Jackie Johnson came up the old way, which for certain demographic of soul music fans means that Johnson came up the right way. Johnson started singing in her hometown of Memphis when she was seven. Singing in the Music city. There’s definitely something right about that. Johnson sang in churches, and then she got a formal music education by attending a performing arts school and university where she studied opera and music education. Singing operas like “Carmen” didn’t hurt. However, Memphis is to blues, rock and R&B what Vienna, Austria is to classical music, so the vocalist embraced her roots. Johnson definitely took the classic soul route. She backed up performers such as the Staple Singers, Shirley Brown, Rufus Thomas and Lenny Kravitz. Then Johnson took the southern soul and R&B mantle across the ocean as she refined her sound. All the while Johnson continued singing at Christ United Methodist Church, her home church in Memphis.
These experiences serve Johnson well on her latest CD of covers and original tunes titled Memphis Jewel.
In many ways Memphis Jewel is a tribute to Johnson’s hometown, and the influence that the city had on crafting what we know as the R&B sound. That can be heard in Johnson’s interpretation of a song best associated with soul’s northern capitol of Detroit. Johnson covers Smokey Robinson’s “Tears Of A Clown” in a way that is straight up Memphis - from the blaring horns that might remind listeners of Stax record to the blues licks on the guitar and the funky bass line. Of course, Johnson’s voice is in rare form. Both the influences of the church and the club can be heard on this track as well as others.
The next track, “Love You Still,” is a duet with Johnny Rawls, another Memphis legend. Johnson, a vocal chameleon, dons her growling church meets the juke joint voice on this southern soul cut. That voice meshes with with Rawls raspy vocals. “Brightside” takes listeners south on the Mississippi river to New Orleans. This tune employs a shuffle beat propelled by New Orleans march style drumming that plays underneath Johnson’s conversational vocals. “Brightside” finds Johnson giving perspective to a friend juggling two men.
Johnson penned two tracks on Memphis Jewel. One is the ballad “Do Ya,” and the other is the mid-tempo “Will You Be Mine.” The jazzy bass line combine with Johnson’s languid vocals on “Do Ya” might remind listeners of another Detroiter – in this case Anita Baker. And that’s not a bad thing.
Johnson covers a lot of ground on Memphis Jewel, a CD that showcases the genre bending and universal nature of her city’s music. Whether covering classic jams such as “Clean Up Woman” or working with her original stuff, on Memphis Jewel Jackie Johnson provides her listeners with the seasoned result of years of wood shedding and touring, a true jewel of a recording. Recommended.
By Howard Dukes