Singer Janiva Magness has overcome misfortune and various obstacles to become one of the best blues and R&B singers on the scene today, a performer of enormous charisma, emotion, and energy that has helped her develop a loyal and still-growing following. As one critic once stated, "she can sing anything and make it sound like the blues."
Born in Detroit, Michigan Magness was attracted to music at an early age, inspired by both the blues and country music she found in her father's record collection as well as the city's R&B and soul scene, which revolved around Berry Gordy's Motown Records label. In a 2012 interview with the Detroit Free Press, Magness admitted that "music made me happy at a very early age" and that "I was the kid who knew all the theme songs to TV shows, I could sing all the commercials, I could sing along to all the songs on the radio."
Tragedy would strike Magness by her teenage years however, with both her parents committing suicide by the time she was sixteen years old. Moved from one foster home to another, Magness was basically living in the streets. She became pregnant at the age of seventeen and had to put the baby up for adoption. A downward spiral into drugs and alcohol would follow, until a fateful night in Minneapolis when divine intervention, in the form of blues guitarist Otis Rush, would change the course of her life.
The Power of the Blues
On a snowy night in Minneapolis, Minnesota an underage Magness sneaked into a club to see the great Otis Rush perform, an experience that the singer has likened to being hit by "lightning." Says Magness, in her label biography, "Otis played as if his life depended on it. There was a completely desperate, absolute intensity. I knew, whatever it was, I needed more of it." She would begin going to blues shows whenever possible, watching artists like Johnny Copeland and Albert Collins perform, while also immersing herself in records by greats like Etta James, Aretha Franklin, and James Brown.
It would be several years after her epiphany before Magness actually began singing. While studying to become an engineer and working in a recording studio in St. Paul, Minnesota she was asked by her boss to sing backing vocals on a song. Magness soon began working regularly as a background singer, and through the years she has sung behind talents like Kid Ramos, R.L. Burnside, Catfish Hodge, and others. Magness landed in Phoenix, Arizona in the early 1980s, and formed her first band, Janiva Magness and the Mojomatics, which would later be named the city's best blues band in 1985 by the Phoenix New Times newsweekly.
Going To Los Angeles
Magness moved to Los Angeles in 1986, releasing her debut album, the cassette-only More Than Live, sometime during the mid-1990s. She would release her sophomore effort, It Takes One To Know One, in 1997. Three more independent albums would follow, bringing Magness to the attention of Canadian blues-and-roots label Northern Blues Music, who signed the up-and-coming singer. Two critically-acclaimed releases would follow, Magness co-producing both albums with popular Canadian roots musician Colin Linden.
Magness's 2004 album Bury Him At The Crossroads and 2006's Do I Move You? earned her and Linden a Maple Blues Award and propelled Magness to the upper tier of performers on the international blues scene. After two previous nominations, Magness would win her first Blues Music Award as "Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year" in 2006, following it up with a second award in the same category the following year.
B.B. King Entertainer of the Year
Magness signed with AAlligator Records in 2008, releasing the acclaimed What Love Will Do album later that year. The album earned Magness her third Blues Music Award as well as the honor of being named The Blues Foundation's "B.B. King Entertainer of the Year" for 2009, Magness only the second woman (after the great Koko Taylor) to receive the award. Magness's BMA coup cemented the singer's status as one of the best and most popular performers in the blues world, but rather than resting on her laurels, Magness released the equally-acclaimed The Devil Is An Angel Too album in 2010.
Magness's success in the blues world has spilled over into mainstream music as well, with National Public Radio profiling the singer on the Weekend Edition program, and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal and USA Today writing of her talents. Magness is well-respected by her peers as well, and legends like Bettye LaVette, Mavis Staples, Delbert Clinton, and Charlie Musselwhite have called Magness "the real deal." After a period of personal turmoil, Magness resurfaced in 2012 with Stronger For It, the strongest album of her career, and the first since her debut to include original material penned by the singer.
Foster Care Advocate
Aside from her commitment to the blues, Magness is also a passionate foster care advocate, and the singer has been a spokesperson for Casey Family Program's National Foster Care Month Campaign for the past six years. She is also an ambassador for Foster Care Alumni of America, an organization that focuses on assisting adults who had formerly been part of the foster care system. Magness has also reconnected with the daughter that she had given up for adoption, and is now a proud grandmother.
Of her music, Magness tells the Detroit Free Press, "it took me a long time to figure out what my job is; it's about human connection and the vehicle is the music. In order for me to do my job well, I've got to be able to tell the truth and I've got to be able to bring myself to the songs, which are little movies, little vignettes.
Recommended Albums: It's hard to argue against late-period Magness releases like The Devil Is An Angel Too and Stronger For It, which are excellent collections of blues, soul, and R&B performances, but Magness's Northern Blues Music albums, especially Bury Him At The Crossroads, are nearly as compelling. Fans wanting a taste of the singer's hard-to-find early albums can get them through direct from the Janiva Magness website.
Janiva Magness- Select Discography
(Click on album titles to compare prices on PriceGrabber)
- It Takes One To Know One (Fat Head Records, 1997)
- My Bad Luck Soul (Blues Leaf Records, 1999)
- Blues Ain't Pretty (Blues Leaf Records, 2001)
- Use What You Got (Blues Leaf Records, 2003)
- Bury Him At The Crossroads (Northern Blues Music, 2004)
- Do I Move You? (Northern Blues Music, 2006)
- What Love Will Do (Alligator Records, 2008)
- The Devil Is An Angel Too (Alligator Records, 2010)
- Stronger For It (Alligator Records, 2012)