Christian Smalls is the kind of singer that can bowl you over. Known by her stage name Black Diamond, the spellbinding singer is an undeniable force.
Smalls, a Charleston native, is frequently sighted on stages and at private parties all around town thanks to her leadership of the R&B-soul party group The Black Diamond Band as well as her Aretha Franklin and Anita Baker tribute performances. But the power of her voice — a deep, warm timbre that feels imbued with the rich history of Southern soul — is the kind of instantly entrancing sound that locks in an audience.
Despite singing professionally in town for nearly a decade, Smalls is releasing her first single Oct. 21. She said she didn’t intend to take so long to jump into an original project. The momentum of the Black Diamond Band put songwriting somewhat in the backseat as she regularly performed at Henry’s and the Commodore, as well as wedding and corporate gigs.
But Smalls, a Charleston School of the Arts graduate, said she always had an interest in songwriting. She just needed the timing to work out.
“We’ve been so busy, because we are pretty well booked a lot, it takes away time from the creative process,” she said. “But I feel like it’s just a perfect time now to start being creative and getting out there, and that it will open up other avenues for the band.”
The song itself actually came about when Quiana Parler, singer in the Grammy Award-winning jazz-roots group Ranky Tanky, approached her about a collaboration, which became Smalls’ debut single.
“I have always written [songs] — I have pages and pages of songs that I’ve written, but this particular song was just perfect, and it came to me at the right time,” Smalls said.
Her new track, “Winning,” follows an archetypal cheating lover song structure, but stays in a deep soul pocket, aptly showcasing her talents. Riding a slinky guitar riff and deeply embellished with plenty of background vocals, the song feels less like a neo-soul or retro pastiche and more like a lost song from the ’70s that anyone from Aretha to Gladys Knight could have cut.
“The music was the easy part, honestly,” Smalls said, who credits all of her collaborators, especially Parler and producer Mike Brown as well as all the backing musicians, for making it a seamless process. “We have all been performing for a while now,” she said, “so transitioning into original music was just natural, you know?”
As for her influences, Smalls didn’t shy away from the Aretha Franklin connection, but emphasized the late Betty Wright as a key inspiration.
“She was one of the pioneers of the sub-genre of R&B called Southern soul,” Smalls said. “She was legendary. Her range was out of this world.”
Smalls will be celebrating the single release with a “Black Diamond Meet Up” party at Uptown Social 3-6 p.m. Oct. 22, followed by a performance at the Blue Note Bistro in North Charleston for its Southern Soul Brunch 2-5 p.m. Oct. 23. The weekend also coincides with Smalls’ birthday, so the mood will be celebratory.
“I’m kind of just getting into ‘Black Diamond’ the artist,” Smalls said. “I still have the band. But now I’m focusing on my artistry. I’m ready for the people to hear my original music and what I have to say.”
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