The Blues Redemption Of Janiva Magness On the streets by age 16, Magness had experienced more sadness than most do in a lifetime. But after a memorable Otis Rush concert, and seven of her own albums, she's emerged on the other side of 50 as a powerful R&B singer.
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The Blues Redemption Of Janiva Magness

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The Blues Redemption Of Janiva Magness

The Blues Redemption Of Janiva Magness

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Born in Detroit, Janiva Magness grew up to the sounds of Motown. By the time she was 16, she had experienced more sadness than most do in a lifetime. Music became her outlet, and she emerged a powerful performer. Now in her 50s, she has just come out with her seventh R&B album. This is "What Love Will Make You Do."

(Soundbite of Janiva Magness's "That's What Love Will Make You Do")

Ms. JANIVA MAGNESS (R&B Singer): (Singing) When I hear your name, start to shake inside When I see you stroll I lose my self-control. That's what love will do for you. That's what love will make you do.

WERTHEIMER: Janiva Magness' new release is "What Love Will Do." She joins us here in our studios. Welcome.

Ms. MAGNESS: How are you doing, Linda?

WERTHEIMER: Very well, thank you. Much of the music on this album seems to come out of your own personal biography. You had a terribly hard childhood. You lost both of your parents to suicide by the time you were 16, foster care, on the streets. You seemed to be headed to a very dark place, but I have read that an Otis Rush performance in Minneapolis pulled you out of that. Could you tell us that story?

Ms. MAGNESS: There were a series of pivotal moments for me. One of the biggest ones musically was that night I hitchhiked across Minneapolis - because that's how I got around town - and went in to see Otis Rush, who was somebody - my friends had just said you've got to see this guy. Check him out.

There was something that happened to me that night. And, you know, Otis was such - is such a vibrant musical force. Everything he played with such complete commitment, you know, no half step in anything. And I knew when I left that club that morning in the wee hours that whatever it was that happened to me that night, I had to have more of that experience. I needed that again because it was as if it had opened up a piece of me that I didn't even know was there..

WERTHEIMER: Let's just talk about the way some of the stuff comes out in the music. Let's hear one of the classic blues cuts called "One Heartache Too Late."

(Soundbite of Janiva Magness's "One Heartache Too Late")

Ms. MAGNESS: (Singing) You could have had a good thing Could have had it all. With a lot of love babe. You kept stepping across. Through the pain and the hurt, babe. I hung in there with you. And the day you walked out on me, boy. That was the final abuse.

WERTHEIMER: Tell me about this one.

Ms. MAGNESS: "One Heartache Too Late" is originally recorded by the great Dorothy Moore, and I just loved this song. I've certainly been that woman that has been having that conversation with that man. You know, you just - you pushed me too far, and we're done. You know, drawing from the truth of my experience, drawing from that landscape. It really serves the music for me.

Ms. MAGNESS: (Singing) By now you've burned too many bridges. Baby, I cannot cross. Ain't no way be there, ain't no way for you to get back. For you to get back, get back what you love.

Ms. MAGNESS: It's amazing to have come as far as I have and have the opportunity that I have today to do - this is what I do for a living, singing songs.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WERTHEIMER: What a great gig. But you didn't quite exactly have a breakthrough moment where you realized you were going to be a singer. I mean...


WERTHEIMER: You started out, as I understand it, interning in St. Paul with a music producer?

Ms. MAGNESS: I realized, or I thought I did. I had one of those 22-year-old epiphanies, where I said, well, you know, you're not any good as a singer. You're never going to make it as a singer. Get over it. So I'll become a recording engineer, and I'll show them, whoever they were. And then I hustled my way into an internship at a recording studio in St. Paul, a little place called Sullivan Sound Recording. And the state-of-the-art in those days was the Scully eight-track machine.

WERTHEIMER: We had a few of those around here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAGNESS: Yes, yes, a fine sounding machine still to this day. I ended up kind of coming back in the back door, ended up getting told that I was either going to step into the studio to do background vocals late at night on a songwriter's demo, or I was going to lose my job if I didn't get in there and sing. And that sort of begat other sessions, which begat other work, kind of snowballed from there.

WERTHEIMER: There is one song on this album that talks a little bit about the pressures of being a singer in the music industry. It's called, "You Sound Pretty Good."

(Soundbite of Janiva Magness's "You Sound Pretty Good")

Ms. MAGNESS: (Singing) You sound pretty good, but you just don't sell. You've got to wheel, deal, I'm going through a real dry spell. I need to see numbers, I need to see crowds. You ain't have the sweat 'cause I carried up till now. But I can't get water, ah, ah, from an empty well. You sound pretty good, but you just don't sell.

WERTHEIMER: I carried you up 'til now.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAGNESS: Oh, yes.

WERTHEIMER: These are words you've heard, I guess.

Ms. MAGNESS: They are words I've heard. I told the story from the bandstand just the other night which was, when I was 24, I actually had a big, big record executive from MCA tell me, you know, you really do sound pretty good, but you're too old.


Ms. MAGNESS: At 24, you're just too old. We need somebody a lot younger than you, honey. You're just too old. And you know, I've heard that, well, for a very long time. Now, I want to say, thank God I landed in rhythm and blues. It's one of the only genres where, as I age, I become more valuable.

WERTHEIMER: One of the things that I was interested in is that your husband is all over this record, as well.

Ms. MAGNESS: My husband, Jeff Turmes, on bass, also saxophone, also some guitar, piano, and banjo on this particular CD.

WERTHEIMER: Does your husband go with you on this thing that you call the short bus, that you and the band travel in?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MAGNESS: No, no. We worked together for the first six years that we were together and then fortunately, I married a man that sat me down and said, you know, had the, honey, we've got to talk conversation. And he said, you know, I really want a wife. I don't want a business partner. So I'm giving you notice on the band instead of giving you notice on the marriage.


Ms. MAGNESS: And, you know, he was right.

WERTHEIMER: Well now, there is this track on here that I like a lot. It's a Bill Withers cover called "I Don't Want You on My Mind," and I suspect that what we hear is your husband opening this piece of music.

Ms. MAGNESS: I think it is.

(Soundbite of Janiva Magness's "I Don't Want You on My Mind")

Ms. MAGNESS: Oh, yes. It's dark and strange

Ms. MAGNESS: (Singing) I don't want you on my mind all the time.

WERTHEIMER: He's playing both those instruments, right?

Ms. MAGNESS: Guitar and bass on this, that's right, absolutely.

(Singing) I don't want no lonely nights that get me crying. I found out I don't get nowhere with weakness if I dream about you. Well, I just wake up knowing that I got to do without you.

WERTHEIMER: So this sounds like another song that talks to you.

Ms. MAGNESS: That's like the cutting criteria for me for choosing songs. I really don't care for the most part what genre it comes from. The question is, is there truth there for me, and is there something I can bring to the song that will again make that connection?

WERTHEIMER: Janiva Magness, her latest album is "What Love Will Do." Thank you very much for this.

Ms. MAGNESS: Thank you.

WERTHEIMER: You can hear complete tracks from Janiva Magness' new album online at the music site of This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. Scott Simon comes back next week. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Ms. MAGNESS: (Singing) I don't want you on my mind all the time. I believe that it shows a sign of weakness. I don't want no memories that keeps me cryin'. I found out, I don't get nowhere with weakness when I think about you.

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