Birmingham’s very own Jaki Graham has notched up four decades of musical hits – most famously her 80s dance classic Could It Be I’m Falling in Love. We caught up with her ahead of her exclusive set at the Qavali ‘Abundance’ Brunch.
How did it all start and when did you realise you had a talent?
I won a talent competition at school when I was about 15. I sang Michael Jackson’s Ben and all of the other kids were talking about it afterwards (including my now husband Tony). I’d always be singing around the house while I was doing my chores, but didn’t really think much of it at the time. Being raised by my grandmother and two uncles, I’d hear everything from reggae, jazz, soul & Motown through to the Osmonds. I just knew I loved music.
How did you get your first break?
It was actually Tony who sent off for my first ever audition for a band. He saw an ad in the local paper for a jazz-funk band looking for a lead singer and as he was at my house every week night, he’d hear me singing away whilst getting those very chores done, so took it upon himself to put my name forward. I sang Stevie Wonder’s Superstition and the next thing I knew, I’d got the gig! After being in a couple of bands over a number of years, I was spotted by some management who felt I had something. The next thing I know I’m signing to EMI. It did take over 10 years to get to that point so I definitely put my apprenticeship in as I like to call it.
What would you say is your most iconic track?
That would have to be Could It Be I’m Falling In Love. Having been raised on soul and Motown, when the opportunity first arose to cover this song (originally by the Detroit Spinners), I thought I can’t touch that, it’s a classic. However, they did such a great job on the production that it tends to be our version that’s remembered more. It’s a real honour as well, as I know it’s part of the soundtrack to many people’s lives and even to this day I never get tired of singing it.
With many top 20 hits under your belt, you were a regular performer on Top of The Pops – do you think the music industry misses this era and TOTP’s in particular?
Most definitely. There was such an authenticity to it and to have such an array of artists performing under one roof each week for the show was iconic. There’s nothing like it now, which I think is why it’s always so nostalgic when you see the re-runs popping up on TV as it takes us all back to such a fantastic time.
Is it harder or easier for acts to break through these days and if so why?
I would say easier, but only because you have the opportunity as an artist to release material yourself, without the backing of a major label. Kids are making music in their bedrooms. Software and music production equipment is that much more accessible and affordable, and of course there’s streaming now too so you get to reach people with your music across the world in places where they previously may not have come across you. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard work and to have the financial backing of a label is still needed if you want to hit the major leagues, but social media is so powerful nowadays that it’s great to see people being able to make their own mark.
What’s you most memorable performance and why?
It would actually have to be my first time performing Could It Be on TOTP. Having watched the programme myself for so long and to know that I was about to step out onto the stage myself and become one of those very people was very daunting yet so exciting at the same time. It was also a proud moment to be up there representing my home town of Handsworth, Birmingham and be able to show others that anything is possible.
Who’s been your favourite person to perform with?
I don’t even have to think about that one…Michael McDonald! From the first moment I heard this man’s voice he blew me away. From loving Yam Mo Be There, I Keep Forgettin and Sweet Freedom to then go on to perform On My Own with him as his special guest on his UK tour in the late 80s, I was overwhelmed. Not only that, but we’ve remained such good friends ever since, He’s written songs for my previous albums, my kids call him Uncle Mike and I still tour with him to this very day whenever he’s back in the country. He’s not only one of my favourite people to perform with, he’s one of my favourite people full stop!
You’re from Birmingham, what do you love about the city?
It really is the people who make it for me. I’m so proud to be from Birmingham, born and bred and the cultural diversity of the city and how everyone embraces that, I really do feel is a beautiful thing. There’s such a warmth to the city and the people in it that you just can’t help but love.
You’re appearing at Qavali in Birmingham on 26/02 to launch their new Saturday afternoon Abundance event. Tell us about how it feels to perform in your home town and what hits can we hope to hear you sing?
It’s always a blessing to perform in my home town as it’s not very often I get the chance to do so. I don’t want to give too much away but Could It Be has to be a must, along with a couple of other hits from my catalogue. To be honest, I’m more excited about tasting the food! I’ve been hearing such great things about Qavali so I’m just hoping I can leave the food alone for long enough to sing a song or two!
What’s your favourite feel-good song by any other artist?
It’s got to be The Best of my Love by The Emotions. From the first moment I heard it, it had me. It’s such an instantly uplifting song that can’t help but make you feel good. One of my all-time favourites.
What other plans do you have this year?
There’s so much going on! I have a new single out at the moment with Zed Bias called The Music, which is getting a great response so far. I also have a couple more singles on the way too from March. Then amongst that, there’s plenty of live dates coming in. I can’t wait to pick back up on my tour dates and be out there performing again as I truly missed it during the last couple of years. So you’ll be able to catch me somewhere up and down the country.