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Soul Sisters: Jackson’s Fabulous Female Favorites

From left to right, Tawanna Shaunte, JJ Thames, Dorothy Moore and Pat Brown are the female voices behind Jackson’s soulful blues and R&B sound. Moore, who soloed in her church choir at age 5, became famous for her 1975 hit “Misty Blue.” Brown established herself at an early age as well, recording the hit “Equal Opportunity” with Wille Clayton. Shaunte and Thames have emerged with their own mixes of neo-soul and blues and perform on stages throughout the United States and abroad. Photo courtesy Marianne Todd
From left to right, Tawanna Shaunte, JJ Thames, Dorothy Moore and Pat Brown are the female voices behind Jackson’s soulful blues and R&B sound. Moore, who soloed in her church choir at age 5, became famous for her 1975 hit “Misty Blue.” Brown established herself at an early age as well, recording the hit “Equal Opportunity” with Wille Clayton. Shaunte and Thames have emerged with their own mixes of neo-soul and blues and perform on stages throughout the United States and abroad.
Photo courtesy Marianne Todd

Music is the soul of Mississippi.

Whether it’s the old-school R&B tunes of Jacksonian Dorothy Moore, the soul-blues sounds of Meridian native Pat Brown or the neo-soul of Tawanna Shaunte and JJ Thames, Mississippi artists tell the tale of the evolution of American music and of R&B in particular.
These are sisters separated by time but not place, each with their own particular spin on the beloved rhythm and blues tradition of Mississippi.

Misty Blue

Dorothy Moore grew up in the shadows of Farish Street, which at the time was a booming music mecca. Music venues like the Alamo Theater hosted musicians like Nat “King” Cole and Louis Jordan.

“I went to see Jackie Wilson,” Moore recalls. “He came to Jackson, and my mother went to see him, and she took me along with her. That was a great thing to see him perform.”

She was blessed with musical talent that shone from an early age. She was soloing in her church choir at age 5. By age 12, she was competing with adults at the local talent show at the Alamo.

But despite the music in her own backyard, she was a child of the television age, too, where she was exposed to an even wider range of music. The sounds of Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and Wilson Pickett came through on Sunday evenings.

“Every Sunday night at seven o’clock I would watch the Ed Sullivan show,” she says. “I would see country and western singers, gospel singers, rhythm and blues singers. All that stayed in me. That’s what I saw and heard. I thought, ‘That’s something I want to do.'”

She landed local gigs singing backup for other musicians recording in town. At 18, she was signed to her first recording contract with Epic records, traveling to Nashville to cut her debut record with an all-girl trio called The Poppies. They had a regional hit with the Billy Sherrill-produced “Lullaby of Love.”

But her big hit came almost a decade later when she was recording for the Jackson-based Malaco Records. “Misty Blue,” from the album of the same name, was a simmering ballad that became a worldwide hit, garnering two Grammy nominations and by some accounts, saving Malaco Records from the brink of bankruptcy.

“‘Misty Blue’ was released November, 1975,” says Moore. “Three months later in February, 1976, I was at the Grammy awards sitting next to Ringo Starr, behind Natalie Cole. I was like a little girl going to a fair.”

Moore had a string of successful albums throughout the 1970s and ’80s for Malaco, all the while maintaining a considerable touring schedule. By 2002, she’d decided to start her own record label, Farish Street Records.

She struck out on her own when the music industry experienced a dynamic shift.

“‘Misty Blue’ was R&B when I first released it,” she says. “But you find it now in the blues section. I’ve performed with country artists and blues and R&B and gospel. They don’t know what to do with me. That’s why I went ahead and got my own label.”

And then there was her experience and industry contacts.

“I have my own label because I have creative control,” Moore says. “I can pick up a phone and call an arranger now. I can pick songs that my fans like. I’ve been in the business 40-plus years now.”

She has released four albums on the Farish Street label, with no signs of stopping. She continues to tour worldwide, often performing on showcases with the likes of the Temptations and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. She recently sang at the funeral of friend Percy Sledge.

To this day, her music defies easy categorization, the sign of any artist with true creative control.

“At my show, you’re going to hear blues, rhythm and blues, gospel,” she says. “I don’t know what I’m going to do. I just might yodel one time.”

Equal Opportunity

Like Moore, Pat Brown grew up singing in talent shows, a natural talent from a young age. She, too, idolized Aretha Franklin, often covering her songs. Throughout junior high and high school in Meridian she maintained her singing though she never had formal music instruction.

“I guess it’s just a God-given gift,” Brown says.

While at Meridian Junior College she joined the vocal ensemble, The Dynamics. The group performed for a year and a half until graduation time came.

“They left after we graduated,” Brown says. “They told me they were going to California to make music. They asked me if I wanted to go but my mother said, ‘No.’ I was to finish school.”

That group later found success in the music world under a different name–The Commodores.

Meanwhile, Brown finished college at Mississippi Valley State. She became a schoolteacher back home in Meridian, then married and moved to Jackson.

The first time she set foot in a recording studio, it was to sing on what would be a hit record. On “Equal Opportunity,” she sang a duet with Willie Clayton that became an instant hit for Clayton and served as a springboard for her career. She later re-released the song on her own debut album, also called “Equal Opportunity.”

She has released five albums since and has another, “Like Fine Wine,” set for release this year. Though she sometimes collaborates with songwriters or writes her own songs, Brown says the key to good material is finding songs that relate to the human experience.
“Life experiences are real important,” she says. “People can usually relate to something that has happened to them as opposed to something that’s fictional. Life experiences are easier to deal with.”

Her sound is a distinct Mississippi mix of soul and blues.

“I call it soul blues,” says Brown. “Anytime you can feel what you’re singing … and someone else can feel what you’re feeling … it makes a world of difference.”

Eclectic Soul

Tawanna Shaunte doesn’t like to use the phrase “neo-soul” when talking about her music. “There’s nothing new about it,” the Florence native insists. “But everything evolves.”

Shaunte’s music has been evolving since she was a little girl, learning music from her parents. Both of them were self-taught musicians, her mother a piano player, her father a guitarist. They imbued young Tawanna with a passion for music from a young age.

“They used their music to fuel them. That was my first love of really appreciating music and what music can do for you,” she says.
Shaunte listened to her parent’s gospel and soul records. As a teenager, she discovered jazz and developed an eclectic taste that would include equal parts of Muddy Waters, Nina Simone and Joni Mitchell. She sang as a sideline. It wasn’t until her mid-20s that she had an epiphany that led her to a life on stage.

She was visiting South Africa with her husband and two young sons. She got a chance to visit the studio of famed South African songstress Miriam Makeba. There, she was hit with a jolt of inspiration.

“I was immersed in her sound,” Shaunte says. “I had a chance to go to her studio, and when I went it was something that hit me. I said, ‘You know what? This is something you should be doing.’ For me that was my wake up call. I think that experience pushed me into realizing the importance of music and how music can be effective in social change. I knew that I wanted to sing.”

It was 2006. As soon as she returned to Jackson, she called her friend Greg Stewart. They immediately formed a band.

“We just had an idea that we wanted to create something we were passionate about,” says Shaunte. “I was always interested in artists like D’Angelo, who was neo-soul, and Erykah Badu. They were artists that merged blues, soul and jazz together. But I was still listening to Muddy Waters and Nina Simone. For me it was Nina Simone. For Greg it was more neo-soul artists. That’s how we merged it together, and it became an eclectic feel where we wanted to put these genres together.”

With this mash-up of eclecticism, the band name came easily: Eclectik Soul.

The group went on to release two albums–2008’s self-titled debut and 2010’s “Rising.”
After the two releases, Shaunte decided to strike out on her own.

“We decided it was time for us to do something different. I really wanted to tap into some of the styles of music that I had been hearing in my head for so long.”

Her career took a considerable leap when she signed with Cassandra Wilson’s Ojah Media Group. In this partnership, she has released her first solo album, “Freedom Agent.” The record was recorded in Pelahatchie with a host of Mississippi musicians.
“Mississippi has such rich soil,” Shaunte says. “Even with the struggles of this state, there is still this beauty that comes out of her that I love. That purity in the way I want to approach music, it has no boundaries. I love being able to be a storyteller. That’s how I approach it. It’s one of the reasons I named the album “Freedom Agent.” When people hear this album, there’s a sense of freedom. So it’s just kind of like being able to break down barriers with music. That’s where that came from.”

A Blues Journey

JJ Thames learned the blues the hard way–by living them. Thames grew up in Detroit, studying classical music from the age of nine. At Montessori school she was encouraged. At home, gospel music came by way of her pastor father. She traveled for choir competitions with her school.

At age 16, she discovered jazz and began sneaking into local jazz clubs to hear spoken word performances. Under the tutelage of a sympathetic club owner, she was soon on the stage herself. It was the late 1990s, and the worlds of hip-hop and jazz were intersecting in some places, and Thames stood right at that nexus, providing vocal tracks to local hip-hop artists.
Three months before high school graduation, she gave birth to a son. Her father had accepted a preaching job in Mississippi, and she and her newborn moved with the family.

“I was supposed to be going to college in New York, but there was another plan,” she says.

It wasn’t long before she was singing with a local band called Mo’ Money, with whom she performed for six years. With a regular Wednesday night gig at Hamp’s Place in Jackson, she fell into the music scene in Mississippi and met soon-to-be mentor vocalist Patrice Moncell.

“She taught me a lot,” Thames says. “She took me under her wing and had me fill in for her for shows she wasn’t able to make. She taught me a lot about stage presence.”

When she moved to Mississippi Thames had been mostly unfamiliar with blues music. In Jackson, her real-world music education took the form of a hands-on master class. In addition to Mo’ Money, she collaborated with local musician Andy Hardwick, who encouraged her to learn standards such as “Dust My Broom,” “Sweet Home Chicago” and “Boom Boom Boom.” They performed as a duo four nights a week for three years.

“I learned a lot about blues,” Thames says. “Andy was very instrumental in that. He wanted me to focus on Motown. It was strange that I was from Detroit but didn’t know a lot of Motown. Then I learned a lot of blues songs.”

Hardwick proved to be an apt instructor.

“He really fostered that and pushed me to learn those things,” Thames says. “He was very adamant about me getting the timing correct.”

After her second son died from a rare form of cancer, Thames looked for a fresh start back in Detroit.

“I had built a fan base in Mississippi, but I felt like there wasn’t much further I could go. That was probably naïve at the time. I just felt stagnated. I wanted to go home. I felt like with the tools I’d developed in Mississippi, I could bring something to Detroit that they didn’t have, which was blues.”

Her time in Detroit was successful. She got a standing gig at a local club called Lola’s. Her blues-based shows set her apart from other competing acts. But eventually she yearned for more.

“I went to New York,” she says. “[I was] thinking I made it in Detroit and made it in Mississippi. I should go to the big city and make this happen.”

But it didn’t happen, at least not at first. A series of setbacks happened instead. Thames found herself homeless, living in shelters and singing in the subway terminals for spare change.

Discouraged, she relied on her music to pull her through the hard times.

“I always knew that music would keep me going,” she says. “Whenever I looked at my circumstances and saw that they weren’t what I wanted them to be, I would kind of sing myself out of it. I used singing as my therapy. I had an opportunity to see people touched by that. So I felt like it was my calling, and something I needed to stick to.”

All the while, she was writing.

“A lot of my songs came out of those journals,” she says. “Ninety percent of my music is about my personal experiences. I feel like the best stories are your own.”

Those songs came to form the repertoire for her self-released neo-soul album under the name “Jenesis” in 2008.
Thames went to work touring the country as a back up singer for the reggae rock outfit Outlaw Nation, and in 2012 returned to Jackson.

Within a year she had signed with Grady Champion’s DeChamp Records and headed for the studio to cut her newly released “Tell You What I Know,” a stirring blend of autobiographical songs that simmer in the stew of soul and blues.

During a performance on the B.B. King Blues Club cruise she heard the news that the album had made the Billboard charts. It remains there today.

First published in Legends Magazine. Story by Tom Speed, photos by Marianne Todd.

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