By Barry Gilbert
Of the Post-Dispatch

Emory Joseph

June 29, 2003

St. Louis native Emory Joseph says it was never a question of whether he would make a record, just a question of when.

"I always knew I'd be a recording artist," says Joseph, who admits that he's "crested 40."

"But on flip side was this real worry that if you had something special about yourself, you could fail at it. I was born with a gigantic voice, but I wanted to be a credible and capable writer and create things that would last. I really wanted to be a good writer, not just be somebody famous."

Years passed while he cooked in restaurants, shoed horses for the NYPD and busked in Boulder, Colo. But he also kept busy doing voice-over, jingle and production work, and helping out on other people's projects. Through it all, he wrote songs and cut demos.

Finally, musician friends poking through his songs persuaded him to put himself on the line.

"I heard these musicians who were my friends saying, 'Dude, this is what you do, this is the person you are coming out of these songs," Joseph says.

So about 25 years after he walked out of Brentwood High School during his junior year, a CD is in the racks with his name on it.

"Labor & Spirits" was released in February to favorable reviews, and Joseph is working to put together a tour that would include a stop in his hometown. The CD is a rich, rootsy gumbo blending rock, country, R&B and soul. Think Dr. John visiting the soul-powerhouse Stax recording studios in Memphis, Tenn., in the '60s and bumping into Willie Nelson on the sidewalk.

"That's America," Joseph says during a recent phone conservation from his home in Oakland, Calif. "It's this rich musical place depending upon where you live. People toss around the label 'Americana' as if it's only alt-country and bluegrass. But, to me, Americana also happened in New Orleans and at Chess (Records in Chicago) and at Stax."

Having all those musician friends paid off for Joseph, because their connections helped produce an all-star band for "Labor & Spirits" that includes drummers Levon Helm (The Band), Kenny Aronoff (John Mellencamp, Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty) and Dave Mattacks (Richard Thompson, Paul McCartney, George Harrison); and guitarists Tom "T-Bone" Wolk (Elvis Costello) and Duke Levine (Peter Wolf, Mary Chapin Carpenter).

"Friends volunteered friends," says Joseph, still blown away by how these people came to play on his debut CD. "Like I'm on the phone with T-Bone Wolk, and he says, 'Let's call Levon.' And I say, 'Yeah, let's call him!' That's the way it really happened."

In mid-May, Joseph acquired a mentor in singer/guitarist Bonnie Raitt, who, "without knowing I was in the audience, told a whole bunch of people at her Bay to Breakers concert in Golden Gate Park about my album, saying that there's a guy ... they should check out."

The two met after the concert, Joseph says via e-mail, with Raitt telling Joseph that she'd been talking up his CD - including during two interviews she did in Ireland - and she introduced him to her agent.

"Just to be recognized as a peer of anyone you admire is an amazingly validating experience," he says. "That it comes from her, for me, is truly beyond anything you think about ever happening until it does. And then you don't believe it."

Joseph, who will open for Little Feat on Thursday in Las Vegas, became interested in music through his parents. His father was a singer who worked with big bands, and his mother had a huge collection of records that attracted the preteen Joseph's interest.

"From a really early age, I knew I'd make records," he says by phone. "The liner notes on those great albums set up a world for me. People could be producers and engineers (not only musicians)."

When he was 12, Joseph got a bass guitar, and he spent adolescence, which he remembers as "horrible," hanging out at Silver Strings Music on Olive Boulevard.

"Silver Strings had the best collection of vintage guitars in the city," he says. "I remember meeting (local blues legend) Henry Townsend there, and I learned you can see the world. All it takes is six strings - but five works fine, too."

When he was 15, Joseph "took a little vacation from Brentwood High for a couple of weeks" and took off for Boulder to see the Pearl Street Mall, which was featured in the opening scenes of Robin Williams' "Mork and Mindy" sitcom.

"I saw that and I said, 'Well, that's for me, man,'" Joseph said. "My mom, when I ask her now why she didn't send the feds after me, says it was real clear when I was young that when I got an idea in my head, it was going to happen."

When Joseph "finally left" high school for good in his junior year, he went back to Boulder, and kept returning there after stints in Boston; St. Louis; Berkeley, Calif.; New York; and Texas, visiting musicians and friends in cities around the country.

He picked up a valuable skill in Boulder, getting a job on a farm "when times got lean on the Pearl Street Mall for busking."

"I thought I'd be roping and riding and yeeee-ha, but it was muck out the stalls," he says. But he stayed with it - seduced by decent money and the cowboys' "big ol' trucks" - and spent most of his 20s and 30s learning to shoe and working with horses.

He also spent a lot of time cooking. In fact, he was "cooking barbecue in a bar in Boston the night John Lennon died. I was 20."

That love of food is obvious from the CD booklet, in which the performer lineup for each track is listed as "recipe" and references to music are likely to be "meaty" and "juicy." Joseph's culinary leanings were influenced by family and by his work at Benedetto's in St. Louis.

"I've been on the mainly Southern and Latin tack for a bunch of years now," he says. "For me, everything's better with chilis - and, just for fun, you ought to deep-fry it.

"My music's like that. Even when the top note is meant to be smooth, I try to sneak some kind of slow-build heat up under there where you're not looking for it."

Joseph had been exposed to African-American music, art and literature through his parents' book and record collections. In high school, he got to know black students who were bused in, and he listened to their music.

"At the time, I'm listening to Marshall Tucker and the Dead and the Allmans, and here comes this tremendous influence of the Spinners and P-Funk," he recalls. "Man, between that and Howling Wolf, I was starting to see what was happening to me musically."

Joseph's first group was the Arsenal Street Band, when he was in his early 20s and back in St. Louis after a spell in Boston. They recorded an album that featured an Oliver Sain horn solo, but it was never released.

Twenty years later, Joseph has another shot. And he's excited about the opportunity "to come home and play."

"It's a really great time for me, and to recognize that you can be a late bloomer in this world, and the bloom is no less fragrant, that at my age I know a little more about who I am and what I want to do, and I'm still energetic - and a goofball."