Something is right in your soul (music) when Berry Gordy is your mentor. Upon graduating Juilliard, soul singer Morgan James performed in several Broadway productions, including Godspell, The Addams Family, and Gordy’s hit Motown: The Musical, before going solo. When the Motown founder took James under his wing, she began writing and recording her own music and released her debut, 2014’s Hunter and follow up, Reckless Abandon in 2017. James’ third album, Memphis Magnetic (Feb. 7), is her love letter to the thing she loves most: soul.
Videos by American Songwriter
Videos by American Songwriter
Written in New York City with husband, Doug Wamble, who is also James’ producer, Memphis Magnetic is more than an homage to the city’s music but a pinnacle in the singer’s career—from Juilliard to Broadway, and always circling back to soul music. “I write a lot of lyrics by myself, but I like to write and finish with other people,” James tells American Songwriter. “I love being inspired by other writers and musicians. I think it’s magical to see when peoples’ ideas come together and jump from the notebook to a song.”
On “Give You Up,” James captivates, and demands your attention belting out classic, anthemic soul she says is a “tough love” message to her younger to break free of domestic imprisonment. The video, directed by Jonah Zimmerberg-Helms, who has worked on films The Revenant and The Magnificent Seven, has James playing her younger, more naive self dating a soul-less mod mannequin, mirrored against a more mature version of herself. An homage to 1960s Mod of Twiggy and Bridget Bardot—James effortlessly reminiscent of the blonde bombshells, shots of Downtown Memphis are cut in, including a comical shot of James carrying her lifeless man on her back.
“This song is intended to open up a live show with the sass and bombastic swagger of Aretha Franklin or Ann Peebles,” says James.
Recorded first on analog tape at in Memphis Magnetic Recording, James says that every song was written specifically for the album. “It was very important to me that none of the songs be shoe-horned from another time in my life, but rather written for this record and this sound,” says James. “Doug [Wamble] and I could hear what this record was going to sound like long before we got to Memphis, and we kept that as our highest goal: the sonic authenticity.”
To keep more of Memphis Magnetic‘s authenticity intact, James pulled in other seasoned musicians like Reverend Charles Hodges and Leroy Hodges, the Hi Record rhythm section that played with Al Green and Ann Peebles, in addition to a classic Memphis string quartet and horn section, drummer George Sluppick, pianist Alvie Given, bassist Landon Moore, and organist Al Gamble.
“The band was made up of seasoned Memphis musicians, who can play soul and funk in their sleep,” says James. “To me, the records from the late ’60s and early ’70s sound so incredible, and I wanted to go back and record in the same way to try to capture some of that magic.”
Even though her family never played soul growing up, a love of great songwriting and classic music was instilled in James early on from Broadway soundtracks, and everyone from Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, Prince, and The Beatles—all a gateway to the music she devoured. became a gateway to the music she would devour. (James even released cover albums for the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ White Album in 2018 and Joni Mitchell’s Blue.)
Juilliard and Broadway were life changing for James, who says that above all, both taught her discipline. “I don’t think people understand how challenging and demanding being on Broadway is, from the swing waiting in the wings, to the ensemble member in every single scene, to the leading lady— it is your whole life, seven days a week,” says James. “And in some ways, getting to Broadway and landing the jobs is the even harder task.”
She adds, “I have been incredibly fortunate to have many dreams fulfilled in New York, but I didn’t get any of it handed to me, and certainly not quickly,” says James. “It took decades of work, patience, struggle and enduring disappointments along the way.”