The celebrated Toronto blues singer and veteran star of musical theatre is the new recipient of the Slaight Music SING! Toronto Legacy Award. In this extensive interview, she reflects upon her childhood in the US, her early career breaks, and her love of Sammy Davis Jr., Sate, and Jann Arden.
“It all began with Salome Bey saying, “you should sing the blues, here’s a script – you are going to play Ma Rainey.” This led to Jackie Richardson playing blueswoman Alberta Hunter in Cooking at The Cookery and a long-storied career in musical theatre.
There isn’t a soul in Canada who hasn’t been touched by Jackie Richardson. It’s the empathy, character, goodness and grace she brings to the stage. Let’s not overlook “humility,” something the music industry was short on before Covid. Richardson is never short on praise for those in her professional neighbourhood, citing singers Divine Brown and SATE as her inspiration. This coming from a woman who exudes confidence. I recently caught up with Jackie and asked her about living under lockdown and life in general. Here’s that conversation.
Bill King: Everything basically shut down in March because of the pandemic. I wonder how that affected you?
Jackie Richardson: It wasn’t that I wanted to take time off and not have as much activity. The projects I had lined up especially, for May and June were projects I had done over the years and looked forward to. May, June and December are usually very busy months and it was like it was an upside-down thing trying to figure out what to do and trying to make sense out of what’s going on day, by day, by day. The arts were in a complete landslide. The audience is important to us and we can’t reach that audience. Where do you work and how do you pursue your craft? It was a dead stop for a while.
B.K: It’s one thing to play a night here and there but theatre involves weeks of rehearsals and prepping for a two to four-week run. Thinking of all those connected to such situations of which you are a big part, how did you reset and use the vacant hours?
J.R: I’m not a techie and virtually everything in this new world revolves around this technical world now. I stayed in quarantine, my kids are in Montreal, I have my nephews, and nieces here – my daughter and grandkids – all in Montreal. Thank God, we have FaceTime and that kind of thing, but I had to stay quarantined and didn’t want anybody going shopping for me. I made sure I took as many precautions as I could because I’m of that age and go out every eight or nine days and do my shopping. I’d analyze when it was the best time and fewest people. How do you stay safe, keep others safe and not harm someone else that became the whole focus? You do certain things around your house and you know you have that together. I could see early on in a supermarket it was such a dangerous time in that, everybody was kind of off-balance and not knowing what the rules were. I remember talking to a neighbour who was talking to me wearing a mask and some man walk up laughing at her for wearing. He walks away and she turns to me and says, “What do you do?” I said to her, “The one thing you do is to stay safe.”
B.K: Donora, Pennsylvania? Where is that?
J.R: Donora would be the greater Pittsburgh area. I came to Canada when I was seven, but Donora was home. The Monongahela, the Allegheny, the Ohio River. I remember my father saying, “I met your mother, on the banks of the Monongahela where the Alleghenies and Ohio River meet.”
B.K: Jackie – mom’s side of the family is from Williamsburg just outside of Altoona and we made that drive summers and winters through the Alleghenies and there are regions that are so steep you look down at houses only feet below the highway.
J.R: I remember some of the hills being like straight down. My grandfather and grandmother had a convenience store at the side of the road on a highway and my grandmother would drive a pick-up truck. They called her “heavy foot” Bertha. She’d put her foot on the gas and fly around those curbs and we’d be screaming.
B.K: Before Donora, can you trace your family farther back?
J.R: My grandfather on my mother’s side family came up from Tennessee. On my father’s side, they came up from Virginia.
B.K: Pittsburgh was all about steel.
J.R: Steel and coal and oil, listen – there was a song we sang for Soulpepper Theatre that was Rita MacNeil’s song about the coalminers. I tell you that has been one of those things that’s hard for me to think about for too long. People down in those mines and so hard to breathe. It freaks me out. My dad and uncle came up here and my dad said, “they are not going to take my lungs.” My uncle met my aunt Amy, who was Harry Gairey's daughter, in New York who was studying to be a violinist. He called my dad and said Garrett, “We’re moving to Canada.” The two came up to Toronto and stayed with my aunt’s mother who everybody called mom. Mom originally came from Jamaica and for decades welcomed anyone coming up from another country and helped them get oriented and settled. My dad and uncle started an advertising business called Wayne Distributors and Advertising delivering handbills and samples at Queen and Broadview. They were one of the main companies to employ people of colour. The building still stands at Queen and Broadview. They did that close to three years before they sent for us. The five kids came up – my two older brothers helped my grandparents with the store. Up until I came to Canada, I lived in church four or five times a week. We were Baptist. You know, I didn’t know until long after the whole community kept up with my career for years.
B.K: What would you consider your break-out moment?
J.R: My sister and I were doing CBC variety shows for a long time. Through the Tiaras we were doing the Martin Short Show for two years. The Alex Trebek Show – the Right On Show - we worked as frequent background singers. I ended up going to Montreal when Expo was happening, and I’m supposed to be with the group called The Young Ones. They were going to work at the African Pavilion. The three of us girls got there, and they decide they don’t want to use background singers so we stayed for two years in Montreal as a group, had our own place and whoever could get work, got work. Through that period, I met a gentleman who formed several Platters road groups so I get a call from Bill Cunningham wanted me to join the Platters and tour the world. When I came home there wasn’t anything happening, so I did secretarial work until I started in the theatre. I saw an ad in the paper for community theatre, so I thought I’d better do something because all of the contacts I had from doing the world tour had gone. In community theatre, I found I loved it and it was something my daughter and I could do together which we did for two and a half years.
Not long after a friend of Murray Alter’s saw me performing at a dance and Peter Appleyard was playing and he got up and said, “We’ve got somebody in the group – can she sit in with you?” Peter let me sit in and Murray’s friend went back to him and told him, and I ended up being with Murray’s orchestra twenty years.
B.K: There is a Jackie Richardson method of planning a show. Do you want to share?
J.R: I don’t place songs in similar keys next to each other and within that, I’m thinking about the pacing, the content, the lyric content - what I want to say that night? As the years go on it’s become as important as the rhythmic flow. What am I trying to say today? Whenever I’m asked to do any kind of charity, special event or honour somebody I would sit there and check out what others were saying on those days and what they were projecting. There were times when you’d do several songs, and none relate to that occasion it really disappointed me. I mean, why are we here? You’re here for a charity - you might have a new record or CD out, but what does that have to do with what you were called on to do by the community that day.
B.K: You got the call to participate in the ninth run of SING! The Toronto Vocal Arts Festival even a pairing with singer Micah Barnes. What’s the story behind this?
J.K: I don’t know what came first whether it was Micah suggesting Vegas or the committee suggesting but Micah does have a recent CD that came out that’s wonderfully called “Vegas Breeze” so it was an opportunity for him to showcase his songs from his recording and presented in a different way – a Capella. This you will hear on the virtual and when you get the CD something different.
I was called up to be honoured with the Slaight Music SING! Toronto Legacy Award and I'm so grateful for that and I was asked to also participate. I asked what’s the theme and they said, “Vegas.” I said, if I’m going to do anything about Vegas is has to be something by or done by Sammy Davis. To me, he’s the greatest entertainer in the world and certainly “Mr. Vegas.”
I went to do something in Winnipeg, and at the same time, SATE was there with a dance troupe from Toronto on her birthday weekend. Her husband David sent a pair of tickets to see one of her favourite performers, Paul Anka. He was there will full orchestra, had video screen going and telling lots of stories. He says, “I had the honour to write a song for one of my best friends and when it came time for him to debut that song, it was on a tv show I wasn’t able to watch. I got in touch with the tv show and asked for a copy and they sent. “Ladies and gentlemen, I would like to present my friend Sammy Davis singing the song I wrote for him.” This song Bill, I will never forget. It’s called I’m Not Anyone. When I heard it, I said to myself, Paul and Sammy sat down and had a lot of talks.
“I'm not anyone
No not just anyone
I have the right to lead
A life fulfilled with every need
I'm not any man
Designed to fit someone’s plan
I have my own desires
Of the things a man aspires
I'll not be used
Misled, deceived or abused
No sir not me
I am free
And I'll not give away
The freedom I have is the same
To say I do I don't
I will or I won't
These words are true
I hope I do
Toil a while, but not in vain
I removed the child the man remains
Life is filled with those who fail
The weak the strong the meek the frail
And those who they refuse to try
And those who they never live then they die
I'm not I'm not one of those
I'm full of pride I suppose
I'll say it loud
I am proud
And I'll not I'll not be a space
A no one a number a face
No sir not me
I am free
No I'll not be used
Mislead deceived or abused
No sir not me not me
Isn’t that something? I knew that was the perfect song to honour Sammy Davis and add to that the song that Sammy performed on every show, Mr. Bojangles. Sammy was multi-talented and considered himself first and foremost a hoofer. To complete this tribute, we added the incredible talent of one of Canada’s best hoofers, Travis Knight, who did Sammy Davis proud. The vocal arrangements are by Dylan Bell and Suba Sankaran and performed a Capella with a vocal ensemble in collaboration with me. Dylan and Suba provided the ensemble arrangements for not only this song but for the whole festival.
Travis Knight made that all happen – singing that song and him dancing for Sammy. Every second you watched Sammy, he was teaching you something. It was like going to university. I can see how this is important to that young kid Sammy who met every famous hoofer in the world and was able to learn from and take challenges from them. I bet when he was going through every verse there was someone coming through his mind that he’s dancing for.
B.K: What are your music listening habits?
J.R: I listen for hours – just go online and I also have my granddaughter and daughter pulling my coat about people I don’t know about. The first person who put me on to Jann Arden was my daughter Kim. I like the girls’ group of back-up singers – what do they call them The Group of Seven? They put out an album and one of the songs was Back-up Singer’s Blues. I also read biographies and pay particular attention to songs that emphasize their personal stories and will go back and listen again. I’m just saying, there is so much talent out there and you want somebody to pull your coat!