It’s been quite a week for the Blues, both locally and nationally. The legendary B.B. King passed away. Born to sharecroppers, he got his first guitar when he was 12 years old. His early records were produced by the infamous Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records. He began touring and led a tough life on the road, but the music kept him going, hit after hit establishing his fame. In 1956, he was scheduled for 342 concerts in that year alone.
In the early sixties, King was a big influence on Eric Clapton and Paul Butterfield. In 1969, he played as the opening act for the Rolling Stones. According to Wikipedia, “Discussing where he took the Blues, from "dirt floor, smoke in the air" joints to grand concert halls, King said the Blues belonged everywhere beautiful music belonged. He successfully worked both sides of the commercial divide, with sophisticated recordings and "raw, raucous" live performance.”
B.B. King was ranked by Rolling Stone as #6 on a list of the top 100 guitarists of all time. In Encyclopedia of the Blues, Edward M. Komara describes King’s style as “sophisticated style of soloing based on fluid string bending and shimmering vibrato that would influence virtually every electric blues guitarist that followed.” Rest in Peace, Mr. King.
Also last week, a new movie starring about the famous Blues Singer, Bessie Smith, was released on HBO. Queen Latifah, who plays Smith with passion and fury, said she waited 20 years for this role, and she does it proud (https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/tv/hbos-bessie-a-stirring--and-stuffed--account-of-the-life-of-a-legend/2015/05/15/75894612-f914-11e4-a13c-193b1241d51a_story.html)
Smith, known as The Empress of the Blues, lost her parents at a young age. She suffered through a difficult marriage, and a serious descent into alcoholism, but at the same time, she made 160 recordings for Columbia Records. Who knows what she could have done if she hadn’t died in a car wreck at the age of 43, just as she was making a comeback after the Great Depression put her career on hold.
It’s ironic that these events were going on last week, the same week some local Gainesville women got together for the 2nd Annual Women in the Blues event. The concert these women put on was truly amazing. The Blues cast of characters, and I do mean characters, consisted of nine of the most talented performers in the city, nee, in the world: Barbara Paul Armbrecht, Cherie Cray, Nicole Andre Wagner, Becky Sinn, Anna Marie, Bridget Kelly, Cassie Keenum, Deby Starr and Michelle Banfield.
Barbara Armbrecht, who organized this wonderful event, started the night off with a great, diverse set. Cherie Cray sang a tribute to B. B. King, and all the women performed in the tradition of Bessie Smith, who wanted the blues to move the audience.
The songs were incredibly varied, from a blues version of Going up the Country (which I’d previously only heard as a kind of hippie anthem from the rock group Canned Heat) to a song by Nicole Andre Wagner sang from Sapphire, Middle Aged Blues Boogie. I love the words to this song, from “I’ll forget about my arthritis, my backache, my lumbago,/That young man makes me tango at the horizontal disco,” and of course, the line, “And like a rare wine, you don’t get older, you just get better,” had all the women nodding and the men laughing.
Bridget Kelly did two of her original songs, Texas Toast and Jeff Jensen Blues. Kelly epitomizes the blues, and her talent as a singer and songwriter is unlimited.
From left to right: Barbara Paul Armbrecht, Cherie Cray, Becky Sinn, Cassie Keenum, Michelle Banfield, Bridget Kelly, Anna Marie, Deby Starr (not shown), Nicole Andre Wagner (not shown)
(Thank you to Bridget Kelly Fik for use of this great photo).
The talented Cassie Keenum has been singing all over town, and her beautiful voice added to the delight of the audience. Anna Marie sang some rock-based blues that had the crowd on their feet. Becky Sinn’s classy blues added to the crowd’s delight, while Deby Starr rocked the night.
And then, as sometimes happens, there was that moment. Michelle Banfield got up to sing. I’ve heard Michelle sing blues before. She is phenomenal – she also sings rock and roll, rhythm and blues, and I’d bet she could even sing country or classical. So she started singing that old classic, Stand by MeBut as she sang, one by one, the other women got up and joined her. And one by one, the song grew and became something different, a celebration of the blues, of comradery, of music.
Maybe like the first time B. B. King sang “Let the Good Times Roll” in public or the first time Bessie Smith sang “Nobody Knows you When You’re Down and Out,” in public, they proved magic still happens. Thank you, Blues Women, for a wonderful evening!