She was like a stranger in a strange land and was a lot worse off than just being in between the proverbial rock and a hard place.
She was in the middle of New York City, had no job, no money, no place to live and basically had little hope of turning any of that misfortune around anytime soon.
The only thing that the dynamic JJ Thames had was her supremely-gifted voice.
So that’s what she turned to in one of her darkest hours.
“I went to West 4th Street, because I didn’t know any other place and I found a corner. I stood there and I cried. And then I sang and I cried and I sang and I cried. I was singing traditional jazz standards and people gave me money … I was shocked,” she said. “I didn’t have a guitar, a keyboard, I had nothing but my voice and my heartbreak. That’s all I had. I was in contact with my rawest emotions and there’s no way that I could hide them when I sang. My times were so rough that I really began to understand the true essence of the blues.”
To say that things have turned around for Thames in just a few short years from those lean and uncertain days in New York City would be a major understatement.
She’s turned into a major force to be reckoned with on the soul/blues scene, has a still red-hot album on the charts and is busy traveling the world, spreading her music and her message of perseverance to the masses.
“I’ve had the opportunity to get over to France – we just came back from there last week – and was received very, very well there,” she said. “Basically, we’ve accomplished a lot of international success this year and even though the album (Tell You What I Know) (DeChamp Records)) is going on two years old now – it came out in January of 2014 – it still continues to reach people. For it to be two years old and still be on the roots music charts is an indication that people are still liking it. They’re still listening to it, still buying it and downloading it and they’re still getting to know it. So in essence, this has been another year of being introduced to people. I’m very honored to be in that place. People are recognizing our music and that in itself has made the year an amazing year.”
Thames – who first took to the stage at age 9 and had developed a regular following by the time she was 17 – has the follow-up to Tell You What I Know written, and after her current U.S. tour wraps up in late November, she plans on heading into the studio in December, with a target date of early 2016 slated for the disc’s release.
Just as he was on her debut release, Grady Champion will be heavily-involved in album number two for Thames.
“Yeah, I’m still with the Champ and hopefully will be for awhile. He’s still going to be the executive producer of it,” she said. “Grady is a consummate professional. He’s very … the word I like to use for Grady is passionate. He’s passionate and committed to what he believes in. One thing he always says to me, as well as my label-mate Eddie Cotton, is that he was a fan of our music before he actually went into business with us. That means a lot. For someone who’s accomplished as much as he has as an independent artist to be a fan was amazing. He works just as hard for us, to get our music out and win us new fans, as he works for himself. That means a lot.”
Thames, Champion and Cotton are all spear-heading what seems to be a new movement – or maybe more accurately, a reawakening – of the classic soul blues sounds long associated with the Jackson, Mississippi area. A sound brought to prominence by labels like Malaco and Waldoxy and nurtured along these days by Catfood and DeChamp Records.
“It’s authentic. The music is based on experience and we all write our own music based on our experiences,” said Thames. “Lyrically speaking, it’s real music. When it comes to my own music, I pull from country, I pull from blues, I pull from reggae, I pull from soul and R&B. When you think about the history of soul music, that’s what it is. Ray Charles is a perfect example. He pulled from so many different aspects. When it comes to music, especially now, people as a whole are very interested in different genres. Technology has afforded us, where instead of purchasing a whole record, you can purchase singles. In that, if you went down a person’s iPod, or whatever they’re listening to their music on, they may have a song that’s country and one that’s blues and one that’s jazz and classical … and soul encompasses all those different sounds in one genre, so to speak. That captures people across language barriers, across color barriers, across belief systems. It touches people. If you think about the definition of soul – the mind, the will and emotion – you’re touching the mind, the will and emotion of people across the board.”
She was born and raised in Detroit, so Thames has an intimate knowledge of not only the Motown sound, but the sound of the urban, inner-city blues, as well. But shortly after she turned 17, Thames made her way to Jackson, Mississippi, where she was immersed in the deep soulful blues that can only be found in the south. That gives Thames the unique perspective of being equally comfortable whether putting a big city spin on her tunes, or whether flavoring them with a more country, more pastoral touch.
“The urban blues is more technology-savvy. They use a lot of different sounds that you will not find in the rural blues. I’ve fallen in love with the rural blues since living in Mississippi,” she said. “I love the sound and the grit and the rawness of it, whereas the urban blues is a little bit more refined. You’re going to have more electric instruments and you have bigger bands with more pieces and more voices. And it’s recorded completely different, as well. I’m still learning myself, but I think it’s (urban blues) geared toward more up-tempo tunes than the rural blues. They’re more party-oriented.”
She’s no doubt found that sweet spot right between urban and rural and that’s a big part of the reason that Thames has managed to turn so many heads and build an impressive legion of fans. The way she commands a stage is becoming legendary in its own right and that has led Thames to being tagged as ‘The Mississippi Blues Diva.’ While she doesn’t appear to take issue with the handle, she’s also quick to point out that name was definitely not self-given.
“I did not give myself that name – I did not,” she laughed. “It just kind of fell on me and someone put it in the press and it stuck. I’m like, ‘Man, I don’t want to be known as a diva.’”
However, the way Thames sees it, a ‘diva’ does not have to automatically have negative connotations attached to it.
“It’s funny, but when I travel to different places, people go, ‘Wow. You’re so down to earth and so chill. We expected you to be something else (based on her nickname).’ But in my experience as a quote-unquote diva – since they want to call me that – is the opposite of what the traditional definition of a diva is,” she said. “I think it’s humility. The idea of being a diva is to attract people to you and what I’ve learned is that the most attractive quality an artist can have is humility. Understanding that at any given time, people can decide not to listen to your music or not to attend your shows. It’s the humility of knowing that what you get to do everyday is a gift. It’s not something you should take lightly; it’s an honor to be able to stand in front of people and use that gift to touch their hearts and become a soundtrack to their lives. To me, that’s what draws people towards you.”
‘Relentless energy’ might be an adequate way to describe what Thames delivers to her audience from the bandstand. Regardless of where or when she’s playing, the mighty Thames is going to give every ounce of her blood, sweat and tears to make sure her crowd is fully engaged. Obviously, she was born with the desire to bring it every single night, but that passion and dedication to her audience was honed from stints singing backup for bands like Bad Brains, Slightly Stoopid, Outlaw Nation and Fishbone, bands that couldn’t be further away from the blues if they tried.
“It was the energy that went into every single show. I watched these guys night after night after night after night and they always had the same energy. Some artists get on stage and wait for the audience to give them energy,” she said. “But really, you have to give it first and then they’ll give it back to you. Then you get this synergy happening back-and-forth …. then, it finally gets to a point where it climaxes and explodes and everybody’s going nuts. It becomes this experience for both performer and the audience and that’s what I learned from those bands.”
Even as well-rounded and versatile a vocalist and performer as Thames is (she’s classically trained and also has a background in jazz), it might surprise some of her fans to know that she was involved in the hardcore ska/punk/reggae/rock scene before leaving her mark on the world of soul/blues. But it’s evident that Thames really dug her time with that style of music – and who knows – if circumstances were different, she might still be involved in it.
“When I left that vein of music, it was almost heartbreaking, but I felt that I kind of aged out of it. For people like Miles and Kyle (Doughty and McDonald, from Slightly Stoopid) and H.R. (Bad Brains vocalist), they’re men and they can stay in that field forever and no one will think anything of it,” she said. “But when you look at the reggae/rock genre, you really don’t see women age in it, so to speak.”
While touring with those groups, Thames kept her eyes and ears open and learned things that she still uses today.
“Oh, absolutely. From H.R., I learned how to do that cross-genre thing. I’d watch H.R. do a straight punk song and then go straight reggae – I’m talkin’ about Bob Marley, Bunny Wailer straight-reggae – and then go to something that was almost metal,” she said. “That was amazing. That’s when it started sparking in my mind that I could do that. People want to hear different things; they’re not just single-genre people. I learned that from being out with those guys. Those were key component things that I was able to take an implement into my own career. Even though I went in a whole different direction in roots music, it still applies. So when you come to one of my shows, you’re going to hear it all. When I was in France, I did “No Woman, No Cry” (Bob Marley song). But I put my own jazz twist on it and I followed that up with a traditional blues tune. I’m one of those performers that if it hits me and feels good, I’m going for it. That keeps me from being locked into one area.”
Thames and the Jackson, Mississippi area go together as well as peanut butter and jelly in 2015, but that wasn’t always the case. Her first excursion to the Magnolia State came when she was 17 years old and she moved from the Motor City area down south with her parents.
“I went (to Mississippi) kicking and screaming. I did not want to move to Mississippi. I had planned on going to New York from Detroit initially, but I was pregnant with my oldest son at the time. My parents were moving to Mississippi in order to be the senior assistant pastors at a church here. They had waited for me to graduate (high school), so I kind of messed up their plans,” she said. “I was planning on going to New York and my dad was going to retire from General Motors and move down here and go full-time into the ministry. It was a crossroads for my entire family and it hinged on me moving into the next season of my life as an adult. Three months before I graduated high school, I got pregnant and my mom was like, ‘Well, I guess you’re coming with us to Mississippi.’ They were basically my financial support at that time … and I didn’t really know what I was going to do with my life at that time, so hey, I went to Mississippi. It was very much a culture shock to go from a very populated, urban environment to just miles and miles of grass. It took me awhile to adjust, personally.”
Thames found her way into the local community of musicians rather quickly after settling in Mississippi and eventually, she did make it up to New York City.
“I did not have any money, I was staying in a shelter apartment (in the south Bronx) that I wasn’t even supposed to be in … I mean, I wasn’t really homeless at the time … I was, but I had a roof over my head, but there were gigantic rats and all kinds of critters in the place,” she said. “I remember taking a shower and there was a hole in the window they had in the shower. It was the dead of winter and you’re trying to take a shower and even though the water’s hot, you’re freezing. And the toilet didn’t work. There were just so many things …”
So many things that Thames wasn’t prepared for and probably didn’t even think about when she decided to turn a recording session into an extended stay in the Big Apple.
“I had went to New York to record with a gentleman that I had met on a previous trip up there to see eZra Brown, who was one of my mentors. When I arrived in New York (for the sessions), I had no band, no where to stay, no nothing. I get there and was pulling my suitcases into the studio and he says, ‘You could have taken the time to drop your stuff off.’ I said it was no big deal. What I didn’t want to tell him was I had nowhere to go,” she said. “We recorded and he said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody record like you,’ because I was just so relentless. We started at 7 o’clock in the afternoon and recorded until 5 o’clock in the morning. He kept saying that we could pick back up tomorrow, but I kept saying, ‘No,no, let’s get them done.’ Little did he know, I wanted to stay in the studio because I had nowhere to go.”
Eventually, Thames’ resting place became trains around the city, where she would sleep when she could. She pulled her bags between the studio and the trains until she was able to get into the shelter with the hole-ridden shower in it.
“Finally, he figured it out and then he helped me get a bar-tending gig and that turned into me becoming an assistant manager at another restaurant,” Thames said. “He was very instrumental in that. There were just so many steps that went along with my journey. During that time, being homeless and not knowing where money was coming from and not knowing what I was going to eat, that was when I really learned how to sing the blues. And I was nowhere near Mississippi; I was in New York City.”
She finally made her way out of New York and back to Mississippi, but Thames really didn’t encounter a storybook homecoming when she first landed back in the deep south. Matter of fact, things got worse for Thames, who was in her late 20’s at the time.
“During my second stint in a shelter (this one back in Mississippi) – I was in the system at that point and had my children (her second son passed away in 2006 from Lymphoma, before he was even two years old; her youngest son was born in 2010) with me, as well, which made it a whole different blow – I was at rock-bottom. For me, that was rock bottom, because at that time, I was looking at my children and thinking that I couldn’t even be a good mother to my kids,” she said. “Yeah, I had dreams and aspirations and goals, and more than anything in the world, I really felt this (singing) was the only thing I was supposed to do with my life. The thing that I have always known is that I’m supposed to sing. But you have these two little boys looking at you and they need everything from you and financially, you just can’t do it.”
Those who create art from thin air are a supremely confident group, as they very well should be. Still, it would be a stretch to think that during those dark and desperate times that Thames could ever imagine that one day she would be touring France or gazing out onto the crowd at the Chicago Blues Festival. However, Thames said there was no doubt in her mind that she would one day begin to turn her dreams into reality.
“When I hit that rock bottom, I looked around and realized that I was living my deepest fear and it didn’t kill me. I decided that if this was as bad as it can get, hey, I can do this. That’s when I said to myself that there was no where to go from there but up. We had to be out of the shelter by 8 a.m. And I would take a shower in the morning and that’s when I wrote that song (the title track to Tell You What I Know),” said Thames. “While in the shower, I had this melody and I would just sing it to myself – ‘Tell you what I know; tell you what I know.’ That’s what encouraged me and fueled me. I made up my mind that I was going to accomplish everything I knew was on the inside of me – that I was going to do whatever it took to walk that out and show my children that dreams do come true.”
A song of triumph, self-belief and never giving up, “Tell You What I Know” hit number one on the Billboard Hot Singles Sales Chart and stayed in the top 10 for over two months.
Her children probably didn’t completely understand the circumstances they were in, or even what their mother was going through at the time, but looking at things with the perspective of a little bit of age on their side these days, they have a clearer appreciation of the way their mom battled through long odds to break free from the system.
“I have a 15-year-old who is living with his dad in Tucson, Arizona and he’s 6-6, weighs 220 pounds, wears size 17 shoes and plays basketball. They’ve been scouting him (for college) since he was in the eighth grade. To have your 15-year-old call you and say, ‘Mom, I know that I can do anything … anything … because I watched you and I know that nothing is impossible,’” Thames said. “To have your kid tell you that, it pays for every tear, every hard night, every fear … it cancels all that out. Even if I didn’t reach the upper echelons in this music world, knowing that my kids understand that you stick and you stay and you push no matter what, it’s worth it. It’s hard knowing that your kids went through that, but knowing that at 15, he’s able to look at that and say, hey, my mom kept pushing and look at where she is now. She’s touring France and is on the radio in Africa. He sees those things and that’s a daily reminder to me of humility and that I have to continue to think of all the people that have been invested in my career and invested in my life.”
Thames is recently married, and in addition to her star ward-bound musical career, her and her husband have a general contracting business. But maybe more importantly than all of that is the work Thames is undertaking to help those that are currently traveling the path she once trekked.
“My main objective when I get on stage is to motivate; to inspire; to touch people and encourage them. Now, I’m really focused on utilizing influence. The causes that I’m in the process of really supporting now is, number one – teenage, or young, moms. I was one and I understand the emotions and the struggles of that and the things that you miss, in just your personal development. The internal things that you miss because you’re so focused on helping to develop another child, when you’re still just a child yourself. I want to inspire young mothers to not just be good enough, but to be more than enough so they can inspire and help others … to pay it forward. I want to help them with their dreams and then help to see those dreams become reality,” Thames said. “The other cause I’m definitely invested in is ‘at-risk youth.’ I really believe that when you have influence, you should use it for something bigger than yourself.”
As amazing as her back story is, one has the feeling that JJ Thames is only just getting started and the story she writes from here on out should be something to follow, for sure. So what’s up next?
“I don’t think I had dreamed any further; I think I had dreamed to right here,” she said. “So in the last month or so, I had an epiphany and said, ‘OK, now you’ve got to dream some more, kid.’ So that’s what I’ve been doing – dreaming for the next phase. This is not the top of the mountain, this is just the middle of it. There’s a peak up there that I see that I need to get to.”
Photos by Bob Kieser © 2015
Blues Blast Magazine Senior Writer Terry Mullins is a journalist, author and former record store owner whose personal taste in music is the sonic equivalent of Attention Deficit Disorder. Works by the Bee Gees, Captain Beefheart, Black Sabbath, Earth, Wind & Fire and Willie Nelson share equal space with Muddy Waters, The Staples Singers and R.L. Burnside in his compact disc collection. He’s also been known to spend time hanging out on the street corners of Clarksdale, Miss., eating copious amounts of barbecued delicacies while listening to the wonderful sounds of the blues.