Singer Teresa James imbues every note with searing honesty and emotion. For her, blues is the genre that feeds that soulful sensation.
“In pop music, half the time they’re not really singing,” James says, laughing. “Along with that, there’s the big extravaganza — dancers, lights, smoke, action. But for me, it’s always about the connection between the singer and the song. When the singer connects with the emotion of the song — the music and the lyrics — then the audience will be drawn into it. That’s when the magic happens. That’s why people like blues — it’s something they can relate to.”
James says every blues performance is made special by what the individual artist brings to a song.
“There’s a million versions of ‘The Sky Is Crying’ [Elmore James]. Each one brings a little different flavor, a different intensity and a little different emotion. And that’s what I’m all about. My whole thing is that I like to be in the moment, singing what I’m feeling in that moment, having what’s happening around me come out in the music. I try to never get into a rut with any song, where I do it exactly the same way. Music should be a living, fluid thing.”
James grew up in Houston, Texas, in a musical family. Her father played guitar and taught her chords. Her aunt played piano. The James clan held weekend jams at their house with neighbors. “I used to sneak out of my bedroom and hide and just watch,” James says.
When she was 5, James began imitating what her older brother was playing on the piano. Her parents decided she was ready for classical piano lessons. Her first performance came in fourth grade, when she sang and played guitar.
In junior high, James played in folk groups with friends. In her late teens, the blues grabbed her. “I heard Janis Joplin singing ‘Ball and Chain.’ I had never really heard anybody sing with that much feeling, and it really struck me.”
Her brother played her Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog.” “I just went, ‘Whoa! That is incredibly cool!’ So I started listening to other singers, going all the way back to the ’20s and ’30s, and really started to get a feel for the blues.”
James moved to Los Angeles in 1982. She married Terry Wilson, a songwriter and musician who had backed such artists as Jimmy Reed and Lightnin’ Hopkin
James, Wilson and Rhythm Tramps guitarist Billy Watts toured the world as part of Eric Burdon’s band.
While they were raising two children, James and Wilson wanted to spend less time on the road, so they did a lot of session work.
James has performed live with such artists as Levon Helm, Delbert McClinton and Marcia Ball. She has sung on albums by Randy Newman, Walter Trout, Tommy Castro and Bill Medley. Medley recorded a song penned by James and Wilson, “I’ll Find Someone Who Will.”
The Rhythm Tramps were playing at a blues club in the San Fernando Valley when a man approached, saying he was a film director and liked their sound. He handed them a card. “In L.A., every wannabe says he’s a director or producer,” James says, “so we didn’t pay any attention.”
Eighteen months later, they received a call from the director, saying he was making a movie with Sigourney Weaver, Patricia Arquette and Shia LeBeouf. He wanted to feature a Sheryl Crow cover of an old Fats Domino song called “I’m Gonna Be a Wheel Someday.” Crow’s management company wouldn’t let him use her version. The director asked James and Wilson if they could deliver a track of the song within 48 hours.
So James and the band put their own spin on the number. They can be heard performing it on the soundtrack to Disney’s hit movie “Holes.”
Their latest album is “Bonafide,” which features covers of The 5 Royales “I Like It Like That” and John Hiatt’s “Have a Little Faith,” as well as dynamite originals such as “The Power of Need,” “Hollywood Way,” “Funny Like That” and the title track. James’ compelling vocals recall those of her friend, Bonnie Raitt.
At Club Fox, joining vocalist-pianist James will be Wilson on bass, guitarist Watts and drummer Tom Fillman.
Her son Jesse Wilson, 25, is a songwriter, singer and guitarist. Daughter Lucy Wilson, 29, is a dancer/choreographer, married to the drummer from Austin’s rising Americana group, Band of Heathens.
“We were thinking, OK, two musician parents, so maybe one of them will be a dentist and the other one will marry a rich lawyer,” James says, laughing. “But all I really ever wanted was for them to grow up and find something that they’re passionate about — and find a way to make a living doing it. So many people never find that one thing that really gives them joy to do.”
James is thankful that she found her passion at such an early age. “My mom found an old handwriting exercise from first grade, on one of those the big tablets with the dotted lines. And it says, ‘I love to sing. When I sing, you know I’m happy.’
“I love hitting the road, going to new places, expanding our fan base. I love being on stage, singing with a killer band and having people respond to it. Singing is my joy. To be able to share that with people in a live setting — and get paid for it — that’s the best.”
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.