When we connect with the Blues chanteuse Teeny Tucker, we find her just getting over a bout of bronchitis. The Dayton, Ohio native has recently been lending her support to a cancer awareness support team. She volunteered her time and sang to the folks and brought them to tears. She also has imminent plans to volunteer with Mothers Of Murdered Sons & Daughters, an advocacy group that provides outreach services for families affected by murdered children, a cause dear to Teeny Tuckers heart. Her own niece was the victim of a homicide in April of 2014. Teeny also gives vocal and Blues history lessons to young girls in the Dayton, Ohio area.
Teeny is so energetic and creative, we just turn the recorder on and let Teeny tell her own story:
“My mother was a wise woman but didn’t have a musical bone in her body. She loved music though. Oh how she loved music. That’s how she met my dad. They met at the club where he was working which was called the Farmdale, in Dayton, Ohio. Even though my dad was married and had a family, they started messin’ around. And that’s how I got here.”
Teeny’s dad of course, was the legendary artist Tommy Tucker, composer of “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” the upbeat Blues standard that charted #1 on a 1964 Cash Box survey and #11 on the Billboard Hot 100. Amazingly, the song has been covered by more than 1000 artists, from early Rock & Rollers Bill Haley & The Comets, Carl Perkins, Chuck Berry and Elvis, down through Sammy Davis, Jr.’s MOR version, Stevie Wonder, Jose Feliciano, et al, almost to infinitum.
“When I was born I had tiny feet(and they still are). My oldest sister remarked to my mom, ‘Mommy, she has real teeny feet. They started calling me Teeny Babe. Eight months or so after I was born, one of my dad’s friends saw my mother and I in the store and asked my mom, ‘Is that Bobby’s baby?” (Tommy Tucker’s real name was Robert Higginbotham.) She denied I was his because she didn’t want to mess up his life. But the friend told my dad and he came by and got and took me to his mother, my grandmother who proclaimed, ‘Oh yeah, that’s Bobby’s baby.’
My stepmother loves me very much. She’s such a great woman. She made me part of the family. Formerly she lived in New Jersey. She is still with us and lives nearby in Springfield, Ohio. At 82 though, her health is not that well. I go visit her from time to time. She’s had five children with my dad, who also had three children outside his marriage; me and two other sisters and we are all close. Dolores Higginbotham bought gifts for all the children at Christmas.
I was raised by mom but my dad would come get me or fly me by escort to New York or New Jersey where he later lived, to spend summers with him. He would have musicians like Louisiana Red jamming at his house and while all the other youngsters would go outside and play, I would stay in and watch the musicians. One of my fondest early memories is falling asleep under the Hammond B-3 organ as my dad rehearsed his band when I visited him as a young child. I feel I was born to do this. I have seven siblings and I am the only one who gravitated to music.
My dad passed on my birthday in 1982. Each year when my birthday rolls around I think about him. Sometimes I think, when I’m in the middle of negotiating a business deal, I wish he was here to guide me. My manager Robert Hughes helps me with all that and I know that he has my best interests at heart.
Coming up as a child doing music was really in my blood. Living in the house with my mom and five siblings who didn’t understand and appreciate music like I did was a challenge. Even at eight years old, I remember appreciating the voice of Mahalia Jackson. I heard that voice and, oh my God, I loved it. But you have to fast forward that because my actual career career in Blues started much later. I was actually raised up singing in the Gospel choir.
I was introduced to the Blues in a different kind of way than directly through my father, because when my father and I got together after I started singing, we didn’t talk about music so much since he was Blues and I was Gospel. When I was fourteen I recorded my first Gospel song. When my dad heard it, he was like, ‘Wow, you’re a daughter to the Blues.’ That’s the story behind how I came to write, “Daughter To The Blues.” But really the music connection between my father and I was very limited. I was kinda scared of him possibly judging me. I looked at him like he was a musical god. He was only forty-nine when he died. Had he lived, I think he would have been proud of me.
My uncle, my dad’s uncle called me one day. He said, ‘I want you to come down here. I have something I want to give you. So I drove down one Saturday morning to Cincinnati where he lives. He presented me with several reel to reel tapes in excellent condition of music my father was working on with Louisiana Red and Billy Boy Arnold in the ’70s. That’s a treasure my dad left with me. I hope to one day produce some tracks of it for an album.
From my first recording I continued singing at weddings, funerals, church ,community functions and local theaters. I won radio talent shows and even traveled to New York in the dead of winter to play the Apollo Theater.
When I was fifteen I received a scholarship to an all girls boarding school in Pittsfield, Massachusetts where I stayed for about one year before returning home and graduating early. I then went to college and obtained degrees in sociology and psychology. Now, I loved music but wasn’t really planning on a professional career. However when a European promoter who had booked my dad, offered to bring me to Europe to play Blues Festivals if I would learn some Blues songs. I took the challenge and learned twenty songs.The rest is history.
I actually kept my full time career job for thirty years while I pursued these Blues. Most people don’t do that but I had to raise my family with my husband. It was very hectic at times. During one eight year period I worked seven days a week all told with my job and my music. Some days felt like a breakdown was imminent. But we survived and now I’m retired from my straight job. I feel like the sky is the limit.
I eventually met Sean Carney and we put a band together that lasted eight years. We worked with the great Christine Kittrell during that period also. After that, I took some time off to be with my mother who was ill. After my mom passed, I then got together with Robert Hughes and we started writing and putting music together. We started doing festivals. I went to the IBC twice and finished in the top three. In 20008, 2011 and 2013, I was a Blues Blast Magazine Artist of the Year Nominee. In 2010 I was named the Monterey Bay Blues Artist of the year. I was nominated for the Koko Taylor Award at the BMA’s in 2012 and 2014. There is a Dvd/Cd release of the performances of the 2014 BMA Awards and my track “Shoes,” is track number one on the video and audio of the performances. I was also nominated for the Living Blues Magazine Artist of the Year in 2014.
In July of 2015 I was part of the Muddy Waters Centennial Blue Celebration on the Back Porch Stage at the Briggs Blues Farm. I performed an acoustic set of Sister Rosetta Tharpe material. I enjoy working but also enjoy giving back. In 2015, I volunteered with the John Hopkins Voice Center which teaches vocal technique and the art of singing. My most memorable event in 2015 was participating in the Mississippi State Valley University B. B. King Inaugural Day. MSVU has made a resolution to hold B.B. King Day annually. Mississippi State’s, B.B. King Recording Studio in partnership with the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center, is preserving the historical legacy of B. B. King. I was so honored to be invited to such a momentous occasion along with Bobby Rush, Otis Clay, Denise LaSalle, Big George Brock and former members of B.B. Kings touring band. I was presented with the Glass Guitar Trophy, saluting me for being a committed participant to the legacy of the Blues.
Four months later in January, I got a phone call that Otis Clay had passed away suddenly. I had been knowing him several years and we had planned to record a Gospel song together. He passed on January 8 and I attended his services on January 16, at Liberty Baptist Church in Chicago. I really related to Otis’s Gospel roots. He was a master of Soul, R&B and Gospel. I love his version of “When The Gates Swing Open.” I’m doing a Gospel Brunch this May and plan to do that song. Otis Clay’s death brought a lot of light to me and made me think. Somebody’s got to keep this stuff going. I worked with him, Koko Taylor and B.B. King and now they are gone. The good news is that the Blues is still strong. When I’m on stage I feel like a prophetess delivering the good news. I just want people to know that the music has got to live because of its strong and vibrant history
We started work on a new project in February 2016. On it we will have a big surprise for our fans. It’s been about three years since I’ve released a recording project and I’ve used that time to travel around Mississippi and further my Blues education. I met Mary Shepherd the longtime owner of Club Ebony in Indianola. All the greats played there from Count Basie and Howlin’ Wolf to B.B., Ike Turner and James Brown. She and her husband Willie owned it from 1975 through 2008 when she sold it to B.B. King who donated it to the B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center.
I also became friends with the Ratliff family who own the also legendary Riverside Hotel in Clarksdale. The Riverside Hotel was formerly the G.T. Thomas Hospital which is where Bessie Smith died in 1937. The Riverside Hotel, in it’s day, housed such Blues luminaries as Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk and Ike Turner. Blues lovers from all over the world continue to visit the Riverside. Zelena “Zee” Ratliff, the current owner, has my picture on the hotel’s wall of fame.
I really enjoy connecting with people and my fans. I do interact quite a bit a lot on Facebook. The future looks bright for 2016 and beyond. We are negotiating and finalizing deals for the festival season and we are still accepting bookings. We just accepted a booking at this years Chicago Blues Festival.
You know my biggest dream right now is a treatment for the stage that I’m almost done writing. I’ve done the research and read the books. I I would love to do a one woman show on Etta James. I’m in touch with her sons. I think I could kill it. A few years back when the film Cadillac Records was out, a journalist said that I had the Etta James look and Blues chops to play her. I’m about ready to finalize the script. If they ever do a movie or a biopic on her, I’d like to audition. Basically, I’m just a warrior for the Blues. The good thing is I’m not the only one.”
Visit Teeny’s website at www.teenytucker.com
Photos by Elaine & Robert Hughes © 2016