Diunna Greenleaf – I Ain’t Playin’
Little Village Foundation
13 songs – 56 minutes
Despite winning the Blues Music Association’s Koko Taylor Award in 2014 and 2017 as traditional female vocalist of the year and piling up about a dozen other nominations since bursting on the scene in mid-2000s, it’s been 11 years since Houston-born Diunna Greenleaf has released an album. But she returns with a vengeance here, delivering a collection soulful blues that should relaunch her into the high orbit she deserves.
Only the fifth release in her career, this one was produced, mastered and engineered by Kid Andersen at his award-winning Greaseland Studios in San Jose, Calif., in partnership with Little Village Foundation, the non-profit founded by Grammy-award winning keyboard player Jim Pugh (Robert Cray, Etta James). And their work as instrumentalists is buried deep in all the tracks you’ll hear here.
The daughter of gospel singers Ben and Mary Ella Greenleaf, Diunna grew up singing in the church and influenced by Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Sam Cooke, Charles Brown, Aretha Franklin and Koko herself. A powerful alto, she blends blues, gospel and soul into a cohesive package that delivers a heaping helping of emotion with every phrase.
A former president of the Houston Blues Society, she and her group, Blue Mercy rose to prominence when they were voted band of year at the 2005 International Blues Challenge, following it up in 2008 by winning BMA debut album-of-the-year honors for Cotton Field to Coffee House. Despite her acclaim, this is only the fifth album in her career, which also includes “Crazy” but Live in Houston, the self-titled Diunna Greenleaf and 2011’s Trying to Hold On. She also provided backup behind Pinetop Perkins on the 2008 Grammy-winner, Last of the Great Mississippi Delta Bluesmen: Live in Dallas.
Diunna’s backed by the cream of the crop of Bay Area bluesmen on this disc. In addition to Andersen, who plays guitar throughout and adds bass on one cut, and Pugh, a triple threat on piano, organ and clavinet, the roster includes superstar bassist Jerry Jemmott and Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, who spent decades keeping the beat for Little Richard and is now a fixture in Rick Estrin & the Nightcats.
Mike Rinta (trombone), Arron Lington (tenor sax, flute) and Jeff Lewis (trumpet) provide horns on six of the 13 tracks. And the album also includes contributions from Igor Prado and Nick Clark (guitar), Sax Gordon, Maelys “Miss Bee” Baey and Eric Spaulding (saxes) and Paul Revelli and Vicki Randle (percussion). Alabama Mike and Lisa Leuschner Andersen sit in on vocals for two cuts each, and The Sons of the Soul Revivers – Walker, James and Dwayne Morgan – make a guest appearance, too.
The cautionary “Never Trust a Man” – culled from Koko’s catalog – powers out of the gate atop a deep, medium-paced shuffle and gives the backing musicians plenty of space to shine as Diunna blows the back off of it before the Greenleaf original “Running Like the Red Cross” swings from the hip as it promises that – no matter the issue – she’ll be there to lend a hand.
Big James Montgomery’s love song for the music, “If It Wasn’t for the Blues,” gets a silky-smooth re-do before Diunna gets funky with her own “Answer to the Hard Working Woman,” a complaint about doing so much inside and outside the home for her man that she’d almost be better off on her own. She takes you to church with a stripped-down, uplifting version of Nina Simone’s “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” before the jazzy original, “Sunny Day Friends,” serves up a warning about folks who disappear in a heartbeat when times go bad.
Next up, Diunna’s delivery of the unhurried Vince Gill two-step country ballad “When I Call Your Name” is true blue, too. “I Don’t Care,” an early ‘60s regional hit for Dennis Roberts, and a stellar cover of “Damned If I Do,” first recorded by R&B giant Joe Medwick in 1969, follow before a barebones take on “I Know I’ve Been Changed” does the Staple Singers proud. Three more numbers — the original “Back Door Man,” Johnny Copeland’s “Let Me Cry” and Deitra Farr’s “My Turn, My Time” – bring the disc to a successful close.
Diunna Greenleaf has received some of the highest honors in the blues world, but she deserves far more attention from fans than she’s previously received. Run, don’t walk, to pick up this one and you’ll understand why. Strongly recommended.