One of the first times I met Lady Bianca was at the Mystic Theatre in Petaluma, California. She was sharing the bill with the late great New Orleans Jazz and Blues piano stylist Henry Butler. Big Easy tradition juxtaposed against West Coast Blues.
Somehow I’d been hired by the agent who booked the gig to meet and establish a rapport with Mr. Butler as well as escort Lady Bianca to the stage. Fashionista that she is, Bianca was sporting some thigh-high platform soled boots. Navigating the climb to the stage was tricky. Once atop the summit, both players rocked the joint.
Career-wise though, Bianca is yet climbing. Despite having a peerless resume, the correct level of success has thus far eluded her. I had a long chat with her on her birthday 8/8/19. She ruminated and reminisced about the ups and downs of her stellar career
“I’m still working toward future heights. I’ve got some more to do.”
Lady Bianca was born in Kansas City and her family migrated to San Francisco when she was four, right about the time she started playing the piano. Early on, the family didn’t go to church per se.
“We didn’t go to church. We stayed home and had church in the house. My dad loved Ray Charles and would put Gospel lyrics to Ray Charles songs cause my mother would be listening. We would listen to all the Gospel inflected artists; Aretha Franklin, Mavis Staples, The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Dorothy Norwood, Dorothy Love Coates & The Original Gospel Harmonettes and others. We went to many of their concerts. I met Mavis Staples at a concert and she was just normal people. I told her when I grow up I’m gonna be singing just like that. I liked the whole show business aspect. The Mighty Clouds had on different color suits and their hair all pressed up. I started playing by ear at the age of four.”
“I was about four when we moved to San Francisco. My mother met my stepdad here. He was a guitar player. We had a baby grand piano in the house, which I still have. I went to Lincoln High and won a scholarship to the Conservatory of Music. They tried to make me read music at the Conservatory and I didn’t want to. I was very outspoken and told them that Bach and Beethoven were the Jazz musicians of their time. I would change the time signature on Bach and Beethoven compositions and the Conservatory didn’t like that because it did sound like Jazz when I did that. They only had one diva at the school and she was blonde and blue-eyed. I didn’t like the fact that despite my operatic training, there was no room for me so I left after three and a half years.”
“When I was seventeen, I met the Jazz and Blues musician Quinn Harris who gave me the name Lady Bianca. We made an album called All In The Soul by Quinn Harris & the Masterminds. ( https://www.discogs.com/Quinn-Harris-Masterminds-All-In-The-Soul/release/2535029.
Quinn Harris said, ‘What is your stage name?’ I said, ‘I don’t know, I’m just Bianca. He said, ‘You’re so damn prissy and proper and such a lady. That’s what I’m gonna call you, ‘Lady Bianca.’
“So on that first album, my voice was so operatic. I can’t believe I sang like that. My range was pretty wide then. Now I’m on the other end. I’ve also done a track that was produced by Lamont Dozier which was a duet with the late James Ingram: https://tidal.com/browse/artist/4323284 They took my name off of it upon release. His wife didn’t appreciate me.”
Bianca’s stock rose several notches with her next career moves. She briefly worked the legendary Hungry i on Broadway in San Francisco with Eugene Blacknell before joining the cast of Jon Hendrick’s (Lambert, Hendricks & Ross) Evolution Of The Blues. This is how she remembers it
“Well, there was Jon Hendricks Evolution Of The Blues in which I played Billie Holiday on Broadway in San Francisco for a couple of years. Jon Hendricks was a genius and my teacher. He told me how to play Billie Holiday and I got her down pat. Before that, I was at the Hungry i with Eugene Blacknell. I also sang with Chester Thompson who became Santana’s keyboardist. I was way underage and had just left my studies at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. I worked with Sylvester too, before Two Tons of Fun. He taught me a lot about hair and stage clothes. We started recording and he left me behind after we had a falling out about something. I don’t remember what. Then he got Two Tons Of Fun. He did a song of mine that I never got paid for. When I told him about it he said to me, ‘I’ll see to it that you never work in this town again.’
“It was at that point that I joined Sly. Dawn Silva suggested that I go up to Novato and talk to him. Sly was going through transitions when I worked with him. I think I was on two albums. I was kinda on the other end of things that were happening in his career. But I enjoyed it because I always wanted to work with him ever since we both lived in the Ingleside district in San Francisco. I think I was star struck when I first saw him cuz he was the first Black Rocker I had ever seen and I wanted to do Rock too. I wanted to get in on the Rock scene.”
“I was able to go on the road with him a little bit. We didn’t travel that much. I did a lot of studio work. I learned a lot about the music hanging with him. He said, ‘You have a gift with what you can do. If things sound good on Sunday, they sound good every day.’ Sly was on the other side of his career by then and I ended up leaving because of petty squabbles. Shortly thereafter I got a call to audition with Zappa. I don’t know where the phone call came from but the voice on the other end said, ‘This is Intercontinental Absurdities and Frank Zappa would like to have Bianca come down to audition for us. Now, I didn’t know who Frank Zappa was at the time but it sounded legit, so I went and got the gig. Ended up staying a year and a half between 1975 and 1976.”
“Right as I started with Zappa another producer called me with an offer to lay a track for Lee Oskar. So, I did a live track for Lee Oskar and made the mistake of showing the producer an unprotected song of mine, because I didn’t know about publishing then, and it ended up in the producer’s publishing company. It was his song then. That’s why today, I always stress to young artists, if you write something, don’t be so glad that your song gets exposure without having your writing and publishing in place, so you at least get a piece of it. I didn’t know anything about that at that time. I hadn’t met Stanley Lippit yet. He got me together with that later in my career.”
“While I was with Zappa he gave m a lot of business sense and I admired him for that. He also paid top money. My vocals also got a lot of attention. But he eventually started making demands of me that weren’t required of the male musicians. Tacky, abusive stuff. He wanted to wrap me in toilet paper and put his guitar between my legs. There was no #Me Too movement then. I definitely felt harassed as a female. I felt like my voice and piano was enough.”
“Couldn’t talk about it then. If I had been smarter, I probably should’ve talked openly about it then. But he wasn’t going to sleep with me even though that’s what Rockers did. I didn’t want my children growing up and having to hear that was what I did to get over. I had just left church and then left Sly. I wasn’t used to being degraded and shit like that. Not sure I should be talking about it now. So that’s part of why I ended up not continuing to work for Zappa. There was also pressure from another member of the band as well as pressure from outside the band. That’s all I’ll say about that. It really broke my heart because the day after I left they did Saturday night Live.”
“I went home to the Bay Area and gigged locally for a while, even getting some session work in with Merle Haggard. I did a recording with him back in the late ’70s. I really, really loved it. I was pregnant at the time with my son, Beethoven. I’d established a great professional relationship with Merle Haggard, so I asked my girlfriend to come to help out on the recording. We were doing this and I wasn’t aware that she was a member of AFTRA. She reported me for working with Merle and he consequently had to pay all these extra fees. Apparently part of it was professional jealousy as she thought she should get more money than me. Before all that funkiness went down, Merle had said to contact him after I had my baby and he would bring me out on the road with him. Of course, the damage was done then and when I did call him, he wouldn’t take or return my calls. I loved Merle Haggard.”
While Bianca paused, I asked, “How did the Haggard gig come about?”
She responded, “I’m not really sure. I think somebody recommended me. Back in those days, if you were a good background singer, all the Rockers would say, ‘Use her, she’ll be okay.’ And then they would call you. My girlfriend was an up and coming Gospel singer at the time. She was my children’s Godmother. I don’t want to mention her name. But she knows who she is when we say that!”
“I recorded with Taj Mahal too. The name of the album was Taj Mahal and the International Rhythm Band, Live & Direct. We did Jorge Ben and other tracks. My son Oshman was very young. The session was such that, of course, if you make noise, you have to start over. Oshman’s dad was there and I asked him if he would watch Oshman while I go do this thing. He said, ‘I don’t want to watch Oshman.’ So I had to take Oshman in there with me. Oshman was screamin’ and hollerin’ on the song, runnin’ through the place and wouldn’t sit still. I think you can hear him on the track. He was just bad, okay? Somehow, I got his dad to take him outside and hold his hand while I finished it. But he didn’t wanna do it. It was recorded direct to disc in Mill Valley I think, in a barn someplace. I think they took a picture of Oshman for the album. That was in 1979.”
Another famous recording artist Bianca worked with extensively is Van Morrison. She described how that association came about.
“I was a gig in San Rafael, hangin’ out. Pee Wee Ellis, of the James Brown band was there. By that time he was playing with Van Morrison. He said to me, ‘Hey girl, you’re pretty good. You need to come over and audition.’ So I went over. Now Van Morrison is the kind of guy who doesn’t rehearse you with background parts. You pick your background parts, which I did, and you apply them spontaneously. He never does the same thing twice and expects you to come up with something good all the time. So I was like, the background arranger. Another girl who was there before me didn’t like that but we ended up very good friends. We did a lot of recording and we toured. That was in 1979 and I stayed with him on and off for five years. I went back to Morrison briefly in 2009 but it didn’t work out. I had grown too much. I did a gig with him at Madison Square Garden where I sang a really powerful version of Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”. So powerful in fact that I was asked not to sing it again.”
The man Lady Bianca credits with firmly entrenching her position as a great artist is her partner Stanley Lippett. Lippett is a singer/songwriter with a long and varied career. He toured with the great Sam Cooke for four years with a package that included Little Esther, Johnny Thunder and Jerry Butler. He also appeared on bills with the Temptations, Shorty Long, Aaron Neville and The Marvelettes.
Lippett and Bianca formed a record label, Magic-O Records and a publishing/production company in 1984 called StayFree Music Publishing. Stanley writes the lyrics and Bianca writes the music. Though independent, their businesses allow them the flexibility of creative partnerships with other entities. Consequently, their songs have appeared on the Suspex label, Telarc Records and Rooster Blues label. Through their collaborations, Lady Bianca and Stanley Lippett have been nominated for a Grammy three times. In 2007, they were inducted into the West Coast Blues Society Hall of Fame. Bianca shed some light on their association.
“Stanley has been a very big catalyst for me. The funny thing is had it been up to Marvin Holmes, we wouldn’t have met. I was working with Marvin and his band, the Uptights. We were doing a nightly radio broadcast from Ivey’s in Jack London Square. Stanley heard me sing and thought I was the girl that could do his music. So he went down to the club at 2 am to meet me but I was already gone. He asked Marvin for my name and number but Marvin wouldn’t give it to him.”
“But I did start seeing Stanley around from time to time and I asked another musician who that was.”
‘Aww, that’s Stanley Lippett. He’s a singer/songwriter. But you don’t wanna be bothered with him. All the girls think he’s ugly.’
“But in my mind, I got this feeling about him, which was unusual and then I didn’t see him for a while. The next time I saw him, I was auditioning for Dreamgirls at the Orpheum Theatre and I saw him getting into a limo with his hair all wild. I introduced myself to him but he was a little impatient with me as he was on his way to a session. He had papers everywhere and was all out of whack like a mad professor. So I invited him to my birthday party and the rest is history. We finally got married in 2000. Through our record label, we have released eight albums and are working on our ninth.”
I can’t let Lady Bianca get away without describing her favorite gear.
“I liked Roland for a while but now I like the Yamaha DX 660. It’s heavy as a coffin though. My band members say, ‘Why don’t you get a lighter piano?’ But she sounds so good though. I just got her a year ago.”
We end our phone session by asking her to describe the high points in her career.
“I would say meeting and working with John Lee Hooker, Willie Dixon and Koko Taylor. I remember back when Etta James was alive, I got called up onstage at the Oakland auditorium. Etta was in the wings. Later that night, Etta’s guitarist Bobby Murray told me that Etta said that girl can sho’ sang!
Just hanging in the circles I’ve hung in, forming and developing my pie-anna skills and becoming who I am now. Everything that happened to me is for a reason. Nothing has been a failure. There have been lessons to be learned in everything I’ve done. It’s all a gift from God, a seed to make you grow.”
For more information on Lady Bianca, visit www.ladybianca.com.