I love writing about talented people. Guess I've always been in awe of those who manage to exceed the creative limits most of us live within and go on to push the boundaries (hey, sounds like a title for a book!!). And so, let me spend a moment telling you about Sean Jones.
Mr. Jones is a Juno award winning R&B singer/songwriter. But that's just the descriptor. What lies beneath his very being is a determination to bring a fresh and contemporary vibe to the classic soul sound that inspires him. Here's what his website explains...
His 200+ live renditions of soulful ballads, funky R&B workouts, and original material have consistently left audiences breathless. Sean has enjoyed a distinguished career that has seen him perform on the shores of Monaco, in the islands of Hawaii, at London’s historic Trafalgar Square, at New York’s Carnegie Hall and The Rainbow Room at Rockefeller Centre. Most recently, Sean has had the honour of opening for Ellen DeGeneres at Rogers Arena in Vancouver, BC and Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, ON.
Not bad, eh? But let me add that Sean brings an incredible dimension to his work that allows him not only to master R&B hits, but to recognize the brilliance of a Great America Songbook tune. The one in particular being "I'll Never Smile Again". You see, a year ago I learned about Sean's interest in this song and managed to interview him along with Miles Raine who plays sax in Sean's backup band and arranges some of the tunes they play. Both gentlemen gave me some wonderful quotes to use in "Until I Smile At You", the book I've recently completed with the help of Tom Sandler, master Canadian photographer and son of the late Ruth Lowe who wrote that song. It was a piece of music – words and tune –that absolutely electrified the career of young Frank Sinatra back in 1940 when he recorded it with the Tommy Dorsey band. The song shot to #1, taking Frankie with it, and stayed atop the charts forever.
"It's like 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow'," Sean told me. "Just pulls you in. I can sink into that song. 'I'll Never Smile Again' is so passionate, and that's what connects me to it."
"It's right up there with the best songs of the Great American Song Book, no question," adds Miles.
Make no mistake, these guys are practiced pros who know what they're talking about. When I chatted with them, we were at Casa Loma where they perform "Soul In The City" to a sell-out crowd of 2,000 people in the glass pavilion found amongst the beautiful gardens. (Now, if you haven't been to Toronto's famed Casa Loma, you owe it to yourself to correct that. Spanish for "Hill House", we're talking a Gothic Revival-style mansion/castle that was constructed in the early years of the 20th century as a residence for financier Sir Henry Pellatt.)
"I'd never heard the song," Sean told me. "I'd never heard of Ruth Lowe. But then I met Tom and he told me about it, and so I started listening to different versions. It was Billie Holiday's interpretation that really struck me. And I remember saying, 'Oh wow! This is something. This is a beautiful song.' And I started trying to sing it. It wasn't until I actually started to sing it that I said, 'Man, this is a gorgeous song!' So then I brought it to the band and they played it so beautifully and we did it for the first time here, at 'Soul in the City'."
"Christian did a gorgeous big band arrangement of it," says Miles, referring to the trombone player who scores some of their sets. "I'd actually heard the song before, but I never connected how important it was. The whole story of the song was important... I mean, a Jewish woman in 1939 and the world's going to hell in a hand basket and she turns around and writes a song dealing with her grief. I just can't get enough of that story."
"Then, we arrive at tonight," says Sean, "where we've got a 26 piece orchestra with strings and flutes and everything. And I just knew we needed to do 'I'll Never Smile Again' with this amazing band."
Indeed, it was stunning.
Before Sean sang the tune, Tom Sandler got up in front of the crowd and briefly explained the significance of the song without mentioning Ruth. When he came to the end of his dissertation, finally stating it had been written by his mother, there was an audible gasp in the crowd.
"I had tears in my eyes with you talking about this," Sean tells Tom after the show. "The way you told the story was perrrrrfect!! I mean, everybody was just like... oh man... a collective gasp out of the audience! It's this honest, sincere passion you have for this story. That's what got me to listen to the actual song. And, you know, it's simple, this song. What it's saying. Simple words and beautiful music. That's what makes it. It hits you. It's honest. And that's the mark of a great song. I'm in love with that song, man. It's such a great tune: it's all there!"
And guess what? Mr. Jones is so infatuated with "I'll Never Smile Again" and the story behind the song, he invited us back this year to recr4ate the magic. And magic it was, complete with Tom once again on stage, talking about his mom on the 105th anniversary of her birth.
So, I ask you: how many guys who specialize in R&B and manage to pull from the huge trove of music that genre reflects... how many guys doing that would have the ability to recognize the brilliance of a song penned 60 years ago by a lady born 105 years ago? Not many, I gotta figure. But it's been a real privilege knowing Sean and Miles and seeing the allegiance to an amazing piece of music that sustains to this day.
Oh, BTW: like to know more about "Until I Smile At You"? Visit ruthlowestory.com