TONI GREEN might appear to be an unfamiliar new name on the soul scene to some onlookers but in truth, she’s a mature, experienced singer who boasts a truly impressive musical pedigree that goes back to the genre’s golden age. She toured with Southern soul legends Isaac Hayes, Luther Ingram and Millie Jackson in the ’70s, was a member of producer Willie Mitchell’s Hi Records’ stable during the same decade and, if that wasn’t enough, one of her many cousins was part of the Stax Records harmony group, the Mad Lads.
Green was steeped in music from a young age. “It was in my DNA,” explains the seasoned, Memphis-born chanteuse. “My father was a singer and his voice was similar to Nat ‘King’ Cole. Then there was a family gospel group, The Jones Boys, who were my cousins, and another cousin, John Garry Williams, was in the R&B group, The Mad Lads. My aunts and other cousins were also all singers, singing at family reunions. They were all terrific and actually if you could hear some of our relatives sing you’d probably boo me.”
Green came under the aegis of Memphis’ legendary producer, Willie Mitchell, as part of a group called Imported Moods in 1970 (a quartet comprising Green alongside her cousin Elvritt Hambrick, plus Patricia Love and Leroy Broadnax) and after that, she provided background vocals for Luther Ingram, whom she went on the road with alongside bald-domed superstar Isaac Hayes during the latter’s ‘Shaft’ period. She guested with the group Lanier in the ’80s – produced by Gene ‘Bowlegs’ Miller, a longtime friend of Toni’s – but it wasn’t until a decade-and-a-half later, though, in 1998 when Green – who earned money writing and singing TV and radio jingles to make a living – got to make her first solo album, ‘Mixed Emotions’ for Quinton Claunch’s Soultrax label.
Three more albums followed in the noughties which largely – and undeservedly – fell on deaf ears but now the singer has joined forces with super-funky French R&B band, MALTED MILK (pictured above with Toni Green) and recorded a superlative album-length collaboration titled ‘Milk & Green.’ Comprising strong original material and inspired covers (especially Mary J Blige’s ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself’), the album is a stunning showcase for Green’s vocal artistry. Ahead of the album’s October 30th release and a concert scheduled at London’s Hoxton Square Bar & Kitchen on Wednesday 25th November, Toni Green talked at length to SJF’s Charles Waring…
What’s the response been to ‘Milk & Green’ so far?
So far it’s been quite fantastic. I’m excited because it’s a new endeavour and a chance to experience some great guys who are very talented and to put my experience with that by putting the young and the old together …or the young and the new (laughs).
It’s an interesting collaboration given that you’re from different parts of the world. What circumstances first brought you together with Malted Milk?
Actually it started with a gentleman by the name of Mr Sebastian Danchin who came to me in Memphis to talk with me about such a project. He had been trying to get with me a few years earlier but he was waiting for the right opportunity and when it availed itself he came to Memphis and he talked with me about it and he left an album by Malted Milk. I didn’t get a chance to really listen to it at that time because I was so busy and I said okay, they look like they probably can play but who knows? I was so shocked because they were so talented when I finally listened to the CD. The next thing I know we were booking flights coming from Memphis to Nantes, France, and there it was. Some material was sent over and we all selected together what we thought would be great to put on the CD.
You’re playing in London next month. What you be serving up for the audience on that night?
I’m going to serve a little bit of my world. Toni Green mixed with the great world of Malted Milk. We’re just going to put some funk and some fire and some soul and blues in there and I know you guys get quite a bit of that often but I think that we have a different kind of a twist on it. I think ours this a little more…You know in rural areas in your homeland when the potatoes just taste so good because they come from a certain ground? I’m coming from that ground and Malted Milk are coming from their ground so we’re going to mix that thing together, honey, and let me tell you something: just hold onto the seats of your pants. Okay? (Laughs).
I’ll put a strong belt on. That’s a great analogy because you’re putting some Memphis soul stew in the mix, aren’t you?
Right! Because I grew up with those guys, with Willie Mitchell, Bowlegs Miller, the Memphis Horns, Al Green and the Hi Records recording band with Teenie Hodges. So they’re like my roots, I had no other choice but to learn that, and then there was Stax, I learned from everybody at Stax, Isaac Hayes and all of them, so it’s just in my DNA to give what’s just in me (laughs).
Is this a one-off project do you think or will you collaborate again?
We’re hoping to see what the audience thinks. I’ve already written several songs and so have they (the band) so we’re ready for whatever may come. We’re excited to do it actually.
Your cousins were in the Mad Lads…
Oh yeah, I used to follow them. I was the only girl following all these guys, you know, but they never brushed me off. I talked to John Gary (Williams) the other day. We’re still quite close. They’re inspiring and I’m so happy to be a part of them and the Bar-Kays and like I said, just being here (in Memphis) with all these great people I think I was really blessed to come from this part of my life.
When you were growing up in Memphis was it an exciting place to be because of the music there?
Oh absolutely, we had so many wonderful people. We had the pick of the litter because I was so surrounded by everybody, like the Bar-kays, the Mad Lads, Luther Ingram and Isaac Hayes, we were all very good friends… So many people that I drew from.
And was gospel music an important part of your upbringing?
Right. Actually my mother was a missionary in the Church of God in Christ, which is like the sanctified part of it, and my grandmother and all of them were Baptists and I’m going to tell you something, Charles, I wasn’t a little angel – I didn’t want to stay in church (laughs). I just wanted to hear what they had to sing and then wanted to go down the street and get a Cherry Coke and come back when they were done.
So you wanted to listen to the music but not the message?
I didn’t listen to it, no, I really did not. I’m going to tell you the truth so my roots are not like that but as I’ve grown older I began to understand and have an appreciation for it now.
Was there any singer when you were younger that you wanted to be like and emulate?
Well, since my dad was a jazz singer there was always Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday, Etta James and Ella Fitzgerald, and then my cousins were into R&B so I had the R&B side along with Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight and all of those people and then my other cousins were into gospel singers like Mahalia Jackson and all those so, I just put them all together. I loved them all because they were just fabulous to me to hear them and to know their stories.
What was your first professional gig?
My first professional gig was at my mother’s social club. My brother and myself sang the song ‘Let It Be Me’ by Jerry Butler and Betty Everett and we got a standing ovation. I think we got one because my mom probably would have thrown a shoe at them if they didn’t stand up. (Laughs). But that was the first really big bite that we got and then from there, we would do some little things and then, of course, I pursued music as a career. As I said, I have people in my family who can really sing but they didn’t pursue it like I did. I think I was just the one who loved it a little bit more.
I remember that you were actually part of a group called Imported Moods (pictured left).
That was my cousins again. Imported Moods was the next step from the backyard functions and family gatherings and we went on to do our first record with the great Willie Mitchell. How about that?
What was Willie like to work with?
He was really, really strict but a very nice guy. In the beginning, I was so young it was just fun and exciting for me to be there. I didn’t know the quality of what was around me like the Hi recording band, Al Green, Ann Peebles and all those guys. I didn’t really get it, but in later years, I was the last artist that Willie recorded. So how about him being my first and me being his last? Wow! He told me before he passed: “I want to help you get this out. I want you to do this because I’m so very proud of you.” He was a genius. Let me tell you, there’s nobody like him. Nobody else. No matter who he used, he knew how to pull it out of them and he knew how to get that sound so, he was just phenomenal. Such a precious person that we’ve lost. And then I worked with the Memphis Horns with Gene Bowlegs Miller and Willie’s brother, James Mitchell, who was also with the horns, so I was among some great people. I must admit I was really blessed.
It must have been a very competitive musical environment in Memphis back then.
Because it was so competitive, we would go to different places and different clubs and compete in talent events and even if you were on a record label you had to be the best, so to come out of Memphis and go to the rest of the world you had a playground of getting it together before you got out. I think that’s what’s different now. Most of the artists now are just coming out. We were honed into being the best.
You mentioned Isaac Hayes there. You worked with him. How did that come about?
I was so familiar with him because my cousins were at Stax and I had been at Hi and so I could go back and forth between the two but there was a club called The Living Room. The Living Room was the place where all of the big artists, stars, or whatever would come and I was with the group Imported Moods, which was my cousins, Elvritt Hambrick, Leroy Broadneck, and Patricia Love, and Isaac came to the club and of course, like everybody else, on that night he was getting ready for his big tour, the Shaft tour. So he needed someone else to do his backing and to be a part of the show so he really actually wanted us but my cousins couldn’t go because they were married. I wasn’t. I was the youngest and like the baby in the group, and Pat had responsibilities, so I was the only one who was actually free to go and so they encouraged me and pushed me out the door to go but I didn’t want to go because I was so scared. But I wound up going on mixing with another group out of Texas, who were the Jones girls, Cookie and her sister, and we just came together and instead of going with Isaac, which at that particular time we were taking so long, he gathered Pat Lewis and Hot Buttered Soul. We wound up going with Luther Ingram so we were like the entourage. It was the Luther Ingram-Isaac Hayes tour.
Who did you learn the most from on that tour – Isaac or Luther? (Luther Ingram, pictured left)
I learned a lot from them both but mostly I learned from Luther Ingram because his voice was phenomenal. ‘If Loving You Is Wrong, I Don’t Want To Be Right’ really didn’t give him the texture or the tone that you would get at his live concerts or during rehearsal sessions that we had. He was a beautiful man and his beautiful voice was just phenomenal. He would teach us, and he would say, “I don’t have to worry about Toni because she’s going to do everything she can to make this okay and right. And I always remembered what he said. “She’s not worried about the other things, she’s going to give her best on that stage.” And so I think that carried over with me from what he said.
You also worked with Millie Jackson.
Actually, how Millie and I worked was through Gene Bowlegs Miller. I didn’t work with her per se as one would think. I was on shows opening up for her. I didn’t do background vocals. I had my own thing. It was the great Millie Jackson and it was me, the little Toni Green, opening up for her with my own set with the Memphis Horns, and that’s how that worked. That was in the ’70s and early ’80s.
What was Millie like then? How did she treat her support acts?
Well, when I first met Millie she curiously looked at me and then she came back out of the dressing room and looked at me again, and I won’t say what she said, but she said it and I just laughed so hard it was so funny. But that girl could sing.
Having worked in the background with so many big names did you feel that your own solo career would never get off the ground?
I didn’t really think about it like that. I actually didn’t even notice at that particular time how blessed and fortunate enough I was to know people like Little Milton and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and all of these other great artists. It just didn’t hit me until later on after they had gone or were about to expire. I just didn’t get it like that. But, now, on recollection, yeah I see it. I was just going to do my thing like Luther Ingram said. I’m just going to do Toni and I didn’t think about they were going to overshadow me, I was just going to give it the best because I came from a competitive city. My bringing up was competitive with all these groups, and all these people.
You also recorded for another Memphis legend, Quinton Claunch, didn’t you?
I loved Quinton Claunch, yes. (Laughs). He was a character, oh my God! We argued every day but he loved me because he said, once again like Luther Ingram, “she’s going to do what she’s going to do but she’s going to give you all she’s got.” When it came to recording, he was a genius as well. He was a very talented man and that came about, Charles, when I came back to Memphis from Louisville where I’d done a lot of jingles. It was a dry spot for me and I came back actually to take care of my father who had got sick. And when I came back there was not an avenue for me to do shows and clubs. All the doors were closed. I decided I needed to get me a record deal and I chose Quinton. I went to see him along with someone else and when I went with him with that person he chose to work with me and that’s how that happened.
And you’ve done several solo albums, haven’t you, since then?
Yes, I have. I try to keep it going for myself. I refuse to give up so I start writing for myself and started trying to produce, trying to do anything that I could do to keep me out there. Even when the doors were shut on me I persevered, and I wanted to made sure I kept doing. I didn’t have much money but I took the little money that I had, Charles, just to try to keep it going as much as I could because that’s what you have to do. You can’t give up. And I didn’t want to give up on myself.
So how does this new project that you’re doing with Malted Milk compare with what you’ve done before?
It’s a new venture. Since it’s a baby product, I call it, I think that we were extremely fortunate to be able to great things out of it because of who Malted Milk are and some of the courtesy writings of other artists. I think we came out with a great project and if we get the opportunity to do the next one, I think it’s going to be greater because now we know each other, and we know what each other brings to the table, and I think we’ll give it the best. I think it will be even greater than it was. It’s just being given the opportunity. We’re going to see what happens.
Tell me about Malted Milk.
Arnaud is the leader of Malted Milk. That’s his baby, that’s his project. I often tell them, “well, now you’ve got a woman in this group, and let me explain it to you, I’m a southern girl. And being a southern girl, let me tell you something, I am my boss. (Laughs). And then I’m older than you guys so I have to tell you guys…” I made them crack up and they loved it. Then I said I will get my belt out and spank everybody. (Laughs).
So they know where they stand then with you?
Yes, they do know and they said: “you’re just like Jackie Brown.” (The character Pam Grier plays in Quentin Tarantino’s film of the same name). I said yes, I have that kind of thing because I come from that world. I’m a stickler about codes and I’m a stickler about being on that stage and bringing some fire to it.
And you’ve worked with the best as well, haven’t you?
Yes, and they put it in me. They made me do these things so it’s their fault, okay? So please put that down as their fault.
Do you have a favourite song on the album?
I’m quite passionate about ‘I Can Do Bad All By Myself’ (originally by Mary J Blige) because it talks to me about letting women know in this world of abuse, and domestic abuse, you can make choices for yourself and so I stand behind that quite a bit. I also really like ‘Deep Inside’ (a song written by Malted Milk) and I know it was scary to do in the beginning because it almost had a racial connotation underneath there: I really like to know who I am. And so I didn’t know if this world was going to accept that, and what they were going to think about it, but when I started to get involved in the song, Pierre Humeau, who is our trumpet player, was just so adamant about me doing it. He loved the song and he and Sebastian kept talking to me about it and as I started to dive a little bit deeper into it, I began to really appreciate it and I wasn’t afraid anymore. It has a message: underneath it all, we’re all the same.
MILK & GREEN IS RELEASED VIA NUEVA ONDA RECORDS ON OCTOBER 30TH.
CATCH TONI GREEN AND MALTED MILK LIVE AT HOXTON’S SQUARE BAR & KITCHEN ON WEDNESDAY NOVEMBER 25TH
Read the album review here: http://www.soulandjazzandfunk.com/reviews/3624-malted-milk-and-toni-green-milk-and-green-nueva-onda.html