Saturday, 25 December 2010

Have A Soulful Christmas

Seasons greetings!

Just a brief update to let you know that my exclusive interview with James Brown's widow, Tomi Rae Brown, was published today on the fourth anniversary of her husband's death.

In October, Tomi Rae granted me the most in-depth interview she has ever given to any reporter. During our 75 minute chat we discussed her marriage the Godfather of Soul and the nightmarish four years she's spent battling a smear campaign orchestrated by some of her late husband's associates.

In a teaser published earlier this week, Tomi Rae slammed claims that James Brown had used controversial doctor Conrad Murray and then recommended him to Michael Jackson. The full interview, published today, includes the shocking revelation that trustees ordered James Brown's legs to be cut off in order to obtain DNA for a paternity test.

Christmas Day always brings back memories of James Brown for me. As an 18 year old journalism student, my first celebrity encounter was James Brown. Having been on my journalism course for just a matter of weeks, in October 2006 I managed to talk my way into a press conference with my hero, the Godfather of Soul. Mr Brown not only took a question from me, but also put me on his personal guest list for the show. They say journalism can afford you the opportunity to meet your heroes - I met mine in training and it was an experience I'll never forget.

Less than two months later, I walked downstairs on Christmas Day and almost immediately saw Mr Brown's picture on television. Beneath it flashed the dates, '1933-2006'. I stood frozen for a moment before blurting out, 'James Brown has died.' I was in total shock; just weeks previously I'd watched him perform a two hour concert in London. A dark cloud hung over that Christmas.

Nowadays, Christmas has become a time to celebrate James Brown. Although there'll always be a hint of sadness at losing my hero on Christmas Day, it's an ideal time to put his CDs in the stereo or his DVDs in the player and bask in his incredible talent.

With that in mind, here are three pictures I took from my front row spot at James Brown's gig at The Forum, London, on 26th June 2005. Of the four James Brown gigs I attended before he passed away, this was easily the best. In fact, it was probably the greatest concert I've ever been to. Having recently staved off prostate cancer, Brown had lost a lot of surplus weight and seemed to be in very high spirits. His energy was unbelievable.

This is how I like to remember James Brown at this time of year. Have a soulful Christmas!

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Martha Reeves Interview - A Teaser

Last week I conducted an exclusive 90 minute interview with Motown legend Martha Reeves. The article won't be published until January 2011 but in the meantime, here's an exclusive clip.

In this clip Martha describes the thrill that comes from being a part of the Motown dynasty and also recalls the recording of one of Motown's greatest hits, Dancing In The Street. She even puts on her best Marvin Gaye impression and sings a few bars of his original rendition, which was scrapped and replaced with her version. The rest is history.

Apologies for the background noise - I interviewed Martha in the restaurant at her hotel. However, you can still hear her loud and clear.

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Friday, 17 December 2010

My Day With Martha

It's not often that you get the chance to spend time in the presence of true pop music royalty but yesterday (Thursday 16th December) was one of those days; I had the good fortune to spend several hours with Motown legend Martha Reeves.

Often referred to as the Queen of Motown, Martha's gospel roots helped set her apart from the label's other female leads. She's known around the world for hits including Jimmy Mack, (Love Is Like A) Heat Wave and Nowhere To Run, but she's perhaps best known for Dancing In The Street, one of Motown's most famous tracks (and that's really saying something).

A few weeks ago I learned that Martha was embarking on a short UK tour including several nights at London's Jazz Cafe. A keen Motown fan, I immediately requested an interview.

Initially I was told that Martha would only be available by telephone - that was fine by me. How many people even get the chance to speak to music royalty on the phone? But on Wednesday morning I got an email to say that Martha had decided to meet me in person instead. I'm not sure what made Martha decide to meet me after all - I forgot to ask her - but I'm glad she did. It was a last minute affair, arranged with less than 24 hours' notice, but the experience was one I will never forget.

Generous with her time and her answers, Martha spoke to me over lunch for roughly one and a half hours. Our discussion encompassed subjects including - but not limited to - the increasing sexualisation of female musicians, why a computer will never create better music than a live band, her former drug dependency and subsequent Christian rebirth, the corruption she witnessed while serving on Detroit City Council and her plans to return to her gospel roots.

Upon learning that I didn't have a ticket to her sold out show at the Jazz Cafe, Martha insisted that I meet her back at her hotel later on so we could travel together to the gig and she could bring me in for free. Arriving early on with Martha and her entourage allowed me to secure the best spot on the lower level - front row and centre.

Photograph: Charles Thomson

From there I watched Martha, backed by her Vandellas and a tight band (led by Al McKenzie, Martha's musical director of 30+ years), deliver an energetic 90 minute set comprising some of her biggest hits, a few lesser known classics like Third Finger, Left Hand, and an array of tributes to artists including Marvin Gaye (What's Going On), Billie Holliday (God Bless The Child) and James Brown (I Got The Feelin').

Halfway through her set, Martha surprised me by name-checking me from the stage. "I want to dedicate this next song to Charles. He's a young, up-and-coming writer - he's right here in the front," she said, gesturing towards me, "and he's never seen our show before. He's all of twenty-something years old, I think." Then she launched into a rendition of A Love Like Yours (Don't Come Knocking Everyday). It was a strange moment, feeling everybody's eyes on me, but one I will never forget. It's not every day that a music icon dedicates a performance to you.

Martha captivated the audience - a much younger crowd than I had anticipated. Her voice has aged and she sings in a higher register than she used to, but her performance was brimming with energy. New material such as Home To You suited her voice perfectly. The show built to a crescendo when Martha fused her hit Dancing In The Street with tracks from other Motown artists like the Four Tops and Stevie Wonder. The audience went wild.

A great ending to a great day - made possible by a great woman.

NB. My exclusive, in-depth interview with Martha Reeves will be published in January 2011.