Morgan James broke into the mainstream in 2014 with a blistering cover of Prince’s “Call My Name,” included on her debut album Hunter. But the track, which brought James’s soul music stylings to a wider audience, might never have happened.
“When I got signed by Epic, I recorded the song even though they told me not to, because they knew that we would never get approval,” she says. “They said, ‘This is amazing, it’s unbelievable, we love it, [but] there’s no way we’re going to be able to put it on the record.'”
The problem was Prince. A notoriously finicky songwriter, he was reticent to allow cover versions of his music. So Epic released Hunter without the track, but a conversation between chairman L.A. Reid and James turned things around.
“One day he just said, ‘You know what, I’m just going to call Prince’s assistant,'” James says. “Five minutes later Prince called him back and said, ‘I love it.’ Pretty much the next day we pulled the old record [and] added ‘Call My Name’ to the new version.”
A self-described “little white girl from Pocatello,” James has transitioned from the classrooms of Juilliard to the stages of Broadway — in The Addams Family, Godspell, and Motown: the Musical, among others — and now to the center of an extensive tour to support her new release, Reckless Abandon. Drawing on influences as diverse as D’Angelo, Joni Mitchell, and her one-time instructor Barbara Cook, James continues to refine her vocal and songwriting talents.
“It’s a long journey, but it has to be inspired by something,” she says. “[I] became obsessed with Nina Simone, my gateway into soul. And from there I immersed myself with all these other inspiring singers and musicians. That’s what informs what I love, the music that I love to make.”
It’s a confidence that resonates throughout Reckless Abandon, no more so than on funkified opener, “Up In Smoke.” But that’s not to say James intends to pigeonhole herself into a particular genre. Just ask her about Martha Wash.
“Martha Wash is one of my favorite voices ever,” she says. “I keep saying to everybody, ‘Will someone put me on the hook of a rap song, please?’ I would love to be the voice on a dance record or a hip-hop record, anything like that. Because I grew up with those. You don’t forget all those hooks that Martha Wash sings.”
Morgan James appears Thursday, May 18 at The Hamilton Live, 600 14th St. NW. Tickets are $17.25 to $39.75. Call 202-787-1000, or visit live.thehamiltondc.com.
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André Hereford covers arts and entertainment for Metro Weekly. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @here4andre.
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