11 songs – 41 minutes
DeChamp Records DC100214
The fertile Detroit music scene has always been a major contributor to blues, soul and all combinations of both. Clara Smith, Sippie Wallace and Alberta Adams laid the foundation, followed by Aretha Franklin, among others. But people better make room on the list for classically and jazz-trained JJ Thames.
Although dubbed the Mississippi Blues Diva, tall, powerful and beautiful Thames – pronounced “Timms” — is a full-bodied, sultry-voiced Detroit native, the daughter of a blue-collar worker at General Motors. She started performing as a child, and has worked as a backup singer for the reggae/rock band Outlaw Nation as well as rockers Fishbone, The Beat, Bad Brains and Slightly Stoopid. And she’s shared the stage with chittlin’ circuit superstars Marvin Sease, Bobby Blue Bland, Peggy Scott Adams, Denise LaSalle and Willie Clayton after following her heart to Mississippi.
It’s clear that soul-blues is her calling. At age 30, Thames’ stage presence and vocal delivery are more reminiscent of singers from the golden era of the artform than they are of most blues belters on the scene today. Her delivery is never rushed, and her ability to express deep emotion is on par with someone twice her age as she delivers everything from downhome juke joint stylings to full-blown torch songs, all containing messages of positive affirmation.
Available through CDBaby, this is Thames’ debut disc after one previous release of a single. The CD is one of the first productions on Grady Champion’s new DeChamp Records imprint out of Canton, Miss.. If this disc is any example of what’s to come, the label appears set to become a rival for Malaco, based a few miles south in Jackson, which also is JJ’s home away from home.
Champion serves as Thames’ executive producer and contributes harmonica on this one, and it’s mixed by Sam Brady, who also contributes keyboards. They’re joined in the studio by David Hyde (bass), Vince Barranco (drums), Celeb Armstrong, Eddie Cotton Jr., Doug Frank and Danny Scallions (guitar), Richard Beverly (trumpet), Todd Bobo (tenor sax) and Mike Weidick (trombone).
A cross between African chants and gospel, the Thames penned “Souled Out” kicks off the set above a solemn, solitary drumbeat as she sings: “Oh, Lord/Hear my cry/Gonna tell this story/Before I die.” It’s a strong, simple statement that links the work to the beginning of the blues tradition. Next up, “Hey You” spins the listener in a different direction as it carries the theme forward. “You see my daddy/Pimp turned preacher/I was born to play this game,” she moans. It’s a down-and-dirty country blues with a rhythm pattern straight out of a juke, but with ultra-modern feel.
The funky “I Got What You Need” delivers a strong sexual message complete with horn section and Memphis stylings before Thames slows things down with “My Kinda Man.” It’s a sweet ballad that details the qualities she’s found in her companion: A country boy who loves his mother. The mood darkens for the soulful “No Turning Back,” which describes what it’ll take to get over a bad relationship.
The slow burner “Can You Let Somebody Else Be Strong” delivers the message that, even if you’ve been a person who comes through in the clutch all your life, it’s not a sign of weakness if need a little help now and then. The sassy “I’ma Make It” sings the praises of a new lover before Thames reprises the Ray Charles classic, “I Believe (To My Soul)” in a manner that would put a smile on the master’s face if he were around to enjoy it.
A burning solo from Scallions highlights “Just Enough,” which finds the singer in the afterglow of a reunion with a lover she thought she’d cast aside. The introspective “Rhinestones” – about feelings of inadequacy – follows before the autobiographical title tune, “Tell You What I Know,” concludes the set.
This presentation is velvet smooth and total class from start to finish. If your tastes run to urban soul-blues, you’ll love this one.