Joan Armatrading Biography

9 December 1950, Basseterre, Saint Kitts, West Indies. Armatrading was the first black female singer-songwriter based in Britain to compete on equal terms with white singers. While Madeleine Bell and P.P. Arnold predated Armatrading’s success, the latter has remained remarkably consistent for over 30 years.

The Armatrading family moved to Birmingham, England, in 1958, and Joan taught herself to play piano and guitar, before meeting Pam Nestor, also a West Indian immigrant. Both were working in a touring cast of the celebrated hippie musical, Hair. Armatrading and Nestor wrote songs together, but Armatrading was given the major role on Whatever’s For Us, her 1972 debut album produced by Gus Dudgeon. Released in the UK on Cube Records, the album was a greater critical than commercial success, and was licensed for North America by A&M Records. Armatrading and Nestor dissolved their partnership after the album; Nestor made an excellent one-off single for Chrysalis Records in the late 70s, but seems not to have recorded since.

By 1975, Armatrading was signed to A&M worldwide, working with producer Pete Gage (husband of Elkie Brooks). The album that resulted, Back To The Night, featured instrumentalists such as Andy Summers (later of the Police) and keyboard player Jean Roussal, but again failed to trouble the chart compilers. The album that first thrust Armatrading into the limelight was Joan Armatrading, released in 1976. The first of four consecutive albums produced by Glyn Johns, it made the UK Top 20 and included her only Top 10 hit single (and her best-known song), ‘Love And Affection’.

The following year’s Show Some Emotion became the first album to reach the UK Top 10, and 1978’s To The Limit made the UK Top 20, although neither album included a hit single. In 1979, her partnership with Johns ended with Steppin’ Out, a live album recorded in the USA, which failed to chart on either side of the Atlantic. Me Myself I, released in 1980, became Armatrading’s first album to reach the US Top 40 and returned her to the UK Top 10. It included two minor UK hit singles in the title track and ‘All The Way From America’. Walk Under Ladders, Armatrading’s 1981 album, was produced by Steve Lillywhite, and among the musicians who contributed to it were the celebrated Jamaican rhythm section of Sly Dunbar and Robbie Shakespeare, plus Andy Partridge of XTC and Thomas Dolby. The Key, which included ‘Drop The Pilot’ (her second-biggest UK hit single, almost reaching the Top 10), largely restored Armatrading to international commercial prominence, peaking just outside the US Top 30 and reaching the UK Top 10.

By this point in her career, Armatrading had a solid core of fans who would buy every album, but were too few in number to provide first-division status. Secret Secrets was produced by Mike Howlett, with guest musicians including Joe Jackson. While the album once again made the UK Top 20, it was not a major US success, despite a sleeve shot taken by celebrated New York photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. 1986’s Sleight Of Hand was Armatrading’s first self-produced album, recorded in her own quaintly named Bumpkin studio and remixed by Lillywhite. This was her least commercially successful album since her debut, stalling outside the UK Top 30 and considerably lower in the USA, even despite the fact that this time the sleeve photographer was Lord Snowdon. The Shouting Stage (1988) was her most impressive album in some time but failed to reach the height achieved by many of its predecessors, despite featuring Mark Knopfler of Dire Straits and Mark Brzezicki of Big Country as guests.

By the 90s Armatrading had reached a plateau in her career that was slightly below the top echelon in commercial terms, but enabled her to continue recording with reasonable success (especially in critical terms) for as long as she desires. Hearts And Flowers (1990) and Square The Circle (1992) again demonstrated that although the quality of Armatrading’s output is seldom less than exemplary, it has rarely achieved its commercial desserts.

In 1994, Armatrading signed to RCA Records after many years with A&M and released What’s Inside the following year. During this period she also contributed her services to a number of charitable concerns, such as the Prince’s Trust and Amnesty International. Armatrading was awarded an MBE in October 2001, following which she returned to the studio to complete her first new album in almost 10 years, the tepid Lovers Speak. Of more note were her 2004 live collection and 2007’s blues album, Into The Blues.

Armatrading is to be applauded for remaining unpretentious, and is also in the enviable position of being able to choose her own touring and recording timetable.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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