Her first appearance on the blues charts was a cover of Big Mama Thornton’s “Ball and Chain” in 1989. “I always liked that song,” says Trudy Lynn. “I heard it when I was much younger, and it was one of those songs that stayed with me. I’ve never met her one on one. I’ve seen her, but I’ve never met her one on one. When I was young, I used to see her walking down the street, and my parents would tell me who she was, you know? But I never met her and talked to her.”
Trudy Lynn’s musical roots go back to Houston club work in the ’60s. She has slowly and steadily built a solid career working with some of Houston’s best blues, R&B and soul musicians ranging from Albert Collins to I. J. Gosey and Clarence Green.
In her 72 years of life, she’s released 13 studio albums, one live album, and four compilation albums and started her career at the age of 20. Her vocal delivery harkens back to the raw but right shouters of early blues recording sometimes with a big R&B backing, sometimes with a straight electric blues in the Albert Collins tradition. And occasionally with a country cover like Hoyt Axton’s “Never Been to Spain” on her most recent album Blues Keep Knockin’. That album garnered three nominations for the Living Blues Magazine Awards.
In the liner notes she says, “I want to thank all my blues fans new and old, or should I say ‘mature,’ for being with me through my journey with the blues, both near and far. My name is Trudy Lynn, and I sing the blues for you, some old, some new and some borrowed, too. I love singing the blues! The blues knocks on my door, on my window and my heart. I must sing and I sing only what I feel and I sing to make you feel exactly what I feel!”
She was born Lee Audrey Nelms in the Fifth Ward. Her mother ran a beauty shop close to the Club Matinee that featured performers like Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ivory Joe Hunter, but she never could get closer than the back door of the club as a kid. She sang in a vocal ensemble at Wheatley High School, and her first break came as a teen when Albert Collins – playing with Big Tiny and the Thunderbirds – invited her onto the bandstand at Walter’s Lounge on Lockwood. She sang “Night Time Is the Right Time.” “He was just getting off on his own. He was much younger then. So, when he did that song “The Freeze” that just shot him up out of here where he just starting going overseas traveling a lot doing shows out there in the chitlin circuit.
“When I was a kid, between my brothers, my sisters, my dad and I, I would always hear blues music all the time. So, it was just in me to do the blues, you know. I came up, and there was a lot of soul music on the radio and a lot of doo wop, rock and roll, Elvis Presley, people like that. I heard all of that, and I heard a lot of group singing when I was much younger in high school. When I came out with Clarence Green, we were doing mostly soul music and a little blues: “Night Time Is The Right Time” and “You got me running, you got me hiding.” What was that, Jimmy Reed?
“I was (listening) to Albert Collins when I was much younger. I think I was a young girl about 15 or 16, and they would have like a Sunday matinee where they’d have an Albert Collings and Big Tiny in a local club. I remember when he recorded his first hit, “The Freeze.” I’ll never forget I was a young girl when that song came out, and then he recorded a song called “Defrost.” It was about ice. I remember the song.
“I’ve been in so many different categories. I’ve been in categories that took in soul, blues, and they put me in traditional. I’ve always – I did country music. I could do it all, but I feel you could be versatile and do a lot of different styles, but I feel like you have to take one and master one if you want to be heard. And I just like blues. I was raised up with the blues and I like blues. I love blues.”
One has to wonder if Houston had done as much to promote its contribution to the blues genre as Chicago, Memphis, and the Delta, would Trudy Lynn be as high profile today as Koko Taylor was to Chicago, Irma Thomas is to New Orleans, and Mavis Staples is to Memphis? “That’s right,” she says. “First lady of the blues right here in Houston. We’ve got a lot of blues artists out of Houston, and I don’t think they get the just dues they should have, ’cause there’s a lot of musicians that are out of Houston.”
One of the most notorious Houston music industry personalities was Don Roby who owned Duke/Peacock Records. Trudy remembers him from the early ’60s. “I was young. I remember doing a recording there. My husband did some recordings there, and there were different artists. And I did get a chance to meet him and talk to him. I did get a chance to do that because I was born and raised near that studio.”
Was he as bad a guy as everyone give him credit for?
“Bad a guy? No.”
He has a nasty reputation for the way he treated his artists.
“Yeah, I read about that. He was stern. He was stern, but when I met him, he was nice to me. I can remember a time when there used to beat on Bobby Blue Bland and on Willie May (Big Mama) Thornton, you know. He was stern, but so far as being a witness to it, no, I wasn’t. I just heard talk that he was a stern man, you know.”
Much of Trudy’s early experience was with stalwart Houston musicians I.J. Gosey who had been with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters and Clarence Green. “(Gosey) was a super cat. When I first met him, he was playing with a (band) out of Houston called The Joy Boys. They were real popular here in Houston, and I met him and sang on a few blues songs. He was the one who turned me onto Clarence Green, and Clarence Green was the one I was with the longest here in Houston working with the band. I worked with a lot of ’em, but Clarence was the one who really molded me.”
Trudy sang in Clarence Green’s Rhythmaires, her first professional gig after high school. “I graduated from high school in ’65, and I got offered to sing around 1967. When I left Houston and started recording, I did a couple of recordings here local with local people, not big companies, and I left here and I (went) with Dixie Band in Atlanta, Georgia. I had a lot of leeway on choosing over most of the songs where writers would send to them, and they were sending to me to pick the ones I wanted to sing. Most of the time when I was going to record, they would send different writers, different songs for me to check out, and if I would like the song by the time I would get to Georgia, they had just laid out the music, and I would just come in and sing ’em.”
As it is, she’s a six-time Blues Music Award nominee, was inducted into the Houston Music Hall of Fame and has appeared at the Notodden Blues Festival in both 1999 and 2009, and with Little Milton at the San Francisco Blues Festival in 2001. In 2014, she performed at the Lucerne Blues Festival. I’m Still Here, recorded with the Calvin Owens Blues Orchestra in 2006, was nominated for a Blues Music Award, and her 2015 CD Everything Comes with A Price spent four months on the Living Blues Radio Chart.
Listening to her albums and knowing she grew up in Houston’s notorious fifth ward, one could surmise that Trudy Lynn has had a hard life. If she has, she certainly didn’t complain about it in this interview. “No. I’ve been to Asia and Europe, and I never had no hard problems ’cause I go and do the tours and then I’m back home, and I’ve enjoyed doing what I do. I’ve not had any complications that I can go back and say anything about. None of it! I’ve had no complications.”
On her 2016 album I’ll Sing The Blues for You, for instance, she covers Memphis Minnie’s “World of Trouble,” and sings “I’m in a world of trouble, and it sure is not a place to go,” and you believe she’s been there. And “Alright Baby” from the same album may not have the shock value of Big Mama Thornton’s bawdy lyrics about a jockey who knows how to ride, but Trudy can will make you believe she could bring Big Mama up to speed on modern romance and commiserate with her when she sings, “If he don’t love me, you know I don’t feel right.”
“I’ve seen other people go through (troubles with men), and I can just about imagine what’s going on with ’em, you know. But so far to say (any one) song is definitely about my life I can’t say I would have to go through all the 10 points, but nothing that I just wanna put out there about me. It’s not my life because I know of other people who go through these things, you know?”
Steve Karas is her righthand man. She’s been working with him she estimates 10 or 12 years. He did all the harmonica work on Royal Oaks Blues Cafe which is on his label, Conner Ray Music. It hit number one on the Billboard blues charts in 2013. He plays righteous harp on her latest LP, Blues Keep Knockin’, and is the one other musician she takes with her when she plays Europe.
“He’s a good friend. He used to come see me when I worked with Jerry Lightfoot, and he played with him. And we just happened one day to be talking. He came by and we were talking, and I was listening to some of the females because I like listening to some of the old females, and I just mentioned to him, I said, ‘I’m gonna cut some of these songs from ladies of a long time ago,’ and he said, ‘When you get ready to do that, just let me know, and we’ll go in the studio.’ I said, ‘Ok, I’ll let you know.’
“But I didn’t pay hm any attention ’cause people are always just talking, and about two weeks later he called me and said, ‘Are you ready to go into the studio?’ I said, ‘Well, what am I going into the studio for?’ He said, ‘For the (record).’ I said, ‘Oh, yeah.’ He said, ‘All I want to do is just play on some of ’em.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re welcome to play on some of them.’ And we just kicked it off from there.
“He said, ‘Do you have anything I can give to the musicians?’ And I told him, ‘No, just have the musicians in the studio when I come there.’ And so we went in, and I think the first (time) we went in, we did eight or nine songs. I just told him what I wanted, and we just went right off and and did ’em. Just like that. I’d been in the studio a long time, you know, ’cause sometimes you send tracks to the musicians and they’re not – I just rather have ’em come on, and I give it to ya right then, and let’s do it. I feel you get better results.
“Lately since I’ve been traveling overseas, I just carry Steve, and I have some groups I work with over there. I’ve got a tour that’s coming up in November this year. I’m gonna go over with Wayne Baker Brooks behind me on this tour in November. I go to Spain next month and there’s a group over there, but Steve always travels with me, but he won’t be with me when I go do a thing with Wayne Baker Brooks.”
“He left me at 3 in the morning/I had another by four,” she struts on “One Monkey Don’t Stop No Show” by Charles Singer and Rose Marie McCoy from her most recent album Blues Keep Knockin’. Trudy’s voice is weathering well on this CD like Bettye LaVette’s, and the instrumentation here is some of her simplest including guest guitar by Bob Lanza on “Pitiful,” her personal favorite from the album written by Big Maybelle. There are no songwriter credits on the album sleeve, but she tells me “Blues Ain’t Nothin’” is by Georgia Wright. Jimmy Rogers and Oakem Brown wrote “That’s Alright.” Carolyne Wonderland plays guitar on “Would It Make Any Difference” by Etta James. “When I Been Drinkin’” is by Big Bill Broonzy. Country artist Hoyt Axton wrote “When I Get to Spain,” and Trudy wrote the title song.
Trudy Lynn has been her own woman for a long and productive career. “Most of the time when I was going to record, they would send different writers, different songs for me to check out, and if I would like the song by the time I would get to the studio, they had just laid out the music, and I would just come in and sing ’em.
“I like blues, and I like listening to the old blues because I could just picture what those people were going through with those songs, you know, and that comes out in me when I do songs. I listen to music all the time. I listen to songs. I like a lot of the traditional older blues. Some of the songs just stick with me. And some of these songs somebody else would just listen to ’em, but the stories just stick with me, and if it’s something that’s a change for me, something that I truly understand, something that I know about, the truth is what I see.”