Ruby Turner: RUBY, RUBY, RUBY
An upcoming attraction at this year`s Cheltenham Jazz Festival, singer/songwriter Ruby Turner prestigiously remains to this day the only UK black female artist to have ever topped the US R&B singles chart.
Born in Jamaica, Ruby (whose grandfather sang lead in a gospel group) grew up in Montego Bay before, at nine years old, relocating to Birmingham, England where she has lived ever since. Initially being taken under the wing of British blues legend Alexis Korner, in the mid-Eighties Ruby sang with new romantic chart-toppers Culture Club at the height of their global superstardom before, in 1985, signing her solo deal with Jive Records. For whom her successful, acclaimed albums like 'Women Hold Up Half The Sky' (1986) and 'Paradise' (1990) spawned a string of UK hit singles like 'If You`re Ready' and 'I`d Rather Go Blind'; plus the aforementioned 1990 US Number One 'It`s Gonna Be Alright'.
Best known today as frontwoman in Jools Holland`s Platinum-selling high-profile big-band, outside of her ongoing singing career Ruby has also been a prolific songwriter (for the likes of Lulu and Maxi Priest) as well as an accomplished actress. Her roles having ranged from theatre (including West End musicals `Fame` and the award-winning `Simply Heavenly`) and television (`East Enders`; `Holby City`; `Doctors`) to roles in movies like the Richard Curtis blockbuster `Love Actually` and the Oscar-nominated animated film `Famous Fred`. With her singing voice having been compared at times to both Aretha Franklin and Janis Joplin, a fast-talking, jovial Ms. Turner reacquaints herself with `B&S` prior to her forthcoming Cheltenham performance.
"I`ve played Cheltenham a couple of times in the past with Jools (Holland). And, because they know I also go around doing my own thing, they`ve asked me back as a solo artist this year", begins Ruby in instantly-friendly, Brummie-Jamaican tones: "So, with me having released 13 albums to date, there`s a lot of material to choose from for the show! You know, people can expect to hear the hits that the UK know from way back when, in addition to songs from a couple of albums that I`ve put out independently over the last two/three years. One being 'Live At Ronnie Scott`s', and the other being the 'So Amazing' album, which actually took about six years to come to fruition! You know, while working with Jools is absolutely phenomenal, the schedule can be quite unrelenting! But, having said that, I`m very glad I DID persist in getting that record finished, because that`s what`s enabling me to play the jazz festivals right now. You have to have product of your own out there to keep the profile up and keep promoters interested in booking you for these prestigious venues."
One of the highlights of Ruby`s seven-year tenure with Jive Records was the 1988 release of her well-received 'Ruby Turner... Sings The Motown Songbook' LP. Which, in hindsight, actually preceded recent Michael McDonald and Boyz II Men albums of Motown covers by almost two decades! "Yeah, I have to give it to Jive - they had foresight!", she retorts: "I think they were the first record-label to come up with that kind of concept-album idea. I actually did fight the idea at first. I was like `Most of the original artists are still alive and still working. So why would I wanna go round covering their songs when they`re still doing it?`. You know, sitting across the table from the A&R man, I basically said `The only way I`m gonna do this album is if you get some of the original Motown artists to come and duet with me on it!`... And Jive pulled it OFF! Which was wonderful! And, while unfortunately I wasn`t able to be actually in the studio with most of those artists - bar Jimmy Ruffin, who was residing in the UK at the time - if you play that album today you can nevertheless hear people like The Temptations and The Four Tops on there duetting along with me. Which I think is quite an achievement."
While still openly unhappy about having been unceremoniously dropped by Jive back in 1992 (“There was a bloody mess going on. Jive were going through financial problems and unfortunately I was one of the casualties”), Ruby has nevertheless continued to retain her prominence as one of the UK`s premiere soul divas. A particular career milestone occurring when she was “the chosen one” asked to sing the National Anthem for The Queen, Tony Blair and other major dignitaries at the opening of the Millennium Dome on New Year`s Eve 1999/2000: “To be honest, in a situation like that - when you`re under the biggest stress of you life - you have to somehow make it into a little thing”, she recalls: “Because, if you realise the enormity of it all, you`d bottle it! I think the brain has a way of bringing it down to the point where you just go `It`s OK. Hold your mic. You`ve learnt it. You`ve sung it. You know what to do. Do not be phased by all that`s going on AROUND you`... And so, when Jools gave me that piano opening-note, I just said to myself `You`re on, Miss Turner!`… And I just opened my mouth, and SANG! I heard my voice ring around the room; it was in tune… And it was only when I came off the stage that I began to really appreciate what a huge thing I`d just done! Because you just can`t let nerves GET to you in those situations, or you`d never get on the stage!”
Ruby Turner performs at Town Hall (Main Stage) at 7pm, May 4 at the HSBC Cheltenham Jazz Festival 2008
Words PETE LEWIS