It’s finally happening for Mary Lane.
The veteran Chicago blues vocalist has released two new CDs in the last year, Travelin’ Woman (the debut release on the Women of the Blues imprint) and the five-song The Real Mary Lane, produced by its guitarist Michael Bloom for Random Acts Media. Director Jesseca Ynez Simmons made the engrossing documentary I Can Only Be Mary Lane, which tells the riveting story of Mary’s struggles and triumphs as a blues performer based on Chicago’s West Side for more than half a century.
In October, Lane performed at the venerable King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, marking the first time she had returned to her native state in more than six decades. While at the festival, she was given the “Sunshine” Sonny Payne for Blues Excellence Award, named after the legendary King Biscuit Time radio host.
To top things off, Lane was recently nominated for a pair of Blues Blast Music Awards: Traditional Blues Album for Travelin’ Woman as well as for Female Blues Artist. She performed at the gala September awards ceremony in Rockford. “It was great,” reports Mary. “Great, great, great!” All in all, not a bad year for one of the last living links to the hallowed days when genuine giants roamed every nook and cranny of the Windy City blues circuit.
“Don’t you think it’s about time?” asks Lane, who celebrates her 84th birthday on November 23 by performing at Buddy Guy’s Legends. “Well, like I say, all I can hope for is the best.”
Travelin’ Woman, produced by Jim Tullio at his own Butcher Boy Recording in Evanston, Illinois, was put together differently from a customary blues album. Apart from one track, the CD was a true 50/50 collaboration between Lane and Tullio. He created a series of sumptuous, evocative musical backdrops with a skin-tight group of studio musicians, and Mary brainstormed deeply moving lyrics that she proceeded to sing over each track. “I just came up singing as the music played,” says Mary. “I just come up with lyrics in my head, and go with the music. So that’s the way I did all of them.
“I don’t sit and write them like some people write their lyrics out. I’ve got the names of my songs and everything, I’ve got all of that written out and copywritten. But I’m talking about, you start to playing some music, and I just come up with some lyrics to fit what the music is. That’s what we always did.”
Recording in such an unorthodox manner was a departure from Lane’s past projects. “I always was into the Elmore James music and Jimmy Reed music,” she says. “So this was all the way in a different thing for me. But I worked on it, and I came up with ten tunes that fit the music that he had. And he was grateful for it. So hey, I was grateful for it too, once I heard it.”
Tullio brought in a cadre of all-star musical guests who contributed to one song apiece. Saxophonists Gene “Daddy G” Barge and Terry Ogolini and trumpeter Don Tenuto–the Chicago Rhythm and Blues Kings’ integral horn section—grace the grinding opening title track, while the late Eddie Shaw contributes plaintive harmonica to the surging “Ain’t Gonna Cry No More.”
“I used to work at his club, the 1815 Club, that Eddie had over there on the West Side,” notes Mary. “When he had that club over there, that’s the first time I met Jimmy Reed over at Eddie’s club. I really didn’t get to know him, but I went over there and I met him that Sunday. And a week later, (Jimmy) had died.”
Shaw wasn’t the only harp master that Tullio invited to participate in the sessions. Corky Siegel does the honors on the tough shuffle “Some People Say I’m Crazy,” and Billy Branch takes over on mouth organ for a romping “Ain’t Nobody Else.” Although the versatile Tullio handles quite a bit of the guitar and bass duties himself, Dave Specter turns up with some crisp licks on “Bad Luck And Trouble.”
“The most one that I had a little trouble with, and it took me as long as it did, is the one about ‘Raining In My Heart,’” Lane reveals (the insistent stormer boasts stinging slide guitar from Phil Miller and an unexpected bridge halfway through). Far more surprising is the moving soul ballad “Let Me Into Your Heart,” a long way indeed from straight 12-bar fare. “It took me a while to fit some words into it that fit with the music,” Mary says. “But I came up with it.”
“Make Up Your Mind,” the closing piece, is an entrancing collaboration between Lane and Canadian guitarist Colin Linden, whose acoustic slide dobro is its lone backing instrument. Amazingly, the two never actually met; Lane was given the music track and intuitively crafted her lyrics around what she heard (the recording of Mary’s vocal is included in the documentary).
“The recording came before the movie did,” adds Mary. “A friend of mine, Jesseca, she decided she wanted to get all the information from a lot of the stuff that I had did, and put it on film.” Through enlightening interviews with Mary, her family and musicians, and various observers (including this writer), the documentary offers vivid insight into Mary’s life.
Travelin’ Woman remained in search of the right label to release it until music publicist/WNUR-FM blues deejay Lynn Orman Weiss, creator of the Women of the Blues Foundation, stepped up to the plate. “One of the objectives of the film was that they were in search of getting Mary a record deal, kind of one of the premises of the movie,” says Orman Weiss. “I love the movie, and Jesseca and I were talking, and we were talking about the Women of the Blues Foundation, and what my mission was—to give power and keep the blues alive of the great blues legends, the women of the blues.
“I went over to Jim’s studio after they had tried to pitch it to a couple of different record labels, and it wasn’t to their liking what the labels had to offer. Jim said, ‘Why don’t you put it out yourself?’ I had already been talking to Jim about ideas for my Women of the Blues: A Coast To Coast Collection compilation CD. It ignited a flame in me to have Mary Lane be the first artist to feature. I partnered with Allen Winkler and we created OWL Music & Media, which funded Women of the Blues Records.”
Over the decades, Lane has crossed paths with an incredible array of blues legends, all of whom helped shape her tough, no-nonsense vocal delivery. She got started singing as a child in her rural hometown. “I used to play on the corner in Clarendon, Arkansas,” she says. “There used to be a guy we used to call Uncle Al (Montgomery). He used to play guitar in Clarendon every weekend. He would come over to my mother’s house, and there was this little juke joint—we called ‘em a juke joint–down the street from where I lived at. He would get his guitar and get me, and he’d get a stool and go down there. And he’d get a little bucket, and he’d sit there and start to playing the blues, and I’d start singing the blues. I was real young then. Then the people come up there, and they’d start putting all kinds of money and change and stuff in the little bucket.”
Mary’s early musical exploits weren’t limited to weekends with Uncle Al. “They used to have me singing all the time in the fields,” she says. “They would be in the field, and I did everything. Boy, they sounded good. And the next week or two, they heard me singing. From then on, they wanted me to sing. They kept me singing. I’d start singing, and they’d say, ‘Mary, go on and sing!’” she laughs. “The more I’d sing, the harder they’d pick that cotton.”
Lane’s nightclub singing debut occurred at a juke joint where slide guitar legend Robert Nighthawk, who began recording in 1937 for Bluebird as Robert Lee McCoy and cut for Aristocrat, Chess, and United during the postwar era, was the headliner. “My sister lived in a place called Marvell, Arkansas,” says Lane. “My brother used to go to town every weekend. And he told me, ‘I’m going to take you to Marvell tomorrow night, ‘cause I’ve got somebody that I think you would sound good with!’ And we went to Marvell that night, and Robert was playing the slide guitar. He didn’t even call me up. It sounded so good, I just went on up there and grabbed the mic and started singing. And everybody started hollering and going on. And every weekend, I was up there with him. I was the onliest woman that sung with him down there. I was in my teens.”
Another of Mary’s primordial connections was with one-man band Joe Hill Louis, who cut for Columbia, Modern, Checker, and Sun during the late ‘40s and early ‘50s. “That was fun! He’d have the guitar in his hands, he’d have the harmonica around his neck, and he was playing the drums with his feet. That was in Memphis,” says Mary. “People enjoyed him. He sung and blowed his harmonica and played his drums and everything. Joe Hill Louis, the Be-Bop Boy!”
Particularly important to Mary’s musical maturation was a juke joint owned by her uncle called the White Swan. “Brinkley, Arkansas, that’s where I was brought up,” says Mary. “That’s where I met all the guys at—Howlin’ Wolf, Junior Parker, James Cotton, all those guys. I met all those guys at the White Swan. That was my uncle’s club by marriage, the White Swan nightclub, right by the railroad tracks. Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland (played) at the big old White Swan club, and in the back they had a little gambling spot back there in the back. A lot of guys that weren’t playing, they’d go back there and gamble. We’d be up there singing. They had a lot of different bands there. Howlin’ Wolf, he let me up in there. Little Milton and all the big guys, they played there.” Soon she branched out.
“I used to be down in West Memphis, Arkansas. That’s where I used to work with Howlin’ Wolf too, on 8th Street in West Memphis,” says Lane. “Down there in one of those clubs, you’d just walk right off the street, right in the club. You know, right off the dirt, right in the club. That’s where I played with him.”
Those smoky, rough-hewn Arkansas juke joints couldn’t hold Mary forever. In 1957, she migrated north to Chicago, then a little further north still to Waukegan, Illinois, which hosted its own small but vibrant blues scene. Guitarist Morris Pejoe was a regular attraction in Waukegan, and Mary became involved with him, both personally and professionally. “When I came to Waukegan, they had one little club that really had little bands they called Shug’s,” she says. “That’s where I met Morris Pejoe at. He used to play there on weekends, and I used to go down there. I met him and started singing with him. Then I came over here to Chicago, and I’ve been here ever since.”
Pejoe was already an established name on the Windy City blues scene. The Louisiana native had first recorded for Checker in 1952 and made mid-‘50s followups for Vee-Jay and Abco prior to teaming up with Lane. The pair moved to Chicago in 1961 and raised a family before going their separate ways during the early ‘70s. Three daughters followed in their mother’s blues-singing footsteps, including the estimable Lynne Lane. “All three of them, they sing their asses off,” says Mary proudly.
While singing with Pejoe’s band under the sobriquet of Little Mary, Lane cut her 1964 (or thereabouts) debut single for Freddy Young’s Friendly Five label with Pejoe on guitar and Henry Gray manning the ivories. The driving “You Don’t Want My Loving No More” borrowed its opening 12 bars from a then-recent Chicago blues instrumental smash.
“We got that tune from Freddy King,” says Mary. “That’s the music that he had with ‘Hide Away.’ But it didn’t do nothing. Because Fred Young, he’s the one that recorded that, and Morris and them, they were so in a hurry to get a tune out—we just went on and did that tune. But it didn’t do nothing.” The track and its tough flip side “I Always Want You Near” boded well for Lane’s future, although it sold so sparsely that it’s now extremely rare. “I don’t even have one,” Mary laments.
Somehow Mary didn’t find her way back inside a studio for more than three decades. But even without fresh vinyl to showcase her vocal talents, Lane remained in demand in local clubs. Her friendship with Howlin’ Wolf continued. “He told me to come over to Chicago and come to Sylvio’s. That’s where he used to play, right there on Lake Street all the time,” says Mary. “One thing he wouldn’t do—he wouldn’t let other people get up and sit in with him. Now I was somebody that he would call up to do things with him on his show. I was with Morris then, and Morris didn’t like that because he never would call Morris Pejoe up. He would always call me up and not Morris, not knowing that I met him when I was in Arkansas. Wolf was great. A lot of people didn’t like him, but he was a real great guy. He didn’t allow no drinking on his bandstand like the guys do now, get up with a bottle in their hand and a glass in their hand, drinking. He didn’t allow that on his bandstand. He was a great guy, as far as I’m concerned.
“Elmore James, I used to work with him when I came to Chicago. I used to play with him, and then I used to play cards with him every night when we’d get off of work. We used to go to my house. They all liked to play poker. And they all would go up to my house. Cassell Burrows, Howlin’ Wolf’s drummer, he loved to play poker. Eddie Shaw did too. But we all would go and have us a little poker game.
“He was great. One night he was playing down at—I forget the name of the club. Eddie Elem and them used to have a little club down there on the West Side. And he was playing there one night, and I walked in. He looked at me and started laughing. Said, ‘Get on back, girl. Ain’t no table in front of me!’ He was talking about the cards. And we started laughing and just joked it off. Elmore, he was great. He was a great guy.
“All those guys were great guys.”
Lane went right on performing during the ‘70s, sharing stages with Hip Linkchain, Lonnie Brooks, Johnny Christian, and Denise LaSalle. At the beginning of the ‘80s, she put in a long stint at the fabled Theresa’s Lounge on the South Side. “I worked down there with Junior Wells for three years—me and Sammy Lawhorn and John Primer and B.B. Odom. I worked with all the guys,” says Mary. Wells could be a tough taskmaster. “He would work the hell out of me! Like it might be slow, wouldn’t be too many people in there, and he’d want me to sing and do all the singing. But time the people would pile up in there, then he’d want me to take the show. But I didn’t care as long as I was getting paid.”
In 1997, Lane finally released her debut CD, Appointment with the Blues, on the Noir label. It was a fine representation of the no-frills West Side blues approach, with Johnny B. Moore and Robert Mell splitting guitar duties, Detroit Junior on the 88s, and Mary’s husband, Jeffery Labon, holding down the bottom on skin-tight bass. All too few people noticed its existence. “I don’t really know what happened with that Appointment with the Blues,” says Lane. “I had really did nothing of my own since that Friendly Five thing. It didn’t do nothing, but I didn’t give up. I kept on trying. And that’s all you can do—try.”
Labon suffered a serious stroke a few years back that temporarily sidelined him from playing, but he’s back in action on bass with Lane’s No Static Blues Band. “He was out about nine months when he first had the sickness,” says Mary. “Then I had to find a bass player to try to fit in to do my shows that I had. So I was grateful he was able to come back out and use his hands.” Other No Static core members include guitarist Minoru Maruyama (a veteran of the bands of Johnny B. Moore and Billy Branch) and drummer Cleveland Taylor.
Unlike so many of her peers, Lane doesn’t tour Europe on a frequent basis. In fact, she’s only visited the continent once. “Jimmy Johnson talked me into going over there. We were over there for 29 days,” she says. “But I promised myself I’d never fly no more. Like I told Lynn, you can get gigs around in the states, but when you come to flying, I’m out of it. I won’t fly no more. And the people over there, they treat you like you’re somebody. They respect you. I love that. But I don’t want to fly no more. I’m broke and I’ll be broke, but I’m not going to fly. I’m not too fond of cars, because I’ve been in three accidents and made it out of them alright. But no plane for me.”
When she’s not onstage performing, you’re likely to find Mary in the kitchen—her downhome cooking is nearly as renowned as her singing. “My mom taught me how to do that. And I learned how to do that from scratch,” she says. “So I always have the guys over, cooking dinner that they enjoy so. And they love that. I had Eddie C. Campbell over. I had Willie Kent over. That was one of my favorite guys, Willie Kent. I worked with him, him and Johnny B. Moore. I worked at Blue Chicago for about three years.”
If you haven’t had a chance to view I Can Only Be Mary Lane yet, don’t fret. “We have plans to offer blues societies the film for free to show to their societies,” says Orman Weiss. “We would love to have Mary and Jeff come out to do a Q&A following the film and maybe perform with the local blues band.”
As the last of her generation of woman blues singers to grace the Chicago scene, Mary Lane is a treasure. “It is such an honor to have her on Women of the Blues Records,” says Orman Weiss. “I hope it can help raise awareness of who she is, to have her music played on radio stations around the world, for Mary and her No Static Blues Band to get more dates playing out and to be recognized by music organizations like the Blues Foundation. Because Mary Lane is the real deal.”
“I’m just trying to do something and get a little pleasure out of my work I did before I leave here,” says Lane. “I know I ain’t going to be here forever, but I’m doing what I can while I’m here. And all of my good friends that I know that really sang the blues and was down with the blues, they’re gone. So I feel grateful.
“I really haven’t got the break that I think I deserve. But I haven’t given up yet. I may give out, but I ain’t gonna give up!”