JAKI GRAHAM: ‘The Studio Albums: 1985-1998’ (Edsel)

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Birmingham singer, the super-soulful Jaki Graham, was a regular visitor to the UK hit parade between 1985 and 1995 and even cracked the US R&B charts on several occasions (in fact, her daring 1994 retread of Chaka Khan & Rufus’ ‘Ain’t Nobody’ reached pole position on Billboard’s Hot Dance Club Play chart). Now 58, Jaki is still performing and recording (her last album was 2012’s well-received ‘For Sentimental Reasons’ on the Cherry Pop label) but this laudable, newly-curated, collection revisits arguably the most fertile phase of her career when she was scoring hits, recording regularly and had a more visible public profile.

Spanning thirteen years, ‘The Studio Albums’ contains seven albums presented in chronological order in mini-LP sleeves in a compact box format and is accompanied by a substantial booklet comprising a lengthy liner note essay that features observations from Jaki, herself, as well as pertinent quotes from key players in her musical life (including producers/songwriters Derek Bramble and Errol Henry). Although ’80s production values (think synths, sequencers and drum machines) aren’t as attractive to the ear as they were back in the decade that spawned them, they don’t  impede our appreciation of Jaki’s early work and actually, the music holds up well four decades down the line. Her debut, ‘Heaven Knows,’ was Jaki’s first long player from 1985, and featured the wonderful ‘Round And Around,’ and the first fo two hit duets with David Grant, a remake of the Spinners’ ‘Could It Be I’m Falling in Love’ (the other was ‘Mated,’ also included in this collection). Helmed by the dependable Derek Bramble, it was an album that showed that the UK could produce credible soul acts that were as good as anything that America had to offer.

1986’s ‘Breaking Away,’ a similarly strong album produced by Bramble, proved that Jaki’s initial success was not a flash in the pan but when ‘From Now On’ came out in 1989, the singer’s commercial stock began to gradually slide. With Bramble taking a less prominent role and a cadre of outside producer enlisted to help (David Gamson, David Pack, Mantonik, Pete Wingfield and Richard Burgess) it was less cohesive and not as musically satisfying. The fact that it was not as successful as her two previous albums led to her parting company with EMI.

Five relatively fallow years as a solo artist passed before Jaki released her next LP, 1994’s ‘Real Life,’ for Japanese company, Avex, from which the previously mentioned ‘Ain’t Nobody’ blew up big in the clubs. The set contained several other covers – including Prince’s ‘Do Me Baby’ and Joyce Sims’ ‘Come Into My Life’ – as well as remakes of Jaki’s old hits, ‘Set Me Free’ and ‘Breaking Away.’ The album sold well and revitalised Jaki’s career, resulted in three more well-produced albums for Avex – ‘Hold On,’ ‘Rhythm Of Life’ and ‘My Life.’ Receiving their first official release in the UK, these are included in the set with tracks like ‘Don’t Keep Me Waiting,’ ‘Hold On’ and a jaunty uptempo revamp of Vanessa William’s ‘Save The Best For Last’ illustrating how Jaki embraced house-influenced dance music which helped to keep her name on the radar of club goers.

With a tempting pre-order price of £21.99 on Amazon’s UK website – the box set is officially released on Friday 10th July – this well-assembled package certainly represents good value for money and in terms of its presentation and attention to detail puts major record labels to shame. More importantly, if offers a vivid musical portrait of one of Great Britain’s finest, and sadly underrated, female singers.

CD (4/5)