All apologies to those that stood before Randy Jackson, Jennifer Lopez and Steven Tyler at an audition this past season, but folks – you really had it easy.
Easy compared to the trial by fire that Teeny Tucker went through back in 1994.
Because Tucker didn’t earn her stripes by belting out a Lady Gaga tune in front of three past-their-prime celebs.
She had to win over the notoriously tough – and sometimes downright cruel – critics on hallowed ground, at the very venue where Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Aretha Franklin, to name just a few, had their big breakthroughs.
At 253 West 125th Street.
At Harlem’s famed Apollo Theater.
And if you think belting one out on American Idol is something, try digging your heels in and singing your way onto an episode of Showtime at the Apollo.
“When you try out for the Apollo, they literally give you just seconds,” Tucker said. “Either they like you or they don’t. And so you may start singing and they say, ‘next.’ So there are no feelings (spared) there.”
Good thing then, that the daughter of famed pianist/composer Tommy Tucker was well-equipped with the right stuff.
“The girl that was singing right before me, they cut her off quick. When I got in there, I kept wondering how long it would be before they stopped me. I sang the song “Home” from The Wiz album,” she said. “And I literally sang the entire song. I got a standing ovation at the end. And I ended up singing at the Apollo three times. That was a nice experience.”
Pretty impressive, especially considering Tucker and her friend had to drive several long hours through inclement weather just to make it to the auditions.
“It’s really interesting – something you’ll never forget,” she said. “When I went to audition, it was snowing and sleeting – really bad out. So when we got there, there were thousands of other people there to do the same thing I was going to do. So I got up there (to the front) by telling them I was from Ohio and had to drive through the snow and bad weather to get there.”
With the success that her father had enjoyed in the music business – writing the iconic “High Heel Sneakers” and hanging out with the likes of Donny Hathaway and Willie Dixon – it was no big surprise that entertaining an audience came naturally to young Teeny Tucker.
“I guess I realized I could sing when I was about six years old,” she said. “Company would come over and my mom used to say, ‘I’ll give you a quarter if you sing for our company.’ But I really knew I wanted to be a singer about the time I was 10. That’s when I really knew what I wanted to do.”
But singing the blues wasn’t necessarily at the top of Tucker’s list.
“There was a promoter over in Germany who used to book my father for shows over there. And one day (in 1996) he and I started talking and he said, ‘do you sing blues?’ And I said, ‘no, not really. I sing gospel and R&B,’” Tucker said. “He said, ‘I’m going to send you a tape and if you learn these ladies’ songs, I’m going to bring you over to Germany and let you perform.’ So I really kind of did it on a dare. But I really do believe it opened up where I should have been all along – with the blues. So I learned those songs and never looked back. And now I’m doing what I love. Is it (blues) all I can do? No. I can do all kinds of music. But blues is my love.”
To say that Tucker’s love of the blues fits like a hand in a glove would be an understatement.
See was nominated for the prestigious Koko Taylor Award at this year’s Blues Music Awards, an honor bestowed annually for the top traditional blues female performer.
Just the fact that her name appeared under the heading of the late, great Koko Taylor held deep special meaning for Tucker.
“The last time I played with Koko was at Island Park in Dayton, Ohio, before she had taken real sick. She had just gotten out of the hospital and I opened up for her at a fund-raiser for domestic violence in Dayton, which is also where I was born,” Tucker said. “I had spoken with her before, but something about this day made me feel really special with her. I could tell she didn’t feel well, but I just learned so much from her that day. At the end of her show, she called me up to sing with her and that was just so special to me. There were things that she said to me that day that really stuck to my heart. She was just such an inspiring person. She gave her fans what they want and that day she gave me more than she gave her fans. I really look up to her.”
Fitting then, thatTucker found time in 2008 to tip her hat to another pair of larger-than-life blues pioneers – Big Maybelle and Big Mama Thornton – on the excellent Two Big M’s CD.
And while the name of Koko Taylor easily rolls off the tongue of most blues lovers, according to Tucker, the names of Maybelle and Thornton are not as well known as they should be.
“That’s the reason that I did the Two Big M’s CD. To give those ladies recognition, especially Big Mama Thornton,” Tucker said. “You find some people that you really connect with in life, and those are two ladies whose music I really like. You might have someone say, ‘well, Big Mama Thornton was an alcoholic, or she was this or she was that. But everybody’s a whole lot of things. She was a very good talent and I learned a lot from her. She was just very unappreciated.”
Two Big M’s was ranked for 22 weeks on the International Blues Roots Chart and was nominated for best self-produced CD by the Blues Foundation. It also helped Tucker earn a nomination in 2008 for Blues Blast magazine’s Best Female Blues Artist.
In addition to cuts associated with the two queens like “Hound Dog,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Bumble Bee,” Tucker and her guitar-playing, song-writing foil, Robert Hughes, also penned the powerful title track on the CD, a song that laments that Big Maybelle and Big Mama “never won a Grammy, never went gold” and had “hits which someone else stole.”
But rest assured, in Tucker’s hands, the work that (Koko) Taylor, Maybelle and Thornton did will never go unrecognized. Not for a minute.
Logging more worldwide road miles than a fleet of UPS trucks, Tucker and her band – Hughes (guitar and vocals);
David Gastel (harp and keyboards); Darrell Jumper (drums); Robert Blackburn (bass and vocals); Mary Ashley (background vocals); Paula Brown (background vocals) – have but one mission, spread the gospel of the blues to as many people as possible.
And as anyone who has witnessed the dynamo on stage knows – the line between audience and performer is completely blown away at a Teeny Tucker show.
“I’m like the preacher that delivers the sermon. If you don’t get the sermon across, you haven’t done your job,” she said. “I get up there and get into another spirit – another mind, body and soul. That’s what I have to do in order to work from the stage in a divine kind of way. Anybody can get up on stage and just stand there and sing a song. But that’s not what I like to do. I like to get up there and not only bless my soul, but bless everybody’s soul. And the band knows me and I know them, so we’re all on the same page. We know that when we get up there we have to bring it. Even those times when we’re tired or feel like we have no energy left.”
That revival-like atmosphere of a Teeny Tucker show, which often times leads her off the stage and into the audience as she belts out the blues, can have a powerfully long-lasting effect on those who witness it.
“I’ve had people come up to me after a show and say, ‘you know what? I didn’t even like blues, but I like your blues. I love blues now. Is this really what blues is?’” Tucker said. “And that’s when you’ve touched someone. People might say, ‘well, you’re singing the devil’s music.’ But you know what? The devil don’t have any music. Music is too beautiful for the devil to own.”
Whether they’re on the road in Germany or Canada – or at home in Columbus, Ohio – the process of laying down new tracks are always at the top of Tucker’s and Hughes’ to-do-list.
The duo is currently busy at work on a follow-up to Tucker’s Keep the Blues Alive CD from last year.
“I’m constantly thinking about music. Bob and I get together three or four times a week and do something about our music,” Tucker said. “So we’re always thinking about that. And we’re working on a new project. I’m not sure what the theme will be yet, but we’ve got some things in mind. It’ll have a couple of original tunes and some cover tunes that haven’t been done in a while, or some that have never been done. Some stuff from way back.”
Since emerging on the scene with her first album in 2001, reaching the finals of the International Blues Challenge in 2005 and playing at major festivals like the Monterey Blues and Poconos Blues Festivals, Tucker has maintained a non-stop pace. A daily pace that could begin to wear on a person, turning something a person loves doing into something a person dreads doing.
But that doesn’t seem to be an issue with Teeny Tucker.
“Hey- I always say waking up in the morning is a good thing,” she said. “My mother used to say, ‘how’s your day?’ And if you’d say it was bad, she’d say, ‘try missing one.’”