Get ready for some funky 'Soul Sessions'

Music Notes

Music: in concert, CDs

November 06, 2003|By Rashod D. Ollison

AS A BOY growing up in the Dirty South (Arkansas, to be exact), I didn't hear a wide variety of music. Soul. Blues. Gospel. A little funk. That was about it. (Fusion, jazz, hip-hop, folk, alternative rock -- all that stuff came later in high school and college.)

The music that enlivened the house was like the food in Mama's kitchen: greasy and flavorful, Southern style. She loved Aretha and Gladys Knight, the Temptations. And if a Johnnie Taylor cut or a Bobby Womack ballad came on, Mama would close her eyes, shake her thick curls and wave her hand in the air -- the same moves she did in church occasionally.

So when I first heard The Soul Sessions by this new chick named Joss Stone, I smiled. The spare, funk-fried arrangements and the heart-and-gut vocals knocked me out, reminded me of the old scratchy 45s my folks used to spin: Ann Peebles, Bill Withers, Shirley Brown. I'm talking authentic soul -- not that flat, pseudo-deep, one-stroke, Stevie Wonder-copping stuff called "neo-soul."

Joss -- a 16-year-old blond girl from England, if you can dig that -- is taking us back to when soul was gritty, unrestricted and crackling with life. This British honey, who has never lived a day in the scorching, keep-it-real American South, imbues her album with the kind of feeling that emanates from below the Mason-Dixon Line.

"Soul is not that big with people in my age group," says the singer, who's calling from a tour stop in Los Angeles. "I listen to all types of music; it's just that soul is my favorite. Anita Baker was my favorite when I was little. Then, the first record I bought was Aretha's greatest hits."

Joss was born April 11, 1987, in Dover, England, and grew up in the rural town of Devon. She's the second youngest of four. Her mother used to play Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love You," and little Joss would try to emulate all the pop diva's overcooked vocal runs. In 2001, when the singer was 14, she auditioned for the BBC talent show, Star for a Night. She sang Aretha's "A Natural Woman" and won a spot on the program.

For the broadcast, she ripped Donna Summer's "On the Radio," which caught the attention of Freshwater Hughes Management. Signed to the company, Joss immediately started work on demos. One reached the States and landed in the hands of Steve Greenburg, founder and CEO of S-Curve Records, who produced Hanson's "Mmm Bop" (remember that one?) and Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out" (bet you'll never forget that song.)

The man brought Joss to the Big Apple, where she thrilled him with Gladys' "Midnight Train to Georgia" and Otis Redding's "Dock of the Bay." She was signed to S-Curve, and plans for her debut -- an album of soul covers, some well-known, others obscure -- were quickly under way.

Recorded the old-fashioned way with all the musicians in the studio at once, The Soul Sessions not only introduces us to a vibrant new singer, it also features a group of black musicians -- soul heroes -- who never really got their due. Mentoring Joss through the recording process and co-producing the project was Betty Wright, who's best known for 1972's "Clean Up Woman," her biggest pop hit. (But hip-hoppers remember the woman for her oft-sampled classic "Tonight Is the Night.")

Benny Latimore, who scored a smash in '74 with "Let's Straighten It Out," plays keyboards. Willie "Little Beaver" Hale, who played that oh-so-funky, staccato-like guitar riff on "Clean Up Woman," provides fluid lines throughout. Known for the aching 1973 protest ballad "Why Can't We Live Together?" Timmy Thomas plays organ. And Cindy Blackman, a longtime member of Lenny Kravitz's band, beats the drums.

"Betty Wright is so wicked on the vocals," Joss says in her crisp British accent. "It wasn't like she would tell me how to sing. She doesn't believe in that. I'd lay the vocals down, and she'd listen to it and give suggestions about how to make the song more my own. Meeting all those people -- Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, Angie Stone, Little Beaver -- who were a part of the album was really scary. I was just 15 and didn't know what I was doing."

You don't sense any insecurity as you listen to Joss tackle Joe Simon's "The Chokin' Kind," Bettye Swann's "Victim of a Foolish Heart" and the Isley Brothers' "For the Love of You."

She says, "These are all covers, so I remember the melodies from the originals. But Betty helped me make the songs more of my own by suggesting which lines to put more emphasis on. And working with these great musicians -- they don't talk music, like, bars or chords or notes. It's all about feel, which is what soul is all about. You have to be in the right frame of mind. You have to feel it or you can't do it."

The artist is on the road promoting The Soul Sessions, playing small and medium-sized clubs throughout the country. Joss says her next album will focus more on her own compositions and other influences, namely reggae and hip-hop.

"Music is supposed to feel good," the singer says matter-of-factly. "That's what it's all about, you know? If it doesn't feel good, man, turn it off."

We hear ya -- uh, Soul Sista.

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