A conversation with the rising singer, who headlines two nights South Jazz Cafe this week.
By Rahman Wortman for WXPN
New York’s Samara Joy was destined to be a singer.
Coming from a family filled with gospel artists — like her father Antonio Charles McLendon, and her grandparents Elder Goldwire and Ruth McLendon, who led the Philadelphia-based gospel group The Savettes — it’s not a surprise that the Bronx-born vocalist would end up having a voice that sounds like it was handcrafted by a higher power. Even as a kid, Samara was always surrounded by legendary voices, constantly hearing music from soul legends like Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, and Luther Vandross. Yet even with a background in gospel music, growing up listening to soulful tunes, and singing in church every single week as a worship leader when she was 16 years old, Samara wasn’t sure about being a full-time singer, since it’s not a career that necessarily comes with financial security. However, her mind started to change in 2019 when she won the Sarah Vaughn award.
According to Samara Joy, she wasn’t familiar with jazz music until her college friends started to share songs from their favorite jazz artists. Ironically it was legendary jazz singer Sarah Vaughn’s version of “Lover Man” that won her over to start a career in a genre she was unfamiliar with. Her desire to dive into learning about jazz allowed her to reap blessings that Samara couldn’t fathom — including being recognized by legends such as Academy Award-winning actress Regina King, who praised Samara’s joyful voice during a virtual round table for Hollywood Reporter. The buzz led to her self-titled debut album, released last year and featuring assistance from musicians Pasquale Grasso, Ari Roland, and Kenny Washington. The album found Samara covering timeless jazz hits from The Great American Songbook like “It Only Happens Once,” by Nat King Cole which became one of my favorite songs of 2021.
The positive feedback from platforms such as Ebony Magazine, the Grammy Awards, The New York Times and more put Samara Joy in a position to take her talents all over the world, allowing every crowd that she comes across to be blown away by her voice. In 2022, she is keeping the momentum going by putting out more music ahead of her upcoming sophomore album Linger Awhile and continuing to tour all over the country. Luckily one of the stops on her tour is in Philadelphia at South Jazz Kitchen on North Broad Street on September 8th and 9th. As she prepares to wow the North Philly crowd with her voice, I was able to speak to Samara Joy about a variety of topics such as her early beginnings, how she got into jazz music, her future in songwriting, and her personal connection to the City of Brotherly Love.
Rahman Wortman: You came from a musical family, going back to your grandmother Ruth McLendon, who led the Philadelphia-based gospel group, The Savettes. Is there a song of from their discography that you love or remember hearing when you were a kid?
Samara Joy: There is one, it’s off their album None But the Righteous called “I Hear Music.” In the beginning of the song, my grandmother and her two daughters, my Aunt Patsy and Aunt Beverly, are singing in harmony before my grandfather comes in at the latter part of the song. Every time I listen to it, I’m like “I can’t believe this is my family!” It’s so beautiful and gorgeous.
RW: You mentioned your grandfather, Elder Goldwire McLendon, and I saw an Instagram post where you said that his voice is one of your favorite voices on the planet. What is it about his voice that puts him in your top 5 and are there any pointers that he passed on to you that you used to this day?
SJ: That’s an interesting question because I recently played with pianist Sullivan Fortner, and I showed him a video of my grandfather, and he said that I sounded just like him. I love the tone of his voice and his delivery of every song I heard on The Savettes albums. It’s always some power behind it, some bite and some growl because he’s driving the message home on whatever song that he sings. But at the same time, I would say it’s soothed and very warm…very warm but at the same time very powerful.
RW: Like a gentle giant.
SJ: Mhmm. Even at 91 years old. I think this is going to be his first time coming to a show to hear me sing.
RW: That’s what’s up! You grew up in the Bronx, listening to music that your parents were listening to like Luther Vandross, Chaka Khan, George Duke and Stevie Wonder. However, you got into jazz music in college when your friends started sharing their favorite jazz records with you. The turning point was when you heard Sarah Vaughan’s version of “Lover Man.” What was it about jazz music that made you more interested than the gospel and soul music that you grew up listening to?
SJ: I have all those influences and I love listening to all those singers. With jazz, I was so surprised, because I’m from New York and had never heard it before. I had never listened to Sarah Vaugh or Ella Fitzgerald before. I’m like, this is such an important part of American history and I felt at home in it. I feel like I can explore and apply the same sort of power in my voice and the delivery letting people the way gospel and soul does. We’re talking about love, life, and our experiences and when you come to a live show, hopefully I can communicate that with the songs. It’s a style of singing and I felt comfortable in that style and sound. But because I’ve never listened to jazz, I didn’t want to do was try to go in it uniformed and tell people “This is how you sing jazz and I’m going to do it how I always do any other style!” Don’t get me wrong: I don’t want to copy them, but it was a style before I found out what it was. R&B soul singers study the greats before them, so why shouldn’t I do the same?
RW: You attracted a lot of attention in 2019 after winning the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition. Regina King gave you praises during a virtual conference for the Hollywood Reporter saying you were one of her favorite artists. And Lakeith Stanfield hopped in your DMs to tell you that he loves your voice.
SJ: Bro, I almost met him. I was this close to meeting him bruh, this close! I had a gig in LA, and it ended, and everyone was yelling for one more, so I didn’t get offstage. He was there waiting to see if I was going to meet with people afterward because he had someplace to be and wanted to meet me. I went up and did one more because I didn’t see that man and then he had to go. I should have walked off stage but there was a photographer at the end of it blocking it so I couldn’t do it anyway. I’m so upset at that photographer man because he blocked my one chance to meet him. [sigh] I was so sad about that.
RW: [laugh] I’m pretty sure you two will cross paths again in the future. Is there anyone who has complimented you that still blows your mind?
SJ: Hmmm. Everyone that I meet normally is so sweet, kind, and warm. But I’m thinking about Anita Baker, though. Anita Baker, Jazmine Sullivan, and Melonie Daniels are the ones where I’m like [pause] “Alright!” I don’t have anything to say!
RW: Oh wow! That’s dope getting compliments from legends! Your debut album Samara Joy was your spin on the Great American Songbook, covering classics from legends like Sara Vaughn, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. My favorite song on the album is “It Only Happens Once,” so it was a shock to me to find out that the song I was constantly playing last year was a classic from Nat King Cole. It felt like when I realized Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” wasn’t an original song of his. I’m curious to know what was the most difficult to record and the one you love to perform the most.
SJ: For the first album it was the fastest one, it was called “Let’s Dream in The Moonlight.” I was not used to singing fast tempos at that point and so that was a bit of a challenge for me. I knew that I wanted to try it and see what would happen. My favorite one to perform, which I didn’t expect to be, was “Stardust.” I didn’t choose that song; it was suggested to me as an introduction to the jazz world. “Stardust” is one of the most famous standards to ever be written and recorded and I was hesitant but now I love finding new ways to sing it and realize how beautiful of a song it is. I’m kind of venturing into writing my own songs too, but with any song that I write, I hope to evoke that same feeling that “Stardust” has.
SJ: Not yet! [laughs] I recorded this new album in March. It’s going to be the same as the first album, covering classic jazz hits to the point where maybe you think I wrote it because it was written so long ago and now, we’re doing it again differently. There are some songs on the next album that I wrote lyrics to the melody of and one of the solos. That’s the first step into getting into songwriting. I’m still in the process of writing songs and with all this traveling and touring I have had a lot of time to think and express myself in these different spaces. And I realized that I have something to say, I’m going to try to develop it and make it makes sense to connect with people. But I have something to say, and I want to share it and I hope people receive it.
RW: I like that! I can’t wait to hear what you have in store for the future. You have a show this Thursday and Friday at South, but this isn’t your first time singing in Philly. Not sure if this was the first time, but you performed at Chris’ Jazz Cafe with saxophonist Yesseh Ali in 2020. From your own experience as a singer to your connection to The Savettes, what comes to your mind when you think of music that’s from Philly?
SJ: Wow. I think it’s a place that I’ve always associated with my grandfather, whenever I visited him and my grandmother when she was alive. Whenever we would gather, we would always sing together before we left after dinner. So, I always associated Philly and its music with family, unity, connection, and soul. Even though I’m from New York, it always feels like home to me. I have a connection to Philly. I’m Philly-adjacent. [laughs]