Album Review: Emma Wilson – Memphis Calling

Memphis calls and Teesside answers. Blues vocalist Emma Wilson hails from the gritty industrial yet picturesque region of Northeast England, and her background includes dates at a wide variety of UK festivals and blues bars. Wilson launched her career as a vocalist at the tender age of 16; a breakout performance was her 2016 appearance alongside British blues/rock royalty at at 2016 London all-star concert in honor of the late bassist-vocalist Jack Bruce. A devotee of Ann Peebles, Wilson’s own approach bears the influence of the famed Memphis soul singer. But as she demonstrated on “Nuthin’,” her spirited 2021 lockdown-era single with Terry Reid, Wilson could play the role of a belter should she choose.

In contrast, though, Wilson’s album debut, 2022’s Wish Her Well collected ten simmering original tunes that showcased Wilson’s lyrical acuity and effortlessly powerful vocal work. Supple yet understated instrumental work kept the focus on Wilson’s sonic assets; she displayed her ability to soar up and down the scale – and facility for wrapping her vocal around a melody – all without showiness or artifice.

Now comes Wilson’s second solo album, Memphis Calling. Enlisting the talents of many of the Bluff City’s finest players (including members of the Hi Rhythm Section), Wilson recorded the album at Sam Phillips Recording Studio. There, award-winning producer (and leader of The Bo-Keys) Scott Bomar made use of the original recording console from Stax Records.

But none of all that would matter if Wilson didn’t bring quality material and her best vocal work. And that she did: from the shimmering and soulful opener “A Small World” to the loping country soul of Eddie Floyd’s “Water” to the yearning “Watching You Leave,” Wilson skillfully blends her Northern soul/blues roots with a decidedly Memphis character.

Wilson showcases her stylistic range by including slow weepers like Willie Mitchell’s “I Still Love You”; her heartfelt delivery wrings plenty of emotion out of the lyrics, and the band turns in a subtle and note-perfect performance as well. Memphis legend Don Bryant joins Wilson on “What Kind of Love,” a thumping soul tune written by Bryant and Bomar that features hypnotic Wurlitzer electric piano, bursts of funky horns and a sultry vocal chorus.

The players’ work is consistently top-flight, but at times listeners may have to focus intently to appreciate it fully. A tasty lead guitar break enhances the already solid “I’ll See You in the Morning” (another Wilson/Reid cowrite), but it’s placed deep into the mix where it’s easy to miss. In contrast, the beefy horn charts of “Drug” (written by Wilson with Bomar) are loud, proud, highly effective and in keeping with the Memphis tradition.

Willie Dixon’s “Hoochie Coochie Man” gets the Wilson treatment on Memphis Calling, here given a slight rewrite and fresh title as “Hoochie Coochie Mama.” The vocalist takes command and makes the tune her own, and the band lends superb, watertight support. The record concludes with a torchy reading of Buddy Johnson’s 1945 chestnut “Since I Fell for You.” An effective jazz/blues ballad, in Wilson’s hands the song acts as an ideal set-closer, one that will leave the listener looking forward to the next album from this versatile singer.