Anyone who saw her tear the roof off Ronnie Scott’s, and her other headline gigs last year, knows just how special she really is. Jools Holland and his legions of fans know it: he has Ruby as his star vocalist in his widely-loved Rhythm & Blues Orchestra. Radio listeners know it, loving her lead vocals on Jools’ ‘The Informer’ and making it a 2008 airplay hit and her cover of “This Train” which shot straight onto Radio 2’s playlist in 2009. So do admirers of breakthrough blues troubadour Seasick Steve, after Ruby’s shining appearance on ‘Happy Man,’ from his gold-certified ‘I Started Out With Nothin’ and I Still Got Most Of It Left.’
The lady herself is too modest to brag about her decades of experience on all kinds of stages and screens, seven hit singles including a definitive version of ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ three chart albums or her prestigious US R&B No.1, ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright.’ Her most reason album was “I’m Travelling On” , Ruby’s interpretations of Gospel classics, released in 2009.
‘I’m Travelling On’, released on her own RTR label, is the record we always hoped she would make, on which she takes her favourite, time-honoured gospel tracks, previously sung by such giants of the genre as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Brother Joe May and Mahalia Jackson.
Born in Jamaica, Ruby came to the UK with her mother when she was just nine. “My grandfather was a gospel singer,” she remembers. “I was taught by my father. I sang as part of the congregation. My brother, who’s three years older, came to my show at the Jazz Cafe, he said ‘You’ve got it. But you had it even when you were about five.’ Apparently, even then, there I was in the corner giving it large, and I was pushed on stage, and he said you jigged even more. I clearly wasn’t shy.”
Settled in the UK, that confidence led Ruby to the theatre, and the Bristol Old Vic, including a production of ‘A Streetcar Named Desire’ when she was just 16. Through theatre friends, her early love of reggae began to be introduced to blues and soul, via Ella and Aretha and Muddy to Dylan, Cooder and the Stones. “I was on a good diet,” she laughs.
With friend and then manager Gareth Owen, the teenage Turner played the Edinburgh Festival with a rock opera he’d written. “I was Millie Duckling and I was encaged by a Dr. Crabs, in a gilded cage. It was outrageous!” But the hit show got her noticed. BBC2’s ‘Arena’ filmed some of it and Punch magazine wrote about a girl to watch, “a la Billie Holiday.”
A first EP release, including Van Morrison and Bob Dylan covers, was rewarded by airplay on the late blues legend Alexis Korner’s Radio 1 show. Korner then came to see Turner play at Dingwalls, they became great friends and she toured with him in Europe. Ruby became an in-demand session singer, with everyone from UB40 to Canadian Corey Hart, then a huge star in the US.
After Ruby toured the States as featured vocalist with Culture Club, she returned home to find a coveted solo deal with Jive Records on the table. Four albums, regular chart singles, extensive national and international touring and huge acclaim all followed, as Turner was finally and rightly recognised as Britain’s premiere soul voice.
A ‘Motown Songbook’ album had her recording with the Four Tops, the Temptations, Jimmy Ruffin and other legends. Ruby would also claim top 30 UK hits with consummate covers of the Staples Singers’ ‘If You’re Ready (Come Go With Me)’ and then ‘I’d Rather Go Blind,’ first recorded by Etta James. Another proud landmark arrived in February, 1990, on the day Ruby heard that ‘It’s Gonna Be Alright,’ a song she co-wrote, had hit No. 1 on Billboard’s R&B chart, to this day an extremely rare feat for a non-American artist.
More chart appearances followed, as did extensive theatre work, and more recently, Ruby was on the big screen in ‘Love, Actually’ and on TV in a variety of guises from ‘Holby City’ to ‘Little Britain.’ A ‘Hotel Babylon’ appearance is also imminent.
In 2005, she seized the moment to set up her own record label. “I learned about the industry in this country and how if you’ve got no tenacity, it’s finished,” she says. The studio album ‘So Amazing’ was followed by a double CD recorded live at Ronnie Scott’s in her beloved Birmingham in 2006.
The call to guest with Jools Holland, and then over the last few years to be an official part of his Rhythm & Blues Orchestra, was perfectly timed, this led directly to Ruby featuring on numerous Jools Holland albums as well as her own solo projects. “Right now I’m in a very good place, because I’m my own boss in every way,” says Ruby. For the last few years running Ruby has been one of the star attractions on Jools Holland’s New Year Hootenanny show. Last New Year she performed her own popular cover of Sister Rosetta’s “This Train”.
“I’ve learned that you’ve really got to be in charge of your life. Just get back in the race and try to know more about your business, and at the same time try to make some music. When it feels this good, how can you keep it to yourself?”