Margie Joseph Reclaims Her Soul: The Interview

Imagine recording three albums for one of the most respected labels in popular music history with an equally revered record producer. Your albums are acclaimed, but the label does little to promote them. Without a clear explanation, you’re dropped from that label and any future royalties due are, allegedly, eaten up by production costs. Years later, companies all around the world re-release your albums without your participation. The industry assumes that you’re dead. Worse, Hurricane Katrina sweeps away most anything that symbolized your career. As Margie Joseph recounted these facts about her career on a recent July evening, she was concerned that she’d bore me. Bore? I was nothing short of enthralled … and frustrated.

Margie Joseph recorded three albums for Atlantic Records from 1973-1975 under the direction of Arif Mardin (the revered record producer referenced above). Each release featured a batch of songs that highlighted Joseph’s gift for recasting pop songs, not to mention her original compositions, in a distinct style backed by the top musicians of the day. Why these albums, which hold up as well any other from that era, were seemingly forgotten about by the label that released them and have since leaked onto suspicious import re-releases is a mystery that Margie Joseph is at pains to solve. “Columnists have written, ‘She’s never had her due. What happened?’ I don’t have an answer. I truly do not have the answer. I know that I suffered greatly, emotionally, behind it”. Of course, Margie Joseph is not the only artist who was not granted control over her work, but that doesn’t make it any easier to accept, especially when her albums were bought for one reason in the first place — the voice of Margie Joseph.

It was in Pascagoula, Mississippi, when Joseph was just “knee high to a duck”, that she cultivated an interest in singing. She credits her father for spawning her love for music while songs by Dinah Washington, Sarah Vaughan, and Etta James spun on the “phonograph”. Though little Margie yearned to sing, “my parents insisted that I would get a degree and put it in their hands before I even thought about going out seeking singing as a career. I did just that and made them very happy when I gave them my degree from Dillard University.” While in New Orleans earning her Bachelor of Arts for Speech and Drama, Margie Joseph auditioned for Larry McKinley, an established personality in radio and television. The two later wed and McKinley handled the managerial aspects of Joseph’s blossoming career.

Margie Joseph made her first recordings in 1967 on Okeh Records, a subsidiary of Columbia. When that label prematurely folded, the Stax/Volt collective took notice of Joseph’s talent. Producer Willie Tee ushered Joseph into the studio to record a couple of singles for the label, including the b-side, “Never Can You Be”. “It’s really a jewel,” Joseph proudly asserts. “I was singing a song a woman would sing to her man. I felt grown“. Stax/Volt fleshed out her precocious melodic interpretations of heartbreak on two subsequent albums — Margie Joseph Makes a New Impression (1971) and Phase II (1972). When her debut album quickly landed in the Top 10 R&B Album Charts, Margie Joseph was heralded as one of the freshest voices on vinyl.

Just as her contract with Stax/Volt expired, Atlantic Records called. Joseph remembers, “Larry began to shop around for another label. [Label president] Jerry Wexler showed interest and really had great plans for my career … if he had had the freedom that he wanted. I’ve heard so many rumors regarding why I was brought to Atlantic but I do think that Mr. Wexler was honorable and he did have some plans for me.” One plan that came to fruition was connecting Margie Joseph with Arif Mardin, who was known for producing a stack of hits on Atlantic for Aretha Franklin, Dusty Springfield, and Donny Hathaway, among many others. “I think Jerry wanted the best for me. He saw something in my gift that was very precious. He wanted to put me with the best person that could bring out of me what was needed to take me to the next level from where I was with Stax. Arif took me to another level and kept taking me higher,” she says with an audible touch of awe still consuming her voice so many years later.

Joseph’s first of three dynamic releases on Atlantic with Arif Mardin arrived in 1973. The self-titled Margie Joseph (1973) displayed a rich chemistry between artist and producer. Mardin assembled some of the most talented musicians of the time including Ralph McDonald, Richard Tee, David “Fathead” Newman, Chuck Rainey, and Cissy Houston. The cover photo by the late Joel Brodsky captured a lithe and leering Joseph, equal parts spunk and funk. The songs did not disappoint.

A satisfying mixture of soul and country anchored Joseph’s performances on her Atlantic debut. Jerry Wexler and Arif Mardin handled the repertoire selections, which included Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together”, Ellington Jordan and Billy Foster’s “I’d Rather Go Blind”, and Dolly Parton’s “Touch Your Woman”. With her nuanced performances, Joseph blurred the lines between rhythm and blues and country and western. She remembers, “Jerry really was a country and western fanatic. I think they were maybe trying to find out my limits. Everything they were bringing to me, I’d sing it!” The material, much of it about love gone wrong, was far removed from the reality of Joseph’s personal life. “I’ve never been hurt by a man before in my life. I’ve been the ‘hurter’ not the ‘hurtee,'” she laughs. “I can never in my life say that my heart has ever been broken. I don’t know what that feels like but I can sing it like it has.” That being the case, Margie Joseph is really a collection of one stellar acting performance after another.

At the outset, critics drew comparisons between Margie Joseph and her labelmate Aretha Franklin, an observation that rarely escapes Joseph’s biography. Both possessed church-schooled voices, both were versatile in their approach to material, and Arif Mardin produced both artists on the pre-eminent soul record label of the 1970s. In moments on songs like “Make Me Believe You’ll Stay” and “How Do You Spell Love”, the overlap between the two singers is evident yet Joseph readily acknowledges the influence of Franklin and other contemporaries like Gladys Knight in her songs. She explains, “It hindered me in some ways because some times people looked at it in a negative sense that I was trying to imitate but … those that could appreciate the value that these icons had on my life and my career could understand why you could hear touches of these people, just as I hear myself in a lot of the contemporary icons today”.

In actuality, Joseph herself really didn’t think too much of her voice at the time, always insisting she could give a better performance than the one that made the record. With the gift of time, she’s realized how special her gift is:

“I hear things now when I listen to the songs that I’ve recorded and I’ll actually say something like, ‘Sing, girl!’ I never got hung up on me. I always felt like it could be better. Everybody else was saying, ‘Oh you’re singing‘ and I was like, ‘Naw, it’s alright.’ When I listen to it now, I think, ‘Girl, you were blowing!’ I can appreciate Margie much more now than I did then. I think I was my worst critic — most artists are. I was not cocky, big-headed. I tried to play that roll but it wasn’t me.”

In quick succession, Sweet Surrender followed Joseph’s debut in 1974. A cover of Paul McCartney’s “My Love” gave Joseph her highest charted single (#10 R&B, #69 Pop). She explains, “Once I heard that song, I ran to Arif and said, ‘I know I’m taking a chance at changing this but there’s another way to do this.'” The ultimate seal of approval came from McCartney himself, who sent Mardin a telegram about how much he liked Margie Joseph’s soulful rendition.

Joseph had been inspired by an Isaac Hayes tune to write, “I’m So Glad I’m Your Woman” on her first album. Another of her compositions surfaced on Sweet Surrender, “Ridin’ High”. Mardin dressed Joseph’s impromptu performance in the style of Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway’s “Where Is the Love”, which he had produced two years earlier. Joseph effortlessly sang around her producer. About her writing process, she observes, “I’m a much better writer in the environment. It just comes naturally if I’m in the studio and I’m around a good pianist or good bass player or good guitarist. It just inspires me. To sit up in a room and write a song at home, I shall not tell a lie, I’m very dry!”

Of course Arif Mardin was good company to keep in the studio. The simpatico between the two stemmed from a mutual admiration of each other’s talents. Years before his death in June 2006, Mardin cited Joseph as one of his all-time favorite vocalists. Understandably, Joseph gets a bit misty-eyed talking about Mardin and her time with him during those years:

“He was grateful that I was there. He gave you freedom. He created off of what you already had but he could enhance it. He had a way of saying, ‘Let’s do that again.’ He was so tactful. I miss him. I talked to him throughout his last years. I would e-mail him sweet notes and he’d e-mail me back and I just wanted him to know that I loved him so much. I get kind of teary just thinking about him. I can hardly stand to listen to some of the productions. I was there in New York for his memorial service at Alice Tulley Hall and I think I cried throughout the whole thing”.

Margie (1975) stands as the last time Joseph worked with Mardin in the studio on a full-length release. Somewhat fittingly, the album is the peak of their creative partnership. Fans consider the album to be Margie Joseph’s best work and it’s not difficult to hear why. From the cascading notes of “Sign of the Times” to the soaring melodies of “I Can’t Move No Mountains” that close the album, there’s not a lull to be found on Margie. Part of the album’s appeal is how the songs are segued together. This works to wonderful effect on the two opening tracks: Joseph’s own “Sign of the Times” and Carole King’s “Believe in Humanity”. The message of optimism “Keep on smiling / Someone’s gonna make a change” — in a time of unrest translates to a sizzling rhythm section fronted by Joseph’s rich and robust vocals.

“Stay Still”, another Margie Joseph composition, opens side two. Sax man Ronnie Laws later covered the tune on Fever (1976) but its original incarnation drips with sensuality. Joseph recalls how one of her trademark love songs was born, “That one came straight from the gut. I was in the studio with Arif again and I started singing something like ‘Stay still and let me love you, babe’, just clowning around. Arif said, ‘That’s a good song.’ I just kept singing. He put me on the mic. I didn’t even have pencil and paper in front of me, just singing the words off the top of my head. We went back and modified things after he recorded it to get a foundation for it.” Along with “Words (Are Impossible)”, “Stay Still” climbed into the Top 40 R&B singles chart, becoming one of the signature songs of Margie Joseph’s career.

When plans for a fourth album started to take shape, it was decided that Lamont Dozier would helm the production (Hear the Words, Feel the Feeling, 1976). Johnny Bristol stepped in for the subsequent album, Feeling My Way (1978). Both albums were released on Atlantic subsidiaries, Cotillion and Atco respectively, and while Joseph’s fans embraced the two albums, poor promotion stalled any momentum each had begun to build.

The end of the 1970s signaled the end of Margie Joseph’s tenure with Atlantic Records. It’s a topic that still pains Joseph, particularly the underappreciation of her work with Arif Mardin by the record company. Save for a few sporadic recordings in the 1980s, Joseph left the business: “I wouldn’t go near a studio because I just felt like everything I touched would be a failure”, she admits, continuing:

“I have gone through all the stages, I guess. I’ve been angry. I’ve hated them, not knowing who I was hating. I didn’t have a person I could put my finger on. It was like the whole conglomerate. When I look back now, I just say, ‘Well they made their money. They never suffered any losses of anything.’ I know that those are some very good albums and I won’t let anybody tell me that they’re not. They’re selling the masters all over the place. Putting them on compilations, changing the titles. I’m not being paid for anything out there. I haven’t gotten the royalties. They say that the cost of the production ate my royalties. I won’t lie, it grieves me when everything has now been mastered on CD; Japan is doing its thing, Europe. Everybody is doing their thing but Margie, it’s like she’s dead. I would like to say to them, ‘I’m alive. It’s an injustice that you’re taking my gift, my voice, and you think you can do what you want to do with it.'”

Unfortunately, Margie Joseph’s story isn’t a unique one. Scores of artists have seen past work surreptitiously re-released without being consulted. In the nuts and bolts of record biz machinations, albums are considered a “work for hire” by the label, thus — in the majority of instances — the label owns the masters. How much an artist receives is a matter of contract negotiation on behalf of their legal representatives. As is often the case, the artist can be the last individual to profit. Granted, there’s much more awareness now after generations of wronged artists have spoken up and secured the proper representation to earn even a fraction of what they’re due. When import copies of Margie Joseph, Sweet Surrender, and Margie are released by Vivid Sound in Japan, selling upwards of $25 in the US, it’s criminal that Margie Joseph does not earn a dime.

The situation for Margie Joseph was exacerbated when Hurricane Katrina destroyed all her personal belongings at her home in Mississippi, including her recordings and songs that were half-written on tapes. “I came out with what I had on and my pocket book on my shoulder,” she notes. Fans from all around the world have since helped Joseph replace what was lost. She relocated to Atlanta where she’s now a director for an after-school program.

Despite not having sung publicly for many years, Margie Joseph is not ready to abandon music. Last year she released the gospel album Latter Rain on a small indie label and is eager to perform, perhaps more than ever before. “I need to be attached again to my gift and I want to work,” she says. “I want to sing. Maybe people think I don’t want to come out. I still sing. I can take you anywhere you wanna go. I still feel indebted to those that are loyal who still love Margie.”

Margie Joseph still stirs the soul, even if it’s only singing a few bars of “Stay Still” to me over the phone. The question now is: who will bring Margie Joseph back into the studio and help her reclaim her voice? “Who am I going to turn to?” she asks. “Atlantic?” A hearty laugh nearly conceals the deep wounds that, only with the gift of time, continue to heal.