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The lowdown on Dover's soul sensation, Joss Stone


Feature: Jack Foley

SHE boasts the voice of a young Aretha Franklin, or a genuine soul diva, and has supported the likes of Erykah Badu, so it is hardly surprising to find the hype building around the arrival of Joss Stone.

What is surprising, however, is the talented young singer's background. Aged just 16, Joss was born on April 11, 1987, in Dover, England, and, at the age of eight, moved to the rural village of Ashill, in the county of Devon; she is the second youngest of four siblings.

The first record to seize her young imagination was Whitney Houston’s I Will Always Love You, but Aretha Franklin’s Greatest Hits was the first album she ever bought - after seeing it advertised on TV.

Joss’ first public performance was a harbinger of things to come - in a Fifties-themed school variety show, she sang Reete Petite, the Jackie Wilson hit from 1957.

In 2001, at the age of 14, she auditioned for the BBC TV talent show, Star for A Night, where she sang Aretha’s A Natural Woman and It's Not Right But It's Okay by Whitney Houston.

“I found out that I’d won some months later, when the camera crew showed up in Devon to tell me the news: ‘Congratulations—you’re going to be on Star for A Night!," she recalls.

"For the broadcast, I sang On The Radio, by Donna Summer. It wasn’t my choice, and it didn’t sound very good, but that’s how I got my management.

"Then I sang for a charity show, and when the Boilerhouse Boys [London producers Andy Dean and Ben Wolfe] saw the video, they said ‘Steve Greenberg has got to hear this.’”

Steve Greenberg is the founder and CEO of S-Curve Records. Over the years, in addition to discovering such hit acts as Hanson and Baha Men, he expressed his love for rhythm & blues, soul and disco by producing such sets as the Grammy-nominated nine-disc, The Complete Stax/Volt Singles (1959-1968) and the five-disc Sugar Hill Records Story.

In December 2001, Greenberg received a call from the Boilerhouse Boys 'telling me that they had just heard the greatest singer they’d ever heard from their country'.

He flew Joss to New York for an audition, in which she sang to backing tracks of classic soul songs: Dock of the Bay, by Otis Redding, Midnight Train to Georgia, by Gladys Knight & the Pips, and A Natural Woman, by Aretha Franklin.

Steve was stunned by what he heard.

“Joss had not only a great voice but also the ability to put her own original stamp on classic material," he explained. "She wasn’t just mimicking, she was changing and interpreting the songs, and doing it with passion and feeling.

"The level of nuance was just astounding for someone who was then 14-years-old.”

Their initial idea was to make an album of contemporary songs - with Joss co-writing as many as possible - and one of the first people contacted out was the Grammy-winning, Miami-based singer/songwriter/producer, Betty Wright.

“I was given a CD of Joss’ demos just one day before we met,” Betty Wright remembers. “I told Steve, ‘We don’t know how, we don’t know why, but this kind of voice is just a gift from heaven.’

“In making The Soul Sessions together, I’ve been Joss’ best friend and her worst enemy," she continues.

"By that, I mean I’ve made her attempt things with her voice that she couldn’t even have imagined before. And Joss, for her part, has reminded me of some I things I’d forgotten - about why this kind of music is important to me and why I still enjoy creating it. We just plugged right into each other."

In the spring of 2003, Joss and her collaborators (including Greenberg, Wright, and co-producer, Mike Mangini) set to work on the proposed album.

But one of their first recordings, a cover of the obscure Carla Thomas song, I’ve Fallen In Love With You, turned their efforts in an entirely different direction.

Steve Greenberg recalls: "A Carla Thomas cover didn’t really fit on the album we were then planning. But Joss’ performance of it was fantastic. Meanwhile, Joss’ talent was evolving by leaps and bounds.

"So we thought we’d up the ante and have her record live in the studio with a real live r&b band, doing a whole set of classic and obscure soul songs. In addition to completing her album of new material.”

Steve suggested to Betty that they reunite some of the key players of Seventies Miami, even though more than 20 years had passed since they’d made music together, and, in the spring of 2003, the team gathered at The Hit Factory/Criteria Studios in Miami for what Betty Wright calls 'a live soul session, just like back in the day'.

Greenberg adds: "We did not want to do a karaoke record. We did not want to make an ‘American Idol’ album of someone singing note-for-note copies of great records. We wanted to reinvent every song."

The result, an album called The Soul Sessions, heralds the emergence of a new and unique young artist with a rich, vibrant voice and a powerful sense of emotional engagement with her material.

In this case, the material consists of eight soul classics ranging from the thoroughly obscure (Dirty Man, by Laura Lee, Super Duper Love, by Sugar Billy) to the reasonably familiar (Aretha Franklin’s All The King’s Horses, the Isley Brothers’ For The Love Of You); along with radical reworkings of songs by John Sebastian (I Had a Dream) and Jack White, of the White Stripes (Fell In Love With a Boy); the latter featuring the instrumental backing of The Roots, with supporting vocals by Angie Stone and the legendary Betty Wright.

Plaudits followed from everything from the Chicago Herald to Rolling Stone and led to TV performances on the likes of Good Morning America and the Conan O'Brien show.

Now, however, Stone is looking to emulate her US success with more in her home country, and plans a full UK release of the Soul Sessions in February, as well as a single, Fell In Love With a Boy, at around the same time.

And with everyone from Radio 1 and XFM beginning to get interested, don't bet against hearing a lot from Stone by the end of the year.

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