Blessed with an impressive voice and a way with words, singer Teeny Tucker has been singing the blues in her own way for more than 25 years. She started singing as a child, but didn’t fall under the spell of the blues until much later in life, despite family ties that seemingly made the music a natural fit.
She dedicated her last album, Put On Your Red Dress Baby, to her father, singer Tommy Tucker, to honor his induction into the Blues Hall of Fame in 2017 for his big hit, “Hi-Heel Sneakers.”
“I wanted to change it around a bit. I had some strong original songs like “Church House Prayer” and ‘Learn How To Love Me.”, and I love Etta James, so I covered “I’d Rather Go Blind.” My Dad is remembered for one hit, but he wrote and recorded a lot of songs. He has a huge discography. At least I could help keep his memory alive.”
Recent time have brought plenty of loss into her life, and she has been struggling to deal with the loss of loved ones.
“My son Boston was 37 years old, and very talented. He was a great chef. They still don’t really know how he died. He went to sleep one night and never woke up. That year was so rough. I had been taking care of my grandfather for seven years. He passed away in May, 2019, then in September, my godmother passed. Two months later my son died.
“And I got a divorce before my son passed. We had been married for forty years. He didn’t want it, but I did. It was final in February of last year. That was a lot to deal with. All I could do was to keep moving.”
“My whole world fell apart when my son passed. And then the pandemic came and doubled the hurt. So I started doing art. People are really surprised when I tell them that I have never done art before. When my son died, my daughter bought me a small canvas and some paint. I told her that I wanted to paint a rose for my son, although I didn’t know how to make a rose. But I just did it.
“When I put a picture of his rose on Facebook, people really liked it. It took off from there. I was getting requests to paint roses for other people who had lost loved ones. My grandson told me that I should be selling them so I could get a little bit of money back, so he set me up with an art website. I don’t want to charge a lot as people can’t afford it right now. Some of my work has sold quick. People see it, like it, and want to give them as gifts or to inspire someone.”
(You can view Teeny’s artwork here: (www.teenys.art)
A chance encounter with guitarist Walter Trout and his wife, Marie, while in Memphis for the International Blues Challenge last year, found Tucker providing the inspiration for a song.
“I was walking down Beale Street on my way to a Women In Blues workshop. I ran into Walter and Marie. As we talked, they asked how I was doing, knowing about my son passing. They let me know that they had been praying for me. I told them that my eyes were dry, but that my heart keeps crying. I saw a light bulb go off in Walter’s face.
“The next day, Marie was on a panel discussion. After it ended, she asked if we could talk. Marie told me that they both couldn’t stop thinking about what I had said the night before, and that Walter wanted my permission to write a song using those words. So Walter wrote his song, “All Out Of Tears,” based on my son’s death. When they sent it to me after it was mixed, my God, I was in tears. It is so beautiful. There are all kinds of ways you can find healing.”
While stuck at home during the last eight months, Tucker has also been teaching herself how to play piano. But as a recent retiree, her current situation was not the retirement she had planned for herself.
Tucker graduated college in 1979 with degrees in Sociology and Psychology, taking a job as a social worker. She had planned on being a geneticist, but those plans were shelved after she got married and started having babies. Finally realizing after eight years that social work wasn’t for her, Tucker applied for a position in the Federal government at the Department of Defense.
“I figure working for the government would be less headaches, as I wouldn’t be worrying about everybody else’s problems, and it paid more money. Plus the way they scheduled vacation time gave me the opportunity to fit in some overseas tours every year. I ended up working there for 31 years, and spent the last 25 years building my music career.”
The singer has received a host of awards and nominations, including one for the Koko Taylor Award as part of the 2014 Blues Music Awards. In 2011, Tucker was honored with the Carter G. Woodson Award, named for an American historian often referred to as the “father of black history. It is a federal award that honored Tucker’s work in the community. She has also been inducted into the Department of Defense Hall of Fame, which is a rare honor for civilians or women.
When her two oldest children reached the ages of six and four, she made another change.
“I had been in gospel choirs all of my life. But I decided to start singing blues. A promoter from Europe that used to book my dad asked me if I sang blues. I told him no, that I sang gospel and some Top 40 hits for weddings and such. He started sending me cassette tapes of blues songs. Once I heard them, I realized I really liked the music. So I drenched myself in the blues and never looked back.”
Tucker first recorded when she was 14 years old, selected to be part of a gospel choir for a big event.
“I was in the United Gospel Choir. I sang lead on the hymn, “Meet Me In Heaven.” It was written by Doris Mae Akers, who was a famous gospel songwriter. She would do a lot of traveling from California, being a minister of music. She would come for our annual gospel convocation, where they joined together the choirs from the area churches. She would select some of the youths to sing lead on songs she had written. She auditioned me, and picked me to sing her song, which was recorded on an album. It was my first time in a recording studio.
“You know how some people talk about what they would do if they could live their life over? I guess I would probably do it over again, thinking about some things I probably should have done. The only thing about it is, blues music only serves so many, which limits how many people will listen to your music. It isn’t a big genre in the music business, maybe 1% of all sales of the industry.
“There are people who are out there working hard at music, but they don’t always get the recognition they deserve. The title track from my Two Big M’s album is a tribute that I wrote with my guitar player, Robert Hughes, paying homage to Big Mama Thornton and Big Maybelle. It is a pretty cool song that I played earlier today in celebration of Big Mama’s birthday.
‘I like to write, especially poems. At one point, I started using some of those poems as the start for lyrics to songs. That is what I love, writing poems, doing art, singing, playing piano. All of that right brain stuff. But please don’t give me any math problems!”
Tucker was ready with a concise answer when asked about the difference between composing poetry and songwriting.
“You can go through a whole lot of words in a poem. That probably is not in accordance with how you might want to sing it. When I write a song, I usually know what the melody is first, and that dictates how the words will flow. You are using words for both, but you think of them differently when you write them down. Either one can come from real life experiences, but if I am going to be singing it, I write it with verses and a chorus.
“We were coming home from the Pennsylvania Blues Festival one day. I told Elaine, Robert’s wife, that I wasn’t going to bring all of these shoes with me the next time we go out. I told her I had so many shoes, that I am like that old woman who had so many she didn’t know what to do! She told me I should write a song about that. I started thinking on the way home, then I picked up my little pad and started writing, “I got shoes in my closet lined across the wall, flat ones, small ones, ones that make me tall. I got shoes with my red dress, shoes with my jeans, shoes that make me dainty, shoes that make me clean”. That song, “Shoes,” still gets a lot of radio airplay.”
In 2003, Tucker released her second album, First Class Woman, a project she did with Austin promoter Tim Northcutt on his Hot Rod Records label. They had met at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis. At that time, guitarist Sean Carney was part of Tucker’s band, a partnership that lasted eight years.
‘We needed somebody to do a photo to use for the cover of the CD. Someone suggested Robert Hughes, because he was a photographer who also played guitar. In the 1960 decade, Robert had the first white boy blues band in Columbus, Ohio, called Hughes Blues. So we met up with him down near Ohio State University to get the photos done.
“A couple years later, Sean was spending more time touring overseas, so we went our separate ways. I wasn’t planning on getting another band together. I took a hiatus because my Mom was sick at the time. I was just chilling at home. Then Louisiana Red (Iverson Minter) came to town. He was a real good friend of my father, and also my godfather.
“I went to see Louisiana Red perform, and Robert had put together a little band to back Red at the show. I was watching Robert play, thinking I didn’t know he could play that good. I already knew he was a great photographer. I think he is a better player than most people give him credit for. There was a women’s Valentines Day program coming up that I was scheduled to sing at, so I asked Robert to play guitar for me at that event.
“It sounded really good being on stage together. After that we started listening to music, going way back to singers like Big Mama Thornton. That was how we came up with the idea for the Two Big M’s album. The rest is history. We have now done four releases together, including my 2018 release, Put On Your Red Dress Baby.
“But after my son passed away, I told Robert and the rest of the band that I was ready to do something different. The band has been together for about 14 years. Most of them are retired now, and they had been going their own way. Everybody gets that feeling that you have been riding this horse long enough, now it’s time to get another one! Robert & I are still very close. We are doing a virtual New Year’s Eve show that will be my last with the band.
“My mind is not there right now. I need a break. And I don’t have a clue as to where I want to go from here. But I did do a project called “Rush Through History” with Bobby Rush. It is a musical project that producer Carl Gustafson has been working on for several years. They are getting ready to release it soon. Bobby recommended me to Carl to sing the theme song. They are putting together a compilation album that will have about thirty songs on it.”
“Rush Through History” traces the story of a woman who leaves Tanzania, Africa as a little girl in the 1800s to become a well-respected woman in New Orleans.
“It takes you on a journey from her birth to her death. She goes back home to Tanzania to die, wanting to be back where she was born. So I did the main song, “Take Me Home To Die,” with a 16 piece orchestra. They flew me to California, to Jackson, Mississippi, and to Denver. I was supposed to do one song, but ended up doing a total of six songs. It is a huge production.
“I am thinking that I would like to do more projects like that as well, until I’m led to do something else. Life should be more than just making money. We in the blues community, who have stuck with it as long as we have, have to love the music. It has to be in your heart. I tell people not to come and try to sing blues just because you can’t get accepted somewhere else. It is a community, we love and respect each other. We may not be highly appreciated, but the people who know the history of the music and understand the culture, they have a deep love for blues.”
“If something happens, I might get back out there. For right now, I feel like I need some peace of mind, and I need to get through my grief. It feels like I am doing well with that. I still have some bad days, but I stay strong. I have five grand kids that my son left, so I help them a lot. My oldest grandson is taking driver’s lessons. But with this pandemic, you can’t do too much of anything”
Tucker is very proud of her two daughters. The oldest daughter is helping raise one of her late brother’s children, and recently got engaged for the first time to a brigadier general. She graduated from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, wrote for the Chicago Tribune, then worked as a reporter for several major television networks. She is now the Public Affairs Director for the third largest all-girls school in the country. Tucker’s youngest daughter is married with a son, working in the family trucking business while doing counseling on the side.
In some moments of reflection, the singer finds herself wondering about what might have been.
“Maybe I could have gone further in my music career if I hadn’t been working another job for most of that time. I’ve probably gone over that a thousand times in my mind. But then I go back to all of the people that have been blessed with my music, my words, and my love. I have served God’s purpose for what he wanted me to do, so now let me know what you want me to do next, because I’m not sure what it is.
“I need to be more in control of me. I’m 63 years old, and I don’t need to be controlled by anybody, not that I ever took orders from anyone. I am learning to let go. My grand kids are not my kids. I never put my children on my mother. I had a husband, a family, and I didn’t expect my mother to help me take care of my kids. I was feeling like my grand kids needed me all the time. It took me a long time to come to terms with that, to do more things for me. The sudden passing of my son made me realize that I need to do the things I enjoy while I still am able.
“Regardless of what you do or where you go, leave somebody with something. Don’t do everything in vain. Bless someone else with what you do. I remember a show we were doing. I met this little girl who was five or six years old. She had been with her grandparents for about a year. Her grandfather said she would not speak due to trauma she had earlier in her life. Once I started singing, that little girl got up, her eyes were glowing. She started dancing and never sat down.
“When we had a break, she came over, sat down next to me, and said, I like your music! That right there filled my heart. Another time there was a guy that had bone cancer, so he couldn’t stand. It was at the Slippery Noodle in Indiana. They rolled him in, I’m singing, and next thing I know he was standing up holding on to the table. Afterwards, his wife said he hadn’t been able to stand or walk, but he got up and didn’t want to sit back down. He really loved what he was hearing. That is the kind of stuff that money can’t buy!”
Tucker still goes back to her gospel roots, especially as she searches for new meaning from life.
“I remember a time in Pennsylvania. I told the audience about a woman who had inspired me when I was eight years old. She sang gospel, not blues, and appeared in a 1959 movie called “Imitation of Life.” Her name was Mahalia Jackson, and the song was “Trouble Of The World.”
(At this point in the interview, Tucker stated singing the song acapella over the phone. Then she moved over to the piano to demonstrate that she had learned to play the song, singing another verse and chorus in her rich vocal style.)
In the end, Tucker wants listeners and fans to understand a few things about the music.
“Singing the blues is not just about singing music. We need to learn the culture. I have been down in the Mississippi Delta, been to the famous Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale where many legendary blues artists stayed, been learning quite a bit about the culture. But there is much more to be learned. A heart surgeon needs to learn everything about the heart. Blues musicians and singers need to learn what the music stands for, and how many people have been blessed by it in this world. It is the American roots music, and without it, music would be sad!”