Fans of soul and blues music know that Beale on Broadway is the place to be every Wednesday night. Right around 10:30 p.m., Roland Johnson and Soul Endeavor take the stage and run through a few hours' worth of standards and deep cuts. For many, Johnson's sets are a hump-day tradition and a tonic for the soul.
But for the entirety of the 68-year-old performer's career, Johnson has been singing other people's songs. There's not an ounce of shame in that — few singers in St. Louis can wrest something new out of "Sitting on the Dock of the Bay" like Johnson can — but his new CD, Imagine This, marks a milestone in his long career. Working with songwriters and musicians Paul Niehaus IV (Letter to Memphis) and Kevin O'Connor (7 Shot Screamers), Johnson recorded and co-wrote ten original tracks. Thanks to his spirited performance and the producers' deft touch, the album is a warm, rich and personal document, a high-water mark for St. Louis soul in 2016.
Johnson and Niehaus began working together when the singer contributed to a compilation Niehaus was producing. That song, "Ain't That Loving You," provided a blueprint for future collaboration. Painted with twinkling piano, tremolo-heavy guitar triads and a mellow horn section, the song references the '60s soul tradition that Johnson plumbs in his live sets. But its placid composition provides just enough grit for Johnson to push against, and his range helps the ballad percolate throughout.
"Paul and Kevin had that track already," says Johnson of the song. "I just came in with a story and laid it down. Other than that, we just felt one another through these songs. They played it and I sang — we collaborated."
"He's so good at improvising and classic soul phrasing," says Niehaus. After the initial session for "Ain't That Loving You," the partners agreed to make a new record. "We met once a week and wrote a new song each week."
For Johnson, who had never written a song before, the process was a natural progression of the lessons he's accumulated over the years on stage, interpreting and embodying American soul music.
"We worked together — the stories came from me," says Johnson. "It came from melodies; every melody has a story. I'm about sounds — my ear tells me what it is and I just go with it."
"About half the tracks, he did the lyrics to," says Niehaus, who, along with O'Connor, played the bulk of the instruments on the album. "Most of them were pretty spontaneous — we would do it two or three times and that would be it."
That looseness helps keep the album from sounding too studied or fussy; for Johnson, a live performer first and foremost, the magic comes from the performance rather than the surrounding production. It's a lesson he shared with Niehaus.
"The first take sometimes ended up being the ones that are on the record," says Niehaus. "You couldn't beat the first one. When you have a great, sensitive artist, the first impression is really magical."
Johnson found his collaborators, both gigging musicians and students of local blues, soul and jazz scenes, to be apt partners in the process. "We had a good vibe with each other, in terms of what we brought to the table," he says. "Some things we agree on and some things we don't. As long as we can smile, we're all right."
Johnson says his decision in recording these songs was to make them as "real and raw" as possible. He points to a standout track on the album, "Mother," as an example of how emotions can be translated through music.
"Any time I sing a song, I try to put myself into it," says Johnson. "Everybody wants to play that same old love song, and a lot of times I don't hear that. I'm listening outside of that song. Every song has its own area, in terms of style, and only the listener can bring in what they hear."
Niehaus, 29, hopes to continue working with established R&B artists in this fashion, and plans to do a record with local soul singer Renee Smith, who duets with Johnson a few times on this album. Niehaus' goal is to make "quality original music by these St. Louis artists."
For Johnson, Imagine This is not just a chance to recast his talents in a new form, with his own lyrics. These songs are a continuation of his role as both a singer and a storyteller, regardless of who wrote the story.
"I just want to tell a story, man," he says. "The way I came up, you just told the story just how it was. People wanted to hear the truth. I try to stay in that feel."