Featured Interview – Angela Strehli

Cover photo © 2023 James Cacciatore

imageWhat do you do if you’re a singer who’s been comfortably retired from touring for decades, during which you’ve been operating a successful restaurant/nightclub, and your hubby gently suggests it’s time for you to make another solo album after a 17-year break?

If you’re Angela Strehli, the undisputed Queen of Texas Blues, you go into the studio and cut a record that soars to the top of the charts!

As fans and critics alike around the globe agree, it’s a welcome return to center stage for Angela, one of the most soft-spoken, unassuming folks in the industry despite a background that includes being one of the most important figures in the development of the Austin blues scene.

Blues Blast caught up with her a few weeks ago while she was catching her breath at home in Nicasio, Calif., enjoying a momentary break from the onslaught of weather that had been inundating the West Coast for weeks and recovering from her first tour in ages.

Born in Lubbock, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1945, the daughter of a professor father who taught Spanish at Texas Tech and a mother who ran a daycare out of the family home, Angela grew up in a community with a rich musical heritage.

Not only did rock-‘n’-roll legend Buddy Holly soar to the heights during her childhood, but the city’s also produced Joe Ely, her junior high classmate, and future country stars Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock. Other artists who rose to fame from roots in the city’s soil include Mac Davis, accordionist Ponty Bone, sax player Bobby Keys and Delbert McClinton, too.

Like most folks who grew up in smaller, isolated communities at the time, “we had to make our our entertainment,” Angela remembers. “And what’s true about Texas is that there’s a whole spectrum of music from jazz to country, and everybody had their own little pockets of interest.”

Back then, however, the blues were something foreign that bubbled under the surface in the form of the azure-tinted western swing that had been produced by the Light Crust Doughboys, Bob Wills & the Texas Playboys, Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies, Spady Cooley and others who filled dancehalls prior to World War II.

Strehli began life playing cello in her junior high school orchestra, a group that included Ely on violin. She spent her nights hovering over her Zenith shortwave radio, which served as a gateway to the sounds she couldn’t hear at home.

“I got Shreveport, La., that had a blues show,” she remembers, “and there was Wolfman Jack…wherever the hell he was at…and (deejays) John R. (John Richbourg) and The Hossman (Bill “Hoss” Allen) on WLAC in Nashville, too” – and the sounds of Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Reed and other giants grabbed her attention. “I heard something that I couldn’t figure out.

“The thing about the blues is that it can just grab you, and you don’t have a defense. It’s gotcha! And that’s what happened to me. I was completely ignorant about it, didn’t know what to call it — and I just had to start investigating.”

Blues records were extremely hard to come by, so Strehli resorted to mail order to build up a collection of – what to her – were priceless 45s. In high school, she tried out for the choir but failed to make the cut. But her interest in music was so strong that she started playing bass – an easy transition from cello.

“The guitar is too complicated for me,” she jokes today. “And I picked up harmonica. But just like the bass, I was never proficient enough to say: ‘Oh, I play this.’ No…I was just hoping to jam with folks with the same expertise.”

She attended Carlton College in Northfield, Minn., a Minneapolis suburb that’s main claim to fame is that it’s the place where Jesse James and the Cole Younger Gang tried and failed to rob the First National Bank, an event that’s considered to be the final major event of the Civil War.

“It was a wonderful school,” Angela says. “The typical student moved on to graduate schools and earned a doctorate. But my freshman year, they decided that wasn’t a great atmosphere. So they invited some of us who had maybe traveled a little bit more – I’d been to Argentina because of my dad – or whatever and brought us in to make the student population more diverse.

“It was really funny because one upperclassman who really liked me – and saw what was going on — told me: ‘Look, do this for two years. But then, just go back to Texas. Don’t go all the way on this.’”

The advice struck a positive chord because Strehli had already come to realize that, even though Northfield was a pleasant community, it lacked the ethnic and cultural diversity she grew up with in a state that was one-third Latino, one-third black and “one-third of what we used to call ‘Anglo.’”

Unable to land a summer job after leaving Minnesota after her sophomore year, Angela enrolled in an all-female program for students operated by the YMCA in San Antonio. Tasked with going into the community and polling residents about their biggest concerns, she and the other enrollees lived together on the west side of the city in a predominantly black-and-Latin neighborhood, which – she says – was interesting enough, but it also exposed her to black gospel music, something she’s loved deeply ever since.

imageThe revelation came one Sunday at a Macedonian Baptist church, she remembers. “They had some real singers, an organist — and piano player, too. I was in the back, trying to be inconspicuous. But it was wonderful!”

Prior to enrolling in the University of Texas that fall, where she eventually graduated with a double major in psychology and sociology, Strehli traveled to Chicago for the first time in an attempt to explore the belly of the blues. Following a fellow fan’s advice, she headed straight to the Jazz Record Mart to seek out owner Bob Koester, who operated Delmark Records from the same location.

The most important guide to the Windy City blues scene for decades, Koester was a walking encyclopedia of who was playing where and how to get there, making sure to provide detailed information about the various clubs and what visitors needed to be aware of before dropping in, well-aware that many of the joints he recommended were located in some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the city.

“He was so-o-o helpful,” Angela remembers. “I went to Mother Blues (one of the first North Side clubs in the city to host blues acts)…I could go there by myself. But if I wanted to go to Pepper’s (on the segregated South Side), I knew I’d better have company. I went there with a British journalist.”

After catching Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters in action during that trip — and informing Muddy that she’d come “all the way from Texas to see him,” she used a class project as an excuse to return to the city six months later, the highlight of which was making it to Silvio’s — the legendary club under the L tracks on the West Side – in time to see Wolf perform on New Year’s Eve.

As she notes in the liner notes of the LP of her new album: “I wasn’t expecting to actually meet him, but there he was at the door letting people in — an intimidating character, and I was dreadfully underdressed. Like in a film I had seen of him, I expected Wolf to perform sitting in a chair. Well, he was stalking the stage and at one point started crawling up the curtain!

“I was speechless and thrilled.”

Angela joined her first band as a vocalist – primarily, she says, because someone else was already playing bass before co-founded the Fabulous Rockets with guitarist/harp player Lewis Cowdrey. A year later, she became a backup singer in James Polk and the Brothers. An organist, sax player and percussionist who spent years as Ray Charles’ arranger, conductor and writer, Polk’s now in his early 80s and a retired college professor but still performing locally, where he’s recognized as Austin’s godfather of jazz.

“I used to go and see him perform before I was a professional,” Strehli says. “He’s such a fine person. To be in a band of his was just an instant education about the tools you need to run one yourself. There was one guy on trumpet for a while who was professional, but he couldn’t hang because he was a heroin addict. All the rest of us had various amounts of experience, but certainly not professional.

“We didn’t travel far and wide, but as far away as Midland, which was almost home. It was fascinating because I was playing in black clubs, which was intimidating because I was just a fledgling musician – and not the most confident person, either. I gained a lot of confidence just making it through there.”

Angela’s made her first record during that era when she was also performing with Cowdrey in a group that billed itself as Angela & Lewis and the Sunnyland Special, a lineup that also included original Fabulous Thunderbirds bass player Keith Ferguson. They recorded one 45, “Do Something/My Backscratcher,” which was released on the Moontower imprint more than a decade later.

It was captured at the studio opened by Hank Alrich in South Austin that for decades has served as the home of the long-running Armadillo Records label, and the opportunity to record it came at the invitation of a fan.

“It was a sensational place,” Angela remembers. “They had all Danelectro instruments, Danelectro amps…everything! I wasn’t a musician, but I knew that Danelectro was cool!”

Cowdrey’s next group, The Storm, became the first major blues group in the Austin scene – not surprising because its eventual all-star roster included Jimmie Vaughan and Denny Freeman on guitars, Derek O’Brien and Doyle Bramhall on drums and Ferguson on bass. Not long after, however, they were sharing the spotlight with Strehli’s next band, Southern Feeling and laying down the framework that turned Austin into “The Live Music Capital of the World.”

Co-founded in 1972 with W.C. Clark — one of the most beloved of all Lone Star State bluesmen – and Freeman, Strehli and the band built a steady following, but the places they played, she says, “were all small and really funky.”

But all that was about to change because of one superfan.

imageBlues aficionado Clifford Antone, a young man in his early 20s had just relocated from Port Arthur and thought that Angela, the band and the community all deserved far better. He quickly enlisted Strehli to help him open Antone’s, a new, 600-person capacity club on Sixth Street in the heart of the city.

“One of the big purposes was to educate folks about the blues,” she says, noting: “There’s a huge student population in Austin. It’s not just the University of Texas…there are five colleges (Concordia, Huston-Tillotson, St. Edward’s and Austin Community College are the others) in town.

“And Clifford realized: ‘Look, I’m gonna let these students in for maybe a couple of dollars at the most to see our heroes. They gotta get curious about it, and then come out to see the real people if we can just get ‘em hooked in.’”

Antone was probably the only person who believed it would work, and man, did it ever!

“The lucky thing in those days…unfortunately…even Muddy or Buddy Guy, they didn’t have a lot of gigs,” says Angela, who became the chief cook and bottle washer of the entire operation, doing whatever necessary to keep the doors open. “Blues wasn’t doing well, and they were happy to come to Austin.”

In those days, the headliners played with the house band for multiple nights – the only exceptions being Albert Collins who brought his group from Houston three hours away and a few other talents that did the same. But even that was special because it was no ordinary house band, it was Jimmie Vaughan, Kim Wilson and the original lineup of the Fabulous Thunderbirds, who’d struck like lightning after just being formed.

“Clifford knew they would take it seriously and be well-prepared to backup whoever it was,” Strehli remembers. “And if you’re talking about Otis Rush, you had to be really on your toes ‘cause he might give you a setlist to study…and you could do that and be so prepared…and, that night, he wouldn’t do any of those songs.

“It was a wonderful experience for all of us. To end up on stage with those people was special. And to be able to hang out with them during the day because they didn’t have much to do was special, too.”

Almost all of the top bluesmen of the era served residencies, including Otis, Albert and B.B. King, Bobby “Blue” Bland, Sunnyland Slim and Jimmy Reed. When Little Milton appeared, he finished his stay by inviting Angela to join him on the road, a tempting offer that she had to refuse because of her responsibilities at home.

Many of the visiting artists offered words of advice, Angela says, including Muddy, who advised her to hold on to the last part of a phrase for a few seconds for emphasis. It was just one of many lessons that served her well and helped her to fashion herself into being recognized by the Austin Chronicle newspaper as the best female singer in the city five years in a row.

Life at Antone’s was never boring – something that was enhanced by the fact that Clifford – who died at age 56 in 2006 – lived life fast and wasn’t shy about breaking rules. He and his partners launched several different ventures to raise capital, some honest and some…well…not.

Convicted of drug trafficking in the early ‘80s, Clifford served a “vacation” in a federal prison and Strehli took over his complete Antone’s operation. Still, in his defense, she notes, he was a very charitable man who came to the aid of musicians in time of despair and adding: “He and his associates didn’t graduate college and couldn’t get normal jobs. They had to use their imagination to get by.”

Angela had started writing songs before the troubles began thanks to encouragement from Freeman. And while Clifford was away, she decided to establish Antone’s Records, installing herself as its president.

“That was another ‘somebody had to do it moment,’” she notes. “It was partly selfish because I did have a record. Between my dad and this female fan of mine who’d come into a family inheritance, I had enough money to go into the studio and make it.

“But…I didn’t want to just put my record out. I wanted to do something bigger than me. That’s why I started Antone’s – and hired a really smart person, Carlan Major, to form the business.”

imageThe label debuted in 1986 with Angela’s EP, Stranger Blues, which sold well enough that other artists wanted to come aboard, including a young guitarist from New England named Ronnie Horvath, who soon made his debut as Ronnie Earl with I Like It When It Rains.

Through the years, the Antone’s roster included dozens of releases by a diverse range of superstar artists, including James Cotton, Memphis Slim, Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Doug Sahm, Syl Johnson, Pinetop Perkins, Carolyn Wonderland, Ely, Dickie Betts and dozens of Lone Star State heavyweights. Sadly, however, the operation went dormant after filing for bankruptcy following Clifford’s death and protracted legal wranglings that followed.

As for Strehli, she followed the EP with full album, Soul Shake, then joined forces with Lou Ann Barton and Marcia Ball on Dreams Come True in 1990. Prior to the release of Ace of Blues last fall, her catalog has only included a few other CDs — Blonde and Blue on Rounder (1993), Deja Blue on House of Blues (1998), the self-released Live from Rancho Nicasio (2001) and Blue Highway on M.C. Records (2005) — along with a couple of hard-to-find singles she recorded with Freeman and Wilson on V8 in the mid-‘80s.

She’ also teamed with fellow Texan Lou Ann Barton and Gulf Coast keyboard great Marcia Ball for Dreams Come True and as a member of The Blues Broads – her partnership with Tracy Nelson, Dorothy Morrison and Annie Sampson – for Live (Delta Groove 2012). She and the Broads continue to perform a couple of times a year on the West Coast today.

But Angela’s role in American popular music runs far deeper than making a few albums and running a record label and a couple of bars. She’s also responsible for putting a teenage Stevie Ray Vaughan on the path that lead him to superstardom at a time when he was simply dreaming about launching a solo career. Back then, he was simply the talented young guitarist in a band fronted by W.C. Clark that included several other Austin heavyweights.

“The first time I ever saw Stevie, I was at the Continental Club, which still exists in South Austin,” she recalls. “I was performing, and I looked out and there was this bright-eyed kid staring. Other people were drinking and having a good time, but he was wrapped in what I was doing.

“I didn’t talk to him that night…I think he was pretty shy – and I was, too.

“I don’t think he had an apartment or anything,” Angela remembers. “He was sleeping on couches and such or whatever his big brother (Jimmie) could afford. He’d spend his afternoons at Antone’s, not bothering anybody or anything like that, but just to be there in case so-and-so would walk in, which happened often.

“Albert King was one of those so-and-sos…just the gruffest guy who could make you shiver because he was serious about a lot of things. I said: ‘Look, Albert, there’s this guy here, and he loves your music so-o-o much that he has learned how to play like you.’

“Albert found that interesting. So, sure enough, he got Stevie up on stage with him, which meant the world to Stevie.”

Albert and Stevie developed a strong friendship after that first meeting. And, fortunately, it bore fruits that blues fans can enjoy today through In Session, a live set released by Stax that was recorded in Toronto in 1983 and has been reissued multiple times, most recently last year.

Already a monster on the fretboard, Vaughan was extremely reluctant to try his hand at singing when Angela first met him. “The prospect of that scared him to death,” she says. “But he could see his future, and realized that what he wanted to do was everything…play guitar, front the band and just have a trio. I’m pretty sure he might have been inspired by Billy Gibbons, who’d just gotten off the ground with ZZ Top in Houston.

“One day, he came in just to ask me: ‘How am I going to downsize where I have to really sing?’

“I said: ‘Stevie, just think of one song you love and start singing only that song until you’ve nailed it.’”

He chose Arkansas bluesman Larry Davis’ “Texas Flood,” a number first recorded in 1958 and one that Angela had been performing for years. After being schooled on the lyrics and slowly building his confidence as a singer, Stevie truly made the song his own – so much so, in fact, that Strehli actually struck it from her setlist. The title track of Vaughan’s blockbuster debut LP, he expanded the number by adding several extended instrumental segments and playing it in G-flat by tuning his guitar down a half-step with G fingering.

Strehli’s impact on Stevie’s career continued throughout his life. And as his fame grew, she says, he insisted that she accompany him to his most important gigs, including his Live from Carnegie Hall CD – on which her vocals brought down the house with her rendition of the Albert King standard, “C.O.D.” Her voice also graces other Stevie albums.

imageStill a beloved fixture in the Austin, Strehli’s been based out of Northern California since 1989. The move came after she appeared at Boz Scaggs’ nightclub, Slims, in San Francisco a week after its opening and fell in love with his co-owner, Bob Brown, the former manager of both Pablo Cruise and Hughie Lewis.

She and Bob opened Rancho Nicasio – a popular indoor/outdoor music venue, restaurant and events center about an hour north of San Francisco in Marin County – in 1993, and she’s been using the acumen she developed at Antone’s to keep it up and running successfully ever since.

A self-described “very reluctant performer,” Angela openly admits that he was the person responsible for getting her back into the studio for Ace of Blues. As she writes in the liner notes: “My dear husband looked at me and said, shortly after my 76th birthday: ‘Look, don’t you think it is time for you to make a record? I think your fans would like to hear from you…’”

Caught off-guard she reminded him that she hadn’t written any new material since putting her last CD in the can more than a decade ago. “I kinda said what I wanted to say about my life and my experiences on my previous albums,” she says now. When Bob suggested she devote the new work to paying tribute to her biggest influences, however, and added that she revisit lesser known tunes from the artists’ catalogs, she agreed.

“I thought: ‘That’s a pretty good challenge…to find a song that hadn’t been overly exposed,” she says. “Bob’s a very smart man…obviously!”

Opening with “Two Steps from the Blues,” the song that put Bobby “Blue” Bland” on the map in 1962, the disc also includes works from Elmore James, Chuck Berry, Rush, O.V. Wright, Muddy, Wolf, Rush, Otis Clay, Milton and gospel great Dorothy Love Coates.

And even though most of the songs were born in Chicago or Memphis, all of the new readings are imbued with a Texas feel. The sole original is “SRV,” Angela’s loving tribute to Stevie – a number that Angela struggled for years to write because she felt it so important to get the words just right as she expressed how much Vaughan truly meant to her as both a musician and friend.

Preparation for the recording also took a while because of the time Strehli needed to become comfortable with unfamiliar material – something that would have been far easier if she’d recorded standards.

Tying everything together on the disc is outstanding fretwork by longtime friend and frequent bandmate Mighty Mike Schermer along with two different backing bands. And all of the vocals were recorded at the same time as the musicians.

An added bonus is the packaging, which is loaded with personal memories and photos. And if you’re a vinyl fan, it’s even more special thanks to Angela sharing 12 pages of photos taken during her Austin years. The album is even more special, she says, because it’s the first release in the rebirth of the Antone’s imprint thanks to its current owner, New West Records.

For Strehli, life truly has come full circle!

Check out Angela’s music by visiting her website, www.angelastrehli.com. And while you’re at it, check out what’s happening at her club, www.ranchonicasio.com, too!

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