By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


October 2, 2005

If you can hear a smile through a phone line, you can hear one when native St. Louisan Emory Joseph talks about what happened in May 2003.

Three months earlier, his debut CD, the wonderfully funky "Labor & Spirits," was released to positive reviews. Still, as great as that was, he was just one of thousands of largely unknown musicians with a CD in the racks. But sitting in an audience of 30,000 people in Golden State Park on May 15 for San Francisco's annual Footstock concert, he heard this from the stage:

"I want to tell you about this CD I've been listening to by this guy who lives in the East Bay named Emory Joseph."

The speaker was Bonnie Raitt, who had been given Joseph's CD by her bass player, James "Hutch" Hutchinson, a mutual friend. A couple of weeks later, Joseph, who had been playing clubs in the Bay Area and toiling as an opening act, was on stage with Raitt at Seattle's annual Bumbershoot Festival, singing two duets, sitting in with the band for Raitt's set, and rubbing musical elbows with Ruth Brown, Howard Tate, Solomon Burke and Shemekia Copeland.

Fast forward two years: Raitt has become a friend and mentor, and one of Joseph's "Labor & Spirits" songs is on Raitt's latest CD, "Souls Alike." The tune is the charming "Trinkets," which Joseph has described as "Sly Stone meeting Ry Cooder at Guy Clark's house."

And on Saturday, Joseph will sing with Raitt during her sold-out show at the Pageant.

"It will be the first time I'll perform in St. Louis since deciding to become an artist, doing my own material," the former Brentwood High student says.

Joseph checked in recently from his home in Oakland.

Q: Tell me about your friendship with Bonnie Raitt.

A: (Guitarist) T-Bone Wolk (Hall and Oates, Elvis Costello) told me that if I needed to do something on the West Coast, Hutch Hutchinson was the guy I should call. We hit it off really well, and he gave my CD to Bonnie, and she took to it right away. Hutch invited me to come and meet him and Bonnie when they played at Golden State Park. ... It's quite a thing to be in the audience, and she's talking about me and my work.

From the very beginning, she was completely professional about our relationship. She told me she loved my record, the production and the writing, and she also let me know that you can admire somebody's work, but it takes time to see how a friendship will develop. She was bringing me in close about my work but not suggesting more access. We took our time to become friends, but it was obvious she was meaning to be supportive of me. My work had spoken for itself. She's such an active bush-beater about listening to material for her own records, it makes sense she'd listen hard (to mine).

Q: How did this homecoming appearance with Raitt come about?

A: I saw that her tour schedule had come out, and I had tried a few times to be at the Pageant, but it hadn't worked out.

We have experience (onstage) with each other, with me coming on and doing "Thing Called Love" and (Jimmy McCracklin's) "Think." So I called Bonnie to catch up, and I didn't think twice about asking. She's always straight, and you can always be straight with her.

She was really sweet about it. I said, "Do you think maybe I could do something with you at the Pageant?" And she said, "Emory, I would love to do that for you." Simple as that. Nothing more to be said.

Q: What other projects are you working on?

A: I knew if I released another album of original material, it would be starting over from ground zero. So "Fennario" will be a collection of Robert Hunter-Jerry Garcia songs. They should be thought of with more contemporary respect than I think people who write them off as Dead Heads give them. I think of them as a Lieber and Stoller, or every important songwriting team. And maybe even more so because they were able to write in different genres about different things.

(The CD features the players who have been with Joseph on "Labor & Spirits" and since, including Wolk, guitarist Duke Levine, singer Suzy Tyrell and ex-Bob Dylan guitarist Larry Campbell.)

To have all those players who already knew me, who already knew (the songs), in an old school New York studio so we could all play live ... we did 12 songs in five days. I said let's take the same musicians on every track and let's look at Hunter's lyrics and Garcia's melodies, and did they suggest a style. So we did "Sugaree" as a Muscle Shoals song, "New Speedway Boogie" more like country and swing.

Q: What have you learned in the past two years since "Labor & Spirits"?

A: I am living proof that (music and the music business) is only hard if you make it responsible for your happiness. If you love it for its role in your life and look to it to bring you inspiration, you're set. I can do it now and be associated with great musicians... there's no other feeling like that.