Before there was a Leona Lewis or a Alexandra Burke, British soul singer Jaki Graham was one of the biggest black female singers that this country had produced. With 5 top twenty hits and two top 40 albums, there seemed to be a time when Jaki appeared to be a mainstay on Top of the Pops. Who can forget that infectious smile, that big ole head of hair and that old school innocence expressed poetically via timeless Brit soul classics such as Round and Around, Heaven Knows and her biggest hit – Could It Be I’m Falling in Love? I was a big fan of Jaki. We shared the same sized hair so I felt an immediate affinity with her. But huge tresses aside, she also seemed to possess that down to earth persona that is far too often a rarity in the ego-driven world of show business.
So how nice it was to all these years later finally get to have a chat with her. I wasn’t disappointed at all. Jaki still has that charm, and warm personable spirit that leads you into believing you’ve known her for eons. We spoke about Jaki’s journey through fame with all the the varying ups, downs and bumpy bits.
This month marks the 25th anniversary of her album Breaking Away. To celebrate the occasion Jaki is releasing a re-mastered version of the album. And that’s not all. In October the singer will be releasing another album Absolute Essential – The Very Best of Jaki Graham, which is a compilation of all her hits.
Jaki, it’s been a long time since we’ve heard from you, how are you?
I’m fine thank you darling, all systems go. Everybody keeps asking if I’m still making music and I’m like, ‘yes man, I’m still here’. But its all really busy at the moment and I’m grateful.
We’re very excited to hear the news of the new album, in fact you’ve got two albums coming out, right?
Yeah, we’re celebrating the anniversary of my album, it’s been twenty-five years. So there’s going to be re-mastered the Breaking Away album with bonus tracks. Just to give them a taste and a reminder of what I’ve done. People still love that album, it has stood the test of time and will hopefully bring back memories for everybody. Then I’ve got an album coming out in October which will give everyone a taster of what I’ve done around the world.
Great stuff. So when you listen back to the Breaking Away album in present day what kind of memories come flooding back?
Oh girl, so many memories. The fact that this is when I got spotted. And when I first came on the scene people thought I was an overnight success. But I had been working with bands and stuff up here in the Midlands for the past 10 or 12 years. But then the world just opened up to me, all the tracks, the studios, the musicians we were working with, and the touring we were doing TV, radio, it all came together and then my feet never touched the ground. It was a whirlwind for me and because I had a family at the time as well, I had my baby with me but I still wanted to see and experience things and be a part of it. But it was also important to me to not to be spoilt by it, you learn as you grow, not to be affected by it all. Between having the baby and having family around it kept me grounded. It was a crazy time for me though but the fact I could turn round and have family say ‘this is the real world’. All the people you meet along the way, I’ve learnt that those people aren’t your friends, they are acquaintances. Because at the time I was there thinking ‘I’ve made all these new friends’ and while you are doing what you are doing, everybody wants to be apart of things and be around you. But when you’re not doing that much you call on these people and they say ‘oh, how great to hear from you’ but they are really fobbing you off. But you know with me, I thought it would be a five minute thing. You know, I was gonna be a one hit wonder, so therefore I was just gonna embrace it, and I wanted my daughter to see it. So looking back now you listen to everyone else who was out and I think ‘oh my god, we had some good times’. When I look back and watch the old Top of the Pops and see other major artists that were there with me I think wow, I was a part of that.
So taking it back to the days when you were a youngster living in Handsworth (Birmingham), who were some of the artists who influenced you?
You know I never really had anyone as such. Living at home, I grew up with my grandmother. I also had two elder uncles who lived at home and was around us all the time. So whatever music they were listening to influenced me. One of my uncles was into stuff like Motown. My grandmother listened to people like Johnny Nash and John Holt so the reggae side of things. Then you had the jazz influences, and I also listened to rock and pop as well, with people like The Osmonds. So there was all these different types of music but I was always drawn to soul. Later on in life I got to meet and even perform with some of these artists, people like The Temptations, Gladys Knight and Stevie Wonder. I’ve met some really lovely, lovely people. The bigger they were the nicer they seemed too.
When you eventually decided to pursue singing as a career, what were your aspirations?
Well I had been gigging with this band for a while, two years or so. In the early days I used to work in an office and go to work and then come home, get ready because I had to be at a gig for 8pm. So I did all that and it wasn’t until things started taking off that I considered it as a profession. So my thing, like I said before, was even if I was only going to be around for five minutes, I was going to enjoy it and have a good time. So the fact that then the record company weren’t 100% behind me, with each record I released people really liked it so for me I am grateful just to have longevity. I really wanted to be good enough and learn my craft, and I’m still learning my craft.
One of your biggest hits was your duet with David Grant ‘Could it be I’m Falling in Love‘. Now whose idea was it to that duet, and did you have any idea it would be so big?
No, not at all. You see I had some underground soul hits bubbling under, songs like Heaven Knows, Round and Around and so forth. Because we were on the same management team that’s how that collaboration came about. David said he had a dream about it so we went into the studio and did that track. And it was only when we recorded it that I started to feel okay about it. Because as you know it’s a cover, and a well known cover that even now I still love the original. But we still did it but I was nervous because of that fact. But then when it flew away like it did I was like ‘somebody pinch me‘. And then we did the track Mated which became another hit for us.
And do you still hear from David? Any chance of another duet for 2010?
No I don’t think so. I’m up in the Midlands, David’s up in London. Plus I think he’s more into the church scene now from what I’ve heard. And he does vocal coaching and TV so I don’t get to see David much at all.
Are there any artists from back in those days that you keep in touch with?
I’ve done quite a lot of work with Michael McDonald and also rubbed shoulders with people like Kenny Thomas, Gwen Dickie and Alexander O‘Neal. But there were so many artists back in those days, people like The Cool Notes a lot of those kinds of bands, even though they’re not doing anything now. People like Junior (Giscombe), I love that man to death and he has never changed, he is absolutely fab. People like Kim Wilde, Go West, they haven’t changed either, we had some good times baby girl.
In terms of your solo career things went a big quiet for you during the 90’s in the UK, but you were still making records and touring in other countries, right?
Yes, definitely. I was touring in places like Japan where tickets for my shows sold out within twenty minutes. So again, it opened up a whole new world for me and I was spending a lot of time within those territories. Over here it was a case of out of sight, out of mind. People would always come up to me and ask whether I had retired.
So why didn’t your record company capitalise off of your popularity in other countries?
It was all political to a certain degree. To be fair, I was signed to EMI who were a rock and pop label. And then they had this British black girl making soul music, and they didn’t have a clue of what to do with me. How to promote me, how to sell me. So every time we needed promotion or a video to shoot it was always a struggle to get them behind me. And then all of a sudden they’d release the charts, and we’d make the chart breakers and everyone would be jumping up and down to make a video. So that would shake them up a bit. And plus I was always competing with the American artists at EMI. We had people like Tina Turner, Diana Ross, so if they were bringing stuff out at the time I would be put back so they could concentrate on them.
Bringing it back to present day, a lot of young artists get criticised for being overtly-sexual in their music. Now one of the things I remember about you was your apparent wholesomeness and innocence. Does the objectifying of women in music concern you?
Now for me it was all about the music. Music and the melody. Because when someone hears you on the radio they don’t know what they look like. Either they are feeling your track or they’re not. So the next thing you do is maybe have a TV appearance. And when you tour, then they’ll get the whole personality. But it was always based on the music. But now, it’s simply a case of sex sells. And it is overtly sexual, nowadays nothing is left to the imagination. All the innocence is gone.
How do you think you would’ve survived in this musical climate?
I couldn’t even tell ya. But I’d probably be a more wealthier now because there are so many opportunities that we didn’t have back then. But sometimes I think it’s a case of too much too soon.
Vintage Jaki and David
Breaking Away is out on August 23rd.
Absolute Essential – The Very Best of Jaki Graham is out on October 25th For further details visit www.jaki-graham.com