Featured Interview – Nora Jean Wallace

imageAnyone who has heard the recent album BluesWoman by Nora Jean Wallace had to be knocked out by the singer’s powerful voice, coupled with four original songs she penned that are highlights among the ten tracks on the disc. If the name sounds somewhat familiar, it’s because Wallace had two prior releases under her then-married name of Nora Jean Bruso. While her career careened from high points to missed opportunities and periods of unfortunate timing, the singer has remained steadfast in her belief that there is a place in this world for her God-given talents.

Born in Greenwood, Mississippi, Wallace and her family moved when she was 11 years old to a plantation that was about forty miles to the east. Growing up, she cooked for her seven younger siblings, chopped and picked cotton in addition to going to school.

“It was a challenge. Sometimes I had to stay home from school to take care of the little ones while my parents worked out in the cotton fields. Then, when I got to be 16 years old, I got pregnant and had a baby out of wedlock. So then I had to work in the cotton fields to get money to pay the mid-wife and buy clothes for the baby. I also needed money to buy school clothes for me. My mother would take care of the baby while I was in school.”

When her school had a talent show, Wallace and several of her girlfriends decided to enter.

“They sang background while I did the lead vocals. We were the Grand prize winner at the event. Other schools heard about it, so they would invite me to perform at their events. Once school was out, I went to work at the cotton gin to earn money to take care of me and my baby. My parents, bothers, and sisters had already moved to Chicago. I was the only one left, staying with my grandmother. I saved some of the money to buy bus tickets for my son and I to go to Chicago.”

One Friday afternoon in 1976, they boarded the bus for the trip north. Wallace was 19 years old. Once they arrived in Chicago, they were welcomed to stay with an aunt, her mother’s sister. Working at a company that made TV frames, her aunt tried to help her niece out by getting Wallace a job there.

“Auntie told me to keep the house clean and to cook a meal every now and then. One night I was cooking when she got home from work. I was singing while I cooked. I don’t know how long she had been standing there listening to me, but when I turned around, she said, damn girl, you can sing! I didn’t know you could sing that good. Then she told me she had a friend, Scotty, of Scotty and the Oasis band. My auntie would go out to see them every Saturday night. Next thing, she was asking me if I had sung in front of band. She wanted to know if she got me up with the band, would I be able to sing. I told, yeah, of course.”

Shortly after, the two women headed out to the Majestic Lounge at 14th Street and Pulaski on Chicago’s Westside. Scotty was sitting at the door when they arrived, collecting the cover charge. Her aunt excitedly made him aware that her niece was there from Mississippi, and that she was quite a singer.

“So Scotty asked if that was true. I told him, I guess so. So he invited me to come up during the second set to sing with the band. After the break, he introduced me to the house and brought me on stage. Then he asked me what song I wanted to do. I told him “Tonight Is The Night,” one from Betty Wright that was a hit in 1975.

image“Scotty wanted to know what key I wanted to do it in. I didn’t know nothin’ about no key! Told him I didn’t know no key! He said to just start singing. So I did, and then the band jumped right in. It was like I had been singing with them forever. I sang blues when I was a little girl. But later on, as I grew up, I was into R&B and soul, because my friends would laugh at me, saying I liked that old folks music. So I backed away from the blues to do other music.

“Scotty wanted me to do another song, so I asked for “Shame,” a disco hit for Evelyn “Champagne” King. Scotty said to sing it, so I did, and the band jumped right in again. The audience just went wild. After the set, Scotty asked me who I was working with. I didn’t know what he meant, so I said my auntie was trying to get me a job. No, no, he said, who are you singing with, what band. When I told him no one, he gave me his card, told me they did rehearsal on Tuesday’s. The card had his phone number and address. He wanted me to call, and he would send someone to pick me up. So, I started working with Scotty and the Oasis Blues band, staying with them up until 1982.”

“His name was Purvis Scott, and he was the bass player. He had a little building that he would rent out the apartments. He co-signed a note for one of his tenants so the guy could buy a car. After a bit, he stopped making the payments. Scotty told him if he didn’t keep up on the note, he have to take the car back. The guy told him, over my dead body. They finally came and got the car. One night after work, Scotty got home, the guy was sitting on the steps waiting for him. They had words, and Scotty got shot. He died on the way to the hospital,”

The band fell apart when Scotty was killed. Wallace was in living in one of Chicago’s housing projects when one of her friends said they should go down to a new club at Lake and St. Louis to hear a band that was booked the following evening.

“Lisa and I went to the club on Saturday night. Jimmy Dawkins was up in there with his band. We were sitting there drinking when Jimmy came over, asking me if I was the singer that used to work with Scotty. He also asked who I was working with now. I told him I was back to singing around the house. He asked me if I wanted to sing with his band. Of course I did, so once again I got on stage and did one tune.

“Later Jimmy wanted to know if I had anything on wax. Again, I didn’t know what that was, so I told him no. I asked him what “wax” was, and he said, do you have a record out? The answer was still no, but Jimmy said that if I could write a song, to let him know, and he would cut a record on me. He said I needed to put out a record.

“I got home about 2 am the next morning and called my friend Eddie, who was the drummer in the Oasis band. I told him I had met this guy named Jimmy Dawkins. Eddie said, oh, he’s kind of famous! Then I told him what Jimmy had said and asked Eddie if he could come over right now to help me write a song. So he came over, sat down, and started beating on my kitchen table. I heard that beat, grabbed a pen, and started writing. We came up with “Untrue Lover.”

imageThe next day Wallace called Dawkins to let him know that she had a song ready. Needless to say, the guitarist was a bit surprised, and somewhat skeptical. But he came over to hear Wallace’s new tune.

“Eddie and I had recorded the song on a little tape recorder I had. When he heard the recording, Jimmy said it was good. Then he told me I needed another song for the other side of the record. He said he had some music he wanted me to hear. So I took his music and wrote the song “Oh My Love.”

That was my first record on Jimmy’s label, Leric Records. I started touring with him, going everywhere, I mean everywhere, to promote that 45 rpm record. We did a whole month touring in Europe with Guitar Junior (Lonnie Brooks).”

In 1992, her career came to a screeching halt. Her mother had been taking care of her daughter’s two sons while Wallace was on the road.

“She made it clear that I needed to stay home to raise my boys. She said, “I done raised sixteen of y’all. I’m not gonna raise your babies.” So I had to quit singing. My oldest son eventually went into the Navy. My youngest got into some trouble, did some time in the pen. I had to stick around to go visit him to keep his spirits up. When he got out, he did good for himself.”

Some years later, another Dawkin’s band member, guitarist Billy Flynn, thought Wallace would be a good fit for an upcoming album. The initial contact was handled by another notable Chicago blues artist.

“I got a call from Willie Kent, the great bass player. Willie had one of the baddest band’s I have ever heard. When he called, my husband at that time, Jerry, answered the phone. Willie told him that Billy wanted me to cut a CD with him. My husband replied, what are you going to pay her? Willie said he was quite sure that Billy would pay me. Jerry said he would leave it up to me. I called Billy and let him know I’d be glad to help him.

“So I went down to the studio and cut some songs for Billy. It felt so good! That made me decide to start back to singing. My kids were grown and I didn’t have any grand kids to take care of. So I asked my husband about getting a band together. He was a bad guitar player but never wanted to do anything with it. He worked as a truck driver. He passed away in 2000.”

Wallace appeared on four tracks on Flynn’s 2002 release on his Easy Baby label, Blues And Love. She kept working Chicago clubs until fate intervened yet again.

“One night Mark Bruso heard me at a club. He wanted to know if I had a CD out. I told him all I had was a 45 rpm record, and it was old. Mark felt I needed a CD, so we started talking, and talking. He asked me if I was married, and next thing you know, we were hooked-up together. After we got married, I cut Nora Jean Bruso Sings The Blues, my first full length album released on Red Hurricane Records. That’s how people started knowing me, through Mark Bruso. But we couldn’t make it.”

imageIn 2003, she had a second album released on Severn Records, David Earl’s label, entitled Going Back To Mississippi. It featured some of Chicago’s finest blues musicians with Carl Weathersby and Dave Specter on guitar, Harlan Terson on bass, Rob Waters on keyboards, and Marty Binder on drums. Her husband sang backing vocal on one track. The singer wrote or co-wrote all 12 songs on the album, highlighting the songwriting skills she had been developing for years.

“I’ve probably written over 700 songs. Every one that I have written on paper or tape recorded, are over at Mark’s house. He kept my songs, my masters from the first two records, he kept all of that when we divorced. I don’t know why he didn’t give me my songs. But I have written about 80 new songs. I not as into it as I was when we were still together.

“Mark was the one that screwed things up. I used to just go and sing. People weren’t tired of me. They were tired of him. He was my business manager. When the booking agents stopped calling to book dates, he took it out on me. That’s when I told him I wanted out, that he could have everything in the house. I wanted out, and that’s what I did. Every penny he and I ever made I gave to him. He screwed it up.

“I haven’t seen him or spoken to him since 2006. I don’t know where he is. Now I just want my name back. I am going through the courts to change my name. But I can’t find the marriage license to save my soul. Now I live in Michigan City, Indiana, but we were married in Chicago, so I will probably have to go up there to get a copy. Then it will be all over.”

To make ends meet, the singer took a job as a school bus driver. She continued to play gigs, getting some bookings with the help of booking agent Harry Turner, but it was tough to find steady work. She was signed to the Piedmont Talent Agency by the late Steve Hecht, but when her husband and Hecht got into it, the agency dropped her.

In 2015, just as she felt things were starting to roll again, Wallace had to drive down to Mississippi when her mother got sick, bringing her back north to live. That meant taking a couple more years off from her career to care for her mother, who passed away in 2017. She started up again with a regular gig at the Kingston Mines club, but not much else. A phone call changed all of that.

“I think it was 2018 when David Earl called, asking if he could cut another CD on me. I shouted, “Praise the Lord!” David has always treated me with respect. He told me to get some songs together. As it turns out, me and Stanley Banks, a keyboard player, were already working on some songs. I was thinking about cutting an album at Stan’s studio, but he doesn’t have what David has, especially the connections in the business. Stan is a terrific songwriter. I told David about him, and he flew Stan in to play keyboards on the sessions for my latest recording. Stan and I are already writing songs for the next project.”

imageBluesWoman, released in August of last year on Earl’s Severn Records label, features several members of the current line-up of the Fabulous Thunderbirds – Johnny Moeller on guitar, Steve Gomes on bass, and Kevin Anker on organ. Veteran Robb Stupka mans the drums. Steve Guyger adds his fine harmonica work, with Kim Wilson guesting one one track. Even with all of the instrumental firepower, it is Wallace’s voice that dominates the proceedings, erasing any doubt that the long stretches of inactivity had dulled her prodigious vocal skills.

“It’s too bad that it came out in 2020 in the middle of all of this Covid stuff. But it’s all in God’s hands. I won’t miss what he don’t want me to have. In my faith, I trust God. Whatever I am doing, I pray on it, asking God if I am doing the right thing. We are not supposed to put anything before God. People don’t believe me, but God talks to me sometimes. When Covid started, I asked God if it was real. Then as plain as one, two, three, he said, obey your authority. So if people tell you to wear a mask, wear the mask.

“I know God will protect me, like last October when I had a stroke. I was sitting there working at the computer, when my shoulder got numb going straight down the right side to the top of my feet. When I stood up, the spirit told me it was a stroke. I looked in the mirror to see if my face was twisted up. It was fine. So I went out and did my show that night. The next morning, I got up to go to work, but the spirit told me to call the job, and go to the hospital.

“That’s what I did at 5 o’clock in the morning. When I got to the hospital and told them I was numb, they rushed me in, started hooking stuff up, and ran tests, finally figuring out that I had a mild stroke. I started praising God, because it could have killed me. I’m live by myself. I don’t have no man! I might have laid in my house for days. Most of the feeling has come back, so that’s good. Strokes run in my family – my Dad and brother died from it, my Mother and sister had strokes. They had me work with a dietitian to change what I eat. Praise God, I’ve dropped some pounds – and I look good!

“That’s why you don’t see me out there in the clubs now, still trying sing with everything going on. I have money in the bank, a new truck, and two good jobs. The other one is taking care of old folks, which I really love. I told my son, here I am about to be 65 years old this year, and I’m out here taking care of old folks. Somebody should be taking care of me! I was talking with Toronzo Cannon, because me and him were going to do something together. When I told him I was working two jobs, he said, Nora, you need a man.”

Wallace hopes to cut a gospel album some day to share her faith with the world, to spread the healing power of music. She firmly believes that all music is God’s music, and Wallace wants to make full use of the talent she has been given.

“Some people think I sing too loud. That’s my voice, it’s who I am. I get teased about the way I talk too, because I have a bit of a speech impediment. I’m not changin’ for nobody but God! I listen to tapes where they speak perfect but I just can’t do it.”

These days, Wallace hopes to get some help to kick her career in high gear when the time comes. Her latest album has received rave reviews, and is nominated for a 2021 Blues Music Award in the Traditional Blues Album category along with titles by Elvin Bishop & Charlie Musselwhite, Jimmy Johnson, Ronnie Earl, and Sugar Ray & the Bluetones featuring Little Charlie Baty. That is mighty impressive company.

“I need someone to manage and promote me. Don’t expect anyone to do nothin’ for free. Someone who doesn’t look at the money, but at the talent. Because if you have the talent, the money is going to come. I’m a private person who loves God, her family, fans and friends. When I get to be 66 years old, then I will think about retiring from my other jobs. My body may be old, but I don’t feel old, and I am happy!”

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