James is a singer with both classical and operatic training, earning her Bachelor of Music in Voice from The Julliard School in 2003. She made her Broadway debut in 2010 in the musical production of The Addams Family, starring Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth. She also appeared in Wonderland, Godspell and other shows. While on Broadway, she moonlighted as a solo artist with a backing band. She played at numerous New York City clubs including, “54 Below’” and “Birdland.” Her first solo album, Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone, a collection of Nina Simone covers, was released by Epic Records in 2012.
Her second solo album (and first studio album), Hunter, was recorded in 2014 and released in June of that year. It was her first album of all solo material and included a cover of Prince’s song; “Call my Name.” It was also in 2014 that James started collaborating with Postmodern Jukebox, which I have already featured in a previous post (DUTC#8 – 2/26/2023). With that group, she has been featured as a solo singer as well as part of an ensemble of singers doing a wide variety of cover songs. This is where I discovered James, watching a YouTube post of the first cover that I am featuring here. More on that below.
In 2016, James released her second cover album, Blue, released on the 45th anniversary of Joni Mitchell’s album of the same name. In 2018, James released The White Album, her own interpretation of The Beatles’ album on the occasion of its 50th anniversary. This was followed in 2020 with an all-female EP, where James was featured alongside Broadway legends Cynthia Erivo, Oreph, Shoshana Bean, and Ledisi, She is Risen, which covers songs from Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Jesus Christ Superstar.
As I mentioned above, my first introduction to James came when I watched the video below, multiple times as I couldn’t quite believe my ears! When you tackle a singer like Steven Tyler and not only do it justice, but take it to a whole other level, you have obviously got some serious talent. I have to admit that the first time I watched it, while I was blown away by the sheer power in her voice, there was this nagging sensation in the back of my head that it was a bit over the top. That thought left my head after watching several of Tyler’s performances singing this song, from the original to live performances over the years. As far as I’m concerned, she nails it!
Morgan James (PMJ) “Dream On” Aerosmith July 2016
Aerosmith is an American rock band formed in Boston in 1970. The group consists of Steven Tyler (lead vocals, harmonica, piano), Joe Perry (guitar), Tom Hamilton (bass), Joey Kramer (drums) and Brad Whitford (guitar). While they are predominately rooted in blues-based hard rock, they have also incorporated elements of pop rock, heavy metal, glam metal, and rhythm and blues into their music, Over the years, they have inspired many subsequent rock artists. They are sometimes referred to as the “Bad Boys from Boston,” and “America’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band,” and while I can go along with the former, I would phrase the latter a bit differently! Tyler and Perry, who are the primary songwriters, are often called the “toxic twins.” What all of this really means is that if you can stay around long enough in the “rock biz,” the sobriquets keep piling up!
They have racked up many rock “anthems” over the years, and “Dream On” was one of the first on their 1973 eponymous debut album. However, they really broke into the mainstream with their third and fourth releases, Toys in the Attic (1975), and Rocks (1876). By the end of the decade, they were one of the most popular hard rock bands in the world and developed a devout fan following often referred to as the “Blue Army.” There was a down period after this and then a resurgence when two past members rejoined the band and then a collaboration (1986) with rap group Run-D.M.C. on a remake of “Walk This Way,” received a great deal of attention. It was with the multi-platinum 1987 release Permanent Vacation, that the band regained their previous level of popularity. They are listed as the best-selling American rock band of all time having racked up sales of more than 150 million records worldwide, including over 85 million in the United States. Multiple awards ensued over the years culminating in an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (2001), as well as the Songwriters hall of fame for Tyler and Perry in 2003. A storied career to say the least!
Aerosmith “Dream On” Released as a single 1973.
There were so many covers to choose from that it took me awhile to decide on this one. There are several reasons for this choice. Firstly, and I guess most importantly it is hauntingly beautiful. It is billed as an “orchestral funk” cover and that is evident after the first few notes. It is not every day you can listen to a James Brown cover being backed by a harpist, cello, double bass, piano and drums! Secondly, it is not easy to take a song like this and replicate the passion and subtleties that are clearly evident in the live version I have included from 1981. Lastly, I chose it to showcase how this talented singer can move between Steven Tyler and James Brown, two completely different artists and styles.
Morgan James (PMJ) “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” James Brown Orchestral Funk cover.
James Brown (1933-2006) was an American musician and a main progenitor of funk music and a major figure of 20th century music, which earned him several honorific nicknames over the years, such as: “the Hardest Working Man in Show Business,” “Godfather of Soul,” “Mr. Dynamite,” and “Soul Brother No.1.” As far as I am concerned, all justified! In a career that lasted more than 50 years, he influenced the development of several music genres. I feel extremely fortunate that I got to see him perform live at a small venue in Vancouver, B.C. in 1984. Brown was one of the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at its inaugural induction in New York in 1986.
He began hos career, not surprisingly, as a gospel singer in Toccoa, Georgia. He rose to prominence in the mid-50s as the lead singer of The Famous Flames, a rhythm and blues vocal group founded by Bobby Bird. He built a reputation as a dynamic live performer with The Famous Flames and his backing band, sometimes known as the James Brown Band or the James Brown Orchestra. During the late 60s, Brown moved from a continuum of blues and gospel-based forms and styles to a profoundly “Africanized” approach to music-making, emphasizing stripped-down interlocking rhythms that had an enormous influence in the development of funk music. By the early 70s, Brown had fully established the funk sound after the formation of the “J.B.s” with records such as “Get Up (I Feel Like Being a) Sex Machine,” and “The Payback.” He also garnered attention for songs of social commentary, including the 1968 hit “Say it Loud – I’m Black I’m Proud.” Brown continued to perform until his death from pneumonia in 2006. His legacy will most likely not be forgotten!
James Brown “It’s A Man’s, Man’s, Man’s World” 1966. Live performance 1981 World of Jazz
The next two covers are from James’s own YouTube channel, where she can be seen collaborating with a host of different musicians and singers. Since the first two with PMJ feature two disparate and iconic talents, I felt that the first for this segment needed to match that in some way. So, when I heard this cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” I knew I had what I wanted. The first reason is that I love the song, the second is that the song by Springsteen is a “quasi” cover. There is another song with the same title by Artur Schwartz (composer) and Howard Dietz (lyrics) that was first recorded by Bing Crosby in 1931. The music is different as well as the lyrics in both songs, but they do share the common line: “Dancing in the Dark!” The Crosby version has no end of its own covers by such notables as: Sarah Vaughn, Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, and Diana Krall, just to name a few. James’ version slows the song down almost to Crosby pace, which is of course a “crooner” song, but James adds a sultriness to it that is rather sublime. What engages me most with James is the way she puts everything she’s got into a song, and I mean everything. Tina Turner, Cher, Lady Gaga to name a few, come to mind. I am sure there are others.
Morgan James “Dancing in the Dark” Bruce Springsteen Nov.2014 Living Room Series
Bruce Springsteen (1949) is an American singer and songwriter. He has released 21 studio albums during a career spanning six decades, most of which feature the E Street Band. He is the originator of “heartland rock,” which is characterized by a “roots” musical style with a focus on “blue-collar” workers or, to put it another way, “meat and potatoes” music. Just think of other artists such as: Tom Petty, Bob Seager, and John Mellencamp. I really think the label was created to describe these four! The genre typically combines “Mainstream” rock music with poetic and socially conscious lyrics that tell a narrative about working-class American life. Springsteen nicknamed “The Boss,” is known for his poignant lyrics and his amazingly energetic concerts, which have been known to last more than four hours. As one would expect, he has sold over 141 million records worldwide (more than 71 million in the US) and multiple awards including 20 Grammys (15th on the list of most wins – Beyoncé #1 with 32!), two Golden Globes, an Academy Award, and a Special Tony Award. Rolling Stone described him as being the “embodiment of rock and roll.”
Bruce Springsteen “Dancing in the Dark” Official video Album: Born in the U.S.A. 1984
For the final cover for this installment, I felt compelled to include an original by a female artist and when I went searching, I found this gem. This is a studio recording from Nashville, featuring drums, keys, bass, and background vocals. What I loved about this cover is that after listening to it a few times back and forth from the original to the cover, I realized how she has completely made this her own. The words and phrases, even the trilling, is done differently but with great effect. Enjoy!
Morgan James “Always Be My Baby” Mariah Carey. Recorded at Nashville at Twelve 3 South Recording. Derrick Phillips-Drums, Pat Fusco-Keys, Ryan Madora-Bass, Dani Elliot-Background Vocal. April 2023
Mariah Carey (1969) is an American singer, songwriter, record producer, and actress. She has been referred to as the “songbird supreme” by non-other that Guinness World Records which, if you will pardon my thoughts on this, is only something that Guinness could come up with! She is noted for her five-octave vocal range and “melismatic” singing style. Don’t worry, I had to look that one up too! It is a musical style that allows several notes to be sung to one syllable of text. And I believe if you listen closely, you will hear that at work in this song. Also, on display when she performs are her improvisation skills, her signature use of the whistle register, and of course her song writing.
Carey burst onto the music scene in 1990 with her eponymous debut album with Columbia Records and stayed with them until 2001, signing a $100 million record deal with Virgin, after an 11 year run of US number-one singles. It did not go well at first, and after several dismal failures, Virgin bought her out of her contract after which she signed with Island records. After this unsuccessful period, Carey returned to the top of the charts with the album The Emancipation of Mimi (2005), which became the best-selling album in the US and the second-best selling album worldwide. Nothing like coming back with a vengeance! And if you thought Springsteen’s numbers were big, Carey is one of the best-selling music artists of all time, with over 220 million records sold worldwide! As expected, along with that staggering figure are countless awards and “labels” from various sources. She is credited for inspiring several generations of “pop” and “R&B” artists, and for merging “hip-hop” with pop music through her crossover collaborations. I have chosen a “stripped” version of this song, as I feel it showcases her voice the best with only a piano accompaniment.
Mariah Carey “Always be my Baby” Album: Daydream 1995. “Stripped” version 2018.
Bonus video! I couldn’t let this one go! Steve Tyler and Eminem sharing the stage for a mash-up of “Dream On” and “Sing for the Moment.” It really doesn’t get much better than this!
Los Angeles 2023
4 thoughts on “DUTC#15 April 18, 2023”
Loved this! I think my favorite was James’ living room version of Dancing in the Dark.
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Yeah, I liked that one too!
Morgan James is an amazing talent! I particularly liked her covers of “Dream On” and “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World”.
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