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LOSTATSEA.NET > FEATURES >

January 10, 2007
Ralph "Soul" Jackson is a soul singer/musician/songwriter who got his start in the mid-1960s recording at the famous FAME Studios with Rick Hall in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Considered by some as a concealed soul great, Jackson recorded and released six singles that are currently of a desirable rarity amongst 45 collectors and soul DJs, especially in UK.

In August 2006 a compilation of rare soul cuts called The Birmingham Sound: The Soul of Neal Hemphill, Vol. 1 was released and featured two exceptional gems from Jackson, "Set Me Free" and "Take Me Back." After a recent performance at The Hideout in Chicago LAS senior staff writer Josh Zanger was fortunate enough to sit down with Jackson for a conversation about life and music.

---


Ralph, you just came to Chicago a couple days ago, how does it feel to be here?

Cold.

Cold.

C-O-L-D (laughs)

How does it feel as being different coming up from Alabama?

That's my home; been all my life. It's 65 degrees in Alabama, and it's ten here, but it feels like it's 20 below.

How do you feel about the general reception here at the show, and otherwise in Chicago?

This is my second time being here [at the Hideout] - I was here in August. And both times they have accepted me with open arms. They're very warm.

What else have you been doing here while in Chicago?

Well, this time I couldn't do too much because of the weather's been so bad. Just stayin' in and just tryin' to stay afloat. I got a little sick while I came up here on account of the climate change. I do have some cousins up here, and I visited some of my cousins while I was here, on the North side around 71st Street. So I spent a couple hours on Friday with them. And I cooked some soul food for John, my manager, John Ciba. And they got the chicken bones for them.

What'd you make for them?

Chicken, peas, tossed salad, rice, corn.

Usually it's supposed to be the other way around, and the host is supposed to make you the meal.

Yeah, well, I think I made a mistake when I cooked for them because John, he tells me every time I come up here we're not goin' out to eat, he wants me to cook for him.

Did you do any recording while you were in town?

Yeah, we went to Anthony Abbinanti's studio. John is figurin' to release my songs that I recorded about 25 years ago called "Please Set Me Free" and "Will You Take Me Back." They want those songs over in England and, not only that, we feel that if we rearrange them we can get them going here in the States. They've never been really released, they were on a small label before.

Originally that was released on Black Kat, wasn't it?

On Black Kat Records, yeah.

So you just did that one single at Abbinanti's? Or were you working on other songs as well?

You know more than I know, because I've been in Alabama. You're right, they [members of the Drastics] were recording and I got here on... Thursday night? Yeah, I got here on Thursday night. I went over to the studio and they were doing some more songs. They were doin' "Take Me Back," "Set Me Free," "I Can't Leave Your Love Alone," "Searching," and this slow song, "Just Because I Love You." And I went in and played some Hammond organ over them since I've been here. I am a musician too.

Were all the recordings that were done in those new sessions, were they songs that were already recorded, or, is there new material that you're working on?

"Searching" is a new song. "Just Because I Love You" is a new song. The others, I did them about 20 years ago.

With John do you think you're going to release another 45, a re-recorded 45 for those, and then maybe something else?

Yeah, well I have several songs. I probably got about 50 songs ready to be released because I have my own recording studio in Phenix City (AL). John, for some reason, he said people are hung up on "Set Me Free" over in England. So we're tryin' to get that over there. You know, make do with that. And try to branch out on the rest of the songs that we're doin'.

I've read that some of your singles are selling for anywhere from $50 to $1,500 over in England and elsewhere, just as rare singles. How do you feel about that?

That's a good question. You know I've never been to England before and it's just amazing to think that someone would pay $1,500 for any kind of 45 record. Especially Ralph "Soul" Jackson.

If they're gonna pay $1,500 for one of my songs, they'd probably pay $15 million for one of Elvis's old 45s. (laughs) So it's like - hey, we'll throw the coins up and however they get, that's the way we'll go. Sounds good.

What are your thoughts about the resurgence of the material that John Ciba put out on the compilation that he just released The Birmingham Sound: The Soul of Neal Hemphill, Vol. 1?

We don't have the same musicians that we had back at that time. As a matter of fact, one of the musicians that was playin' on there - all that guitar and strings - he's deceased. What we got goin' on right now, it really is a disadvantage to me 'cause I'm 800 miles away and they're recording up here. And I come up here and find out some licks or some things are not in the place that they're supposed to be. And so it causes a problem. So basically what I'm doin' now, I'm either singing along the guitar licks with my mouth as they record. That's what I did yesterday because they had some wrong licks in wrong places. If I have to, when I get back home if I still have a problem, I will sing it to them - the licks they should be playin' - through the phone as the music plays.

So, you know, it's a disadvantage but we're still gonna pull it off. It's gonna be alright.

Do you think you're going to use the musicians that you played with up here [including members of dub band The Drastics, and local musician Adam Fitz] to record new material?

Yeah, these are some heavy musicians, and not only that but they are very creative. In order to be in a recording studio you must be creative. They're very helpful to me, very experienced.

Do you side with staying more faithful to the standard compositions and the way these songs were originally recorded, or do you want them to branch out?

In this type of business you can't have a closed mind, you gotta have an open mind. And you can't shut a musician down. You gotta let 'em be free and let them flow with what they want to do. If it isn't coming out of the speakers right in the recording, then you could come up with something new. You always got to keep an open mind in the studio.

When you recorded your early singles in the '60s and '70s, the process was different with reel-to-reel technology. How do you feel about the digital sound and process?

Back at that time they were using tapes. And tapes were supposed to be noisier. Then you had some kind of recorders that had tubes in them. And sometime that tube had a more mature type of sound. Right now you have a lot of old pro musicians lookin' for tube-type recording.

That's like when the transistor amplifier came out with the guitar, a lot of 'em say, "Hey, man, I want me an amplifier with a tube." Technology back then did not have these multi-track recorders, and now everything sounds sorta clear.

Personally, I like the old sound. Technology has helped, in a way, and also taken away. You got falsification of keyboards, you got horn keyboards and all that...

You don't like that, do you?

I like that Memphis sound, I like those Memphis horns - and who don't? So, you know, it takes away from it. You're not gonna hear that different sound, that mature horn sound. Nothing can take the place of the horn. And even at lead synthesizers... Nothing is gonna take the place of that Telecaster guitar. I don't care what you put in the keyboard or what you can do - you can tell the difference.

You're an old school kind of guy - you started off in '70s and late '60s...

'68. Actually '65 really, that's when I came out of school.

Was that when you started with...

Rick Hall. FAME Recording Studios. "Don't Tear Yourself Down/ Sunshine of Your Love."

Tell me the story about that.

Oh boy. I wrote "Don't Tear Yourself Down." I put some funky licks on the bass guitar and piano. And I sing along with 7 and a half reel-to-reel. And I turned it in to Rick Hall not expecting to hear anything back. Three days later, "Hi, I'm Rick Hall from FAME Recording Studios. We want to record you." The next week I was in the recording studio with Spooner Oldham, Dan Penn, and all them. I couldn't believe it. I didn't know those people were that big, and people told me, "Do you know who you're recording with?"

What do you think about the music being made nowadays… pop and soul?

I like the arrangements, but I'll go [and say] again… that technology, it's not as pure. It don't have that Stax sound, that Motown sound, the Earth Wind & Fire sound… it's not there any more. That's what I've come up with. Ya know, the Joe Tex sound, Memphis horns. Isaac Hayes, William Bell. Memphis. The sound of today don't feel like the sound from 30 years back.

I also look at it like this - I am a musician and [when] I want to play a good Hammond organ, that's what I wanna play. I don't want to play a synthesizer that's gonna sound like a Hammond organ. I wanna play the real deal Holyfield. (laughs)

What is your general feeling about everything that is developing for you now?

I'm for it. I wasn't doing anything and John called me and said, "Hey, are you Ralph
'Soul' Jackson?"

"Yeah, man, I'm Ralph 'Soul' Jackson."

"I'm John and I'm in Chicago and I'm crazy about your song."

I said, "Yeah, right. Here we go again." (laughs)

Has that happened before?

Well, I have had some people call me… and you don't hear anything back on the phone. And then this time, all of sudden, "Hey, man, we want you over in England." My girlfriend says, "Who is that guy?" I say, "I don't know..."

Sure enough, John sent me promo pictures. These people got me on a website in JAPAN. This man got me on a website in Japan! This man got [me] on a picture in a magazine in England! So then my old lady said, "You know, you might want to stick with John." And then all of a sudden she starts yellin' at me, "See, I told you, you haven't heard from John in over a week." The next day: "Hey is Ralph there?"

"Hey, it's Jawwhn."

So you know. We're gonna stick with John. We love John.

How do you feel since John contacted you that one day?

Well, I look at it like this: I hadn't done a show in 20-25 years. I'm a mechanic. I'm a minister of music at the church. And I feel blessed because I feel as though what I have gave up on of my dream, God was putting it back before me. I'm 60 years old on December 20th, and I got a 27-year-old manager.

I got a lot of people around me that are musically inclined... but you got little bitty John Ciba comin' along, said "Hey man, that 'Set Me Free,' I like that."

--
Josh Zanger
Joshua Ian Zanger, a native of rural Chicago, rocks many a world with his writing, style, and generally sweet aroma.

See other articles by Josh Zanger.

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