Album Reviews

JJ Thames

Raw Sugar

Artist:     JJ Thames

Album:     Raw Sugar

Label:     DeChamp

Release Date:     08/26/2016


Following up her successful debut, 2014’s Tell You What I Know, Motown-born, classically and jazz-trained vocalist JJ Thames returns to the Malaco Studios with producer/guitarist Eddie Cotton  for their collaboration on 13 original tracks.   As you listen to the range of this stunning singer, you can just as easily envision her on a hallowed auditorium stage as  you can seeing her getting down and funky in a Mississippi juke joint. Despite her obvious vocal gifts, Thames’ has had to work hard to achieve her recent status as an up and coming blues stars.  Her biography reads like a “trip and fall, get back up” movie script and you may want to look it up online.  Here’s a small glimpse:  She’s done backup singing in pop, R&B, hip-hop, and rock since the early 90’s.  She has sung on subways and street corners, lived in a homeless shelter with her two young sons (a third son died in infancy) and shuttled between Detroit, Mississippi, back to Detroit, New York, and now Mississippi again where she has found a solid groove working with Cotton and the great arrangements that have long been a Malaco hallmark.

Thames now makes her home in Jackson, MS. She has performed with Marvin Spease, Denise LaSalle and others on the celebrated ‘Chitlin’ Circuit’.  She’s built a strong fan base in the South where her live shows have become legendary.  She puts a positive spin and contemporary touch on the blues while being deeply respectful of the female blues trailblazers.  You hear the echoes of Chess, Bluebird and Stax in her blues-soul repertoire.  She’s been known to deliver absolutely  crushing interpretations of classic covers like “I’d Rather Go Blind,” “Wang Dang Doodle,” or “Ball and Chain,” for example.  Thames describes herself as a “woman of the 1950’s/60’s trapped in a young woman’s body” and dresses the part as you can see from the back of the CD jacket.

She begins with an acoustic gospel tune “Oh Lord,”, which features Ben Hunter and Joe Seamons.  Boogie piano and blaring horns introduce “Hattie Pearl,” the first of many uplifting tunes.  “I’m Leavin’” slows it down into a simmering R&B groove which also finds its way into “Leftovers,” “Only a Fool Was Me” and “Hold Me.” The full complement of horns and background vocalists provide solid support but never take the attention away from Thames’ soaring voice. She can really hold a note!  The Stax-like “Bad Man” and “Don’t Stop My Shine” put Cotton’s  Albert King inflected guitar front and center.   She delivers the deeply personal “Plan B (Abortion Blues)” and offsets that with straight ahead blues in the title track.  Throughout Thames is sexy, crooning, shouting, and moaning.   Blues and soul lovers need to hear this magnificent voice on Raw Sugar and then go back to her debut. Her voice can both thrill and heal you.

– Jim Hynes


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