— By Joe D'Angelo, with additional reporting by Matt Paco
Adding a twist on the adage "good things come in small packages," opera singer Charlotte Church and classical singer Josh Groban have proven that sometimes old things come in young packages. Now soul singer Joss Stone reinforces that fact.
Stone belts out soul and R&B like a seasoned singer despite her years, which total only 16. And just as surprising, she doesn't hail from Memphis, Philly, Motown or any of the other soul centers, and she wasn't reared solely on the likes of Aretha Franklin, Whitney Houston or even her U.K. predecessor, Dusty Springfield. Instead, she's from a small parish in East Devon, Britain, where she listened to a steady diet of everything.
"My parents used to play a lot of music around the house," Stone said. "And some of it was soul, some of it wasn't. Some of it was rock, some of it pop."
With pop stars like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera blooming all around her, why would a 14-year-old settle on soul music, particularly Franklin's classic "(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman," for her first foray into a professional singing career, auditioning for the BBC-TV show "Star For a Night"?
"I kind of clicked into soul more than anything else because of the vocals," the powerfully piped singer explained. "You've got to have good vocals to sing soul music, and I always liked it, ever since I was little."
Soon after Stone passed her audition and eventually performed Donna Summer's "On the Radio" on the show, she made her way to New York, where she auditioned for Steve Greenberg, CEO of S-Curve Records. Credited with discovering Hanson, Greenberg knows young talent when he sees it. "MMMBop" aside, he's also no stranger to the breakout blockbuster, proven by another feather in his cap, the Baha Men's "Who Let the Dogs Out."
"When I first heard her sing, I really couldn't believe that this big, soulful, nuanced, precious, wonderful, knowing voice was coming out of this 14-year-old girl," Greenberg said. "It didn't make sense. I almost thought that she had a little tape recorder in the studio with her and that she was miming along with [the music] because it was so unbelievable."
Quick to capitalize, Greenberg signed her and brought in Miami soul pioneer Betty Wright to sharpen Stone's craft. Wright, who placed 27 songs on the R&B chart, including the 1971 #2 hit "Clean Up Woman," became Stone's mentor and helped elevate her talents to new heights.
"She has a pair of drumsticks that she carries around with her — all the time," Stone recalled. "So every time I'd do something wrong, she'd get her sticks out and threaten me with them. It's really funny. She's crazy like that."
"One thing I noted about Joss," Wright said, "the further I push her, the further she will go. We got rid of the 'can't' word straight away because I ain't having it.
"I carry drumsticks, and yes, you will have to call [social services] because, trust me, I get the knuckles," she joked. "She doesn't say 'can't' anymore."
Neither did Wright and host of Miami soul session players, including guitarist Little Beaver, pianist Benny Latimore and organist Timmy Thomas, when invited to play on Stone's debut LP, The Soul Sessions, an album of covers released September 16.
"It was weird because they've worked with so many great, great singers," Stone said of her backing band. "I'm talking the best. I kind of walked in, just like this little girl, and started singing. I felt a bit weird about the whole thing because, 'Should I be here?' I have no experience, I don't know what I'm doing. But it was cool because they made me feel really comfortable. They're not intimidating at all. They're not pretentious, they're just really nice people."
The talented supporting cast doesn't stop there. Neo-soul singer Angie Stone and the Roots also lend a hand on, of all things, the White Stripes' "Fell in Love With a Girl," retitled "Fell in Love With a Boy."
"When I first heard it, I was like, 'I don't know how this is going to be soulful,' " Stone said. "But then Betty put down the scratch vocal, and the Roots kind of messed it up a little bit, which sounded really cool."
"She's really like an oxymoron," Wright said. "She's young but she's old. She could go pop but she's definitely soulful. She has a soul base."
Joss Stone tour dates, according to her publicist:
- 10/7 - Los Angeles, CA @ Mayan Theater
- 10/8 - San Diego, CA @ 4th & B
- 10/13 - Chicago, IL @ House of Blues
- 10/16 - New York, NY @ Beacon Theater
- 10/23 - Los Angeles, CA @ Troubadour
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