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Joan Armatrading

A decade or so before TRACY CHAPMAN was giving working-class folk music a black-skin spin, West Indies-born singer-songwriter JOAN ARMATRADING (herself inspired by legends, ODETTA, NINA SIMONE and SISTER ROSETTA THARPE) had mastered the art of integrating the genres, including blues, jazz, soul and folk-pop. After passing the 40-year mark in the fickle music biz in 2012, by way of her umpteenth set (“Starlight”), the shy lady that gave us the beautiful `Love And Affection’, has proved that staying power and dedication are as essential as her undeniable talent.
Born 9th December 1950 in Basseterre, St. Kitts, but raised by her family in Birmingham, England since the age of around seven, the reticent Joan steeped herself into music by either listening to the radio or teaching herself to play instruments such as the piano and guitar. Songwriting became more a part of her life after leaving school, and, in 1970, she befriended lyricist Pam Nestor (b.28 April 1948, Berbice, Guyana) with whom she initiated a songwriting partnership when the pair worked on the touring stage production of “Hair”.
More confident of her vocal abilities than in previous try-outs, Joan circulated a demo tape of their material, which led them to the door of London-based Cube, a division of Fly Records. Produced by Gus Dudgeon with ELTON JOHN’s backing band in tow, WHATEVER’S FOR US (1972) {*4} was an average debut, with singer Joan playing piano for the most part, while Pam (also on piano) was unhappy in her Bernie Taupin-esque role. Needless to say, the partnership was allegedly made edgy by the constant attempts by Dudgeon to extricate Pam, and after a belatedly-promoted single, `Lonely Lady’, bombed the following year, Pam bailed out. A few years of inactivity followed for ARMATRADING while she attempted to negotiate an armistice from Cube, although in the meantime she’d featured on a second John Peel session (backed by guitarist SNOWY WHITE, bassist Mike Tomich and drummer Brian Glassock) in January ’74. Thankfully, A&M Records came to Joan’s rescue, and with backing this time from jazz-fusion sextet The Movies (on tour) and producer Pete Gage, BACK TO THE NIGHT (1975) {*6} showed signs of improvement; slow-burners `Dry Land’ and `Cool Blue Stole My Heart’ future live faves.
However, it was with her third set, the self-titled JOAN ARMATRADING (1976) {*8}, that the acoustic singer-songwriter fully realised her distinctive blend of folky pop. While JONI MITCHELL was an obvious reference point, the artist had patented her own, richly resonant style which latter day singers such as TRACY CHAPMAN would subsequently draw from for inspiration. Buoyed by the British Top 10 success of the classic `Love And Affection’ single, the album cracked the Top 20, while `Down To Zero’ should’ve tracked its path; the LP was also notable for the inclusion of session players Dave Mattacks, Jerry Donahue, Kenney Jones, Bryan Haworth, B.J. Cole and Graham Lyle.
Further success followed with SHOW SOME EMOTION (1977) {*6} and TO THE LIMIT (1978) {*6}, veteran producer Glyn Johns again at the helm for the bulk of this developmental, late 70s period. Despite her lack of hit singles, Joan was drifting into the R&B/disco territory on a handful of the tracks, although her dip into any groove or genre was always rewarding, defined as it was by her mellow, lilting contralto vocal range; weirdly enough, her live experience on STEPPIN’ OUT (1979) {*6} went virtually unnoticed among the post-new wave-centric record buyers.
Despite a harder-edged, contemporary pop direction, 1980’s ME MYSELF I {*7} – including the hit title track – became her most successful album to date, denting the Top 5 and the US Top 30. There was a certain upbeat and rockier side to Joan’s mainstream nuances, and armed with songs such as `All The Way From America’ (a minor hit), `Is It Tomorrow Yet?’ and the Caribbean-flavoured `Simon’, she was at the top of her game at this stage in her career.
Duly augmented by SLY & ROBBIE and a plethora of star attraction guests (from THOMAS DOLBY to XTC’s Andy Partridge), the Steve Lillywhite-produced WALK UNDER LADDERS (1981) {*6}, kept her afloat amid new wave peer pressure. However, for follow-up THE KEY (1983) {*6}, the addition of electro synths (by way of knob-twiddler Larry Fast), communicated a different kettle of pop diva around the globe. Catchy to the point of irritating, a near return to the Top 10 was assured by `Drop The Pilot’, while there was definitely a case for less sessionmanship (from Messrs Adrian Belew and Tony Levin – then of a re-formed KING CRIMSON) on a handful of the cues.
While never maintaining a particularly high profile from then onwards, ARMATRADING continued to release albums at regular intervals throughout the 80s: SECRET SECRETS (1985) {*6}, SLEIGHT OF HAND (1986) {*5} and THE SHOUTING STAGE (1988) {*4} – the latter tempting punters through guest appearances from guitarist MARK KNOPFLER, keyboardist Alan Clark, bassist Pino Palladino, BIG COUNTRY drummer Mark Brzezicki and Manu Katche.
Though Joan didn’t enjoy the commercial success of her earlier halcyon days, a loyal core of fans ensured that she usually sold enough records to keep the wolf from the door. Although lacking in substance, and disappointing in comparison to her previous work, HEARTS AND FLOWERS (1990) {*5}, SQUARE THE CIRCLE (1992) {*5} and her first and only for R.C.A. Records: WHAT’S INSIDE (1995) {*4}, were still chart-worthy, although minor hit singles `More Than One Kind Of Love’ and `Wrapped Around Her’ were trying hard to claw back a bit of “Love And Affection”.
ARMATRADING’s first album of the new millennium and indeed her first in nigh-on a decade was the acclaimed LOVERS SPEAK (2003) {*7}, a late blossoming tour de force of emotional examination and exorcism. Self-produced and unflinching in its scrutiny of the multifarious dimensions, consequences and possibilities of love, the record outshone almost anything the singer had done since the 70s. Musically, its folk diversions, skirting the delicate outer fringes of pop, jazz-inflected meditations and even country flirtations, delved deep into the very fabric of her personal vision.
Passing over a couple of fresh but nostalgic concert albums, LIVE: ALL THE WAY FROM AMERICA (2004) {*6} and LIVE AT THE ROYAL ALBERT HALL (2010) {*6}, subsequent studio sets INTO THE BLUES (2007) {*6}, THIS CHARMING LIFE (2010) {*6} and STARLIGHT (2012) {*6}, pleased her many fans, while probably garnering a younger crowd yet to discover her sensitive, acoustic soul. In April 2011, it was announced that she was to enter into a civil partnership/marriage to her long-time girlfriend, Maggie Butler; despite trying to maintain a degree of privacy.
© MC Strong 1994-2004 / rev-up MCS Oct2013

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