William Topley, in case you haven't heard, is the green-eyed soul singer from England and former leader of underappreciated British band the Blessing, whose 1997 debut solo album was Mercury Nashville's first venture beyond country music. The disc, "Black River," was a success on Triple A radio. Come again?
The alliance between the R&B-influenced vocalist and the land of the hat acts is more organic than might appear. The Blessing's second album, 1994's "Locusts and Wild Honey," was never released, and Topley decided that Music City was as sensible a place as any to launch a comeback.
"Nashville was simply where I based myself for a while," says Topley, a British citizen who maintains a primary residence in London. "The type of stuff that I was writing at the time had elements of the influence of Nashville in there. I needed to get to a place where songwriting was a priority again. When I found myself looking to start things up again, I did feel like that was the best place to be."
Topley's instincts served him well. "Black River," with such popular tracks as "(I Don't Wanna Go) Uptown" and "Drink Called Love" built on his brooding croon and rootsy rock-to- soul textures, sold 35,000 copies and scored heavy airplay in Denver and a handful of other markets.
Critics and others began enthusiastically comparing the singer to Van Morrison, Joe Cocker, Mick Jagger, Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows and Chris Robinson of the Black Crowes, as well as Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes. The object of all that adulation isn't quite so sure about those evaluations.
"Morrison wasn't an influence, although Otis Redding was, as were the Stones and Free and the Who," he says. "I place myself as a rock singer with influences very heavily from black music," he says. " But I'm a white man from England, so I'm hardly a soul singer. That's the kind of music that I've always loved."
Topley's informal musical education began at age 14, when he tuned into '60s R&B scenester Alexis Korner's radio show, Sunday nights on the BBC. Korner introduced a generation of young British musicians to a new world of music, from African high life to Delta blues to reggae to gospel and country. "It was only an hour a week, but I used to record it and listen to it over and over throughout the week," Topley says. "I'm forever grateful for him."
Inspired by those sounds, Topley and several friends assembled a band that played regularly at a high school that indulged their requirements for sound equipment and a steady audience. After high school, he traveled to Spain, Jamaica and New Orleans, immersing himself in those cultures, and formed the Blessing in London in the late '80s.
The group's "Prince of the Deep Water," released in 1991, gained attention for an appealing swampy blues heard on such songs as "Delta Rain," "Highway 5" and "Hurricane Room." The shelved sophomore disc, produced by Rolling Stones vet Jimmy Miller, continued in a similar vein with the likes of "Soul Love" and "Sweetheart."
Those tracks plus two from the made-in-Nashville "Black River" and four new songs recorded in London with Sting guitarist Dominic Miller, appear on the new "Mixed Blessing," a disc that allows listeners to make the connection between Topley's solo and band projects.
"It was nice for me to show a continuation of my work," he says. "I was writing most of the words for the band, anyway. I feel there is a continuum. I don't really see a huge difference between the two things. And it provides four new singles for radio to play without the time it takes to put out a full album for a major producer."
Topley didn't exactly skimp on quality with the new material. "Wake Up (Your Dream Sounds So Sad") is a punchy funk confection that sounds like Robert Palmer in a particularly nasty mood. "Sycamore Street," which kicks in with a Hendrixesque guitar riff, was inspired by "Bird," Clint Eastwood's dark film bio of saxophonist Charlie Parker. "I've had friends like Jimmy Miller who've had problems with heroin addiction," he says.
The sunny "Song of a Seabird" bounces on sunny calypso rhythms, and the twang-edged ballad "Sophia" was inspired by Peter Sellers' one-sided infatuation with Sophia Loren, as detailed in a biography. "She's in first class, I'm in steerage," Topley sings, inadvertently making a reference to that movie about the ship. "That was written long before 'Titanic,' " he insists. "Someone told me that nobody in America would understand what 'steerage' meant, and six weeks later everybody did."
Topley, whose five-piece touring band includes former Blessing members Luke Brighty on guitar and Mike Westergaard on keyboards, negotiated a deal with Mercury Nashville for the reissue of "Prince of the Deep Water" and the first-time appearance of "Locusts and Wild Honey." Both were released on the same day as "Mixed Blessing."
"We've been finally seeing our stuff get out again," he says. "People were paying forty bucks for imports. There must be something about it that connects with people."