Friday, October 26, 2018

A Chat With........Barbara Blue, The Queen of Beale Street

It's been awhile since FBF sat down and talked with any blues folks.  Actually, time constraints have made it pretty difficult for your humble correspondent to put one together during the past couple of years and, hopefully, that will start to change in the near's just a day to day thing right now.  However, this week's post will feature a chat (yes, I know that we've been calling these "Ten Questions With......." in the past, but we slightly exceeded our Ten Question limit more so than usual this time around) with the Queen of Beale Street, Ms. Barbara Blue.  

Now, I've been listening to Barbara Blue for nearly 17 years, since I first reviewed her Sell My Jewelry album for Blues Bytes.  She was compared to Etta James and Janis Joplin (I've always leaned more toward the Etta comparisons).  Since then, we've kept in touch via email and later Facebook, and it's been a thrill watching her develop as a singer/songwriter/performer as each subsequent album has exceeded the quality of its predecessor.  She's one of the most powerful blues singers out there these days, equally adept in the soul/R&B vein and blues-rock, but trust me, she FEELS the blues from her head down to her shoes.  

Actually, I sent her these questions after the release of her previous album, Memphis Blues - Sweet, Strong & Tight, but for one reason or another, we were never able to get things started or finished, and when the blog went on hiatus, it sort of fell by the wayside.  Flash forward a couple of years and we touched base again and got it together just in time for her latest album release, Fish in Dirty H2O on her own BIG Blue Records, which is one that blues fans definitely need to add to their collection.  If you haven't heard her before listening to this one, though, you will definitely want to hear more.  After you finish reading here, be sure to visit Barbara's website and check out some of her music.  You'll be glad that you did.

A Chat With.....Barbara Blue, Queen of Beale Street

Friday Blues Fix:  How does a girl from Pittsburgh, PA become the Queen of Beale Street?

Barbara Blue:  Hmmmmmm….. I’ve been there 21+ years 5 nights a week…..  lots of hard work….  Over 5000 shows on the same stage night after night promoting Memphis, Blues & Memphis Music.  I guess I have to credit Mr. Larry Nix with “calling” me THE Queen of Beale Street …… and I opted for the Reigning Queen of Beale Street….  Ms. Ruby (Wilson) was still alive then and we were friendly ….and I wasn’t out to take her title or hurt her feelings ….but it stuck. Especially after I recorded my 7th CD …..Royal Blue out of Willie Mitchell’s “Royal” Studios.  It just all seemed to work.  

FBF:  Were you a fan of the blues from the beginning, or did you arrive there from another style of music?

BB:  I arrived in the world screaming Oct 12, 1958.  I had been born with colic.  My beautiful mother and I make a joke I arrived the same way I will exit.  Ha!!  There was ALWAYS music in my life…. if not the radio, records, or the TV, school choirs, school plays, church, HS marching band.  I was always exposed to the blues and always had the blues.  I was a chubby kid / tomboyish (I had 4 brothers) …… my mum & dad always played records: Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, Petula Clark, Tom Jones, The Rat Pack, Eddie Arnold, Meet The Beatles, Peggy Lee, and on and on …..  I taught myself guitar and held concerts in my back yard with neighborhood kids…..  I didn’t play many song over 4-6 chords!!  But I have a LOVE for Jazz & Country…..  Moved to AZ in 1977 and played any gig I could, mostly biker bars and open mic nights and little gigs here and there…..Then I met my first ex-husband and moved to Detroit MI…..  I would go out on talent nights and sing.  One of the highest paying was a country gig …and I love singing Patsy Cline, Willie, Waylon & the boys …..and one night in particular the guitar player (Rob) said to me you have the best blues voice I’ve ever heard…. you should go and check it out.  So I did just that …..the year was 1980 and I joined the “City Limits Blues Band” … I found out a lot of the song I had loved and been singing all my life were blues rooted.

FBF:  Who are some of your influences as a singer?

BB:  Peggy Lee, Patsy Cline, Janis Joplin, Etta James, Sarah Vaughn, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Mahalia Jackson,  John Lee Hooker, Tom Jones, Ray Charles, Frank Sinatra, The Beatles, Willie Dixon, Willie Nelson…… 

FBF:  What has changed about the music scene in Memphis since you moved there?

BB:  Cell phones & prescription drugs…… 

FBF:  You’ve pretty much played full time at Silky O’Sullivan’s since 1997.  What’s a typical nightly gig at Silky’s like?

BB:  There is no typical night at Silky’s … I think that’s why I’ve been there soooooo long… It’s like traveling but I stay put!!!  On an average night we might just have 3 countries represented England, Canada, and Australia…..but most nights there are many more from around the world and across the US.  It’s a blessing of a gig!!!

FBF:  Can you tell us about some of the songs on Fish In Dirty H2O? 

BB:  The original title was “MY HEART BELONGS TO THE BLUES,’ then Al Kapone knocked “Fish In Dirty H2O” outta the ball park …… 

The classic “Come In My Kitchen” hits two of my most fave things on earth ….  My Mama and my KITCHEN!!!  Ha!! 

FBF:  You co-produced this release with Jim Gaines….was this your first experience producing?

BB:  No … I have co-produced ALL 11 of my CD’s …..  I LOVE it!! 

FBF:  What is involved with producing a record?


Gathering materials, musicians, songs, studios etc. …. schedules, keeping production notes ….budgets ….on and on and on…. 

FBF:  How does it feel to be singing with this legendary group of Memphis & Muscle Shoals musicians backing you?   

BB:  It feels like HEAVEN!!!  I love working with totally dedicated, talented musicians!! AND Bernard “Pretty” Purdie!!

FBF:  Can you share one of your favorite memories about being a musician?

BB:  I have many ……  I’m so blessed!!!  Singing HBD to James Cotton on stage at the Black Diamond (when it was the big room) with Sean Costello…. Sean was shy….he was like “Barbara you sing it …” & I was like ok no prob!!”  Maybe that was 1998??  I can’t remember …. BUT IT sho’ was FUN~!!! 

FBF:  What music do you listen to in your spare time?

BB:  Well I have 2 radio shows now  (“Blues off Beale” on ROYAL RADIO MEMPHIS Thursdays 3-5pm CST & “Shout Sista Shout”  on WYPL 89.3 Sunday 8-9pm CST) ….so I’m listening to new CDs a lot. And I love classical on my rides home from Beale Street …..   I live in a forest so sometimes I just roll the windows down … Yep... I love crickets, tree frogs & cicadas!!! 

FBF:  I’ve read that you’re a fantastic cook……what are some of your signature dishes?

BB:  Well…..too many to choose from …faves are Italian ~ Mexican & Comfort!!!  AND I LOVE to BAKE!!!  Been baking since I was a little girl.  I used to make my dad pies/cookies/ cakes for his lunch…. he always told me they were GREAT so I believed him!!  The power of positivity!!

FBF:  What would you be doing if you weren’t a performer?

BB:  Not sure, maybe a restaurant entrepreneur or a nurse or doctor.

FBF:  Is there anything musically that you haven’t done that you would like to do?

BB:  The Apollo Theater in Harlem.

FBF:  Do you have any future projects already in the works?

BB:  Writing songs for my next CD ….  #12 ….hopefully with Mr. Jim Gaines & Bernard Purdie AGAIN!!! 

Friday, October 19, 2018

Another Blues Fix Mix CD - Volume Two, Track Fourteen

Frank Frost
In the mid 80's, there was a movie, Crossroads, that hit the theaters.  It was sort of a coming-of-age story about a teenage boy obsessed with the blues who meets an old blues man who supposedly performed with Robert Johnson and knows of a "missing song" that Johnson performed, but never recorded.  It mostly deals with the two of them traveling around the Mississippi Delta, encountering different groups of people and eventually ending up in a head-cutting contest with the Devil's representative, played by metal guitarist Steve Vai.  It's not a great movie, but it was about all a young blues fan had at the time.

The main thing that I liked about it was the soundtrack, which was done by Ry Cooder, Bobby King, Terry Evans, and several blues musicians that included harmonica player Frank Frost.  Frost actually made a cameo appearance in the movie, from what I remember, and he had one song on the soundtrack.  I really liked the downhome feeling of Frost's song, "Cotton Needs Pickin'," which was a rowdy roadhouse rocker compared to most of the other songs on the movie's soundtrack.

Later on, I discovered a few other Delta blues artists, such as Big Jack Johnson, Sam Carr (who was also on the Crossroads soundtrack), and Booba Barnes.  These guys led me to Earwig Record's album Rockin' The Juke Joint Down, by the Jelly Roll Kings, a trio that included Johnson on guitar, Carr on drums, and, yep, Frank Frost on harmonica and keyboards.  I listened to that album over and over again.  It was just mesmerizing to this young blues fan.

I tried to track down as many recordings by these artists as I could......I was able to find most of Johnson's recordings over the years, picked up a couple of Sam Carr releases, several more Jelly Roll Kings albums, and a few by Frank Frost.  One of my favorites was Jelly Roll Blues on Paula Records, which collected recordings by Frost on Jewel Records, where he was backed by Johnson and Carr in a pre-Jelly Roll Kings gathering.  The album was produced by Scotty Moore, former guitarist for Elvis Presley.  The trio had recorded previous for Sun Records' Sam Phillips, and actually recorded many of the same songs, but this is a really good set that captures the essence of the Mississippi Delta blues in a live-in-the-studio setting.

One of my favorite songs on the album is "Pocket Full of Money."  I actually heard it first by a West Coast blues band called the Fremonts, sung by Mighty Joe Milsap.  The Fremonts is a fine group who play outstanding Delta and Swamp blues covers and original tunes, and you should really check them out sometime if you're not familiar.  However, I really like Frost's version of this tune with it's relatively laid-back musical and vocal approach.  I hope you do, too.

Friday, October 12, 2018

Another Blues Fix Mix CD - Volume Two, Track Thirteen

Rooster Blues Records was one of my favorite labels.  I really enjoyed the raw feel of their recordings, basically live in the studio, which obviously made the label's artists most comfortable because all of their recordings were exciting.  Looking back, it's hard to think of even one recording from Rooster Blues that wasn't a favorite at one time or another.  I really need to devote an entire post to the label in the near future, but today I'm just going to talk about one of their recording artists and that artist's song that made its way onto Volume Two of our Friday Blues Fix Mix CD.

James "Super Chikan" Johnson is one of the unique characters of the blues, no doubt about it.  He's played music since he was a boy, like many youngsters in Mississippi during his early years, his first instrument was a diddley bow.  He bought a guitar, an acoustic two-stringer from the Salvation Army store in Clarksdale.  He drove a truck when he reached adulthood, but still worked on his music and songwriting and carving out his own unique style.

His first release was on Rooster Blues, Blues Come Home To Roost, in 1997.  It was one of my favorites that year.  It was raw and funky and had some of the coolest songs.  My favorite was the title track, "Down In The Delta," a sly and slippery funky blues about a regular day in the Mississippi Delta that packs more of a punch than listeners might expect.

The imagery is vivid, painting pictures of peach trees blooming, clothes hanging out on the line, the hum of tractors, cotton blooming, agricultural planes flying, catfish farms, April showers, May flowers, watermelon etc....., but at the end of each verse reflecting on what's perceived as good things about the Delta, Super Chikan drops a line stating that below the surface, thing aren't as blissful as they appear, at least for him.......his shoes are worn out, his front porch is about to fall off the house and his 25 year old car is about to be repossessed.  It's a sobering touch to what would appear to be a celebration of life in the Delta.....and really, life in general.   Not everything is as rosy a picture as one would believe, which is certainly the case in the Delta. 

Super Chikan later re-recorded "Down In The Delta" on his album Chikadelic, which came out about ten years ago, but this original version is still my favorite.  He's maintained a fairly high standard with his recordings and he remains a crowd favorite.  He's also established quite a reputation for designing unique guitar made out of gas cans, toilet seats, and anything else he can think of. 

"Down In The Delta" is a great example of modern Mississippi Delta blues, even twenty years after its original release........I can't believe it's been that long ago.  Anyway, enjoy Track Thirteen!

Friday, October 5, 2018


Several years ago, I wrote a post called "This Week...... No One Dies!!!!" During that time, the blues world had lost several stars in a matter of months and, to be honest, it got pretty depressing for blues fans.  As I wrote then, that's one of the risks you take when you become a fan of the blues......a lot of the best known and best loved of the blues world are a bit long in the tooth and, though most of them continue to play to a ripe old age, it's still a jolt when they depart this world, which happens with a lot more frequency than it used to.

That post also focused on six artists that I enjoyed who were still with us nearly seven years ago.......Magic Slim, Daddy Mack Orr, Otis Clay, Eddie Cotton, Bobby Womack, and B.B. King.  Well, as most of you are aware, four of those six have passed away since that post, so as a favor to blues artists everywhere, I'm NOT going to repeat that post's theme this time around, but I will acknowledge a couple of my favorites who recently passed away and pay tribute to them.

Lazy Lester
Lazy Lester died a few weeks ago after suffering from cancer.  The first time I saw Lazy Lester, which I've recounted here several times already....I'm pretty sure, he was playing at the 1987 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival.  That had already been a pretty impressive night for me, seeing John Lee Hooker for the first time as he actually opened for the Fabulous Thunderbirds (Kim Wilson/Jimmie Vaughan edition), who hosted an old school revue of sorts with a bunch of blues artists coming on and playing a pair of songs apiece.  There were some great acts there....Duke Robillard, Bonnie Raitt, Dr. John, Katie Webster (who came onstage throwing rubber crawfish into the crowd), and the Roomful of Blues horn section to name a few.

When Kim Wilson introduced Lazy Lester, I had no idea who he was, but Wilson recognized him as one of the band's greatest influences.  At this point, I was a fledgling blues fan and knew next to nothing about the history other than the Chess Records reissues I'd found in a local record store.  When Lester came out, he was wearing a tank top, work pants, and a baseball cap of some kind (I think it said "Louisiana Yard Dog" or something like that) and looked like he'd just gotten off work and walked over to the show.  However, when he started blowing that harmonica and singing in that swampy drawl, I was hooked.  I wanted to hear more than two songs (I think one of them was "Sugar Coated Love," but my memory has faded), but it was next to impossible for me to find any of his recordings.

Lazy Lester - Late 80's
A few months later, Alligator released Harp & Soul and I tracked it down as quickly as possible.  Not long after, I found Lazy Lester Rides Again, his "comeback" album from a few years ago (which I wrote about here).  Those two recordings were played quite a bit around my house and later on, my girlfriend (now wife) enjoyed them as well.  Lester was all blues, but the Louisiana swamp blues had a nice mixture of blues, R&B, and country, which meant it appealed to a wide variety of people back when Excello Records (Lester's first home) was active.  It wasn't until the late 90's that I found any of his Excello recordings and I still listen to them all the time (along with his labelmates Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, Lonesome Sundown, etc.....).

Around that same time, Lester signed with Antone's Records and released a couple of new albums that showed he had plenty of fuel in the tank in his 60's.  In fact, he was still pretty active up until the months before his death and I was so excited to see him in that Geico commercial (which they've sadly quit running since his death).

I strongly recommend Lazy Lester to any blues fan.  His Excello recordings are the place to start, but everything he recorded is worth checking out.  Trust me, if he's not a favorite now, he will be once you start listening.

Otis Rush
I read about Otis Rush passing away on Saturday afternoon.  Dick Shurman wrote a very nice tribute to him.......he did a lot to try and help Rush over the years, probably as much as anyone did.  I talked to Shurman several times over the years about Rush and he was always very gracious and very honest about him.  Rush had some really tough breaks over his career (I wrote about his career here), so it sometimes made him a little leery of dealing with people and sometimes he wasn't able to capitalize on some opportunities because of it, which is unfortunate.

While Rush didn't record a lot of albums over his 40+years as a musician, nearly all of it is excellent.  If he'd never recorded anything after those fantastic Cobra sides in the late 50's, his place in blues history would be secure.  They are simply astonishing........his guitar playing was so distinctive (he played guitar left-handed, but didn't restring it for a left hander) and his vocals would send chills down your spine......the original recordings of "Double Trouble" and "I Can't Quit You, Baby" are just amazing.

While he didn't record a lot of studio albums (the Cobra sides, several sides for Chess Records, one appearance at Duke Records, a handful of sides for Vanguard's Chicago!  The Blues!  Today! series, and several studio albums in the 70's and 90's (netting him a Grammy Award), over the years, he had several live albums released that revealed that as good as he was in the studio, he was even better as a live performer.  While some are better than others, the best ones are fantastic.  I recently heard the early 70's performance from Cambridge and it's very good.  I wrote about the rest of Rush's live albums here, if you want to check them out.

Otis Rush at his 2017 Blues Marker Dedication, Philadelphia, MS
I never got to see Rush perform live.  I did get to see him when Mississippi dedicated a Blues Marker to him in his native Philadelphia, MS in 2007.  It was clear that the honor really moved him and he enjoyed seeing some old friends and relatives while he was there.  I wish I'd had the nerve to go and speak to him, shake his hand, and tell him how much I enjoyed his music.  What really amazed me more than anything was that one of the most influential blues guitarist in the world, not only in blues but also rock music, was born about 20 miles from me and he's hardly even known in his home county, other than by relatives, a few friends, and a few blues fans.

The night I heard he passed away, I plugged in his Live in San Francisco DVD and just watched it.  It's the closest I ever got to seeing him live.  If you'd like to see or hear more from Otis, you can check out my recommendations here and here.

While it's sad to see these two blues legends go, blues fans can take comfort in the fact that there is a whole younger generation doing their part to keep the blues alive.  Every week, I hear new releases from young musicians who have taken what Rush and Lester did and expand upon it, adding their own unique flair to keep the music fresh and interesting.