Musician Profile: Millie Jackson’s Crisco Tears and Deleted Laughter

Millie Jackson at HowardTheatre
Millie Jackson in concert in Washington, D.C., Aug. 3, 2012 (Photo: Polyester-queen)

Smiling under a wide-brimmed bright red hat as she sprawls in a chair at Spring Records’ New York office, Millie Jackson bears little resemblance to the picture of her that dominates the cover of her second album. There, we see Millie holding an old-fashioned French telephone to her ear while a large tear rolls down her cheek.

The picture is consistent, though, with the sort of material Millie records. Using a rhythm and blues backup on her albums, she sings convincingly of hypocrisy, men who double-cross her, and “letters full of tears.” While Millie’s LP repertoire is by no means devoid of happy songs, there are decidedly too few of them to prepare you for this bouncy woman who sprinkles her talk with frequent jokes and whose irrepressible grin turns easily to laughter.

Trying to explain the apparent contradiction between her music and her manner, Millie points out that singing is a lot like acting. As for the wet-faced album cover: “Well, of course, it was a real tear. Real Crisco. You can’t photograph a real tear; it runs too fast. So we were lookin’ around for some glycerine. I didn’t have any. I mean, who just keeps glycerine layin’ around? So I figured a little vegetable oil won’t hurt. That’s a polyunsaturated tear!”

Millie is an old hand at posing for pictures. When she first came north from Thompson, Georgia to launch a career in music, she had to turn to modeling and a variety of other jobs to meet living expenses; at 15, she was too young to get a cabaret license. Even after she was old enough to surmount the legal barrier, bookings were not initially as plentiful as her record company’s bio today indicates.

“Well, I never backed up Little Richard,” says Millie, scanning the supposedly biographical sketch. “That’s just not true. I did play in Hoboken [N.J.], but only because I’d been hired for another job and didn’t get paid. See, the guy ran out with the money but his partner felt sorry for me so he gave me a job the next week in Hoboken.”

Another line from Millie’s bio—in which she is termed an “adept pianist”—draws a quick denial. “I play just well enough to write songs. I can’t even sing when I’m playing.” She points to her new four-track tape recorder, a Christmas gift from her record company. “But now I can play my songs, do the chords, overdub and play the melody, go back, sing, and end up with me doing it all. My friends listen to it, say, ‘Oh, she’s great,’ and they don’t know ’bout all the overdubbin’!”

Though she soft-pedals her own talents, Millie has received increasing recognition from a variety of sources. In 1972, after signing with the Spring label, she released her first album and was named the year’s “Most Promising Female Vocalist” by the National Association of Radio and Television Artists. A year later, with four chart singles to her credit and a second LP out, Millie was designated by Cashbox as “Best Female R&B Vocalist.” Her biggest 45 so far, “It Hurts So Good” (the title cut from the second album) was featured prominently in the Cleopatra Jones film soundtrack, as was another tune from the same record. Now, a third LP is taking off, and a fourth, tentatively set for June release, represents her most ambitious and potentially most successful project to date.

On the new album, which has been assigned the working title Wifes-in-Law, Millie sings about a lovers’ triangle. You get a wife’s viewpoint on one side of the record; flip it over and you meet her husband’s girlfriend. To tell their stories, Millie recorded an eclectic grouping of tunes, including some originals, plus songs that were hits for Bobby Womack, Bobby Goldsboro, and Luther Ingram.

Her extended version of the Ingram tune, “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong,” had earlier proved a favorite at Millie’s concerts. It sparked the idea for the concept album and also led to a change in studio procedure. In the past, Millie had been allowed little control over the arrangement of material she was to record, but now it was decided that “If Lovin’ You Is Wrong” would be done just as she had performed it onstage.

“So I had to go down and teach the musicians exactly how I do it. And then, since we wanted to work the album around that particular song, we had to get together to figure out what else we wanted and how we wanted to do it.”

Millie was permitted more artistic freedom than ever before in making this LP and she is enthused about the result. But she feels that an important part of her personality is not coming across on record. “I think I’d like to be a comedienne,” she says, “because my basic nature is . . . flippy. It’s me naturally. You know, I notice when I’m crackin’ jokes and things, people say, ‘You’re the black Carol Burnett.'”

Couldn’t Millie integrate this side of her character into her recordings? “I’d like it to be but it probably wouldn’t sell. See, up until now, I’m singin’ mostly other people’s songs. And I feel like the producer has his idea of how it should be done. So I can’t really get much of me into it.

“I can put my sound into it, my phrasing into it. But if I decide to do something silly and ridiculous, they’re gonna take it out. Or even if they let it stay in for my benefit, when the record comes out, they’ve edited it out, anyway.

“Like on this album we’ve been talking about, I laughed. It was just a natural laugh and I felt it should be left on the album. But it won’t be on there.”

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