Jaki Graham is a music legend who inspired the likes of Beverley Knight and holds an all-time Top 20 hits record. The homegrown superstar spoke to David Johns on the eve of her exciting new album which will delight fans old and young alike
As the first British black female solo artist to have six consecutive Top 20 hits, Birmingham’s Jaki Graham is the UK’s most revered queen of soul music. She is the singer all the others look up to. The singer who inspired the likes of fellow Brummie Beverley Knight to want to be like her. Yet with a wonderful sense of modesty and understatement, Jaki says: “Man, I’m still learning my craft, still growing.”
This month sees the release of Jaki’s new and long-awaited album When a Woman Loves, which she will launch at concert in Birmingham – part of her new tour. And despite more than 40 years in the business, with her first hit in the Eighties and having performed live, on TV and around the world ever since, Jaki admits: “I’m feeling really nervous. I think the older you get the more nervous you become. The new album is for my core fans, but also for their children who want to hear ‘Auntie Jaki’…”
Fans of old definitely won’t be disappointed as Jaki seamlessly picks up where she left off, with outstanding vocals that have matured and become even more powerful over the years. The 14-track record’s mix of retro, soul and funk also has the broad appeal to attract a whole new audience to the JG supporters club.
We spoke to Jaki on the eve her flying to Los Angeles to record a video for the album. She admitted to be “so excited” as the video was being produced by the “same guy who did my video at the very start of my career”. She added: “I’m told there’s lots of wild ideas and things planned for the video. I can’t wait to do it.”
Jaki’s first hit back in 1985, Could It Be I’m Falling In Love, was followed up with five more UK Top 20 chart-toppers over a two-year period, including probably her best known solo single, Round and Around. In 1994, her cover version of Chaka Khan’s hit, Ain’t Nobody, reached number one on the US Billboard dance chart.
At around the same time, American singer Michael McDonald was looking for a female singer to accompany him on his UK tour. After hearing Jaki’s voice he said she was “one of the best singers Britain has ever produced” and the two became great friends and music collaborators – Michael writing several of the songs on Jaki’s new album. “The songs on the new album just came my way and I just felt the time was right,” says Jaki. “I thought ‘Oh my gosh’, these are such great songs. They are the old me, but upgraded to today.”
Unlike so many other leading artists, Jaki – who was a backing vocalist for UB40 in her early days – has always put her family first which has meant at times that her musical career has seemingly been put on the backburner. Originally from Handsworth, Jaki first met her husband Tony when they were both attended Ladywood School. They have two children, Ryan and Natalie. As well as having a great voice in her own right, Natalie is also Jaki’s manager.
The family now live in Wolverhampton, where Jaki says “the people just embrace me”. Indeed one of Jaki’s personal highlights was receiving an honorary doctorate from Wolverhampton University. The other was being honoured with a plaque on Broad Street’s Walk of Stars. “To see the other incredible famous people who have been honoured with Stars made me feel just incredible,” says Jaki. She lists among her special career moments meeting Michael Jackson, Tina Turner, Diana Ross, appearing on Top of the Pops and working for Motown.
Jaki is more than aware how much the music industry has changed over the years and continues to change today. “Talking to the kids after I was honoured by Wolverhampton University, they were telling me how they make their music in their bedrooms. It was fascinating to hear – I was learning from the kids! But it’s a great thing because they have control and they have the chance to get themselves heard. They just need to be careful that they aren’t here one minute and then finished the next. What we would call one-hit wonders.”
BEV’S MY GIRL!
We feel sure that many of the students will have been inspired by Jaki’s enthusiasm and passion for her music – just as a young Beverley Knight was some years ago when she met the soul queen in a store in Birmingham. Jaki says: “Beverley Knight, she’s my girl, man! Bev saw me in the shop and asked me for my autograph. She told me: What you do is what I want to do. And look at what she has achieved. To hear and know that people can be inspired by me is amazing!”