Jackie Johnson,
Memphis Jewel
(Catfood, 2011)

Jackie Johnson won me over about 30 seconds into the first cut, with her somber, rich voice intoning the simple phrase "I saw my love...." It's a moment of luminous beauty, eerily calm yet achingly brittle. The song is "It Should Have Been Me," cut originally (I read here) by Gladys Knight & the Pips. My own tastes run more to Muddy Waters than to Motown; I don't recall hearing Knight's version, but it's hard to imagine how it could be an improvement on Johnson's.

On Memphis Jewel Johnson sings 11 well-chosen songs that underscore her credentials as an r&b classicist. This is the sort of material one could hear on the radio in the 1960s and the pre-disco '70s when "soul" signified something more than a meaningless marketing slogan. In common with all true singers, Johnson's first loyalty is to the song, not to the showcasing of lung power. She's singing with a pro's restraint, the understatement enhancing the depth of the performance. Much of this is fairly dazzling, as on her co-written (with her husband Van Johnson) original "Do Ya," which balances a silky sexiness with a disturbing desperation. It can't be easy to project multiple levels of feeling in a single song, but it tells you what you need to know about Johnson's particular gift.

Like so many r&b singers Johnson's roots are in the African-American church. The gospel influences are up front, of course, but not the excesses sometimes associated with sacred testifying. Johnson has learned from the masters, starting perhaps with Ruth Brown, and her style is about storytelling. The stories are basic ones: love, sex, breaking up, cheating, getting cheated on and, yes, faith.

While blues is an element of this, it's more shade than substance. What Johnson takes from the blues is a sense of succinct narrative, alternately sincere and playful. From black pop music she absorbs a keen melodic sense that renders her approach immediately accessible to all who -- whatever their genre preferences may be -- are drawn to first-rate music whenever and wherever they hear it. No one with ears, for example, could fail to be moved by "Wash Your Hands," both the song and the singing of it. It's a truly astonishing piece of work.

Johnson has the perfect producer in Jim Gaines, who recorded this album with r&b session veterans in Texas and Memphis. Memphis Jewel will be, I'm sure, adorning any number of lists highlighting the finest r&b records of 2011.

music review by
Jerome Clark

1 October 2011

Agree? Disagree?
Send us your opinions!

what's new