“If anybody had told me about some of the things that I would have had to encounter being a female leader of a blues band, I probably wouldn’t have done it,” says Diunna Greenleaf, ‘but you know, ignorance is bliss. As a woman who is leading a band and not just singing in a band, there are some other pitfalls and snakes waiting when you fall in the pit.”
Diunna told me that in 2005. In some ways she was a reluctant blues diva. She didn’t go into the game professionally until she was 44 years old, had earned an undergraduate degree in mass communications, a master’s degree in educational counseling, had worked as a counselor, and spent 21 years as an officer in the Army, the last of her three MOS’s (job category) earned after going to a special school on the locking down of heavy equipment on C130s.
There always seems to be a but with blues singers who have the mojo in their bones. Her daddy told her, “You and all my kids have good voices, but you have an outstanding voice, an outstanding voice, an outstanding voice, and you don’t know it, and you ain’t gonna do a damn thing with it.”
But she did!
“I don’t know,” she says today. “He said, ‘You are the one child of mine who can sing anything you want to sing, any style, and you don’t want to.’
“I (did) family talent shows and everything like that. My mind was focused on other things, with my education, the organizations I was part of, my military stuff. And I could not envision myself making a living doing music.
“My grandmother lived to be 105 years old and in her right mind. She used to pray every night, and she’d say, ‘Lord, put your wings of protection around my little bitties and protect them all.’ Then, she’d name us individually. She would call us little bitties. All her children and grandchildren she’d name us, and she would call us little bitties, like little chicks, like little children, and she’d say, ‘I wanna thank you for yet another day, another day. This servant of yours is in her right mind.’ There is something to being in your right mind if you’ve ever seen people who aren’t in their right mind.”
Her childhood was idyllic. She didn’t know her family was poor because family life itself was so rich. “Hindsight is 20-20, and we didn’t realize that we were poor ’cause we never felt that. We were rich in family, friends, love. So, I don’t know. Another thing we had a lot of family. It’s become more apparent. We have a family reunion later this month, and they’re having it in Houston because there are two only of our first cousins who are still with us.
“Mama would sing stuff while we were doing chores. She could have just as easily turned on the radio. We liked to hear her. She could sing “How Sweet It Is to Be Loved By You.” She’d sing “Don’t Fence Me In,” and just the other day I sang this song she used to sing in Montreal and also in Portugal, “Hard Times.” When I went and tried to explain it to this Portuguese band, they went on YouTube of course and looked it up, “Hard Times.” There was Ray Charles singing the same song. ‘So, this is the song you heard?’ I said, ‘Yes, but my mama sang it better.’” (laugh) Her mom died of stroke complications in 1995.
Music was always there. Diunna’s parents would house visiting artists who were refused hotel accommodations during segregation. She remembers Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe staying at her house. Joe Tex used to bring her records. Her father taught singing to Sam Cooke before he joined the Soul Stirrers. Her uncle owned a juke joint on Lyons Ave. and hosted Albert Collins and Lightnin’ Hopkins. Her mother ran a café on the same street that Honeyboy Edwards remembers to the day he died. But it wasn’t until she’d put herself through graduate school singing at weddings the Diunna became a professional blues singer.
Today, she’s travels the world performing. She was Living Blues magazine’s Critics’ Choice for Female Artist of the Year in 2015. Her latest release, Trying to Hold On, reached number one on XM/Sirius Radio Bluesville, number one on French Blues charts, and reached the top of blues charts in UK, Australia and the USA. But it all comes back to her childhood and mama.
“It’s difficult for me to sing “Precious Lord.” That song’s carved on my mama’s tomb stone ’cause people used to call for her to sing it all the time, and they used to call for her to sing “Oh, Ship of Zion,” and when all the nuns’ gospel things she used to sing around the house, I sing them with ease and fun. Happy memories laughing.
“It’s hard to sing “Precious Lord.” I used to sing it all the time before. I can still sing “Oh Ship of Zion.” There’s overwhelming sadness in singing that song. I don’t know. There are probably others that it’s not every day that somebody has asked me to sing. At the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis, they asked me to sing “Precious Lord.” I had to actually leave the stage. I did finish the song, but I just needed to get out of there.”
It may be too simplistic to say the only difference between gospel and blues is that one is about Him with a capital H and the other about him (or her) with a small h. But it is not hyperbole to state that both genres are measured in passion and truth of conviction. And while those very ingredients are what traditionally have caused a deep schism between followers of each, some rare musicians can say that both have infused them with the spirit, holy or otherwise. Diunna is one of those people.
“Gospel and blues are like fingers on the same hand, and my sister who was a minister played only gospel but did not have a problem with me singing blues. She also knew I sang everything else I wanted to, but she also knew what I was trying to do as keeping a light on the historical values, this art form and also keeping a light on the contribution of women who sang this music.” Diunna said that in 2005. When I asked her if she still believed that, she said, “It’s true, it’s true, it’s true.”
Her indoctrination was subtle. As a child she didn’t realize who she was rubbing shoulders with. “It was Johnny Taylor who told me all the stories about Sam Cooke because Daddy just didn’t talk about those days. We didn’t know back from him. We knew about it from other people. I met Joe Tex ’cause he and Daddy were hunting buddies. I met Johnny Taylor ’cause he used to come to the house all the time, but at nighttime, late at night ’cause we’d always have to get up out of bed and help Mama put out some food or something like that. Albert Collins used to sit and watch me for my uncle and play some things and ask me how did that sound. ‘How does this sound?’ And I said, ‘That sounds good. That sounds good,’ not realizing he was world famous.”
As she got older, it began to sink in. “I was one of those kids you might have me in the first two days, and I might not say a word ’cause I’m listening and observing and taking in all of the information. And after that, I’m nonstop asking you questions, but as far as Mommy and Daddy were concerned with the industry, I just didn’t know the right questions to ask because I guess I didn’t see them as being part of it.”
As a young adult, Diunna would sing at weddings to help pay for her education. Her friend Alligator Recording artist Katie Webster would say to her, ‘The gift of song and music is with your family and somebody needs to continue it.’ I said, ‘Maybe that somebody is not me. (chuckle) Katie Webster had me at her place for tea, like high tea. It was set up like high tea in London, and I thought about that many a time because Katie knew how to approach me.
“She was looking at me. She saw I was a sorority girl. Yes, I was down to earth and this, that, and the other, but she knew that Mama and Daddy had coached me into getting my education so that I could know, understand and be involved in some of the “vital” things in life, and she knew I was one of these new working-class women in the offices, in the big offices and things like that. She had me over for tea and to talk to me about getting in the business and stuff like that.
“It was like a push and pull. I was constantly telling her no, and she was acting like she couldn’t hear me. I said, ‘Miss Katie, this sounds great for someone who is interested in this, but I have no intentions of running up and down the road singing. I’m not the one. I love this music, and it’s great, but this is not my experience, and I don’t have this ability,’ and she says, ‘Oh, but stop! You have the ability. Your talent is far reaching. You will be a family representative of this music and those of us who build our lives around the music.’ I said, ‘Miss Katie, it’s gonna have to be somebody else. She said, ‘Alright, Now, if you just turn to page 1.’
She wasn’t gonna take no for an answer.
Diunna has discovered that being a professional in the blues business is tougher than chewing gun and walking at the same time. “My sister died in 2005, and I had to help raise her children. I needed to be there to see them, to be available when they needed me.
“I didn’t need any middle man taking out any of the money and another thing is that people couldn’t see then that they see now since we’re not together, myself and Jonn (Del Toro Richardson, former lead guitarist in her band) and Vernon (Daniels, drummer) and Josh. We were a hell of a band and other people admit they’re trying to copy what we do, but they seem awkward to us, falling all over each other, in a couple of cases, of people falling off the stage. We were more ballet – like even though – again not choreographed. Not choreography, Jonn said he saw me and Sherman Robertson one time on stage, and he said, we locked our heals together and leaned back and then he said everybody went whoa! And he said it was just so much fun he just wanted to run up on stage with us.”
Education itself helped. “Another thing is when I was an undergraduate at Prairie View A&M University in Prairie View, Texas, part of the A&M systems, A.I. Thomas was the President at the time, and he put me on a committee, made me chair of a committee within weeks to handle bringing in entertainment, university entertainment, and I was able to meet with him. I was able to meet so many different artists, and also learn about contracts, learn about their riders, equipment – this and that and the other. So, without even knowing it sort of educated me for the time when I eventually had a band. That was another thing. When I said, ‘Oh, are we gonna do this or not,’ and I would bring a contract to many of the venues here, they would laugh. ‘You’re local. We don’t do contracts with local people. Somebody better straighten this girl out.’ That type of thing.
“Blues enriches my life. I think that one of the things the blues does that’s kinda unexplainable if you’re a person who has not experienced whatever the situation is in life is that the blues kind of gets you prepped so that you can hear it a little better when it comes. Or at least you have an inkling of what it might feel like. Nobody can tell you until you’ve experienced something yourself, but the blues kinda gets you prepped.”
Visit Diunna’s website at: http://diunna.com/
Interviewer Don Wilcock has been writing about blues for nearly half a century. He wrote Damn Right I’ve Got The Blues, the biography that helped Buddy Guy jumpstart his career in 1991. He’s interviewed more than 5000 Blues artists and edited several music magazines including King Biscuit Time.