Ruby Turner: The Jewel in the Crown

Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club in London is one of the world’s most famous music venues. And it’s the perfect, intimate setting for the sold out launch of Ruby Turner’s 20th solo album, Love Was Here, because it is her spiritual home. Indeed, a residency over two weeks was needed to meet demand for tickets such is the immense popularity and reputation of the Jamaican-born, UK-based songstress who has found considerable fame, latterly with Jools Holland & His R&B Orchestra.

Photo credit: Caroline Harriott

Turner and her four-piece band opened with the mid tempo, jazz-infused, coolly sensuous “On The Defence” from her Responsible album, providing an early opportunity for the musicians to show their versatility as harmonious backing vocalists. The jaunty “Got To Be Done” was the first song from the highly acclaimed new release Love Was Here. Tumultuous applause reflected the appreciation for this special album. Ruby dedicated the highly charged, emotional “Master Plan” to her 85-year-old dad for always being there for her, guitarist Nick Marland providing timely, empathetic interludes.

Anger and frustration were evident in Turner’s voice on “A Better Way,” as she warned about history repeating itself. She pleaded, “Why don’t we listen to each other instead of shouting louder?” Also from the new album, the equally powerful “Won’t Give You My Heart To Break” continued the defiant mood before Ruby introduced the sensational title track, paying tribute to her co-writers Kat Eaton and Nick Atkinson. “Love Was Here” is an absolute masterpiece destined to achieve even greater recognition than Ruby’s other many revered songs, because of its poignant lyrics and outpouring of emotions culminating in a heart wrenching, a cappella finale reducing the audience to tears. “Stay With Me Baby” is a favorite with Ronnie Scott’s audience — a quiet introduction preceding increasingly piercing vocals as Ruby reached full throttle in a spectacular cadenza of raw despair and exhilaration. Simon Moore’s dynamic stick work and Al MacSween’s expressive keys enhanced the vibe. 

MacSween started the second set with a virtuosic piano introduction to a reworking of “That’s My Desire,” 19 years after Ruby had recorded the song for Andy Hay’s production of A Streetcar Named Desire, in which she starred as an actress. Her vocals captured perfectly the retro feel of the 1940s. “Blow Top Blues” brought the blues to the forefront — allthough that genre was never too far from the surface tonight, especially with a guitarist of Marland’s stature. His bluesy licks and nimble fingers reminiscent of Jeff Beck’s playing style. It was back to the latest album with the compelling harmonies and infectious rhythms of “Runaway”; the nostalgic yearning for the Caribbean on “Under Your Sky”; and the hard driving, rocking “Time Of Your Life” with its drumming pyrotechnics and David Guest’s pulsating bass.

The show would not be complete without the nod to where it all started in 1986 with the tour de force ‘”I’d Rather Go Blind.” Only the muffled sound of audience sobs breaking an eerie silence could be heard by the end of the Etta James classic. It was extraordinary to witness a performer who lives and breathes each song, never loses the pure joy of singing, and above all, serves the music she loves. Just when it seemed that the standing ovation and disappearance of Ruby and her band from the stage had brought the evening to an end, they reappeared for an encore. How they summoned the energy for an extended version of “This Train” beggars belief, but it happened. With Al playing fast and furious harmonica, each band member taking a solo, and Ruby shredding her vocal chords for the last time, it was a genre-busting finale of blues, soul, gospel and R&B. Watching Ruby perform with Jools on BBC TV’s Hootenanny on New Year’s Eve is entertaining but seeing her perform live is unforgettable: the perfect blend of class and panache with a sprinkling of sass.

Photo credit: Caroline Harriott

The Ruby Turner Interview

R&B, blues, gospel, jazz and soul queen, songwriter and actress Ruby Turner MBE is enjoying an illustrious career. Ruby announced her arrival on the UK music scene in 1986 with her first solo album which included a sensational version of the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind.” By 1990 Turner had topped the USA charts with ”It’s Gonna Be Alright” and for the past quarter of a century she has traveled the world as vocalist with Jools Holland and his R&B Orchestra. Ruby Turner’s latest album, Love Was Here, is her 20th solo release and draws inspiration from B.B. King and Ry Cooder. It is one of Ruby’s most personal recordings to date and more rooted in the blues at any time since she recorded a couple of blues albums for Indigo Recordings in the late 90s.

Hi Ruby, thanks for taking the time out to talk to American Blues Scene. How are things where you are just now?

Things are getting back into the groove here, I’m thrilled and so humbled that you’ve taken the time to organize this interview and to listen to and review my latest album. It’s deeply appreciated. Thank you. 

Please talk a bit about yourself, your early memories of Jamaica, how you became involved in music and your musical experiences when you first moved to England. 

I love Jamaica, the place of my birth, and I hold dear the memories of my childhood growing up there. I go back occasionally to visit family and take time out. It’s lost none of its beauty. The lush green parts of the island with its characteristic wooden houses like the ones I grew up in are still there. The shorelines with driftwood and white sandy beaches are as I remembered! 

Playing in the school yard on days when it got so hot, we had lessons outside underneath the mango tree. That cool breeze I remember well. We’d sing old folk songs and the teacher would read poetry by Louise Bennett, better known as Miss Lou. I think that was the start of my love for words and music.  As a child coming to live in a new country certainly took some adjustment but children are very adaptable and I figured it out to fit into my new life. 

The Pentecostal church was a part of my upbringing. I felt the love and the power of the Word!  Gospel music is still very much a part of my life and my go to place when I’m in my solitude. My early years in schools were great, and music and drama were my biggest love. We had a piano at home, which I messed around on more for fun then a considered career choice. I wrote songs that were poetry in form and I loved the English language. I enjoyed singing, too, with my school friends as we learnt the latest Motown songs by our admired artist. Little did I know it would be my life’s work. 

Can you remember the first record you ever bought yourself?

The first record I bought was Moon River by John Holt. He has a voice so inviting, smooth, and beautiful and I loved the lyrics. Andy Williams’ version was delightful too.

Who most influenced your development as a singer and actress?

My great friend and mentor Gareth Owen, along with my headteacher Mrs Hinchcliffe, are responsible for setting me on the road into music and theatre. She sent me to the Crescent theatre in 1975, and there I met Gareth Owen. He heard me singing in A Streetcar Named Desire and the musical production of Putting on the Ritz and Gas Lights and Garters. I saw him playing Sherlock in the Merchant of Venice. He was a playwright, too, and wrote me into a rock opera he was working on, which his own theatre company took to the Edinburgh festival in 1977. There I received my first review in Punch Magazine, and BBC Arena filmed our little show. Many great after-show parties were spent in Gareth’s house in Moseley, Birmingham. He had the best record collection I’d ever heard. It was chicken casserole and music! We listened to Etta James, Dylan, Van the Man, Ry Cooder, the Neville Brothers, BB King, Billie Holliday, Rolling Stones, Dusty, Cream, Santana, Sarah Vaughan, Bob Marley and the Reverend Al Green. I had a music library that would set my soul alight; that was my music diet of jazz, blues, soul and rock which influences my own music today. 

You had a number one chart success in the USA, can you say what that meant to you and what you think about the current music scene over there?

Getting that number 1 in the US R&B charts in 1991 was unbelievable and extraordinary for a girl like me. After spending three weeks touring 21 states doing promo, we came home and the record had made it to the top of the R&B charts. 

What is the best advice musically you have had in your career.

I never feel comfortable about giving advice to any artists. I just simply say, for me, it pays to work hard. I respect the gift I’ve been given and serve the music. Search for the truth.

Your latest album, Love Was Here, is receiving the highest possible accolades and is clearly a very special piece of work. Can you tell us more about the story behind how the album came about, the meanings behind the songs you wrote with Nick Atkinson and Kat Eaton, and its production?

I can honestly say I never wanted to make another album. The industry has changed. With the new dominance of young vibrant reality stars I thought, “Where do I fit in?”  I felt no one was waiting for another Ruby Turner album. But I was encouraged by the producer Nick Atkinson to give it a try and see how things developed. His approach to my ideas, melodies and grooves was really great but more importantly he listened and got to understand my vibes and what I wanted. It began to flow and we were rolling, enjoying the process. There was no pressure — just enjoying the exchange of ideas on the phone or via email and fitting in recording the demos when time allowed, as they too were busy working on other projects and doing gigs. But we made it work somehow. I had the lyrics for Love Was Here half finished for about two years. It was like a jigsaw puzzle. In fact, most of my ramblings are a bit like that! Kat was great at helping me unscramble and make additions. “Runaway” was in fact two melodies I’d recorded that they turned into the song.

With “Love Was Here” and “Under Your Sky” sounding so great, I knew then I was going to make the album. I felt free and honest with no expectations, just trying to recapture moments of days gone by and reflections of thoughts and what makes us find the strength to survive and get through it. Working with these two very driven, hard working, talented, ambitious, focused young people, my confidence returned. And I had to see this album through to the end. I was loving what we were coming up with.

The album has a strong rootsy, bluesy vibe. Was this a conscious move, or is it that the songs’ reflections about love are by definition very personal and often associated with blues themes?

My gospel/ blues roots have always colored the music I make, and this is no exception. It’s all over this album and it’s who I am I guess. Reflections about love sit nicely in this vibe. 

How did you feel about the opportunity to have a role in the Pearl Pictures movie The Host?

The soundtrack “Chasing Love” was written around the same time. I was dipping in and out of different creative projects. I was co-writing again with the composer Wan Pin Chu for the film The Host, my theater agent sent over the script which I found time to read on tour in Europe with Jools. I was offered a small part in the film and they also wanted me to sing an original track or something I had already in my repertoire. I guess when opportunities knock you have to make time. Snatch and grab it, as they say. It was a case of multitasking, juggling everything to achieve something. A real challenge: I was standing in situ on a film set ready to perform a song I’d written in three hours that day! It had to be done and we did it. Sounded great in the film too. 

I feel that the musicians on your latest album make a significant input, can you talk us through their individual key strengths and contributions to the overall sound? 

Nick Atkinson took sole responsibility for the production on this album so he called in his chosen musicians who he knew and worked with, and I was confident he got this under control. And boy, did they deliver! I met them all for the first time in the studio. What was wonderful is they didn’t behave like some players whose attitude is in and out, hope you like it, here’s my invoice. These guys cared! No egos. They are seasoned professionals and contributed to the whole session fully engrossed, listening, fine tuning and getting it right. I love them for that, and I think they genuinely loved the project too. You can hear it in the playing.

What are the main differences for you musically between performing with a small group and starring with the Jools Holland full orchestra?

Working with Jools’ R&B orchestra was one of the best decisions of my life. I learned so much and grew so much more in confidence as a performer. I remember the first time in rehearsal, hearing the might of his rhythm section layered with the horns on top! How was I going to cut through that sound? This was going to demand a different kind of vocal approach. I can just sit on the groove with my four-piece band with ease, but for the orchestra I had to root and center myself and use my technique to project the sound to the back of the room with the aid of the front of house sound engineer. It’s all quite wonderful and makes you feel it’s good to be alive and doing this amazing, rewarding job of singing. 

You are an excellent songwriter and your recent collaborations with Nick and Kat have been successful. Can you talk us through the process of writing a song and how lyrics and tunes come about?

I have several notebooks filled with verses, quotations and lyric ideas collected over the years. Notes made from conversations, observations, or an emotional reaction to a situation. I write what I see, how I feel, how it makes me feel! That’s how I approach songwriting. This collaboration with Nick and Kat was great and it worked. 

How do you find life on the road touring with the band, and do you enjoy the touring life?

Touring has become my life and it’s a strange feeling to be in the house for any longer then two weeks. It’s like holidays, 10 days is long enough for me but I need to work. So I guess touring really is a part of my life and so it’s never that much of a problem. You just have to make more of an effort to catch up with family and friends. 

Is there a song or achievement in your illustrious career that you are particularly proud of?

“I’d Rather Go Blind,” the Etta James standard is a song I can attest to being one that’s kept me in the frame for so many years. Every artist needs a song people can relate to and associate with. That’s my song.

You must have seen an enormous amount of changes in the music business. Are these for the better or worse?

The industry is very different today as there is a lot more freedom, and artists can forge ahead independently. I guess they have more control of their music. But compared to back then I think there was longevity and you could say you had a career. I’m not sure the same can be said for today. It’s so very short lived it seems. We’ve moved from analog to digital, extravagance to minimalist, physical to streaming! I’m totally perplexed by it all. I’m labeled “nostalgia” now, but you roll with it. I remember when it was oh so simple. 

What are your plans and touring schedules for the rest of the year?

The diary Is looking pretty healthy for the year so far, thanks to Jools who’s got the energy of 10 men. Between his shows and my own I think I’m a busy little bee this 2020. I’ve also got thoughts of putting together some book of my verses. It’s either that or an autobiography! Can’t see that myself!

Do you have a message for American Blues Scene readers?

Thank you all for your kind support over the years. When you described my latest CD as “a portrait of Ruby Turner’s emotive beauty” I was completely humbled and lost for words. Never in my entire career have I heard such profound and thoughtful understanding of my work.  It’s wonderful to know people are still interested and believe me it’s most appreciated. My career would not have lasted if not for people encouraging and supporting me, and you’ve kept me going.

Ruby Turner