I’m A Fool For You’ that was pretty big in the States, especially in the south. I just finished my album, the title of it is ‘Woof Woof, Meow’.

‘Talking to all ladies – if you got cat problems, I’m K9-12, woof woof, meow. Ladies all over the world, call J. Blackfoot, K9-12, woof woof meow. If your man not doing you right, you got cat problems, call me’!

  “I’ve been on the chittlin’ circuit all my life just about. I’m doing real good [on it], it pays to be on it. I’d like to get out of it but as long as it pays the bills. I still work mainly in the south, Alabama; Georgia; St Louis, Missouri; see that’s a big market, you can work those markets the year round. I do a lot of festivals. Thomas Bingham, that’s my band director, I don’t go nowhere without him.”

Questioned about his solo performances being classed as ‘soul blues’, J said, “I’m a soul singer, I’m urban, contemporary, deep soul. That’s another category they can put me in. That’s what I am. I’m a soul singer, always have been, always will be. And I love the blues, but I’m a soul singer!” He’s right!!

Source:  Interview with J. Blackfoot by Paul Harris at Porretta Terme, Italy on 25 July 2009.

Taggar: Southern soul, English

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