The bright star of southern soul
by Anders Lillsunde
We had agreed to meet in the Double Tree hotel lobby in Memphis. I saw her from the side and the silhouette was familiar from an album. I therefore went up and introduced myself. She turned to me. She was stunningly attractive. Photos on album covers don’t give her full justice.
Her latest CD More Love had made a deep impression on me. She was so very different from most other female southern soul singers with lyrics and sentiments that grab your inner feelings. As usual, it is almost impossible to obtain information about the artists in this genre. But in my search, I got to know that she is a regular performer at the annual soul festival in Poretta, Italy. I almost started to think about going there. But then came the trip to Memphis this year (2008) where Jazzii Anderson, see Jefferson No 155, helped us with contacts. She knew Toni and a meeting was arranged.
Jefferson has on many occasions described the situation today's black soul blues artists find themselves in. They are unable to reach the white listeners or the broader r&b genre. They are categorized as "wrong", either as a soul or blues depending on the genre. They become blocked from a deserved recognition for their music, because it is not allowed to reach the listener.
For that reason the glittering diamonds remains in the American South undetected for a larger audience, to the great frustration for them, but also for us. But we do the best we can to break down the barriers. Jefferson presents as the first established magazine, one of the genre's finest female singers, Toni Green.
Your background ...
I was born in Memphis on September 3. My parents were Bobby Jean and Tommy Lee Green. My father was a jazz musician. He played trumpet and sax. I grew up surrounded by jazz. As a little girl, I wanted to be Aretha Franklin. But artists like Ella Fitzgerald were still important for me. If you come to my show you can hear elements from all these influences. My children are adults now and obtaining education and doing great. I now live as a single, but I hope to find the right one.
But you who are so attractive ...
It scares away the guys. They are afraid of facing emotional disadvantage. I started singing at the end of the 60’. My first recording I made in 1969 in Willie Mitchell's studio for Hi. Al Green, Teenie Hodges, all were there. I had a group, Imported Moods, along with my cousin Elvitt Hambrick Jr. The song was What Have You Done To My Heart. It was produced by Willie Mitchell and Carl Smith, who wrote Higher And Higher for Jackie Wilson. I sounded like a chipmunk. I was just a little girl then. I then did a recording, Hey, Aretha! on Bowgat around 1971. It was Gene "Bowleg" Millers label.
What happened between the 70s and your records now?
I grew up! As a cild you want to become a singer, but then you have to gain an insight on how to proceed. When you first time write a poem, you do not know how to do. It is something you have to learn. I started as 17-year-old  touring as a background singer for Isaac Hayes and Luther Ingram. I worked as a background vocalist with many artists and taught me to sing correctly. Each artist had his ideas. I learned a lot. I've sung ever since. I cannot stop.
I then moved to Louisville, Kentucky, starting with radio and TV jobs. I wrote among other things jingles. I love to write jingles, it is so easy for me. I have written for Chevron, Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonalds. I started doing jingles in 1984. I have also worked with education for disabled children.
When I moved back to Memphis, I made my first CD, Mixed Emotions, for Quinton Claunch. Then I did three songs on a compilation, Beauty And The Beast, on Johnny Vincent label Avanti. Then I met Mike Haralambos from England and did Strong Enough and Southern Soul Music for his label Good Time Records. And now I have More Love.
When I came back to recording in the late 90s, I had to go into the genre appealing to people here, ie. southern soul, although I felt it is not really my style. I choose what was viable. I stayed in that style up till More Love. Then I got the full control and it represents a shift in terms of style.
I am really soprano with the same high position such as Fontella Bass and Diana Ross. On my first CDs, however, I sang in a lower tone.
How has the music changed from the beginning to now?
Not so much for me, actually. What comes from the heart, reaches the heart. I never wanted to change too much. I can build between the old and new. I have both Motown and hip-hop elements on my last record. I try to maintain what I am, not to lose me.
If you compare with your latest CD, More Love, it must have sounded different in the late 60.
There is a difference, mainly because I wrote and produced More Love myself. In the 60's I was instructed as the little girl I was by other producers. Now, I had a chance to choose my means of expression. I have actually wanted to do so for a long time.
Sheba Potts-Wright said in my interview with her that you were more of a jazz singer ...
Everything is in me: blues, r&b, jazz, gospel, c&w, and even a little hip hop. Many did not know how they would categorize me because my style includes most styles. They did not know if I would be in blues and r&b-tray. The style is called southern soul to have a common concept for all artists who were like me.
You do not have a background in gospel ...
I actually have a gospel background. My mom played in church and I grew up going to church. In my younger days, I tried to be Aretha Franklin and others who did r&b. Gospel came into my style later on. On each disc I made, there is the gospel influence. On More Love is a song, Mr. Wonderful, which is a gospel. I have the ambition that every disc will have a gospel song. You will hear more of that in the future.
Is More Love the first record you made yourself entirely?
After my contract for two years with the UK company and the two records for them, I decided to see what I could do myself. I wrote all the songs in less than four days.
Some songs have a very personal touch ...
They say that I am a very personal songwriter. I write about except my own experiences, also about my friends' experiences. My job is to tell a story. More Love is about that, a modern story, but I can also write about yesterday.
It should have been released on my own label, but as I do not have any distribution, I went to Malaco. Malaco only distributed the record. They didn’t have anything to do with the production of the record.
How often do you perform?
Here in the States very rarely. I do however much radio and television jingles, which I also write. You can hear a lot of jingles not recognizing that’s me doing them.
That is why I have acquired an agent. I believe in the future and that everything will change for the better. I appreciate what other artists do, but I'm a little different from the other soul blues artists. I have a band with seven members including three background singers. I will sing at St. Valentines Day. [According to a later phone call from Toni: It was a great success at the club The Bass on Jackson Avenue in Memphis. She had a great band. Two blues singers were also included. The house was at the end absolutely packed].
How did Poretta get hold of you?
It was through an interview they heard my name. I sent my records to them, because I knew that all the big blues artists have been there, including Rufus Thomas, who was a good friend of mine. Then they rang. It was wonderful to get there. They really liked me. It was so different with all appreciation. I have now been there several times. Last time they had a band from San Francisco to accompany me.
How do you see the southern soul scene of today, is it up or down?
We should start getting paid and we should get recognition. There are so many artists who perform without getting decent payment. I think the promoters and booking agents also have begun to pull back. We should try to get our music appreciated and get the artists on the Grammy and other awards. But if it does not happen, I will still try to do my best.
We have difficulties to get on the radio. The stations do not accept our records as we get too categorized. It is not fair to us older artists, as young artists just copying us are put forward, such as Amy Winehouse. We really appreciate when someone cares about us. Many of us are willing to die for their music.
Many of the young artists do the same thing as we. Isaac Hayes worked with Alicia Keys on her first cd, which was very roots based. But they have better marketing than we. Or R. Kelly, but he gets more money for production. In the southern soul, we do not have that much money. You have to try to get out of the lockups.
Do you think that sex songs represent a barrier to public acceptance?
I have a song, G-String And A Toothbrush. When my daughter heard the song the first time, she came to me and said that it was not me. Then I began to think. Novelty songs about sex are not for me. I try to take another route and bring life experiences into my songs.
I do not want to be associated with that type of lyric. If that is the requirement to get a hit, I will not do them anyway. It is ridiculous when older male singers are on the stage boasting about their skills, as we all know that age has already taken its toll. For me, it is about self-respect.
In many soul blues texts, women are the strong and the men weak. Do you agree?
I have not thought about it, but you have a point. But many women do not like the lyrics of stealing each other's men ...
My favorite is Ella Fitzgerald of older female singers. I like jazz in the old school. Aretha Franklin is still my favorite regardless of era. I like Chaka Khan. My absolute favorite was my cousin Elvitt Hambrick Jr. He taught me to sing. Together with him we sang all kinds of voices.
The next CD ...
It will be lyrically like More Love. I was very encouraged by the reception More Love got. It got me back to the studio. But I want to record with real instruments. I do not like synthesizers. Then I have to find a company that publishes it.
I am so glad you wanted to see me ... really honored.
Anders Lillsunde / Jefferson #156