I first heard James Gray sing at a Monday night Central Mississippi Blues Society jam at the famous Hal & Mal’s in Jackson, Mississippi in late 2009. He walked through the crowd that night belting out a stirring version of Bring It On Home To Me. James’ delivery possessed gospel and carnal knowledge that spoke of loss, lust and hope. From that very moment, I knew we would work together though I had no idea how hard he would be to track down in the small town of Jackson. Over the course of the next eight months, I attempted to meet with James through intermediaries. I learned that James was to perform at the 930 Blues Club in Jackson in the spring of 2010. That night was pure magic. James, 70-years-old at the time, had drawn a crowd of black and white twenty and thirty year-old women who hung on every phrase. He sang Tommy Tucker’s High Heel Sneakers and the room exploded with dancing. At the head of all this was James, sliding like a note across the floor. The effect on these young women was stunning.
Several months more of attempting to meet with James proved fruitless. On a very hot day in August 2010, I was walking down by one of the least known and most important blues streets in all the world, Jackson’s Farish Street, near the Frank Jones Corner club. There was an outdoor stage behind the club with people happily enjoying the blues music and heat of Mississippi. In the crowd sat James.
I noticed that he recognized me from the 930 show. I introduced myself once again and asked if he had considered my offer to record. He looked stunned, indicating he had not heard of this. I expect this is one of the great enigma’s of Farish Street – our discussion taking place just 150 feet from the site of Trumpet Records. Blues historians know this label as home to Sonny Boy Williamson and Elmore James. Now in total disrepair, save for a Mississippi Blues Trail maker, this is a place where myth and reality frequently lie to one another.
Initially wary, James and I slowly began to know and trust one another. I gave him copies of my first two CDs. He listened to those and agreed that doing a record with me would work. We agreed to meet to go over potential material. While riding in my car on the way to my apartment, we got to talking about the history of music in Jackson. He broke into a slow, version of Sleeping In The Ground and asked me if I knew who did that one. Of course, I said, “Sam Myers”. Little did James know that I had produced the critically acclaimed American Blues video series along with dear friend Monte Sanborn, which features Sam Myers with Anson Funderburgh.
James would then tell me that he, Sam and “Elmo” would hang and play together back in the sixties. I asked James if he meant Elmore James. “No, Elmo James,” he said. He said he only knew him as Elmo. That night, we recorded four tracks in my apartment with James just singing. Three of those songs appear on this CD as written by James. The fourth, Sleeping In The Ground may be one of the most haunting versions ever recorded. We may get back to that one in a future recording.
I sent the tracks from that apartment session to bassist Preston Hubbard, keyboard player Mike “Shinetop Jr.” Sedovic and drummer Dwight Ross Jr. asking each if they would like to record with us for this project. All immediately agreed. Time was scheduled at Tweed Recording in Oxford, MS for three days in October. Between the apartment session and October 15th, James fell completely out of sight. Dwight and I spent many days looking for James throughout Jackson. (Dwight would later confide in me that he thought I’d lost my mind by wanting to do this recording.)
Ultimately, we did find James and the five of us collected in Andrew Radcliffe’s fine Tweed Recording studio in October for three days of work. There aren’t enough words to describe the important contributions of Dwight, Mike (Shinetop) and Preston on the outcome of the recording session. James’ songs needed crafting from the ground up. I doubt the session would have been as successful without these fine musicians and good friends. I selected material for the record based on how I felt it would fit with James’ originals. And, I wanted to make a record with short tight arrangements. In many ways, we recorded a very old style record without really trying to do so.
After the October sessions, I took the tracks to my Bette Jane’s Studio in Calgary where I laid in my guitar parts. In addition, Calgary’s guitar player, singer and harmonica player – Greg “Junior” Demchuk – played some fine harmonica on Jimmy Anderson’s Ain’t Gonna Let Her Go. Preston then offered to introduce me to Doug “Mr. Low” James to see if he would provide horn material for the record. Doug and Preston were in Duke Robillard’s Roomful of Blues line up before Preston headed off to join The Fabulous Thunderbirds. As it turns out, Preston cautioned, Doug was touring with Jimmie Vaughan in support of his Jimmie Vaughan Plays Blues, Ballads Favorites CD tour. I sent Doug just one track initially – TV Mama. He immediately called me and said yes, yes and yes. Doug’s musicianship and absolute enthusiasm on this project has been invaluable. We spent many hours on Skype discussing various approaches to the songs. He would send snippets to me, we’d Skype video discuss these and then Doug would be gone for some tour dates with Jimmie.
When we were satisfied with all the material, I then set out to mix this project. After several failed attempts (trying to do too much), I asked Doug if he would introduce me to Thom Hiller, who is Duke Robillard’s main engineer. Thom helped Doug with various technical issues while he was recording the horn parts. Thom did a sample mix One of These Days and I was just floored by how good it sounded. It only took a second for Thom and I to agree that he should do the mixes.
I’ve left much out of James Gray’s story as it is intensely personal. But I will tell you that this diminutive man is one tough hombre. When he was 18, he lost his right arm while saving a woman who got tangled up in a train. James took me to the spot of the accident, just a block or so from where he used to perform with Elmo James and Sam Myers at Dad’s Place. James has been given a nickname – Rock – by his Jackson friends. I suspect it’s because he’s solid as a man can be.
So, here you have the very first recordings of a now 71-year-old singer who performed with the legendary Elmo James and Sam Myers. On this record, you have two original members of Roomful of Blues (Doug & Preston) and one prominent member of The Fabulous Thunderbirds (Preston). It’s been mixed by one of the great young engineers in the business today, Thom Hiller, who is schooled at the ears of Duke Robillard. Finally, Randy Kling brings great depth to this project from his mastering expertise on projects ranging from Ray Charles to Kim Wilson to Robert Ward.
In the end, you’ll have to decide if it is as Preston Hubbard lovingly describes this project: Historic!
We hope you will enjoy listening to Voodoo Workin’ as much as we did making this record.
Take care now.