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Blues by the Bay, Vol.
by BOB DORAN
EVERY SPRING AN ORGANIZATION
IN MEMPHIS, TENN., the Blues Foundation, honors the country's
top blues musicians with what are called the W. C. Handy Blues
Awards. Named for "Father of the Blues" William Christopher
Handy, who wrote classic tunes like "St. Louis Blues,"
the awards are the blues world's equivalent of the Grammys or
The artists performing at Blues
by the Bay Vol. VI this weekend have earned their fair share.
Sunday's lineup includes a band called the W.C. Handy All Stars
with Debbie Davies, Duke Robillard and Billy Boy Arnold, all
Handy award winners and nominees. They will be followed by blues
belter Shemekia Copeland, winner of the Handy award for "Best
Contemporary Female Vocalist" two years running and Marcia
Ball, who was nominated for five Handys this year and
took one home for the "Album of the Year."
The top of the bill Saturday
at Blues by the Bay is Koko Taylor, a woman known as the "Queen
of the Blues." Since the Blues Foundation began handing
out Handys in 1980, Taylor has received 22, including 13 for
"Contemporary Female Artist of the Year." This year,
for the sixth time, she took home an award for "Traditional
Female Artist of the Year."
Queen of the
sincerely believes the blues are in her blood. "I think
I was born trying to sing the blues," she said in a phone
interview from somewhere on the road.
Born to sharecropper parents
in a small town outside of Memphis, Taylor grew up working in
the fields. Her introduction to the blues was through WDIA, a
Memphis radio station. She and her brothers had to sneak off
to listen since her father allowed nothing at home but gospel.
"Daddy said the blues was
the devil's music," said Taylor. "We loved the blues,
but he didn't know we were listening to it. That music on the
radio, that was the beginning, that was the start. After that
I knew what I wanted to listen to -- nothing but the blues."
By the time Koko was 11, both
her parents had died. She and her brothers bounced from one relative
to another until they were old enough to fend for themselves.
When she was 18, Koko met a guitar-playing truck driver, Robert
"Pop" Taylor, who took her to Chicago where they married
and found work.
"I was working for some
rich white family up on Chicago's North Shore -- taking care
of their kids, washing, ironing, cleaning, cooking, doing everything.
Pop worked for a packing company where they would slaughter cows
and that sort of thing."
Weekends they hit the town checking
out Chicago's hot blues scene.
"We would go to different
clubs and my husband would tell them, `Yeah, my wife loves to
sing the blues.' All of the guys got to know me and they'd call
me up to do a number with them. I was sitting in one weekend
with Howlin' Wolf and when I finished singing, here come this
big man. He walks over to me and says, `My God, I never heard
a woman sing the blues like you sing the blues. Where did you
"I said, `Memphis, and
who are you that wants to know?' He said, `Willie Dixon.' And
he said, `What the world needs today is a woman like you to sing
the blues. We've got plenty of men but no women.'"
Dixon was a major mover in the
Chicago scene, the writer of blues standards including "Little
Red Rooster," "Back Door Man" and "Spoonful."
"Wang Dang Doodle" was a song he wrote for Taylor.
It became a major hit, enabling her to quit her housekeeping
job, and it was her signature number when she began a career
as a full-time musician.
"That song went over so
big and sold so many records. I was going all over the world.
And I haven't slowed up since. I'm still singing the blues."
Marcia Ball grew up in Vinton, a
small French Cajun town in southwestern Louisiana, "about
10 blocks by 10 blocks." Her family was Cajun, and music
was part of daily life.
"As a matter of fact, my
grandmother played ragtime and accompanied the silent movies
in Lafayette, La., when she was young. She left me a window box
full of Tin Pan Alley sheet music and a head full of those old
melodies," said Ball in a call from her home in Austin,
Texas. "My aunt played popular music from the '40s and '50s,
including boogie woogie, and my cousin and I had a friendly competition
on who could learn the most. And a lot of that music was blues."
As she grew older Marcia turned
towards rock `n' roll. When she dropped out of Louisiana State
University in the early '70s and headed west with her first husband,
she landed in Austin and started playing country music.
"But when it came time
to write songs and go forward with my own music, the natural
thing was for me to play what I grew up listening to -- and that
was blues," she said. "I was fortunate to find a direction
that worked for me, that worked for the instrument that I play."
Ball has developed a piano style
that draws on the boogie woogie she learned from her aunt along
with hints of Texas blues and the unmistakable sound of New Orleans.
"When people ask what kind
of music I play, for simplicity sake I say `Blues.' But if it's
more specific, I try to explain what New Orleans rhythm and blues
is -- and I can't -- I just say, `You know, like Fats Domino.'
And just about everyone will say, `Oh, I love Fats Domino.' It
seems to be a style that appeals to a broad range of people.
When I delved a little deeper, I discovered Professor Longhair
[a legendary although obscure New Orleans piano player] and that
made me realize there was a whole body of work I could explore
While the music of New Orleans
still plays a major role in her sound, her lyrics reflect the
fact that she settled in Austin over 30 years ago.
"When it comes to lyrics,
the bar has been set high for songwriting here in Texas. So in
addition to wanting to write my fun and funky melodies, I still
want to portray a certain message too, and I want to say it well."
Ball penned five of the 13 songs
on her latest album, Presumed Innocent [the "album
of the year" winner]. It shows an artist at the peak
of her craft, dropping in boogie riffs, Cajun sounds, torch songs
and plenty of blues.
Robillard is a key figure in the
second generation blues scene. Raised in Harrisville, R.I., "a
little country town," Robillard discovered the blues when
his older brother started bringing home rock `n' roll records
in the mid-'50s. In a call from Canada where he was touring with
his band, he recalled his mother's reaction to his intense interest
"She didn't want me to
have an electric guitar. Rock `n' roll was a new thing and it
scared the hell out of her. My uncle finally got somebody to
give me a beat-up acoustic one. A few years later I took the
neck and some of the parts off it, and with my father built an
electric guitar for a science project. I won second place --
and about a week later I was in a band."
His interest in guitars and
the blues continued unabated. In 1967, 19 years old and fresh
out of high school, he founded a band called Roomful of Blues.
He would lead the band for 12 years, exploring blues, rhythm
and blues and jump swing before moving on to a solo career. Besides
recording 17 albums under his own name, he has been a session
player on scores of albums including Bob Dylan's Grammy-winning
Time Out of Mind.
"As far as my own recordings
go, I tend to go back and forth between different aspects of
the (blues) genre. My newest album, Living With the Blues,
is all blues, but with many different styles: jump blues, Chicago-style
blues, there's an acoustic tune. My guitar sound is definitely
rooted in music that comes from the '40s and '50s. We cover a
wide variety of styles, but I think I have my own voice in all
Robillard is also developing
his own voice as a producer. "A lot of people I've been
working with -- Jimmy Witherspoon, Roscoe Gordon, Ruth Brown,
Jay McShann, Billy Boy Arnold -- are all people who have been
idols of mine. When I was young, I never thought I would even
meet them, never mind be in the studio producing them and playing
For the last three years Robillard,
a two-time Handy winner, has led the W.C. Handy All Stars. "Basically
it's the Duke Robillard Band backing up other artists who are
also award winners or nominees," he explained. For Blues
by the Bay the band will back Debbie Davies and Billy Boy Arnold,
two artists whose most recent records were produced by Robillard.
"Billie Boy Arnold is an
early '50s Chicago blues artist, a great singer and a great harp
player," said Robillard. "When he was very young he
played harmonica with Bo Diddley and is on some of his famous
recordings like `I'm a Man.' He also started recording his own
singles in the '50s and had some hits. He did `I Ain't Got You,'
which Eric Clapton recorded when he was with the Yardbirds. He
wrote a lot of really great songs. In the last 10 years or so
he's made a comeback, recording a few albums and doing dates.
I produced his latest album, Boogie and Shuffle, which
I think is a really strong Chicago blues album."
started her professional music career at an early age, but she
didn't start out playing the blues. When Davies was growing up
in the San Fernando Valley, her father, Alan Davies, was a studio
musician and vocal arranger in Los Angeles. Debbie sang at home
and in the school chorus, and since dad sometimes needed kids
to sing, Debbie ended up doing TV soundtracks, commercials and
records. Hers is among the voices you hear in the "It's
a Small World" exhibit at Disneyland.
How did she move from that into
"With a great deal of rebellion,
actually," said Davies in a call from her home in Connecticut.
"Even though my parents were music types, they were pretty
conservative; they weren't into much outside of classical and
jazz. As the rock scene was coming on, most parents feared it
for their kids. They figured if you started playing rock music
you would become a delinquent and do drugs and alcohol -- which
is basically true."
After high school she headed
north to attend Sonoma State University. She joined a blues band,
not as a guitarist but as the singer. "I got an electric
guitar and started doing it, but at that time the guys in the
band would just kind of laugh at me. I realized if I wanted to
play, I would have to run my own band. So I quit, took one of
the guitar players with me and started a new band."
Ten years later, in 1984, after
playing in a string of blues bands around the Bay Area, Davies
moved back to Los Angeles. "As it turned out there was a
flourishing blues scene in L.A. at that time. Blues artists like
Albert Collins and John Mayall and Bonnie Raitt lived there when
they weren't on the road. I met everybody."
Among those she met was Maggie
Mayall, John's wife. She was putting together an all-women blues
band to open for her husband on tour and Davies got the gig.
"That led to a romance with one of John's guitar players,
Coco Montoya. We lived together for a while -- it was just the
blues household. And through Coco, I met Albert Collins."
The timing was right. Collins,
known as "the Master of the Telecaster," was heading
out on tour and was in need of a second guitarist.
"With Maggie Mayall we
were writing songs trying to get a record deal, the whole thing.
We were just a little bit ahead of our time as far as the record
industry was concerned. There weren't too many women signed at
the time. Albert was kind of knocked out by what I was doing."
While female vocalists have
been a constant, a woman guitar slinger was a still a rarity.
Collins didn't care. He took Davies out on the road and took
her under his wing.
"It was wonderful. I worked
with him for three years. I got to tour with him and cut an album
Then it was time to do her own
thing -- and Davies hasn't let up since. A decade and eight albums
later, and she's at the top of her game, nominated (along with
Marcia Ball and Shemekia Copeland) for a 2002 Handy for "Contemporary
Female Blues Artist of the Year."
Queens of Etc.
The major change-up in Saturday's lineup is a shift
into music that has absolutely no connection to the blues. And
chances are the Mahotella
Queens will steal the show. The
trio of grandmothers from South Africa are pioneers of a music
known as mbaquanga, township jive or, in the title of an album
that brought the music to America, The Indestructible Beat
"Mbaquanga is a Zulu word
for a special bread," explained Hilda Tloubatla, one of
the Queens, in a call from a California motel. "In the olden
days our grandmothers used to bake this special bread made out
of ground white beans and dried corn we called mele-meal. That
concoction they called mbaquanga. Our music is made out of a
lot of different rhythms and different musics. We sing in all
the nine languages of our country, hence we called the music
In the early 1960s Tloubatla,
Mildred Mangxola and Nobesuthu Mbadu were dubbed the Mahotella
Queens by record producer Rupert Bopape, who hired them as back-up
singers for Simon Nkabindé Mahlathini, a gravel-voiced
singer known as the "Lion of Soweto." They were backed
by a lively band with a ringing guitar sound, the Makgona Tsothle
Band, "The Band Who Knows Everything."
According to Tloubatla, in the
beginning mbaquanga was mostly based on traditional South African
wedding songs. "During those days we would never sing about
politics. You would be arrested or something worse would happen
to you. Our songs in those days used to be censored before they
could play them over the air. We would sing about love."
Despite the fact that their
country was going through hard times, the music expressed a joy
that helped ease the pain of the struggle with apartheid.
"We got used to it. There
was nothing else we could do," said Tloubatla. "Just
sitting there crying in pain didn't help. We just said to ourselves,
`Well we are born in this country with this kind of situation.
We are going to live with it and make ourselves happy.'"
A lot of things have changed
since freedom came to South Africa when apartheid ended.
"Now you are allowed, you
can compose a song to talk about politics or whatever. In most
cases we compose our lyrics based on what is happening in daily
The Queens' latest album, Sebai
Bai, includes a song called "Masibambaneni" addressing
the situation in their homeland. "It says, `Let's come together.
Let's hold hands, both black and white. Let's be together.' It's
a hope for the future of our country."
And how will the Queens' mbaquanga
fit in with a blues festival? "Our music is totally different,
so it will be like cooling off your mind from the blues as you
get into our rhythms. You will say, `My God, something new. This
is good music!'"
A lot of people say they were born to sing the
back up the claim. Her father was the late great Texas blues
guitarist Johnny Copeland. When she was 8 years old he dragged
her up on stage to sing with him at the Cotton Club in Shemekia's
home town, Harlem -- and she had the pipes to do it.
By the time she was 16, her
father had been diagnosed with a heart condition and his health
was beginning to fail. He began taking Shemekia on the road with
him and she belted out the blues, opening and sometimes stealing
In 1998, when she was 20, the
year after her father died, Shemekia released Turn the Heat
Up, her first album for Alligator Records. Wicked
followed in 2001. This year Shemekia took home the Handy for
"Contemporary Female Artist of the Year," an award
she also won last year, along with awards for "Song of the
Year" and "Album of the Year" for her Wicked
disc. Her music shows an artist with her own unique sound --
and a dedication to her blues heritage.
"I listen to Koko Taylor,
Katie Webster, Trudy Lynn, Etta James. But I don't try to copy
them," said Shemekia in an interview for the Handy Awards.
"I just take little things from each one and add them to
my style. But for as long as I live my father's music will live
through me. I feel his spirit on stage every night. As long as
I'm here, the blues will always be in me and I'm gonna be spreading
it around the world. I'm going to keep on doing this and make
my daddy proud."
swing, brass blues, etc.
THE BONESHAKERS [photo
at right] AMAZED THE CROWD AT Blues
by the Bay Vol. 2 back in 1998, the band, a spin-off from Don
Was' project, Was (Not Was), had just released it's second album.
Not long after that, vocalist Sweet Pea Atkinson and guitarist
Randy Jacobs parted ways. Now the band is born again for more
rock solid funk and blues, this time with vocalist Malford Milligan.
Born in Austin, Milligan also sings with a resurrected version
of Double Trouble featuring Chris Layton and Tommy Shannon, two-thirds
of Stevie Ray Vaughan's awesome power trio.
Lucky and the Rhumba Bums [photo at left]
return to Eureka after making a splash at the Dixieland festival
a couple of years back. And no, they are not a Cuban band. Guitar-playing
lead singer Miss Carmen Getit's retro outfits and a horn section
and upright bass might suggest swing or neo-swing, but according
to bandleader/piano man Steve Lucky, the Bums play the blues,
specifically jump blues.
In a call from his Oakland home,
Lucky explained: "While a lot of the neo-swing bands came
out of rock 'n' roll or were even punk musicians, I come from
a blues background. [Lucky played keys for Johnny Copeland for
years.] And half of the band are stone jazz musicians. Musically
that sets us apart. Then you've got Carmen and me up there making
fools of ourselves doing duets and lots of `repartee,' as they
say. Musically we take ourselves seriously, but we like to have
fun. It's humorous at times; I like to think so anyway."
20-year-old blues guitar whiz Corby Yates [photo at right] has
been tearing it up Hendrix/Stevie Ray Vaughn-style since he was
14. In a call from his home in Santa Cruz, Yates said that his
musical education began when he was 6.
"My dad played guitar a
lot and he had guitars around the house. I'd play around and
strum on them. I loved Led Zeppelin. I wanted to hear them all
the time and to play their songs."
Yates took lessons briefly in
sixth grade, but learned more by listening to his heroes. "I've
got this little machine. It's called a Rock 'n' Play, you can
switch it to half speed and hear the records that way. I'd slow
down the songs and figure them out note by note."
His debut record, Corby Yates,
was released late last year. It mixes blues, rock and funk on
a combination of originals and covers. Yates sees it as the next
step toward making the blues his permanent career.
"I just want to see how
far it will take me and keep having fun doing it," he said.
"Music has always been something I like to do; it works
out good being able to make money doing what I want."
The concept behind the Brass Money Brass Band was simple: assemble a New Orleans-style brass
band, a la the Dirty Dozen, for a San Francisco Mardi Gras party.
A tuba player and a couple of percussionists capable of playing
on their feet make up the rhythm section. Saxes, trombones and
a trumpet player provide the rest of the brass. The repertoire
ranges from New Orleans classics to covers of Led Zeppelin and
Stevie Wonder. The idea stuck, good times and good music ensued.
Karen Dumont, leader of the Arcata
Interfaith Gospel Choir and a blues and jazz powerhouse in her
own right, returns to Blues by the Bay for the second year in
a row, with sets both Saturday and Sunday. It's a busy weekend
for Dumont. She's also singing at Saffire Rose Thursday night
and at the Eureka Inn Friday night.
Friends of the singer Lesa Katani
gathered last Tuesday night at the Bayside Grange for a joyous
wake in her memory. Katani's band, Bliss Cookie, was supposed
to open the show Saturday at Blues by the Bay. Instead the Double Downs, a band put together by guitarist Andy Widman,
will offer a tribute to Lesa.
Blues by the Bay, Volume VI
Waterfront Park, foot of L
St., Eureka, Calif.
SATURDAY, JULY 13
11:15 a.m. The Double Downs tribute
to Lesa Katani
Noon. The Boneshakers
1:15 p.m. Karen Dumont and the
2:20 p.m. Mahotella Queens
3:35 p.m. Brass Monkey Brass
4:40 p.m. Koko Taylor and Her
SUNDAY, JULY 14
11:15 a.m. Karen Dumont and the
Noon. W.C. Handy All Stars featuring
the Duke Robillard Band with Debbie Davies and Billy Boy Arnold
1:15 p.m. Corby Yates
2:20 p.m. Shemekia Copeland
3:35 p.m. Steve Lucky and the
4:40 p.m. Marcia Ball
Admission is $25 a day, $40 for
Two-day youth ticket for those 13-20 is $25; 12 and under free.
Call Redwood Coast Festivals at 445-3378 for further information
or go to
Presented by Redwood Coast Music
Festivals - 445-3378
No coolers, cans, bottles or pets, please.
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