Renowned Canadian multi-genre chanteuse Molly Johnson has just released her sixth studio album, Because Of Billie via Universal Music Canada, the country's leading music company. The record is available digitally, on CD as well as 2LP gatefold, 180 gram vinyl.
"For years, people have said to me, 'You are so much like Billie Holiday,'" says Johnson speaking on this ambitious and also deeply personal project. "My response has been 'No, I am because of Billie.'"
Recorded in Toronto with producers John Bailey and Mike Downes, Johnson wanted to infuse Because Of Billie with her idol's spirit, preparing the album's 14 songs emotionally and technically so many could be recorded in one take.
Billie Holiday's journey inspires Johnson not only as an artist, but as a model citizen. "Billie and her generation were the civil rights movement," Johnson notes. "Her generation sacrificed for my privilege and I am honour-bound to them. I love history. I love to look back while pushing forward."
Paying homage to Holiday's childhood struggles, Johnson will donate a portion of album sales to The Boys & Girls Clubs. Molly Johnson's voice is a distinctive national treasure. As singer-songwriter, artist, broadcaster, and philanthropist, Johnson's roots are Canadian while her reach is worldwide. Perhaps most associated with the iconic jazz vocal styling she has honed, Johnson has performed with such diverse artists as Tom Jones, Celine Dion, Anne Murray, Lenny Kravitz, Tom Cochrane, Stéphane Grapelli, Jackie Richardson, Peter Appleyard and many more. Molly Johnson has performed for the legendary Quincy Jones as well as the late Princess of Wales and Nelson Mandela.
In 2009, she received the JUNO Award for Best Vocal Jazz Album and the National Jazz Award for Best Female Vocalist. Johnson is a recipient of the Queen's Jubilee Medal and was honoured in 2008 with the Officer of the Order of Canada in recognition of her charitable work and contributions to the arts.
"She's like my rockabilly Etta James. I love her, she's so brilliant. I don't think 'Rollin' in the Deep' would exist if it wasn't for Wanda Jackson."
"Wanda Jackson, an atomic fireball of a lady, could have a smash hit with just about anything."
– Bob Dylan
"There's an authenticity in her voice that conjures up a world and a very distinct and particular place in time. It's not something that can be developed."
– Bruce Springsteen
Wanda Jackson was born in Oklahoma, but her father Tom – himself a country singer who quit because of the Depression – moved the family to California in 1941. He bought Wanda her first guitar two years later, gave her lessons, and encouraged her to play piano as well. In addition, he took her to see such acts as Tex Williams, Spade Cooley, and Bob Wills, which left a lasting impression on her young mind. Tom moved the family back to Oklahoma City when his daughter was 12 years old. In 1952, she won a local talent contest and was given a 15-minute daily show on KLPR. The program, soon upped to 30 minutes, lasted throughout Jackson's high school years. It's here that Thompson heard her sing. Jackson recorded several songs with the Brazos Valley Boys, including "You Can't Have My Love," a duet with Thompson's bandleader, Billy Gray. The song, on the Decca label, became a national hit, and Jackson's career was off and running. She had wanted to sign with Capitol, Thompson's label, but was turned down due to her young age, so she signed with Decca instead.
Jackson insisted on finishing high school before hitting the road. When she did, her father became her road manager and hit the road with her. Her mother made and helped design Wanda's stage outfits. "I was the first one to put some glamour in the country music – fringe dresses, high heels, long earrings," Jackson said of these outfits. When Jackson first toured in 1955 and 1956, she was placed on a bill with none other than Elvis Presley. The two hit it off almost immediately. Jackson said it was Presley, along with her father, who encouraged her to sing rockabilly.
In 1956, Jackson finally signed with Capitol, a relationship that lasted until the early '70s. Her recording career bounced back and forth between country and rockabilly; she did this by often putting one song in each style on either side of a single. Jackson cut the rockabilly hit "Fujiyama Mama" in 1958, which became a major success in Japan. Her version of "Let's Have a Party," which Elvis had cut earlier, was a U.S. Top 40 pop hit for her in 1960, after which she began calling her band the Party Timers. A year later, she was back in the country Top Ten with "Right or Wrong" and "In the Middle of a Heartache." In 1965, she topped the German charts with "Santa Domingo," sung in German. In 1966, she hit the U.S. Top 20 with "The Box It Came In" and "Tears Will Be the Chaser for Your Wine." Jackson's popularity continued through the end of the decade.
Jackson toured regularly, was twice nominated for a Grammy, and was a big attraction in Las Vegas from the mid-'50s into the '70s. She married IBM supervisor Wendell Goodman in 1961, and instead of quitting the business – as many women singers had done at the time – Goodman gave up his job in order to manage his wife's career. He also packaged Jackson's syndicated TV show, Music Village. In 1971, Jackson and her husband became Christians, which she says saved their marriage. She released one gospel album on Capitol in 1972, Praise the Lord, before shifting to the Myrrh label for three more gospel albums. In 1977, she switched again, this time to Word Records, and released another two.
In the early '80s, Jackson was invited to Europe to play rockabilly and country festivals and to record. She's since been back numerous times. More recently, American country artists Pam Tillis, Jann Browne, and Rosie Flores have acknowledged Jackson as a major influence. In 1995, Flores released a rockabilly album, Rockabilly Filly, and invited Jackson, her longtime idol, to sing two duets on it with her. Jackson embarked on a major U.S. tour with Flores later that year. It was her first secular tour in this country since the '70s, not to mention her first time back in a nightclub atmosphere. After releasing the critically acclaimed, "Heart Trouble", and "I Remember Elvis".. Wanda continues to tour all over the world to sold out venues.
In 2009 Wanda was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Bruce Springsteen were just a few of the high-profile artists that encouraged the Hall to induct the Queen over the last few years. That year it was also announced that Jackson would start work on new recordings with Jack White. The resulting album, The Party Ain't Over, was released on January 25, 2011. It included a cover of the Bob Dylan rockabilly song, "Thunder on the Mountain" as well as a fiery cover of Amy Winehouse's hit song "You Know I'm No Good". "The Party Ain't Over" was well-received by many critics and fans all over the world.
Joel Plaskett returns with one of the most diverse and fan-pleasing albums of his career. Proving that he can be all things to everybody, the rock veteran offers up a wide mix of styles on Joel Plaskett and the Park Avenue Sobriety Test. It touches on his solo acoustic side, his guitar rock work with the Emergency, his happy-go-lucky rhyming talents, carefree memories of growing up in Nova Scotia, and a little bit of anger at the forces making life tougher these days. There are many moments that draw on previous classic Plaskett, from beloved albums such as Three and Ashtray Rock, right back to his Thrush Hermit days. And there are new sides to his sounds as well – Joel like you've never heard him.
There are plenty of hints as to where his head is at these days – 39 and holding, looking back at how he got there, and ahead past that milestone birthday. Even the title holds a clue in its anagram: Joel Plaskett and the P.A.S.T. You'll find references to his salad days, like "On A Dime," which starts with a blast of downhome Celtic fiddle from Cape Breton great J.P. Cormier. Then there's Plaskett riffing on memories of playing road hockey in the liquor store parking lot, and later, traveling to Memphis with his band Thrush Hermit to make their first album. It's not truly autobiographical though. These are more observations that have piled up over the last twenty-plus years of being a touring musician, traveling and meeting folks coast to coast to coast, mixing it in with his own life. If anything, it's the teenager from Ashtray Rock, all grown up.
The P.A.S.T. also refers to the cast of characters that helped make the album. With its wide-ranging sound it's not a pure Joel Plaskett Emergency effort, although the band appears on more than half the tracks. It's more like the Emergency-Plus, as lots of familiar faces from previous Plaskett discs are aboard. Longtime Emergency cohorts Dave Marsh – drums and Chris Pennell – bass anchor the rhythm section. Previous group members Tim Brennan and Peter Elkas play on several songs. From Plaskett's former band Thrush Hermit is old pal Ian McGettigan. Then there are guests, friends and neighbours, such as Cormier, Halifax singer-songwriter Mo Kenney, singer Erin Costelo, and pedal steel player Dale Murray (Christina Martin, Cuff the Duke).
In an era when most albums have the best tracks at the start and then a bunch of also-rans to fill up the quota, Plaskett stubbornly remains a throwback. The consummate music fan, even the album cover is a dead give-away, where he reclines on top of his massive collection of vinyl, no doubt filled with personal treasures and rare gems. Each cut stands alone as a winner, but together, they flow and create a full story. They are as catchy and melodic as his best work, but on Joel Plaskett and the Park Avenue Sobriety Test he's gone one step further. The sequence is carefully planned, there are little linking bits, connections from one song to the next, one ending planned to segue into the next beginning. There's a story arc about getting through life's struggles and blue periods, and dramatic pacing, like a movie script. It starts with the rock, gets a little quieter, more serious and acoustic, then breaks the tension with some classy goofy lyrics ("Song for Jersey") before wrapping up with the electric big band.
In other words, this is a start-to-finish, must-listen album. You can pick out favourite lines ("When you're one of a kind, you can't get on the Ark"), new anthems (the title cut) and take a moment to reflect ("For Your Consideration"). You can marvel at new sides to Plaskett's work, from the finger-pointing anger of "Captains of Industry," where he takes on the one percent, ruining lives through trickle-down greed, to the cover of Stephen Foster's "Hard Times," a 160-year old protest song that shows times really haven't changed much at all. It's a rare album where an artist can lean so much on his P.A.S.T., yet still show a great deal of growth. But after twenty years of music-making mischief, Joel Plaskett never, ever lets you down, and seems to always find ways to get better.
Back in the mid-80s, Toronto was re-emerging as a musical hotbed with a special focus on a rebirth of the singer-songwriter tradition. The Cowboy Junkies and Blue Rodeo were in their formative stages. Andrew Cash, who had recently signed a solo deal with Island Records, had begun hosting a weekly songwriting showcase at the Spadina Hotel called Acoustic Meltdown, which obtained a cult following among music-lovers in the city.
Future Skydiggers Josh Finlayson and Andy Maize were frequent guests at those shows. They had been friends since childhood, and separately had formed their own bands. Maize fronted Direktive 17, which toured around Southern Ontario. Finlayson played bass in The Ramblers, which had relocated for about two years to the UK chasing the tail end of punk's glory years. By 1984, both bands had run their course, and the two teamed up to play and record as an acoustic duo under the name West Montrose.
The simplicity and portability of the acoustic format was a reaction to their experience with the noise and circumstance of playing in rock bands. As they continued to write and record and occasionally appear on the Spadina stage, gradually the elements of a new group started to fall into place.
Drummer Wayne Stokes was an aspiring home studio purveyor who had done some recording with Finlayson and Maize. Bassist Ron Macey was a professional screen printer who was looking to a new career in music; he met the band through a want ad in a newspaper. Peter Cash, brother of the Spadina Hotel's headliner, worked the door at the venue and an impressive tape of his formative songwriting efforts was slipped to the rest of the band.
When Andrew Cash decided to end his residency at the Spadina, he turned it over to the new musical collective, which had taken the enigmatic name Skydiggers. Some listeners initially likened the band to REM, but Finlayson says the roots of their sound and worldview ran deeper.
"We were always compared to REM, but really it was more a case of having the same influences – the Beatles and the Byrds. The common thing would be the layering of voices. Also, Joe Klein's book about Woody Guthrie (Woody Guthrie: A Life) was passed around between us, and it made an impression. Woody's life and work embodied a lot of the ethos and the ethics of punk music. He was very direct and independent and stood for something about the individual and championing people and causes."
Adds bassist Macey: "For the longest time it was like a skiffle band, very rhythmic and percussive. Essentially, it is two acoustic guitars, four voices and drum and bass. It had to go somewhere from there."
The sound developed at an impressive rate, thanks to the discipline and work ethic the weekly showcase placed on the band. New songs, new covers and a sound that grew to include electric instruments developed in the hothouse atmosphere of rehearsals, songwriting sessions and live performances. The buzz about those early shows reached Mark Smith and Derrick Ross of Enigma Records and they snagged the band for their eponymous debut in 1990.
Although the initial single was the rollicking "Monday Morning," it was the gentle ballad "I Will Give You Everything" which made the group's reputation and garnered substantial play on both radio and music television. Their sophomore effort, Restless, saw them recording at Daniel Lanois' fabled Grant Avenue studio in Hamilton, Ontario, and the sophistication of their recordings grew exponentially. In 1993, they issued the languid, atmospheric Just Over This Mountain, and in 1997 they jumped to Warner for Road Radio, which was recorded mostly live-off-the-floor at the Lighthouse Theatre in Port Dover, Ontario.
Stokes departed after their sophomore release, Restless. Peter Cash left in 1996 after Road Radio. (Cash went on to record and tour with brother Andrew, and in 2005, both would collaborate again with the group on the disc Skydiggers/Cash Brothers). The departures and drafting of new players have fueled the evolution of the group's sound. Desmond's Hip City saw them toying with sampling and looping and dueting with Sarah Harmer, Bittersweet Harmony swung back towards the guitar-based pop influences of their early days and more recently City of Sirens was fortified with the presence of keyboardist Michael Johnston, who has injected novel textures into the Skydiggers' sound.
"We've played with other people, other people have come into this circle and played with us. They've put their stamp on our music. But on the other hand, I think we recognize there is something consistent and something we all value that is threaded through all our records," says Finlayson.
"If you manage to spend this much time making music together, you will find there's some chemistry, some magic that makes it work," adds Maize. "We don't question where it comes from, but this record is our chance to celebrate the fact that we've been part of something pretty special."