RUBY TURNER: Red Alert
One of Britain’s most enduring soul music talents, national treasure Ruby Turner discusses her new gospel album ‘I’m Travelling On’ with a suitably-enlightened Pete Lewis
While best known today as regular featured vocalist in Jools Holland’s widely-loved Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, Ruby Turner’s multi-faceted career nevertheless embraces decades of experience on many varied stages and screens. Born in Montego Bay, Jamaica back in 1958, at the age of nine she moved with her mother to Birmingham, England, where she still lives to this day. Becoming involved in numerous theatre productions in her mid-teens, Ruby’s big musical break meanwhile arrived in the mid-Eighties when (after touring America with then-global chart-toppers Culture Club) she signed a solo deal with Jive Records. Which - from 1985 to 1991 - saw her scoring a string of UK hit singles (peaking with her definitive 1987 reading of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’); three chart albums; plus, in February 1990, a highly-prestigious US R&B Number One with ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright’ (which remains to this day one of less than 10 British-made recordings to achieve this feat).
Meanwhile, with the acting side of her career having since encompassed extensive theatre work, an appearance on the big screen in ‘Love Actually’, plus numerous high-profile TV programmes (‘Holby City’; ‘Little Britain’; ‘Hotel Babylon’), it’s nevertheless Turner’s solo musical talents that this month reunites her with ‘Blues & Soul’, via the release of the aforementioned ‘I’m Travelling On’. A 15-track set which features her new, soulful reinterpretations of time-honoured traditional gospel songs first recorded by such giants of the genre as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Brother Joe May and Mahalia Jackson. The inspiration for which came through a chance encounter with two old gospel CDs Ruby accidentally spotted in the boot of a friend’s car!
“Well, I was always well in touch with my gospel side”, begins a fast-talking Ruby, whose grandfather sang in a gospel group back in the Caribbean: “But I’d never actually thought about making a gospel ALBUM until I heard those two CDs! I think one was called ‘The Greatest Gospel Gems’ and the other one was an Elvis (Presley) recording. And what I found charming about them was the fact that everything was so very SIMPLE. There was no flourish on it; it was all very basic - and what was coming across to me was the TRUTH! Plus of course, with me coming from a Pentecostal background, this was also the kinda music I remembered singing as a child in CHURCH! So, for this album I really wanted to capture that very same feeling. Which is why I stayed away from the over-production and heavy instrumentation side of things. I was just trying to go with very simple playing, which allowed the vocal, the lyric and the sentiment of the songs to just simply come THROUGH. And I think I have managed somehow to achieve that.”
An unforeseen obstacle, meanwhile, in recording ‘I’m Travelling On’ came in the form of finding enough suitable material to cover, as the tracking-down of early original gospel recordings proved surprisingly difficult: “Well, once I’d heard those two particular CDs, for me it really became almost like an investigatory process of searching and looking for the oldest-style of gospel there WAS - so we’d have enough songs to choose from for the album”, recalls Ruby in identifiably down-to-earth Brummy-Jamaican tones: “And believe me, it wasn’t an easy task! Because it really is a specialist market!”
“And, even when I did find stuff, unfortunately a lot of the records were scratched to the point of being inaudible”, she continues: “I mean, I went over to The States at one point and came home with over £100 worth of material. And I was so excited, because some of those old albums had some GREAT photos on the sleeves! But then, as soon as I got home and played them, it was like ‘Oh NO! It’s no GOOD! It’s JUMPING!’… So yeah, it was a struggle. But I persevered and just kept on looking.”
Production of ‘I’m Travelling On’ meanwhile was handled by Ruby herself alongside her old pal Bob Lamb, the man behind classic early albums by world-conquering Birmingham groups UB40 and Duran Duran: “Well, Bob lives not far from me. So it made sense to go to his studio, which is actually an analogue studio”, explains the ever-chatty Ms. Turner: “So, you know, it was reel-to-reel - a real stop-and-start job! But, having said that, I didn’t think twice about the arduous task we had ahead of recording in the analogue world. Because I knew I’d get the more authentic sound that I WANTED in that studio.”
“I mean, he had an upright piano that was falling apart - so there was a lot of clinkin’ and clankin’ going on! Plus we discovered it was actually SQUEAKING, because it was so OLD! So I was like ‘PERFECT! I LOVE it! It’s REAL!’!”, she chuckles infectiously: “And so we just kind of got on with it! You know, Bob was very, very accommodating to what I wanted. And he was definitely the right man for the job. Because he is ‘THE VETERAN’, plus he KNOWS me. You know, he actually recorded my very first EP way back in ’79, and then went on to become my drummer in the early Eighties. So there was already a good relationship there.”
Interestingly, ‘I’m Travelling On’ (and its BBC Radio 2-supported lead-off single, a driving uptempo take on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s ‘This Train’) is being released independently through Ruby’s own label RTR Productions: “Well, the first person I heard talking about going the independent route was (soul-influenced British rock legend) Steve Winwood”, she relates: “Years ago he and I did a gospel show together down in The Cotswolds. And, at the time, he was doing his own project - you know, the whole internet thing, going digital and what have you. And, even back then, he was telling me that that was the way to GO! So, while I didn’t have the confidence or the finances to do that at the time, I kept the idea in the back of my head - like ‘Well OK, if the great Steve Winwood has gone that route, why shouldn’t I?’… So I just kind of bided my time, worked hard, and eventually DID it! And I do genuinely do think that, with all the years I’ve spent in the industry, right now I’m in the best place I’ve EVER been!”
Ruby’s current UK solo concert dates run from June 26 to November 10. For more information visit: www.rubyturner.com
Her current summer tour with Jools Holland and his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra runs up to August 28; while their autumn/winter itinerary runs from October 29 to December 21 Ticketmaster
The single ‘This Train’ is out now. The album ‘I’m Travelling On’ follows September 7, both through RTR
Words PETE LEWIS