From a young age, Deitra Farr knew she would sing. “I knew I was gonna be a singer, but didn’t know I would be a Blues singer, even though , Blues was probably the first music I heard when I was born. As I grew up, I also loved Soul music. Al Green is still my favorite singer. My mother used to tell me, ‘Don’t you bring another Al Green record in this house.’ I would wear the grooves off them!
For sure, I first heard live Blues on Maxwell Street in Chicago, where my dad used to take me when I was a little girl. I was born in 1957 which was the heyday of Blues, Doo Wop, Gospel and Rock & Roll.”
At the age of seven years old, young Deitra Farr gave her gigging Uncle Nate who brought her to see his band, a prophetic word.
“Oh, you’ve got a female singer. When you get tired of her, give me a call.”
That was quite a stretch for a youngster, but ten years later, her aunt called with the news that Deitra’s predecessor had indeed left the group and the teenager was free to audition.
“I already had a show together because I had learned every song on the radio that I liked. The band was called Central Power System and I did indeed audition. I was up against 11 girls, but I got the gig and played with them the following weekend. That’s one many lessons that I give young people. Be Ready.
To be honest, Phil Guy is the reason I became a Blues singer. I was working at the University of Chicago in one of the dormitories, when Phil Guy came to perform for the students. One of the students dared me to sit in with the band. I can’t resist a dare. Don’t you dare, dare me! I told my co-worker to watch my station. I asked Phil if I could sing a song with the band. When he agreed, I sang “Steal Away,” the record made famous by Jimmy Hughes. Well, the students’ mouths were wide open and Phil came around after the set and suggested that I come around to his regular gigs at Theresa’s and the Checkerboard.
So, I started hanging out and sitting in with Phil, then branched out to the clubs on the North side, where I’d see Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and Mighty Joe Young. At festivals I saw Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Big Mama Thornton. That was the reason I decided to start singing Blues. I just got deep into that world. After I graduated from Columbia College, I decided this was really what I wanted to do and my dad had a fit. ‘You went to college to be a Blues singer? What’s wrong with you?’ In the end though, before my dad passed, he was quite pleased with my Blues successes. He let me know that he was glad I chose not to listen to him when he tried to dissuade me from this path.
You know we all want to be happy and want our parents to be proud of us, so I find great joy in the fact that he left this earth being proud of me.
When I’m mentoring young people I also tell them to always do their best (as was taught to me) and use the following anecdote as a case in point. I was working with the great Sam Lay and his band. We had just left Atlanta to play a gig at a Black club Birmingham. Now Sam Lay had a White band and that didn’t sit too well with the patrons. As a matter of fact when I came out to do my segment, the club was empty except for one guy at the bar. Nonetheless, I did my thing like I had a full house. After the set, I walked to the bar and after putting my glasses on, recognized Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations as the lone bar patron.
Now when I was a child, I was obsessed with two vocal groups; the Supremes and the Temptations. I used to just stare at Eddie’s picture and first met him when I was sixteen through Brenda Lee Eager who dueted with Jerry Butler on the hit “Ain’t Understanding Mellow.” It was at Brenda Lee Eager’s home that I glimpsed my first gold record.
Brenda Lee Eager had two babysitters – me and Maryann. Maryann, was a little older than me and also Jerry Butler’s secretary. She would keep Brenda Lee Eager’s daughter whenever she would go on the road with Jerry. I would babysit the little girl if the duo had local gigs.
Maryann mentioned to me one day that she was going to the High Chaparral, a fabulous South Side club. She said, ‘I’m going to see my friends David Ruffin and Eddie Kendricks. ‘
I said, ‘What? Can I go?’ At that time I was living with my dad and really too young to go to a club. I asked him if I could go see Eddie Kendricks and David Ruffin with Maryann. To my surprise, he said okay! That’s how I met the fabulous lead singers of the Tempts.
So, the Birmingham gig with Sam Lay was ten or twelve years after I first met Eddie Kendricks. I walked up to him at the bar and said, ‘What are you doing here?’ He said, ‘I came to see you!’ We then got off the bar and got a table. When we were settled, I asked him why he was the only customer in the place and how we’d just played for a packed house in Atlanta. He said, ‘This is Birmingham, not Atlanta and coming to this club with a White band offended the people. They don’t play that.’
Despite Eddie being the only patron, the club owner made the band do another set if they wanted to get paid. Since Eddie Kendricks was sole audience member, I asked him what he wanted to hear. He said, ‘I’d like to hear some Jimmy Reed.’
I then went up there with the band and did a show. I sang every Jimmy Reed song I know. After the show Eddie drove me to the store to replace my cigarettes (I was a smoker then) that he’d smoked up. During the trip to the store, I told him that I had met him all those years before at the High Chaparral with my friend Maryann. Surprisingly enough, he actually remembered the meeting saying, ‘Oh yeah, I remember, you had on a sailor suit.’
I was blown away that he remembered. He always had an eye for wardrobe as that was one of his functions as a Temptation. He said that everyone in the group had a function besides singing, whether it be wardrobe, choreography or whatever. So he remembered that Maryann Johnson’s friend had on a sailor suit. I was so honored that he remembered me. And his wardrobe eye was still intact. He told me that night in Birmingham that I was dressed like a school teacher. Little did he or I know that I would become one, for a time.”
En route to her storied station in life, Deitra’s high school music teacher was Lena McLin, the niece of the Father of Black Gospel Music, Thomas A. Dorsey. Deitra was able to see him perform with his choir at Chicago’s Pilgrim Baptist Church.
It should also be noted that Deitra Farr was the original female vocalist with the acclaimed Chicago Blues band, Mississippi Heat, from 1993 to 1996 and recorded two Cd’s with them.
“It was interesting. We had a lot of fun. If you saw our van parked somewhere, it would be shaking, because we were always laughing. I’m a road dog. I love jumping in the van and hitting the highway. They were like the brothers I never had. It was Pierre Lacocque on harmonica, Bob Stroger on bass, Alan Kirk on drums with James Wheeler and Billy Flynn on guitars. Billy Flynn has a recent recording on Delmark records that I’m on entitled, Lonesome Highway. I sing two duets with him on that.
The current group I’m working with is called Chicago Wind. The members are Matthew Skoller on harmonica, Tom Holland on guitar, Felton Crews on bass, Johnny Iguana on keys and Marc Wilson on drums. I’m really excited to be working with Matthew Skoller. We are just getting started and working on our recording project. I’m also trying to finish my book, my memoir. My life is so complicated, I’m just in the late ’70s in terms of the chronology of my life. When you’ve lived sixty years, there are a lot of stories. And you have to really think about what to put in and what to leave out. It’s very time consuming. I’m not an open book by nature, but have a lot of people pulling at me to do it, not necessarily to tell my story, but to perhaps help somebody learn something. Young artists do call me for advice and I love mentoring. That’s how the Eddie Kendricks story gets out, as it was how I learned to always do my best. So there are certain stories I like to tell young people to give them an idea of how this thing works.”
People also wonder when the next Deitra Farr Cd will be released. She is in no hurry.
“Some people put out records every so often according to a timetable. I don’t work that way. I believe in releasing a record when I have something to say. The next Deitra Farr Cd will happen when I finish deciding what I want to say. At this moment, I have an idea but I’m a slow writer and when I do write, I write a lot. On my last Cd, Let It Go I wrote all twelve songs. I had something to say at that time and I said it. Now, a lot has happened since 2005 but you’re just going to have to wait until I say it. Until all the songs are written. Some serious growth has gone down. Recently, I’ve done recordings on other people’s albums. I’ve done dates with Billy Flynn, Raphael Wressnig, Ruud DeVries and Brother Jacob
Actually, I’m not formally signed to a label but I consider myself a JSP artist. I assume when I want to release a Cd, John Stedman will let me do it. I believe that I am the first woman the JSP label recorded. On the first Cd, The Search Is Over, Johnny Rawls opened that door for me and produced that albums. Johnny is a brilliant songwriter, singer and entertainer. I’m glad he’s catching some good breaks out there. We like the same kind of music. He’s a Soul man and as I stated, I love Soul very much.”
Music has taken this iconic Southside Chicago Blues singer through the portals of Gospel and Soul back to the Blues and a healthy appreciation of Chicago Blues Queen Koko Taylor.
“I didn’t actually grow up listening to her because I came from the Southside Soul tradition first. By the time I decided to become a part of the Blues scene, I had moved to the North side and pretty much established who I am, so I didn’t study under her per se. But she definitely inspired me as I got to know her and talk to her over the years. She was very, very inspirational. She always pushed the ladies that wanted to sing Blues. I can’t think of a better role model for Blues women than the great Koko Taylor. It’s a great honor for me to receive the Koko Taylor Queen of the Blues Award from the Jus’ Blues Music Foundation this year. I’m stunned actually.”
Deitra Farr is surely no one dimensional artist. Aside from being a singer/songwriter, she has a degree in journalism from Columbia College and writes a regular column for Living Blues Magazine. She is a visual artist and a painter.
“I write all my songs in my head. I can pick out chords. Usually the subject matter will come out first. Somebody will say something or a subject will come to me and I’ll start messing with it. Frequently, I’m inspired in the bathtub or shower, a habit that goes back to my childhood. I would sing in the bathroom to keep from disturbing my mother. Sometimes I get a title or someone can say something to me on the phone. For example, my bandmate Matthew Skoller said to me once, ‘Oh, you mean a week from yesterday.’ It sounded so good I had to write that one down and wrote a song called “A Week From Yesterday.” So melodies don’t usually come first for me. I’m a wordsmith. I’ve been writing as far back as I can remember.”
Deitra especially admires the work of Mexican self-portrait artist, Frida Kahlo.
“Yes, Lord. I love Frida Kahlo and her work. Who would’ve thought I’d sing in Mexico? When a club owner offered me a gig in Mexico City, I told him I would only come if he would take me to Frida Kahlo’s house. His wife took me and when we pulled up in front of her blue house, which is like a museum, I cried like a baby, like somebody crazy. I remembered the house from books I’d read thirty-five years ago before. I never dreamed in a million years that I would be in her house. When you’re a child, fantasizing about different things, you have no idea where life will take you. My dad and I used to talk about this all the time. I was a young Southside girl. I wasn’t thinking about singing in foreign countries. I thought I would be singing around Chicago. In my head, I didn’t know anybody that went anywhere. My people went to St Louis and Mississippi on vacation. I didn’t know anybody that was doing what I’m doing now.
Some years I’ve gigged in a dozen countries. I love to see other lands. I’ve been places I never would’ve imagined; the Middle East, Dubai, Lebanon, Qatar, Israel and beyond. I went back to Mexico City and sang with a Gospel group in the town square. That was probably my favorite gig of all time. There’s hardly anywhere in Europe I haven’t been including Iceland. One journalist wrote that I am not a road warrior. He heard it wrong or wrote it wrong. It’s quite the opposite. I love the road! One of my pet peeves is journalists who don’t get it right.
Visit Deitra’s website at: www.deitrafarr.com