Just about anyone who’s visited Memphis in the past 22 years has fallen under the spell of Barbara Blue. The undisputed Reigning Queen Of Beale Street, she’s become an international sensation, belting out tunes and captivating many of the millions of tourists who visit annually.
Several of the top artists in the industry have participated on the 11 CDs she’s released on her own imprint since the mid-‘90s, and she has a diehard fan base — known as Blueheads. But despite her success packing up to 1,000 folks at a time into Silky O’Sullivan’s, where she holds court five nights a week, Barbara has inexplicably managed to fly under the radar of the blues mainstream.
When the Bluff City bid farewell to B.B. King after his passing in 2015, Barbara was out front, helping to lead the procession down Beale, and she was both a featured performer and speaker at the ceremony that followed. Described by guitar master Ronnie Earl describes them as a cross between an earthquake and a hurricane, her powerful alto voice has been filling the ears and shaking the souls of audiences for four decades.
But other than a previous article that featured her in a group setting, the interview you’re in the process of reading is the very first feature she’s ever received in a major blues publication – something truly unfathomable when you consider that she’s also played festivals across the U.S., Canada and Europe, has performed on 13 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises and, like B.B. and Rufus Thomas before her, serves as the host of her own Memphis-based blues radio program.
“I don’t travel as much in most people’s eyes to what they’re used to with other performers,” Barbara says. “I stay in the same place. But I reach more people (than they do) by singing five nights a week in the same location.
“Even then, though, I’m still 800 miles away from my family. I’m on the road every day, that’s how I see it. It’s like I tell folks: I’m not from the school where everybody gets a trophy. I’m from the school where you work your ass off and you’re good at what you do. I don’t know any other way.”
People don’t always visit blues bars because they’re happy, she insists, even though Beale Street is the best mecca for a good time in a 250-mile radius.
“What I’ve created is like a little ministry,” she says. “You come here to celebrate a birthday, a divorce, a bachelorette party or honor your kid who’s going off to war. Or you’re celebrating his life if he doesn’t come home. Or you’re remembering your mom after her passing.
“You come here. Your last best time is with us — that’s what I’m all about. It means something. Just last week, this woman comes up to me, hugs me. She’s crying and requests a song. She’d just buried her son and come from his memorial. It’s bizarre and beautiful at the same time how people reach out.
“But blues is the medicine.”
Barbara was born and raised in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a carpenter father who regularly participated in barbershop quartets after a hard day’s work. “He and my godfather, Uncle Dave, would go to the bar – every block in the city has one – and meet up with five or six of their friends to drink and sing. They weren’t hired. It’s just what they did.
“I like to joke that they’d sing a little bit, drink a little bit and then pick out a name — because my mother was always pregnant. There were seven of us. They wouldn’t even go to the hospital when she was having another baby. They’d just stay in the bar singing and drinking.
“They’d give the bar’s phone number to a nurse and wait for her call. When the baby was born, they’d name us – but wouldn’t go to the hospital.”
Barbara’s home was always filled with music – everything from Frank Sinatra, Roger Miller, Eddy Arnold, Tom Jones and Johnny Cash to Vicki Carr, Peggy Lee and Petula Clark to Ray Charles and Nat King Cole – all chosen by her dad — but you’d never hear the really deep soul or blues that permeated the airwaves. Like many parents in the late ‘60s, her dad was very resistant to the social changes that were happening across America.
“He was very white,” Barbara laughs. “My mom’s Mexican, and we used to tease him about it.”
On the sly, though, she found a way to get around the ban. Like many kids in the era, she’d lay under the covers late at night with her transistor radio pinned to her ear. It was a time when 50,000-watt stations like WDAI in Memphis and WLAC in Nashville delivered blues and soul to audiences far from the cities they called home. Barbara was lucky though. Her choice was Pittsburgh’s own WAMO.
“I loved it,” she says. “I used to wake up with dead batteries in the morning because I’d fall asleep without to turning the radio off.”
Barbara grew up singing gospel in church. “I was like the Sister Act girl. I was the one they’d tell: ‘Shut up! You’re too loud!’ I was born with colic and never shut up,” she says. “I still don’t.”
Her world changed forever when she discovered Janis Joplin.
“I was mesmerized. I’d never seen or heard anything like her. I was nine-and-a-half or ten, and all the kids I was hanging out with were 16 or 17,” Barbara recalls. “I was a wild child. It was the summer of 1969, and they were all going to Woodstock. I was like: ‘I wanna go, too.’”
She was heartbroken when her mother said no.
The sounds of Santana, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal and Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young fascinated her, too. In an attempt to keep a better eye on her, Barbara’s mother arranged for her to start working at age 13 in the kitchen of Sonny Jim’s, a bar and restaurant still open today that was owned by people they knew from church. At least then, her mom thought, she’d know where to find her.
The bar booked rock bands on weekends, and Barbara began dreaming of stardom as she watched on from the kitchen. She relished the single drink the proprietors allowed her each night and also learned how to play guitar.
But it wasn’t all fun and games.
“When I was working there, it was known for fresh fried chicken,” Barbara recalls. “They had live chickens, and I would kill ‘em and I would pluck ‘em. Then I’d batter and fry ‘em. My dad would drop me off at four in the afternoon and I’d clean up until two in the morning.”
Blue and her mom weren’t getting along when Barbara graduated high school in 1977. “I knew she loved me, but you’re a kid, you’re a rebel. You just want to get out,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to college because I was a girl. My brother went, but not me. It wasn’t a priority.
“I wanted to sing. I packed my bags and moved to Arizona a week later.”
She waitressed, cooked and served drinks at several biker bars and smaller clubs, which gave her the opportunity to make her dream come true. With plenty of guts and guitar in hand, she sang the songs of her youth – anything she could work out on six-string.
Three years later, Blue packed up and moved again – this time to Detroit after falling in love with a future ex-husband after meeting him at a friend’s wedding. She studied nursing for three years at Madonna University by day and worked at a nursing home into the wee hours of night, singing when she could find time.
Her education came to an abrupt end one day when she and a friend were “asked to leave” – ostensibly for asking questions that instructors deemed to be far more proper for medical students than nurses.
As they were exiting, the friend – who aced her exams and became and MD shortly thereafter — asked Barbara what she was going to do with her life.
Sing, she replied.
“That would be good,” said the friend who is now a psychiatrist, “because music is the best medicine, and you’re really good at it.”
Detroit was home to frequent talent shows, and Barbara made the most of it, singing Patsy Cline tunes for country competitions and something entirely different for rockers, often capturing $100 or more a night for her performance. She also made good money singing jazz and standards.
“My friend Rob Younce was playing guitar in the Stone Country Band, who were a pretty big in Detroit for a long time, and I used to sit in with them, too,” she recalls. “One day, he leaned over to me and said: ‘I have to tell you: You have the best blues voice I’ve ever heard. You need to look into that. You’re wasting your time singing this.’”
Barbara took the words to heart. A short while later, another friend, Ron Oster, invited her to join his City Limits Blues Band. “Ron was musically aggressive, but he knew what he was talking about,” she says. “The bass player was a laid-back dude who played upright, and I was somewhere in the middle. We had a lot of fun.
“I loved Detroit and still do,” she says. “I played places most people haven’t.”
Although known for soul, the city’s also been home to several major blues artists, including John Lee Hooker, Bobo Jenkins, Baby Boy Warren, Doctor Ross, Alberta Adams, Little Sonny and Eddie “Guitar” Burns and his brother Jimmy.
Until it closed in 1999, a victim of what turned out to be a failed attempt at urban renewal, the Soup Kitchen — located a few blocks away from old Tiger Stadium — was both the oldest bar in Motown and the center of the city’s blues universe. An endless stream of international blues talent graced its stage, and it was there that local favorites the Butler Twins, Robert Noll and a young Thornetta Davis gave Barbara the chance to spread her wings.
A nomad at heart, Blue returned to Pittsburgh in 1987 and remained for a decade, during which she formed her first band.
“We played six nights a week at a different venue each night,” she says. “It’s a very musical town. I moved the equipment around in the trunk of my 1969 Chevy Caprice – a 12-channel soundboard that took three guys to carry.
“And I went through just about every drummer player in the city. I joke about that now: If you can’t count to four, you’re fired; if you play too fast, you’re outta here. I was always looking for dynamics and nuances.”
After about a decade of planning, Barbara recorded her first album, Out Of The Blue. Released in 1994, it was recorded in three days at The Control Room in Pittsburgh under the direction of its co-owners, musicians Robert Kasper and Jimmy Daugherty.
Blue visited Memphis a couple of times during that period to compete at the International Blues Challenge, but her move to the city literally came about through good fortune years later.
“It was 1997, and my friend Becky Derek and I went to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, planning to stay a week,” she recalls. “On the way down, we got to talkin’ and she told me how much she loved Tracy Nelson. I don’t know why, but for some reason during the trip, I read the lineup for another festival — Memphis In May — which was happening at the same time. I saw that Tracy was playing that Sunday.”
Becky wondered why Barbara suddenly cut their stay short by a day, insisting they drive up river. “Why?” she asked. “It’s a surprise,” Blue replied.
Becky was delighted when they caught Nelson in action, but feeling ill as night fell. Barbara decided to hit Beale Street on her own, knowing that, as was the custom, she could walk into Silky O’Sullivan’s, hand the piano player $5 and he’d allow her to sing with him on stage.
“I’d done it before,” she says, “but never during Memphis In May, which drew 100,000 people then, 250,000 today.”
Located in the 100-year-old Gallina Building down the block from B.B. King’s, across the street from the Rum Boogie Café and caddy corner to W.C. Handy Park, Silky O’Sullivan’s once was the home of a saloon so larger that as many as 14 bartenders at a time worked in rotating shifts 24 hours a day. It once featured a horse racing parlor, and today, dueling keyboard players often face off on matching grand pianos on its stage.
The current establishment holds up to 1,000 people at a time, and was opened in the ‘70s by Thomas Daniel Sullivan as urban renewal was just beginning to change the neighborhood. Known as the P.T. Barnum of Beale Street, he emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland after gaining fame for his barbecue back home. Nicknamed Silky after Silky Sullivan, a famous thoroughbred from the ‘50s, he combined the best of both worlds in the bar, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day every day of the year while serving heaping portions of his trademark ribs.
Now deceased, he was a genuine character, sitting in a chair that resembled a throne, looking regal as he surrounded himself with cronies around a high-top table.
“People were standing on top of each other that night,” Barbara remembers. “I paid my $5 and sang ‘Me And Bobby McGee.’”
In that instant, her life was forever changed.
“Silky looks at me like ‘what the hell!’” she says. “You’d of thought he’d just seen a white elephant with purple eyes – it was that kind of look. He said: ‘Can you do that again?’
“I did, but I made him buy me a beer to do it ‘cause that’s the usual payment. I did it again — and he just looked at my like ‘what the hell?’ I guess I wasn’t watching the people who were cming in the door.
“So he comes back to me and says with his deep Southern accent: ‘I want to call my wife. Can you do that again when she gets here?’ I said: ‘Sure, but it’s gonna cost you another beer.’”
The wife arrived, and Barbara belted out the Joplin classic once again.
“When I was done, he introduced me to her, and they asked: ‘What would it take for you to come and work for us?’
“’What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Like one day a week?’
“’No,’ they said. ‘Five days a week. We want you to work here.’”
After a quick negotiation, they agreed on a price. But Barbara was faced with a dilemma: Since the plan was her to perform with a keyboard player, she had to find one – and quick.
Fortunately, she remembered that Nat Kerr, a piano player from a small town north of Pittsburgh, was living in the area. They’d worked together previously in Steel City when, after meeting during a jam, he’d called her into the studio to record with roots musician Tom Pomposello. A producer who worked for several TV networks, he was in the process of making a children’s album, Peanut Butter And Jam, for Nickelodeon.
When offered, Kerr accepted the gig.
“I went home and told my mom I was going to work here for six months,” Barbara says. “Twenty-two years later, I’m still here – and Nat’s still playing the piano five nights a week. He’s even there when I’m not.
“I hook him up with other chicks,” she jokes. “If I’m not there, it still has to be a piano player and a girl singer.”
During her first decade in the city, Barbara released three albums, all of which prominently featured members of Taj Mahal’s backing band, known far and wide today as Phantom Blues Band, which included Johnny Lee Schell (guitar), Mike Finnigan (keyboards), Joe Sublett and Darrell Leonard (horns), Tony Braunagel (drums) and Larry Fulcher (bass) – all top sessions players in Los Angeles and a lineup that remains pretty much intact today.
She’d met them on an early Blues Cruise and spent the better part of a year in discussion with Braunagel about producing it. Recorded at Schell’s Ultratone Studios in L.A. as were the next two releases, it came into fruition as Sell My Jewelry in 2001, followed by Memphis 3rd & Beale (Silky’s location – 3rd Street has subsequently been renamed B.B. King Boulevard) in 2003 and Money Love Can’t Buy in 2006. A compilation album, By Popular Demand, followed.
By an odd coincidence, two more three-CD efforts have followed: the first a session of live albums captured by longtime Blues Cruise sound engineer Dawn Hopkins during weekend sets at Silky’s with Nat on the 88s, then Royal Blue, Jus’ Blue and Memphis Blue, which were laid down at Willie Mitchell’s famed Royal Studios — once home to Bobby Blue Bland, Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ike and Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and a host of others — under the direction of Willie’s son, Boo.
Koko Taylor has always been one of Barbara’s favorites – even more so after a Blues Cruise encounter. “She and her band were running the late-night jam in an upper lounge,” Barbara recalls. “She’d just left both the stage and the room. They brought me up and asked me what I wanted to sing. I told them ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and the band looked at me like I’d lost my f’ing mind.”
Written for Koko by Willie Dixon, the song had been a monster hit for Taylor in the early ‘70s and a fixture in her set ever since.
“But I knew how to handle those guys,” Barbara recalls. “I had six $20 bills folded in my bra and pulled ‘em out. I said: ‘Twenty bucks – one song, “Wang Dang Doodle”.’
“I started singing. By the middle of the song, Koko walked back into the room with her daughter Cookie, sat in the back and watched. When I was done, Cookie walked up to me, put her hand on her hip and said: ‘My mama wants to see you!’
“I went ‘shi-i-it! All right, here I come.
“I walked back there and she said: ‘Sit down, girl.’ She leaned back with one arm over the chair like she used to and said: ‘Girl, awesome! I thought I was listenin’ to the jukebox.’
“I almost peed my pants. I told her: ‘Koko, I could die a happy woman right now! That’s all I needed to hear. Them other bitches can kiss my ass.’ She laughed so hard…”
Barbara usually includes one of Taylor’s songs on her albums. That’s true of her latest release Fish In Dirty H20. She steps out of the box somewhat on the title song, once the B-side to a Koko 45, which features a rap segment laid down by Al Kapone.
Produced in Nashville by Grammy-winner Jim Gaines, the CD features former Aretha Franklin musical director Bernard Purdie on percussion, a full horn section, backup singers and guest appearances on guitar by Schell and former Gregg Allman band leader Scott Sherrard.
“A couple of years ago, I walked into the Royal Studios and Al was there rapping along with Melissa Etheridge,” Barbara remembers. “I couldn’t believe they were doing this. In the time that followed, he kept suggesting that he do it with me.
“But I’m no copycat. I told him: ‘Let’s wait. We’ll do it later.’ Then, one day, he texted me and told me she’d never used the track.”
Barbara got the message when the new album was just about finished. The only thing missing was something to fill what Gaines perceived as a dead spot in the title cut. “I told him: ‘Give me a couple of days. I’m gonna bring you something I want you to hear,” Barbara recalls.
“I didn’t know what we were doing, but told Al: ‘Here’s the song. There’s a space in there. Fill it.’ He sent me back that scratch track and I about peed my pants again. I loved it.
“I didn’t know what Jim was gonna do though. I drove two hours and took him the track. I’m watching from behind, staring at the back of his head, as he’s sitting at his desk playin’ it. He’s bouncin’ with it. He turns around and gives me a look, and I’m thinking he hates it, but says: ‘I love it – but I think my professional friends are gonna think I’ve lost my mind.’”
Far more than an album of covers, however, the disc includes five originals penned by Barbara in collaboration with Sandy Carroll and Mark Normore, and another in collaboration with Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham, whose hits include the Box Tops’ “Cry Like A Baby” and James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.”
Barbara will be forever grateful to Purdie. Because of his talent and effort, she says, the impossible happened: nine of the tunes were recorded in a single take.