PLAYBILL PLAYLIST: Motown Actress and Soul Singer Morgan James Shares Her Musical Inspirations

By Michael Gioia
September 4, 2013

Morgan James, who can currently be seen in Broadway's Motown, will return to Manhattan nightclub 54 Below Sept. 15 at 9:30 PM. In anticipation of her 54 Below concert, James shares her musical inspirations as part of Playbill.com's Playbill Playlist series.



James, who plays Teena Marie and others in Motown, will offer soulful renditions of songs from her debut CD, "Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone," at 54 Below as well as a sampling of new material. The singer-actress was previously seen at the cabaret venue July 15 and July 29.

Her debut recording on Epic Records, "A Celebration of Nina Simone," promises "a selection of songs that show off her extraordinary voice and exquisite gift for merging soul, jazz and R&B in a fresh and thrilling new way." Playbill.com asked James to share her musical inspirations and tell us why they made her list.

James has also been seen on Broadway in Godspell, Wonderland and The Addams Family.

54 Below is located at 254 W. 54th Street. For more information and tickets, visit 54Below.com.

"Save Me" (The high priestess of soul: Nina Simone). I must start with my idol, Nina Simone. One of those most magical and soulful singers of all time — a masterful interpreter of song. In addition, she was a fiery, passionate creator and activist. I had the pleasure of recording my debut album, "Morgan James Live: A Celebration of Nina Simone," so I am very partial. One of my favorite songs is "Save Me" written by… Aretha!

"Ain't No Way" (The Queen of Soul: Aretha Franklin). No one beats the soul, sass and musicianship of the amazing Aretha. I am inspired by and listen to her every single day. I have written a song called "Say the Words" that I would like to think Aretha would choose.

"Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" (The King: Michael Jackson). I am incredibly inspired by the showmanship and work ethic of Michael Jackson. No one works that hard nowadays! He had a hand in every single note he sang and move he made, and he set a new bar. "Wanna Be Startin Somethin" is a sexy, vibey song with a really smart lyric. He made music that challenged us, as well as entertained. (I will be singing an MJ song in my upcoming set at 54 Below… But I can't reveal it yet!)

"Superstition" (The prince of Motown: Stevie Wonder). In honor of the show that I am appearing in, Motown: the Musical, I must mention my favorite Motown artist, Stevie Wonder! Incredible song writing, and he has withstood the test of time… His music gets better to me every year.

"Call My Name" (The sex symbol: Prince). Prince is THE sexiest to me. His music is raunchy, sexy, elegant, sweet — all at once. He is such an incredible songwriter and producer, and he knows exactly what he wants. I so admire his vision. I am very proud of my version of "Call My Name," and I will sing it at the 54 Below show. I hope Prince hears it someday.

"Sweet Thing" (The funk master: Chaka Khan). Oh, she's so BAD. No description necessary. Just hear that vibe, that style, those vocals!

"If It's Over" (The technician: Mariah Carey). So inspired by the incredible instrument that is Mariah! I mean, take apart her riffs and range, and you will have your homework cut out for you! I love a song she wrote with Carole King called "If It's Over." Really beautiful, old-school songwriting.

"Tiger" (The newcomer: Emeli Sande). My favorite new artist! Her entire album is flawless (buy it!), and especially her song called "Tiger." A real soul/pop singer of my generation!

"Dream Variations" (The classicist: Audra McDonald). I would be remiss if I didn't mention one of my theatre inspirations and the reason I wanted to attend The Juilliard School — Audra McDonald. I was/am obsessed with her first two records and wore them OUT! I will always love her pure, clear, soulful art song singing — she reminds me to keep studying (and I do).

"I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" (The sensitive soul: Donny Hathaway). Donny is a real master of song. He always found a way to let the listener in, in a real personal way. His sadness, his darkness is palpable — and makes me feel less alone. A special artist he was. "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know" is one of my favorite songs ever.