Reflections: An interview with Jackie Richardson, Canada’s first lady of gospel, blues and jazz

27 Nov 2005

No complaints, no regrets
I still believe in chasing dreams, placing bets
For I have learned that all you give is all you get
You better give it all you’ve got.
I have had my share, I drank my fill
And even though I’m satisfied, I’m hungry still
I want to see what’s down another road, beyond the hill
Oh and do it all again
Here’s to life and every joy it brings
Here’s to life, to dreamers and their dreams.

Here’s to Life, From the cd A Woman’s View…Through Child Eyes

Jackie Richardson has loved singing ever since she can remember. Described as Canada’s first lady of gospel, blues and jazz, her professional career has spanned more than 30 years, garnering her a 2004 Dora Mavor Moore award for Best Female Principal Role in a Musical, and nominations for Gemini, Juno, and NAACP Awards among others.

Jackie Richardson

Born in Donora, Pennsylvania, Richardson moved with her family to Toronto when she was seven. Her father, the late Garrett Richardson Sr., was a jazz enthusiast who sang bass as part of a quartet in the U.S. “When we moved to Canada we’d go to the famous jazz clubs here. Knowing that I love my music, I hung out with him a lot,” says Richardson relaxing in her dressing room at Bluma Appel Theatre, on a break from rehearsals. Her current project has her cast as Mother Shaw in the gospel play Crowns. “I always wanted to sing, so I always sang in the church choir but I really wanted to try and sing in clubs,” adds Richardson.

The self described “Motown baby” got her real start during her teens when she became part of a group called the Tiaras who sang Motown cover tunes. The exposure lead her to Montreal Expo 67 performing with an African group. Later she joined one of the Platters groups on tour.

Returning to Toronto in 1975, Richardson had lost many of her musical contacts, and decided to pursue theatre while waiting for a new opportunity. “I saw an ad in the paper about a community theatre group so I thought, until I get back and find my roots for the singing I will try this. It was the best thing I ever did. I went to the community group and I stayed for three years…by the time I finished, I decided that I absolutely love theatre,” says Richardson.

As a struggling black artist in theatre, she recalls how difficult it was to find roles. “I came out of there (community theatre) and auditioned with Black Theatre Canada for Raisin in the Sun. For us there were no films and for theatre once a year there was a play where the whole community would come out and audition for that one project.”

Things began to change when Young People’s Theatre in conjunction with Canstage began non-traditional casting. The first production was ThreePenny opera with Salome Bey. Richardson played Jenny Diver. “It was one of those things where it didn’t matter what the script said. That started the turnaround for us,” says Richardson.

A veteran of the stage as well as the small and large screens, Richardson has performed in a variety of productions including Cookin’ at the Cookery, Ain’t Misbehavin’, Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, Soul Food and Welcome to Mooseport.

One memory that stands out for Richardson was her encounter with Gregory Hinds in her role as a judge in Color of Justice, and later the grandmother in Mr. Bojangles. “Gregory Hinds had a really huge effect on me,” says Richardson. “I was able to do two projects with him. With Greg Hinds, he was one of those people that when we got our first TV it was little Gregory and Maurice Hinds and their dad that we saw on Ed Sullivan. To be able to watch his career and his growth all my life, then to do a scene with him and listen to him and his journey, was amazing.”

Along with acting roles, Richardson’s powerful, sultry voice has kept her in demand as a singer. Over the years she has recorded with Anne Murray, Joe Sealy, Rita Chiarelli among others. Her own solo cd A Woman’s View…Through Child Eyes, features a jazzy blend of songs selected for their emotional meaning.

“I didn’t write the songs. I picked favourites. I couldn’t decide what kind of music I wanted to do since I sang jazz, blues, gospel and r&b,” says Richardson. “Then I heard Shirley Horn do Here’s to Life, a gorgeous jazz ballad. The lyrics reminded me of my dad and how he lived his life and inspired us to live ours. That started the ball rolling. Then there’s a song I sang for my granddaughter, If I Could. I kept finding all these songs on people’s albums…really obscure songs. So it ended up being a concept album.”

Inspired by many artists, Richardson enjoys listening to Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Sarah Vaughan. But for Motown and r&b she likes the guys. “I am forever a Marvin Gaye child, and Al Green for sure,” laughs Richardson.

She considers Mahalia Jackson, a spirited gospel singer, one of the greats. “When I see Mahalia, and we know how long her career was and also how long she’s been gone, but you can take so many people in jazz and blues and you can hear licks and things Mahalia was doing way back then. Mahalia was like Patti Labelle, if she got the spirit she would run up and down and kick up her heels. That was the real Mahalia and it came through in her voice.”

Richardson’s love of gospel music is evident in her current role as Mother Shaw in Crowns, a play filled with moving spirituals and up-tempo gospel songs. “I think gospel music has the power of crossing over all kinds of borders,” says Richardson. “In gospel music, when you hear gospel sung, it goes in your subconscious and it shifts somewhere inside. And it’s uplifting. And certainly the lyrics to gospel are always inspirational, positive and encouraging. I love all kinds of music but most definitely gospel music is the first love.”

It has been a long and rewarding career for this accomplished performer. Reflecting on her struggles and accomplishments, Richardson has this piece of advice for upcoming artists. “Don’t be afraid to approach someone who is doing what you’d like to do. If people hadn’t shared with me I’d be in the office. Try to be involved in anything that will give you any kind of artistic experience. The road is so different for everybody. You have to have the love for the dance, for the singing or the acting. It isn’t an easy road, but there is such reward in the work because you always challenge yourself. If you really have the love for it, then don’t let go.”

Jackie Richardson is currently performing in Crowns at the Bluma Appel Theatre, St. Lawrence Centre for the Arts, until Dec.10th. For tickets contact the Box Office at 416-368-3110. For more info visit www.canstage.com.

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