Down in the Blue Lotus Studio, located in a handsomely refinished basement in a south city ranch house, a musician noodles away on a Wurlitzer electric piano. Maybe it's an Aretha Franklin or Ray Charles riff, or maybe it's something he's come up with on the spot. Music memorabilia covers every inch of the walls and a drum kit sits at the ready, as do other keyboards and amps. It's a small, crowded man cave, but just fine for live tracking, and it's become the unlikely site of some exceptional blues, R&B and Americana recordings.
The musician sitting at the keyboard, Gene Jackson, is one of the under-appreciated, world-class talents that Blue Lotus has taken under its wing. Paul Niehaus IV, the studio and record label's owner, is a multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and self-taught engineer. At Blue Lotus, he has recorded tracks for the St. Louis Blues Society's recent homegrown anthologies (one in 2015, 2016 and a third to be completed this year) and realized the first album of original material by veteran soulman Roland Johnson, Imagine This, the label's inaugural release. This year Jackson's very first album, 1963, emerged with a sound like few other releases on the contemporary blues and soul scene. The recordings all have an indisputably '60s R&B character, yet they also feel utterly contemporary, speaking directly to the vitality of this so very St. Louis sound.
"My goal is to make as much music and get it out to the world as possible," Niehaus says. "I've been recording for years, but it takes a while 'til you get the skills and the ear. As an engineer, you may not always agree with decisions that are made after the record comes out. So by running a record label and doing the recordings, you get to work long-term and have more control over how the music is presented."
That control affords Niehaus and the artists he works with the freedom to make records they otherwise might not dare to imagine. Johnson's album sounds like a lost Stax-Volt classic, with the singer's weathered, instinctive voice storming through original songs all arranged with inspiration and grit. And yet there isn't a recognizable cover to be found on the album, an inspired choice for an artist who, like his labelmate Jackson, has long made his name and living by delivering the hits blues that bar-goers are accustomed to hearing.
"Audiences are wanting to hear our original songs, and the more they know about the original music, the more they want to hear it," Jackson says. "When I put this record out, people said, 'That ain't the way you sing, that ain't your style.' I know! I want to be different than I was."
Now 57, Jackson has had a long but under-the-radar career in St. Louis. He grew up in the Pruitt-Igoe projects, sang in the church, and as a teenager persuaded his mother, who worked with Ike and Tina Turner, to sign the papers that would allow him to tour the Chitlin' Circuit with the likes of Ikette Robbie Montgomery and perform with soul diva Barbara Carr.
"I'd put a hat on, shades, and pretend I was much older than I was," he laughs. "I got that bug. I couldn't get rid of it. But I sacrificed a lot. Three marriages, you know!"
Prior to the release of 1963, Jackson's only recording was the single "The Night I Fell in Love," which became a favorite of Northern Soul DJs in the UK. According to Jackson, label B.C.S.K. Records has never paid him any royalties and, as if following the industry rip-off script, changed his name on the record to Jean Jackson.
Part of what makes the Blue Lotus enterprise different is the trust, both creative and commercial, that Niehaus has built with the artists.
"One thing about Paul is his word is his bond," Jackson says. "I didn't trust people because of all the rip-offs. But you couldn't pay me for what Paul has done. There ain't nobody else looking out for artists like me."
Inspired by the success of Johnson's release, Jackson sought out Niehaus and Blue Lotus to give his own songs a shot. Over the span of about five months, the two began writing together, with Niehaus largely creating riffs and melodies and Jackson composing lyrics that drew from his R&B and '60s pop foundation and also tapped into his own story. The album's most powerful collaboration pays tribute to Jackson's son, a victim of drug addiction; it was inspired by a simple bass riff from Niehaus.
"I had so many songs over the years," Jackson says. "I'd make up a beat and write out the lyrics. But I never had anybody that I could work with. I was going crazy. I wish I could have met Paul twenty years ago. He's a young, creative mind. And he has the hunger. Everything is fresh."
"The musicians I'm working with have the experience of improvising with bands," notes Niehaus. "An artist like Gene has that muscle to create on the fly, and so the opportunity to work with someone like that is a blessing. If I make an instrumental, and put all the parts and the bars together, he'll come back with the lyrics, and it will make sense, from beginning to end."
While the Blue Lotus label may yet be too young to have an identifiable sound, the richness of textures, capturing both the pop spirit of Motown and the sweat of Stax, is perhaps its most singular trait. St. Louis musician Kevin O'Connor, who was a long-time member of rockabilly band 7 Shot Screamers and who continues to work with the Loot Rock Gang, Little Rachel and others, co-produces and lays down drum parts. He also arranged the strings that lend a unique drama and vigor to both Johnson and Jackson's albums.
On August 12, Blue Lotus will host a label revue at Off Broadway. Johnson and Jackson will get the opportunity to perform together, and they'll be joined by Renee Smith, who is also recording for the label, as well as rockabilly crooner Everett Dean, Devon Cahill (formerly of Letter to Memphis) and Honeybaked and the Choice Cuts, led by Daniel Hamm, who recently returned to his native St. Louis from Portland, Oregon. Along with working on albums for Smith and Hamm, Niehaus plans to record R&B singer Charisse "Swan" Sauls and already has seven songs written with Jackson for a follow-up to 1963. The two are also looking to write for other artists as well.
This fall, Niehaus and Jackson will head to Montana to perform at the Covellite Film Festival, and hope to build enough of a reputation for the label to sustain other tours, possibly to Europe. And Blue Lotus might be finding that elusive national attention. Both Johnson and Jackson's albums have recently been nominated for Blues Blast Awards (hosted by the Blues Blast magazine).
"I'm not looking for fame," Jackson says. "I just want to get the message out. So I'm still out here grinding. That's what I've got to do."