Bluesbreakers: Reuben James Richards

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Back in 1994, Reuben James Richards, then just Reuben James, released his debut single Hold On My Heart.

Equal parts effusive gospel, gutsy blues and deep soul, it was produced and co-written by Dave Williams, the one-time Stax song plugger, and featured blaring horns from the Muscle Shoals brass section and heavenly background harmonies by Rhodes, Chalmers and Rhodes of Al Green and Hi Records fame. It caught the ear of Atlantic Records producer Jerry Wexler. It was Wexler, of course, who had teamed Aretha Franklin with the Muscle Shoals brass section back in 1967 at Rick Hall’s Fame Studios. He knew a good thing when he heard it, and declared Hold On My Heart a great thing. But sadly, due to a lack of promotion, the single sank without trace.

“We recorded several demos and picked Hold On My Heart to record and release,” explains Richards today. “Back then there were mainly only major labels signing artists and we just couldn’t get the interest and finance to complete an album.” Richards kept singing and building a cult following and 20 years later, with the help of Dave Williams, he has finally recorded that album.

About Time was put down in The Grange, Williams’ residential studio in the unlikely environs of Norfolk.

“It took a couple of years, on and off, getting the songs together, getting the musicians all together at the same time,” Richards says. “But there was a magical vibe throughout the making of it.”

Produced by Williams, who also had a hand in the writing of the album’s 10 songs, it places Richards in a southern soul setting, his voice channelling Otis Redding and Ray Charles.

“It’s all about respecting and being influenced by the great soul music of the past, but trying to move forward too,” he says. Part of the moving forward comes from Williams’ approach to producing, “how he uses a combination of vintage analogue and high-end digital equipment. With Dave it’s all about feel and performance. He’ll show me the song, the melody, the lyrics. But then he’ll expect me to put my stamp on it. We’ll do multiple takes until it sits just right. He’ll then compile a composite from the best takes. I’ve learned a lot from Dave; his amazing attention to detail, his patience; the fact he’s not afraid of trying new ideas.”

Born in the Caribbean island of St Vincent to a musical family – his mother sang in church, his father played guitar – Richards discovered blues and soul on the radio. “I always asked myself why these singers made me feel so bad and yet left me feeling so good at the same time.”

You could ask the same of About Time. This is blues and soul for the 21st century and it sure leaves you feeling good.

About Time is out now on Jigsaw.

INFLUENCES

“Growing up in St Vincent and being in such close proximity to the US I heard Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and later Otis Redding on the radio. They sounded magical to my ears and what I took from them are their abilities to connect with the audience and go straight to their hearts and souls.”