Houston-based soul-blues singer Keeshea Pratt took the world by storm when she and her red-hot band walked away with top prize in the 2018 International Blues Challenge. But it almost didn’t happen. It took prophecies from an opera diva and a pastor to convince her that she belonged the secular world, not the church – and then it took an insistent band leader to push her over the top.
Even after capturing the honor, Keeshea she was ready to walk away from it all – to leave show business altogether and return home. “I’m a full-time mama,” she insisted at the time. “I didn’t get a break. I came right to cook dinner for my family the night after I won. I was back to full-time mama mode.
“Everything that happened wasn’t part of my plan. I said: ‘I’ll compete, and then I’m done.’”
But the lure of the stage is a difficult siren to overcome, however. And Pratt’s subsequent ability to win over crowds at such venues as the Big Blues Bender, festivals in Chicago and Telluride and the February Legendary Rhythm And Blues Cruise, where this interview took place, as well as top blues clubs from coast to coast has been too powerful to ignore.
The decision to keep pushing didn’t come easily. In truth, she fought against it for most of her life!
Like many of her peers, Pratt grew up with deep spiritual roots in Jackson, Miss. Her mother, Catherine McCoy Harris, served for years as choral director at New Hope Baptist Church after first becoming its keyboard player at age 12. She met Keeshea’s father, Terry “T.L.” Harris, as a student at Jackson State University, and they traveled the world together, singing spirituals and frequently performing R&B on the side.
“My mother can sing anything,” Keeshea says. “She was in a group that did Motown and soul. She’s a lyric soprano, and my father was a first tenor with a beautiful, beautiful voice. He sang arias to me when I was a baby. He got into the management side of the business back then with a group called the Wynd Chymes, who patterned themselves after Earth, Wind & Fire.”
He also managed the solo career of band member Alexander O’Neal. A vocalist who hit the R&B charts with 14 singles in the ‘80s. O’Neal’s musical pedigree also included service as lead singer in The Time, one of the top groups of the era. He was replaced by Morris Day after a falling out with Prince who had signed the group to the Warner Brothers label.
Pratt grew up in the Church Of God In Christ — an environment where parishioners regard anything other than gospel as “the Devil’s music” — and her mom worked at three different churches before returning to the New Hope choir in her retirement, after leaving to work at three other churches. But despite any pressure against it, Keeshea says, Catherine has always encouraged her to pursue her dreams.
“She grew up during civil rights and there were a lot of things goin’ on, so she was afraid,” Pratt says. “She was the only girl in the house for ten years, and she was spoiled. My granddaddy wouldn’t let her go anywhere.
“She did some travelin’ for a while, singin’ background. But she gave it up. But she’s living the life she wanted through me. She always says: ‘If I had just a little bit of you, my life would have been different.’
“She’s a very, very strong influence about what I’m doin’ now.”
After singing in church at age six or seven, Pratt knew instinctively that music would be her life. As a child, she kept journals, writing in detail about dreams in which she was a headliner like James Brown or Tina Turner, in shows that would include backup singers, multiple acts and dancers.
“I knew then that bein’ an entertainer was my deal,” she says.
She sang in choirs, pageants and talent competitions through high school before attending at Tougaloo College as biology major. Like the late Mike Ledbetter, however, Pratt studied opera, too, and made an immediate impression during her freshman year – so much so, in fact, that she was recruited by the legendary Grace Bumbry to tour Europe with her Black Musical Heritage Ensemble during the summer of 1994.
One of the leading mezzo-sopranos of her generation, Bumbry is considered to be a pioneer among African-American opera singers. A Presidential Medal Of Honor winner who’s toured in the company of both Marion Anderson and Leontyne Price, she visited Mississippi that spring to hold auditions.
“But I didn’t get to try out,” Keeshea says, noting that freshmen weren’t being considered.
As chance would have it, however, Pratt’s opera professor was also her godfather, and he insisted that she attend a rehearsal, which was being conducted by a gentleman in the diva’s employ. Keeshea initially refused, but jumped at the opportunity when she discovered that she’d be paid $75 an hour.
A second rehearsal followed, and the director called her aside afterward, Keeshea recalls. “He asked: ‘How old are you?’ Eighteen, I said. ‘Have you ever been out of the country?’ No, sir.”
Then he handed her sheet music and said: “Sing this.” (Keeshea launches into an extended verse that begins “I will see my Savior in Heaven…”)
The next day, the director called Bumbry, insisting she fly to Mississippi. “You have to hear this girl,” he told her. “She’s got a special kind of voice. She’s an alto, but she can sing first soprano. But there’s something about her…”
When Pratt set eyes on her for the first time, she knew she was in the presence of someone completely different – dressed to the nines with full makeup, long nails and, like many divas, she was wearing a corset. Bumbry hails from St. Louis, but Keeshea recalls that she spoke with a distinct European accent, having spent so much time on the Continent.
She sat stone-faced directly in front of Pratt when the teen sang for her in a group setting a short while later. “I thought she was bein’ mean,” Keeshea says.
At four a.m. the next morning, however, Pratt’s home phone rang. Bumbry was calling to ask her mother’s permission to take her abroad and assuring her that she’d assume full responsibility for her child’s care.
Bumbry’s reply proved to be prophetic. “Your daughter is special,” she said. “I want you to let her go with me.”
“No. Keeshea’s a freshman in college. She needs her education.”
“Your daughter’s future is bigger than what you think,” the diva answered. “If she’s not going to get a degree in music, she does not need to be in school. Your daughter is an entertainer.”
Her mother’s opposition ended when the Bumbry informed her that Keeshea would be earning $2,500 for the first two weeks plus per diem and $3,000 weekly for the rest of the tour. She finally relented, but only after Keeshea’s father, who’d worked with Price in the past, also agreed to join the ensemble as second accompanist.
“The money was gone quick,” Pratt says today. “But it was an amazing experience. That was when I knew this is who I am. I came home with a different mindset. All I wanted to do was perfect the entertainer, the performer in me.”
In 2009, she received more encouragement from a direction she didn’t expect.
“It was funny,” she says, “’cause at the time, I was strugglin’ because I’d already started singin’ in the clubs, working gigs at the Hilton and Steam Room Grille. But I was strugglin’ with church people and strugglin’ with what I was doin’.
“It was hard. I was attacked. I’d leave work on a Saturday, get some sleep and then be in church at seven Sunday morning to lead praise and worship, and you could feel the spirits pullin’ and the ones out prayin’ against who you are. I always used to worry about what other people would say.”
Fortunately, however, her anguish was apparent to her preacher, an older white Pentecostal pastor who was also a gifted musician who played all forms of music.
One day in church, he beckoned her.
“I said to myself: ‘Oh-oh! What did I do this time?’ I stayed in trouble – and I stayed in trouble in church!” she recalls. Apparently, he’d spotted her in the midst of an altercation with another parishioner.
“He said: ‘See this one? You don’t know the cost of her alabaster mind. Keep your mouth off of her because what God’s calling you to do is bigger than you think,’” Pratt recalls. “‘You cannot worry about what they say. You can only worry about what the Lord says.’
“Later on in the year, he called me out during a service and said: ‘This pulpit is not your platform.’ I just started cryin’.”
Even though she’d been working in bars for the better part of three years, singing blues, soul and R&B, she’d never revealed what she’d been up to.
“He said: ‘It’s okay – because not everybody can be in the church. God is going to elevate you. You will sing before kings and queens. You will sing for presidents. The nation shall know your name. And you’re going to become an overnight international sensation. And when it happens, it’s gonna catch you off-guard.”
But there was more.
He cautioned: “For a time, you’re going to go through a period where you believe it’s never gonna happen and you’re gonna be away from it. But God is going to be preparing you for the success. Stay with God. You can go places my daughter can’t go, and there’s an anointing that you carry that God only gives to a few.
“Daughter, the Lord built you for the world. Don’t be afraid of it.’”
As her childhood dreams had foretold, he also assured her that her stage attire would be “over the top.”
Pratt remembers the incident like it occurred yesterday, and vows never to forget it.
Keeshea’s debut as a blues artist occurred in 2009 at Jackson’s Jubilee Jam, when she appeared with future IBC winner Eddie Cotton to perform a tribute to Koko Taylor, who had passed a few weeks earlier. Organizers wanted him to work with another vocalist, but he insisted she was the perfect choice.
“I drove out to his house – he lived in the country – and we rehearsed,” she recalls. “He said: ‘I don’t know what they’re tellin’ ya, but you’re a blues singer. You can sing anything, but this blues is in your soul.’
“We did the festival, and I was so-o-o nervous. I was soakin’ wet. But we went for it – and that was the day I said to myself: ‘I’m am a blues singer.’”
Pratt performed the Chicago Blues Festival in 2010, but gave up music entirely after the birth of her second daughter a year later — about the same time she was honored as female vocalist of the year in the Jackson Music Awards.
She worked day jobs in hotel and apartment management as well as a stint at Jackson State as an assistant to the dean of students before relocating to Houston, remaining out of the limelight until 2015, when a mutual friend – Kai “Cookie” Hicks, a singer who’s worked with Al Jarreau, Jennifer Lopez and Beyoncé — introduced her to Shawn Allen, the bass and keyboard player who runs many of the top jams in the city.
Allen was putting together to compete in the 2016 International Blues Challenge and searching for a vocalist. Hicks told him: “She’s got what you’re lookin’ for.”
She gave him Keeshea’s phone number then, over Pratt’s objections, insisted that she talk to him, telling her: “This is your second chance. The prophecy has to come to pass.”
They talked for three months, but Keeshea still wasn’t interested. Her attitude changed when he finally got her to sit in at a show he was running at Houston’s The Big Easy. “I do a few songs – and my belly starts stirrin’ up,” she says. “I came off stage and he asks: ‘How’d it feel?’ I said: ‘It felt good!’”
Pratt finally made up her mind to do it, but literally “fell off the earth” a short while later after encountering some personal problems, leaving Allen unable to find her.
Months passed before she returned from the wilderness to find that Shawn was still furious about her disappearance. But he warmed quickly when she told him she was ready at last. They traveled to Memphis in January 2017 to give her a taste of what the IBCs were all about.
“We became friends,” Keeshea says, “somethin’ they tell you not to do when it comes to workin’ together. There was a lot of fussin’ and a lot of cussin’. But he believed in me more than I did. He said: ‘Do you even know who you are? It’s sittin’ right here for you. You don’t even look like a blues singer – that’s the first thing that’s gonna get them.
“’You look like you should be singin’ jazz or R&B. You’re lookin’ like a Nancy Wilson. For you to gutbucket like you do, you don’t even have to open your mouth. Keeshea, you can live a good life in blues.’”
She and Allen recruited her high-energy band – Shawn on bass, lead guitarist Brian Sowell, saxophone player Dan Carpenter, trumpet players Misaki Nishidate (a young lady from Japan) and James Williams III, and drummer Nick Fishman – through jams.
“We’re a team,” Keeshea insists.
The finished product has a sound that’s distinctly different from most horn bands. The horn section delivers chorded, in-sync rhythm that mirrors the delivery of a big-band – something that’s not surprising when you find out that that’s where both trumpet players came from. They’re a refreshing alternative from other groups that incorporated a more traditional setup: multiple saxes and slide trombone.
Previously, Allen and Carpenter had worked together as members of Odell Gray And The House Rules Band. “And Misaki is so excited,” Keeshea points out. “She’s only been in the country for two years and had never heard blues before.”
The band polished their act at several local clubs, including The Big Easy, Emmits Place and Sambuca, before walking away with top honors in the 2017 Houston Blues Challenge and earning their ticket to the Memphis.
The Keeshea Pratt Band made an immediate impression when they and their street team arrived a day early for the 2018 IBC finals. They announced their presence by literally plastering the city with banners and push cards with scanable links their website and affixing more in hotel elevators and restrooms.
They powered through the preliminary rounds of competition, but almost didn’t make it to the Saturday night finals.
“I woke up sick,” Keeshea recalls. “The week and the January weather – it was brutally cold — had taken its toll, and my voice was gone.”
Her cousin, a Memphis physician, gave her a checkup that morning, offering a bit of encouragement. “She told me: ‘Your body isn’t gonna shut down. You’re working on adrenaline. But the moment y’all finish, your body is gonna just go like a sack of flour, like a sack of potatoes.’
“And that’s exactly what happened.”
When they hit the stage of the Orpheum Theatre that night, Keeshea’s mother was seated at a table alongside a family friend and a couple from Norway who were visiting the U.S. for the performance. The Norwegian lady quickly informed her: “We’ve been here since four thirty.”
“Mama said: ‘Why?’” Keeshea recalls, and she said: ‘This girl that’s comin’ up next, she’s gonna win.’
“‘Where’s she from?’
“’Houston, Texas,’ the lady said. ‘I’ve seen nothing like her since Tina Turner and Aretha Franklin. Oh, my God, she’s awesome!’
“’What’s her name?’
“’Katina…no…Keeshea, and you’re gonna love her.’
“’Well, she’s not from Houston,’ my mother said. ‘She’s originally from Jackson, Miss.’
“’How do you know that?’ the lady asked.”
“I’m her mother!” came the reply.
Pratt insists that she wasn’t at her best that night and that she’d given better performances during the week. But the judges obviously thought otherwise, awarding her and her bandmates top prize. Not good enough in her own eyes, but a winner nonetheless.
Only afterward, did her mother admit always knowing that Keeshea would be a success.
“I knew early on that you were different,” she said. “I wanted to make you into this person ‘cause I couldn’t control you. And I’m sorry.”
“Sorry for what?” Keeshea asked.
“Because this should have been your life years ago.”
Pratt disagrees. It was important for her to struggle, fight and hit rock bottom, she says, in order to be where she is today. “I’m here for the people,” she says. “It’s not about being famous or makin’ money. I’m here because I know this is who I am and that I’m needed to help people move on.
“In a 24-hour period, my life changed. Even if I wanted to quit now, I can’t. It’s my responsibility to keep pressing. I have to do it for all of the other singers out there that I see when I go home, to let them know: Keep going. If I can do it, you can, too.”
With only an EP, entitled Believe, to their credit, Keeshea and her band are currently working on a live, two-disc follow-up, incorporating expanded elements of their first release as well as original takes on some of Pratt’s favorite covers.
“I want to say thank you to the folks who are already following us,” she says, “because I get a lot of inspiration from them. Without them, I wouldn’t be Keeshea Pratt. Without them, there would not be a Keeshea Pratt Band.
“Music is a universal language, and if you use it the right way, it can make a difference. You’ve got to have a heart for the people. If you have a heart for the people, you have a heart for what I do.
“Our goal when we hit the stage is to love all of you and to give you an experience you’ll tell your grandkids about. It’s an emotional roller coaster.
“I’m gonna sing about the hurt and about the pain, the disappointments and the loss. But I’m also gonna sing about the joy, the happiness, the peace. We’re not gonna leave one stone unturned.”
Check out Keeshea’s music and find out where she’s playing next by visiting her website: http://keesheapratt.com.