Ralph “Soul” Jackson at Martyrs’ | Concert preview and interview
A band of Chicagoans heads to Alabama to record the first album in Ralph “Soul” Jackson’s five-decade career.
In the 1960s, vocalist Ralph Jackson earned the nickname “Soul.” He delivered the goods on just a few singles executed with ace musicians at the legendary FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. But when John Ciba, local owner of the Rabbit Factory label and the Logan Hardware record store, decided to produce the first full-length album in Jackson’s five-decade career, he knew that to make Ralph happy, it had to be a bedroom recording.
“We wanted to capture as much of the sound that he wanted,” Ciba says. “And what he wanted was to do things the way he does them.” In April 2009, Ciba and a handful of Chicago musicians journeyed to Phenix City, Alabama, just across the Chattahoochee River from Columbus, Georgia, to lay down the tracks at Ralph “Soul” Jackson’s Studio Shack—a.k.a. the singer’s home, which has two bedrooms converted into a recording studio and a control room. For years Jackson has been recording his own material in this space, typically playing all the instruments and multi-tracking himself. Some of this output became demos for the newly released Alabama Love Man.
“I’m used to being my own engineer,” says the veteran performer, who, before adolescents gained access to cheap computer audio programs, also used to do steady business recording rap acts. “At first I wasn’t sure about having someone else do it, but it really freed me up. It was exciting.”
During the three days of recording, Jackson, 65, ran the sessions and coached the Northerners through his compositions. An unexpected cold snap and constant showers meant that the visitors rarely got outside. Everyone was so cold during the sessions that they would turn on a gas heater between takes. Bassist Brendan Joyce took ill. Jackson’s ex-girlfriend, Nadine, insisted on having the entire crew over for home-cooked meals every night of their visit, sitting them down for pot roast, corn bread and desserts.
Yet the story is not all stereotypes of Southern hospitality. “On an earlier visit, I bought 4,000 45s at a flea market,” Ciba says. “I left most of them down there. Ralph brought them to [Nadine’s] house. So while we’re eating chicken and biscuits and mac and cheese, we’re listening to a beat-up copy of Motörhead’s ‘Ace of Spades!’ ”
The final product bears little of Lemmy’s influence, but those expecting cookie-cutter retro soul might be surprised by the sounds. Jackson imbued the album with unexpected country elements. Ciba recalls Jackson trying to coax a friend who played on the session, causing his buddy to declare, “I don’t want to play country music!” Additional work and post-production in Chicago provided some contemporary polish, too. Todd Rittman is credited as coproducer with Ciba for his engineering, mixing, mastering and instrumental contributions. “I didn’t make the trip to Alabama, but you can really hear what was happening,” says Rittman, who helped with the project while completing an album with his art-rock band Dead Rider. “You can hear Ralph in there conducting it.”
Ralph will be “in there” conducting it again when he plays Chicago this week with the band. Though the finished product is a lot different than the tracks he would have made on his own, he loves the album. He expresses hope that it makes some money for Ciba and he has no problem with the lengthy wait from recording to release. “I’m used to being patient, “ Jackson says. “It takes a long time to record a song when you’re by yourself.”
Ralph “Soul” Jackson plays Martyrs’ Saturday 23.