16 Songs/64.5 minutes
I must be honest, I had not heard much about Katie Webster other than knowing she made some great boogie-woogie albums with Alligator Records in the 1980’s. After listening to this fine compilation of songs which span her career, I gained much respect for this “two fisted”, piano playing, swamp boogie queen.
This compilation was recorded live in Athens, Greece in 1990 and mastered by Praxis Studios in Athens by Kostas Parissis. It is the seventh in a series of Louisiana Swamp Blues, each which highlight the career of various swamp blues performers, most lesser known. Katie is the only musician on this CD on piano and vocals. The live recording provides a glimpse of Katie’s personality, her command of her music and interplay with the very receptive audience.
Katie, born Katie Jewel Thorne, is best known for her barrelhouse, boogie – woogie piano and her incredible vocals. She learned this style of piano in her childhood years in Houston listening by radio to Fats Domino, Little Richard, Albert Ammons and the like. Her father was a ragtime pianist who turned to gospel music when he joined the ministry. He also had a tremendous influence on her music. She loved ragtime and boogie – woogie and would play this music until her mother came home from work when she quickly switched to gospel so she would not be scolded for playing the “devil’s” music. At age thirteen she set off to make her way in the music world on the “crawfish circuit” from Dallas to New Orleans. She began her career playing in the bands of Slim Harpo, Lighnin’ Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonnie Brooks and Otis Redding to name a few. She played with Otis Redding until his untimely mid- 1960’s death. She then left the music world, returning in the 1980’s as a solo performer. She was very popular in Europe, doing over thirty tours there in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In 1993, she suffered a stroke while touring Greece, but returned to music the following year although slightly handicapped with a weak left hand and poor eyesight. Even handicapped, she never missed a beat and sounded as good as ever. She caught the attention of Alligator Records in 1988 and recorded three albums on the Alligator label. These releases finally gave her the recognition she deserved. Katie passed in 1999 leaving an amazing legacy of over five hundred recordings both with other bands and individually, all that featured her incredible piano skills and some her vocal prowess as well.
The songs on this CD, such as “Katie’s Boogie”, “I’m Bad”and “Two Fisted Mama” (all of which she penned) exemplify her barrelhouse boogie – woogie style. She plays the piano with a force like no female I can think of. One hand keeping a perfect rollicking rhythm while the other is playing incredible melody and bringing home the boogie – woogie style. All the while her voice flows with the music telling a story, often with humor or emotion. Her vocals are an instrument of their own, she has great control and can turn up the volume to fill a room or be so soft as to gently carry a song to a very deep, emotional level such as in “It’s Good to See You”. She also has a swampy growl to her voice that provides a prowess when the song is fitting.
Katie also pays homage to her gospel roots with a stirring medley of traditional gospel songs, “Precious Lord Take my Hand”, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Down by the Riverside” to name a few. Her gospel playing is right out of a Southern Sunday morning Church service, she touches the keys with sincere devotion and inspiration. Her vocals adapt perfectly, rising and falling as her spirit is moved by the music. It is almost like listening to a different musician than the boogie-woogie Katie, but because she carries gospel roots into all of her music, it is really part of her special style.
She has a few covers on the CD of Otis Redding songs. She was very close to Otis and deeply respected his music. Her version of “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” and “Try a Little Tenderness” are very moving. You can feel the love in her music. I was quite taken with her version of “Sittin on the Dock of the Bay” and in my mind, it is the finest version I have heard aside from the original.
To round out the CD, Katie covers “So Far Away” by Mark Knopfler, “Honest I Do”, the Jimmie Reed classic and “Hobo Blues/Boogie Chillen'” two Johnnie Lee Hooker standards she combines into a medley. She also does a very tender version of “Sea of Love” written by Philip Baptiste aka Phil Phillips.
I recommend this CD as an addition to any collection of blues recordings. Katie Webster’s talent on the piano has yet to be outdone by a woman in the blues world (in my opinion). She also has the vocal skills to carry the listener on a beautiful journey. It is a great musical experience to hear this woman play perfectly timed rhythm with her left hand as her right hand dances and pushes the piano keys to deliver each note just as she wants it – all the while her voice is soaring with, above and below the piano. Her gospel songs are as good as gospel gets. Part of the beauty of the blues is the history, the legacy carried forward by contemporary performers. It is always a nod to the past. So often the women of the blues we nod to are the famous vocalists. Katie Webster is so much more. This CD is available on Amazon.com.