When blues guitarist Jarekus Singleton hears Richmond mentioned, something immediately comes to his mind.
“Man, that’s where D’Angelo from!” says the 30-year-old native of Clinton, Mississippi. “I was in the eighth grade when ‘Brown Sugar’ came out. My uncle brought the CD straight to my mama’s house. We got in the car and drove around Mississippi for two hours. [D’Angelo’s] a huge influence on me. He’s got the foundation in blues.”
Like D’Angelo, Singleton grew up playing music and singing in his grandfather’s church. And similarly, outside of church, he was heavy into hip-hop culture, performing his first original lyrics as a rapper. But a career in music wasn’t his first calling. Singleton was tall, athletic, and could play basketball with the nation’s best.
While playing basketball at Southern Mississippi and William Carey universities, he became one of the country’s top scorers. After playing professionally in Europe, he secured tryouts for NBA teams Indiana Pacers and Cleveland Cavaliers.
That’s when his future changed with one play.
“I went up for a shot and a guy came under me. I came down on my right ankle. Freak accident,” he recalls by phone from his home in Jackson, Mississippi. “Tore my cartilage. It’s supposed to look like a golf ball, mine looked like cottage cheese.”
With his basketball dreams over, Singleton was lost and confused, lying in a hospital bed after surgery when an Albert King song, “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” influenced him to pick up his guitar. He says playing it while recuperating got him through the hardship and convinced him to pursue a music career.
Bruce Iglauer, president and founder of the country’s top blues label, Alligator Records, discovered Singleton at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis in 2013. “I was immediately struck by his confidence on stage. He prowled the stage like a lion,” Iglauer says via email.
And it was apparent that Singleton had a vision for bringing fresh, new elements to contemporary blues, Iglauer says: “He didn’t exactly follow the traditional blues chord structures and his rhymes were creative and unpredictable, sometimes funny.”
In the Deep South, Singleton was among the first of the generations to grow up without the blues being played at home. He was unfamiliar with “the rules” of the genre, he says — keeping to traditional A-A-B rhyming structures, 12-bar-verses, shuffle grooves. So he wasn’t bound by them.
“He experimented with nonblues rhythms and grooves and wrote fresh lyrics with the kind of internal rhyming and contemporary references that rappers use,” Iglauer says. “Like, ‘Your brain’s got a private plane’; ‘Nissan couldn’t Pathfind you’; ‘I can only imagine what you’d do for a Klondike.’ These are lines you’d never hear in a normal blues song.”
Singleton says he never looks at it as a conscious decision to combine the two. “I’m not trying to be anybody other than who I am,” he says. “Now I just come up with music first, lyrics after. Like D’Angelo said, ‘I would never betray my heart.’”
With the release of his confident and assured major label debut, “Refuse to Lose,” Singleton is being hailed by critics as a modern-day savior of the blues. The album, co-produced by Iglauer, has been nominated for the prestigious album of the year at the 2015 Blues Music Awards. Singleton also was nominated for contemporary blues male artist of the year and contemporary blues album of the year. Blues and Rhythm magazine in England wrote that he was “destined to be the next big name in the blues world.”
Singleton says it took learning history of the music for him to progress and truly embrace the blues.
“The blues is a feeling, a lifestyle,” he says. “To be a part of a genre that is an honest genre, where you can express your feelings and people tell me, this song helped get them through something or keep pushing, that’s what it’s all about for me. … I thank God for pushing me in this direction.” S
Jarekus Singleton performs at the Capital Alehouse downtown music hall on Friday, Jan. 16, with doors at 8 p.m. and show at 9. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 day of show.