The acclaimed Swedish public schools for music education has one definitive superior; the American church within the gospel belt. According to Larry Chambers at Ecko Records, only in Tennessee there´re over 500 gospel groups to be found. The first training starts within the church. Further education takes place as background singers, before the artists are skilled enough to start on their own, if they have the right capability.
There are no puppies within southern soul. The artists are hardened by long time performances in front of discriminating audiences. Karen Wolfe corresponds to this pattern, she is no new comer, even though her breakthrough came this year (2008). Karen Wolfe was born in the small town of Pine Bluff in Arkansas August 14th 1959. She has been into music all her life.
– I started with gospel music. I then started a little group with my sister and a couple of other girls. We called ourselves the Soul Unlimited”.
They did a lot of Sweet Emotion, Natalie Cole and even male groups like SOS, Cameo and Earth Wind and Fire. They even did a little bit of country. The hope for the big time was there all the time.
–We travelled a little bit. But we really didn’t get out too far. Every time we were a long way out we thought that was really something.
The group lasted for 10 year, but performing for so long without any wider recognition they decided to leave the music scene and do other things. In 1992 Karen married Denise LaSalles brother in law, Gary Wolfe. They moved to Jackson, TN in 1997. Denise asked Karen to go on the road with her and sing background.
– That’s where my career started. Everything started there.
With Denise Karen has travelled all over the world; Europe, Norway, Japan…
– I can’t think of all places I have been
After a while Denise LaSalle started to persuade Karen to start her own career. But she didn’t know. Then Anna Neal, the wife of the legendary Bill Coday and the road manager for Denise LaSalle became her manager. On Annas and Bills label, B&J Records, Karens first cd was released in 2006.
– It started out a little slow, but this year started out with a bang. Everybody is calling because the record is really playing in a lot of places. The song Back Door Love Affair became a hit.
The song can be heard on a lot of Internet radio. It was written by James Smith. Karen has also a couple of other writers for the cd. She also writes herself, even though she doesn’t consider herself a big writer. This year started pretty good and concerts are hauling up. The week after the interview she will have a concert in her home town Pine Bluff, Arkansas, sharing the bill with Denise as well as singing background for her.
We are asking Karen about blues music, as she is labeled as a blues singer
–I was never a blues lover. I like R&B and I like gospel and I like country even. I never really cared for blues until I started singing with Denise. A lot of people say what about Muddy Waters blues and I said ehh… it’s a little bit before my time. I can’t go that far back.
Karen says that the more she has been singing, the more she came to like it. We clarified ourselves by saying we meant the blues of Denise LaSalle
– That’s my field. It’s more of a… they kinda put a twist on it and called it southern soul blues. That’s the type of blues I sing now.
Karen says she has one or two R&B songs on her cd to show she can do both styles and to cross more to R&B stations.
I asked her about the fantastic final of her show in Jackson, TN, in February 2008, if the collage of different song was rehearsed or not. The song started with Clean up woman, advanced through Candy Licker and other well know soul blues tunes to end with the modern r&b classic Crazy About Love. Everything seemed to be very spontaneous.
– Actually all of it was rehearsed.
She says she started to come up with some ideas. She loves the song Clean Up Woman and knows Betty Wright, who sings the original. Denise gave her the authority to use one of her song. She then thought about Beyoncé who is one of her idols. She added an Al Green song. Someone proposed Marvin Sease… It worked out really well. But what she does between the songs are not rehearsed at all.
– When I’m on stage everything comes natural. Nothing I say to the people is rehearsed, all that is natural.
I finally asked about her plans for the future
– I have been often asked where do I get, I don’t know, I don’t know. What I do on stage is so different. Off the stage I’m so lazy and laid back. SO LAZY. I don’t know where that comes from.
Karen Wolfe is an artist right in the middle of a great African American music heritage. Her roots are easy to trace to the very beginning, but her direction is for the future.
Anders Lillsunde / Jefferson #157