We can’t run from our roots. You’re fifteen or sixteen and ears are pinned to radio, or, today, smartphone and a track comes on and you’re suddenly engrossed. You hear it on many levels – melody, lyrics, message; rhythm and instrumentation. That sound plays in your head and then tunnels its way through every connecting nerve and claims residency in your soul. If you’re an aspiring musician you work your way through the architecture of the music; from the bottom brick to the flashy ornaments.
I remember hearing Little Anthony & the Imperials and “Hurt So Bad” for the first time while scrolling the dial of my transistor radio in the mid-sixties. I’m digging the Shadows of the Knight and “Gloria” beaming in from WLS-AM 890 in Chicago, the “Wolfman” on some Georgia station, extolling a new rockabilly track – some local late-night jazz voice talking Miles Davis. Music finds us and, for those susceptible, it’s a revelation, a moment you share into old age. Speaking with singer Johnny Reid was one of the moments. Music found him, as he explains in this interview, and the roots remain deep and firm.
Stax recordings had a place in your home, courtesy your mom. Hearing a broad range of soul hits must have stuck with you.
Through all of the records I’ve recorded I’ve always had a song or two that speak of that world. It’s a very natural place for me, especially the vocals. I’ve always wanted to record a record like that. With Revival, I started thinking about my younger years – where I came from, the special moments. I was thinking about when I started and the things that turned me on to music. All of that music I heard growing up came from my mother’s record collection. Stax Records, Alabama, soul music - stuff with a lot of beats and a lot of rhythms really influenced my songwriting process. I decided to make a record like that. We recorded in two days. We put a bunch of great musicians in a room; pressed record and it turned out to be a wonderful experience all around.
During the late sixties Northern Soul took hold throughout the upper regions of Great Britain. Popular black music from the U.S. was celebrated in fashion and dance styles. Did you feel the effects of this movement?
Funny enough, I might not even be around if it weren’t for that era. My mother at sixteen was a Go-go dancer. It was in our valley that all of that music was coming in. There was a singer by the name of Chris McClure who’d do all of these old soul songs and mom would dance to this. My dad was seventeen and a mechanic and he went up there and that’s how they met, and the rest is history. It was a huge thing for Scotland and there was a huge appetite for that music around that time. That all sort of blended into my youth. My ma and her friends would get together on a Friday and a Saturday and the record player would be on and they’d be listening to the Supremes, Wilson Pickett, Solomon Burke – great singers and great songs.
The reason Northern Soul was so popular is that it was about the pain and the struggle. As you know, in the northern part of England and Scotland we really depended on coal mines. There was a lot of hardworking people through there. I think that music just spoke to them.
Scotland also produced one of the great soul singers of the day, Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band.
There were some great acts up there who gravitated to soul music. Frankie Miller was another huge act who had an extraordinary voice and leaned heavily on the soul thing, especially Otis Redding. It was an incredible time for me growing up. Music was always a great place for me to go. A great release for me as a kid.
I wanted to make a record with that in mind for a long time and with my song “Soul Train”, the first line in that song talks about Wilson Pickett. I remember thinking as a kid, who is this guy? He can really scream and bring so much emotion to the music. I wrote the song about getting on this train and the other places it has taken me, from Philly Soul to Detroit Soul to Alabama – to all of these different places. It was great fun and an incredible experience. It was also a wonderful opportunity to be in a room with such great musicians and record my record like they used to record.
Even in the horn arrangement of “Soul Train,” you reference the horn line in Wilson Pickett’s “Land of a Thousand Dances” and go on to call up Fats Domino’s hit, “Blueberry Hill”, which you reference in the lyrics.
That’s right and “I heard the gospel through the grapevine” – Marvin Gaye. All of this music was so enjoyed – I don’t know if it was just a fantasy. I mean, was it because all of the people back home had these fantasies about America and being in a club listening to these incredible singers or was it the rhythm of the music and the release it gave people during tough times?
It’s not so rare in country music that some of the greats began their careers as blues and country blues singers such as Charlie Rich, Ray Charles and Dobie Gray.
Charlie Rich, yeah. I have to tell you man, it’s a great reference because Charlie Rich is what I grew up on. I’ve never really called myself a country singer. Charlie Rich was an incredible blues/soul singer. Back then he was celebrated as a country singer but if he came out now he’d be recognized as a great R&B singer much like Michael McDonald.
He decided to reach a broader audience through country music.
He was amazing. One of my favourite songs of all time was,“I Feel Like Going Home.” It spoke to me since the first day I heard it. It was a great blend of a great lyric and melody.
I was checking out Kelly Clarkson’s new recording, and she too is giving the nod to her passion for soul music. The music is one thing, but writing lyrics is often a challenge when faced with history. A song has to go deeper and tell a story.
Brother, I’ve got to tell you I take great pride in my lyrics. I think that’s what’s been missing. A guy recently played me a track and I said, the production is amazing, the band’s killing it, the groove is great, the melody is strong; but what’s the song saying? Will this be a song you and I will remember a year or so or ten years on? I wanted to take time and make sure every song on Revival were real songs.
All of the great soul songs back in the day had lyrics that were fantastic. Straight to the heart, straight to the point. They were colourful. “When a Man Loves a Woman” – baring your soul!
How did you and co-producer Bob Ezrin connect?
Bob and I have been friends for several years. I was introduced to Bob through Randy Lennox when he was running Universal Music Canada. He said, “I know you are going to do this Christmas album (A Christmas Gift to You) and you should really talk to Bob Ezrin. I think you guys would really hit if off.” He made the introduction. Bob and I got along from the day we met. We laughed, shared stories and you have a Scottish guy and a Jewish guy wanting to make a Christmas record. We jumped in together and had a great time doing so – it was just a natural progression.
On Revival, I really had a clear vision and knew exactly what I wanted it to be, how it was to sound and how it was to be presented. I spoke to Bob about it and he said it sounds like you are already there and why don’t we get together and I’ll co-produce, and I said yes. It was a really a humbling experience for me to sit one side of the desk and work with Bob.
You speak of authenticity. Was this an ongoing conversation with Ezrin throughout the recording process?
People always ask me what’s the story with Bob? He’s such a great producer. He listens to whatever I say as an artist – “I like that, I like that,” and he's famous for being honest and will bluntly say, “I don’t think that’s going to work and here’s the reasons why.” We spent two days together – live vocals, live everything. We had the horns, back-up singers, the B-3, piano, two guitars, bass and drum in the room going for live takes. As soon as we felt we had the take it was on to the next song. We cut thirteen or fourteen songs in two days.
Did you co-write with Larry LeBlanc?
It’s kind of a cool story.
I was at the SOCAN Awards and walked into the lobby and Larry LeBlanc was standing there. He comes over and says, “Hey Johnny, I’ve got a cool song title.” I say, “Cool Larry, what is it?” “It’s called, I Never Got To Memphis.” I liked it and told Larry so.
I was at home one night and just messing around and thought about it and started working on the chorus, “I never got to Memphis with you. Never got to walk on Beale Street.” I sent Larry a reworked tape and asked, “what do you think?” He goes, “man, I love this; this sounds great.” Fast forward a year and I’m at the SOCAN Awards again and walk into the lobby and there’s Larry LeBlanc. “He says 'hey, how are you doing? Did you ever get to that song?' I took out my phone, plugged in my headphones while standing in the same lobby a year later and he listened to the song and loved it. It’s myself, Larry and Bob on this song. It was really cool.
Have you announced your tour schedule yet?
The tour goes on sale November 9th and we are going coast to coast. I’m going places I haven’t been before, from Vancouver Island all away across to Newfoundland. I really like to take it to the people. I like to think of my dad and the guys he worked with who worked so hard all week. You ask people like them to drive three hours to see you. I’ve always thought that was selfish. My idea has always been, I’m going to bring it to you. I’ll be hitting primary markets, secondary markets, and even go to places most musicians wouldn’t take a show there and perform for the people who have supported me. It’s very important to me!