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Interview with inspirational Jaki Graham on life after 50 and her journey from disco diva to jazz

Interview by Ceri Wheeldon

From international success as a soul diva in the 80s with hits including ‘Round and Round’ and ‘What’s the Name of Your Game’  to singing Gershwin and Duke Ellington with big bands today , Jaki Graham is proof that you can have longevity and thriving career in the music business in your 50s.

I caught up with Jaki  to ask her about her life and philosophy.

How did you approach your own 50th birthday?

I didn’t even think about it! I thought of it as just another day and just another birthday. My family and friends made more of it than I did! My wedding anniversary is just a few days before my birthday, and we tend to celebrate that more, especially as we were celebrating 36 years of marriage!

36 years of marriage is quite an achievement today – and particularly rare in your industry. What do you credit the success of your relationship to?

Tony and I grew up together – we went to the same school, and have been together since I was 14. It was Tony who got me into bands. He has always encouraged me. We have both enjoyed my career and throughout we have done everything together. He has always kept me grounded. When we were touring and had young children, everyone assumed that we had a nanny and a housekeeper. But we did everything ourselves and were on hand 24 hours a day. We wanted to set a good example to our own children. I came from a broken home and was so lucky to meet the ‘right’ person. When we got married everyone said we were too young, that  I had never been out with anyone else, but I just knew he was the right person. Tony has always been good to me. He spoils me rotten, and we always have good people around us.

Sustaining a long career

How easy has it been to sustain a career in the music business for this length of time?

Everyone assumed when I first came on the scene that I was an overnight success. But that wasn’t the case. I had been playing gigs for 10 or 12 years before I got my break. I learnt my craft. I learnt how to mix, how to get on with people, how to adapt.

I was always earning and learning- and that is still what I do today – I am always learning, and am still learning and growing today.

My hits have stood the test of time. They are mostly songs about peoples lives.  A lot of my songs have been remixed using new technology for the Ibitha Club scene, and young people who are new to my music are now asking me to perform the vocals on new stuff. I love when the different generations come and hear me sing – when I see families listening together it always makes me smile.

I have had to adapt to new technology- what can be done with technology today is incredible- all from tiny studios. I can remember the old days when I made a voice guard to keep me back from the microphone out of a coat hanger and a pair of tights! We improvised then- its all done with gadgets and pressing buttons now!

I have had to adapt too- when I was asked first to sing with the BBC Big Band – and sing Gershwin, at first I thought I couldn’t do it. But then I started listening to the tunes and recognised them from all the old 1920s musicals I used to watch – I realised how many of the songs were actually familiar. After my first performance people came up to me and said they would like to hear me sing more- some were people who had never heard of me before so I was introduced to a new audience, and I introduced people who knew my work to a different genre of music.

After Gershwin I had to call to sing Duke Ellington- that was intimidating- to sings songs previously recorded by greats such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald. What could I bring to these songs?  How could I make them my own? I had to find my own voice and my own style. If you listen to Lady Sings the Blues with Billie Holiday it’s such a sad song – I’m told my version is more cheerful!

You have a new album out now

Yes, For Sentimental Reasons is out now. It’s a very personal album with a lot of jazz undertones.

What advice would you give your children?

What advice do you give to your own children?

I’ve always thought that your children should do better than you. I have never been a confident person – my children have the ones to push me to do things!  I think if you put your mind to things you can do anything. I wish I had been as bright and as confident as my children are when I was their age. We always taught them when we travelled to be pleasant to people and always learn the courtesy words for each country we travelled to – so important to be able to say please, thank you and hello!

I always tell my children to ‘Shine in their own light’. Establish themselves and make use of their talents in the right way.

What advice would you give to women over 50?

Enjoy yourselves- live life. Women over 50 today are looking good and feeling good. Embrace womanhood, this is their time!

Many thanks to Jaki for taking the time out of a hectic schedule to talk to Fabafterfifty –  to find out more about Jaki and her music visit http://www.jaki-graham.com/

Ceri Wheeldon

Ceri is Founder and Editor of Fabafterfifty.co.uk She is a frequent speaker at events and in the media on topics related to women over 50 , including style and living agelessly. With 20+ years experience as a headhunter Ceri also now helps support those looking to extend their working lives.

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