Gene Jackson started his professional performing career at 15 when his mom signed a waiver allowing him to perform at the Midnight Lounge on Dr. Martin Luther King Drive in the mid-1970s.
Older musicians took him under their wings, showing him the ins and outs of St. Louis’ rhythm and blues, and initiating him into a fellowship of performing musicians determined to keep soul music alive.
Roland Johnson entered the scene years earlier, started his career singing with groups at sock hops and youth dances before entering the realms of bars and clubs.
For years, R&B fans in St. Louis could see the two perform, but they didn’t have a chance to buy their records because neither had made a recording.
That’s changed. Jackson, 57, and Johnson, 69, have released their first albums of original music on the local label Blue Lotus Recordings.
The albums offer a peek into the vibrant world of St. Louis R&B that gave birth to stars like Tina Turner and Chuck Berry and continues to evolve.
The two say that recording their music is a way to leave their mark on the world.
“I’m going to places I’ve never played before,” Jackson said. “I’m singing my own material. It feels good to let that out. You know if I die tomorrow I’ve got something. I left a part of me behind, you know what I’m saying?”
Roland Johnson says he draws on old R&B standards for inspiration while writing new tunes.
"That’s keeping it alive as far as I’m concerned," he said. "'Cause within every song you hear a song."
Both albums were recorded by producer Paul Niehaus IV and released on his recently minted label Blue Lotus Recordings.
Niehaus, who also was drawn to the soul venues in his late teens, played bass guitar and organ on each album, and helped round up the other contributing musicians. He’s struck by the singers’ songwriting skills and vocal chops. All he had to do was provide the music.
“They’re just gonna deliver,” he said. “It’s like a slalom skier, just beautifully navigating the turns. They’re just such skilled singers they can go there. You can just give it to them and they go there.”
Niehaus, who helped the two singers craft albums drawn from their individual spirits, hopes to record other established St. Louis performers for his label. He’d also like to produce a soul review performance that could take the music to Europe where audiences have a strong appreciation of American soul music.
His intentions are both lofty and simple.
“To make original music for these guys that they can be proud of and leave behind,” Niehaus said.
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