Some people spend their entire lives rooted in the community that they grew up in, rarely venturing forth to see what else the world has to offer. Most of us manage to travel and visit more than a few of the fifty states in our country. For singer Whitney Shay, the world opened up at a very young age.
“When I was three years old, my mother and grandmother took me on a trip to Europe, during which we saw a performance of The Wizard Of Oz. Afterwards, they asked me what I thought of the show. I told them that I liked it, but I thought I was going to get to be on stage! I don’t remember that, but they both have told me the story repeatedly over the years. When we got back, my Mom found a children’s theater company that would take me at three and a half years old. The first play I was in was Annie. In addition to the children’s theater, I did dance and then the voice lessons started when I was in middle school, along with singing in choirs and doing more theater productions. Finally, I went to San Diego State College, where I studied acting with a major in Theater. So I have always done acting, dance, stage combat, and film.”
“In 2008, I made the transition to singing with bands. An ex-boyfriend and I moved to Denver, CO. Our whole dream was to go to Broadway to do the whole New York City musical theater thing. But we broke up after a few months, so I ended up back in San Diego trying to figure out what to do next. I started going on Craigslist, where I found a listing for a pianist, Irv Goldstein, who was looking for a singer to do some jazz standards, so we started working together. At that same time, I started doing swing dancing. Some of my first gigs were playing for the swing dances, which is really fun. That lead me to start meeting some of those musicians in the scene, including the local blues artists.”
The duo’s first gig came through another Craigslist ad, this time for a speakeasy bar looking to hire entertainment. After an audition, the club made an offer for four nights a week. Shay made a counter offer of three nights, which was quickly accepted. She cut her teeth singing Thursday – Saturday, four hours a night, developing a wide range of material to keep things interesting.
“From there, I started working at a four star hotel, because the hotel manager was walking home one night, heard me sing, and booked me. So word of mouth definitely helped me get going. In that, the guy who booked the hotel was an amazing musician named Archie Thompson. We have been working together all along, getting placements for our collaborations in film and on television. We have had songs on the NBC and Bravo channels. Another song was used in one of Tyler Perry’s Madea movies.”
“The San Diego music scene, and the blues community in particular, is very tight knit. The people are very friendly and welcoming. I was lucky that I got to meet a lot of the right people early on. I didn’t grow up listening to jazz and blues. In high school, I was listening to pop music and ’90s country. That was what my Mom listened to on the radio. There was also plenty of musical theater as well. Once I started singing jazz standards and swing music ten years ago, I quickly got into jump blues, West coast blues, fifties R&B, whatever you call it. That stuff really hit me.”
“The first blues record I heard was the B.B King original greatest hits album, that had all of his 1950s material. I loved his singing and that style of guitar playing. That encouraged me to listen to earlier stuff, so I went back to the 1920s women of the blues like Ma Rainey, Victoria Spivey, Alberta Hunter, and Bessie Smith. I even did a few tribute concerts that featured the naughty songs from that era, which people really seemed to like.”
“One local musician, Robin Henkel, started giving me guitar lessons. We bonded over a mutual love of Elmore James’ guitar playing. I love slide guitar. That is probably one of the reasons I like Bonnie Raitt so much. There is something about that sound, where the Delta meets Chicago, is just so raw and visceral. I always want to have someone in my band who can play slide guitar. That is the kind of guitar I want to play. Robin is country blues artist and we still play together. I don’t practice, so I am a terrible guitar student! But I have been trying to use the pandemic down-time to do better.”
The singer hopes that she can up her game on guitar to help her with theory and songwriting. She is also practicing piano for the same reason. She utilizes a parlor-size Republic resonator guitar that produces a fine sound, especially when she uses a slide. It is hard for her to envision the day she plays guitar on stage, especially with all the guitar players she knows.
“Another guitarist, Nathan James, was integral early on in making sure I was listening to the right music, like early B.B. King fifties R&B, Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, and early Etta James. She has always been my favorite singer. It is like I have musical ADD, because I jump around a lot as far as vocalists I like. There are jazz vocalists I love like Sarah Vaughan and Julie London, who are very different from those R&B singers. Then there are soul vocalists like Candi Staton and Ann Peebles, plus contemporary artists like Bonnie Raitt, who is one of my favorites because she can’t do anything wrong, and Eva Cassidy is another one.”
“I often say I like soulful music, music and singers who are genuine. That is the main reason I treasure Etta James so much. When you hear a recording of her, you always know it is Etta, and you believe what she says. That is something I strive to do – to be real, not be anybody but myself. Susan Tedeschi and Bonnie Raitt are amazing, but I ‘m not them, nor will I ever be them. I listen to them for education. But at the end of the day, I have to do what I do, and hopefully people will like it!”
“I developed this hashtag – #busylittlesinger – because I have worked hard and hustled to stay busy. For the last ten years, I have done two to three hundred gigs each year in varying combinations. Robin and I do a duo covering 1920s material like Bessie Smith to Elmore James and on to Little Richard and early Etta . I also sing with a big band whenever we can get a gig, because obviously there aren’t many opportunities to get all of those people on stage together. But when we do, it is an awesome experience! Then I am in a jazz quartet that does a mixture of standards and blues. Most recently, I have developed the new project doing my original music grounded in R&B and blues. That is the one that I am moving forward with, especially for touring that I had scheduled for this year and on in to next year. I was supposed to be on the road as part of the Ruf Records Blues Caravan along with Ryan Perry and Jeremiah Johnson. We did tour for the month of February in Germany as my new album was released. Those plans have obviously changed.”
Up until 2015, most of the singer’s live dates were in the San Diego area. Playing a festival in Los Angeles, Shay met Igor Prado, a fiery blues guitarist from Brazil. Impressed with what he heard, Prado invited Shay to come to Brazil to do a tour with his band. Things went well, leading to five more visits to the country for tours. She also made her first appearances in Europe last year, appearing at a festival in Germany followed by a tour through five other countries.
“I did that tour on my own, doing shows in Sweden, Finland, Spain, France, and Belgium, playing with five different bands. At home, I have been hired to sing in so many different scenarios that I was prepped for that. I sent the musicians the songs to learn ahead of the tour. The people that I worked with came highly recommended by mutual friends. I was lucky to play with some of the top musicians in Europe. In Sweden and Finland, those gigs were organized by Lars Nasman, who is a member of the well-known R&B band, Trickbag. In Spain, I worked with Chino Swingslide, an amazing guitarist fluid in many blues styles. For the other gigs, I was super fortunate to be able to work with Nico Duportal, his band and Soulshot Productions. Nico is another outstanding guitarist. Stylistically, we just meshed right up. That’s the great thing about the blues community world-wide. There are so many amazing players that it allows me to go to country to play with a musician I have never met before, and we can make great music together.”
“It was quite the little tour, certainly a lot of fun! That was a big goal of mine for the last ten years of singing in these genres, to play in Europe, so that was a great way to get my feet wet. Getting to do it was an amazing thing. I was very excited about the prospect of doing all the touring with the Ruf Records Blues Caravan. At least I was able to do the February tour, and to play three great festivals in Europe last year. It seems like I have almost saturated the market in San Diego, so it is definitely time for me to spread my wings, to tour our country and the rest of the world.”
Shay has frequently worked with another local musician, noted guitarist Laura Chavez. They originally met some years ago a James Harman recording session, where Shay and Candye Kane did backing vocals. Chavez was Kane’s guitarist for many years, and now backs up singer Nikki Hill.
“She is always on tour, first with Candye, so I didn’t get to see her much locally. A couple of years ago we did some productions together that a local promoter put on. Of course, I loved her playing. I was so happy that she was able to be a part of my album release concert in 2018 for A Woman Rules The World. Then we were able to do a few jams at the Blues Music Awards in Memphis last year, a few local gigs, and last October we went to Austin, TX to record my new album. In January, we also did a week in Russia before the Blues Caravan started. She lives about ten minutes away, so we have been able to do a few things locally in recent days. I love to play with her whenever I get the chance. But everybody wants her!”
“I am glad that she is getting the recognition she deserves. It was crazy and amazing to me that Laura was the first woman ever nominated in the Blues Guitarist category for the Blues Music Awards. It is obvious that it is well-deserved. Anyone who hears her knows what an amazing player she is. When my grandmother heard her at the album release show, she said Laura plays directly from her soul. That is so fitting.”
Shay’s first recording, Soul Tonic, released in 2012 with the veteran Thompson acting as the producer, showcased her deeper voice that falls in the alto – mezzo soprano range. The album received strong praise from local critics. Her next disc, A Woman Rules The World, was the end result of a chance meeting at one of her gigs.
“A couple years back I did some shows in the Bay area with my friend Netto Rockfeller, a Brazilian guitarist I met through Igor Prado. He recorded some stuff at Greaseland Studios with owner Kid Andersen and Jim Pugh on keyboards, with me singing vocals on several tunes. Both of those guys complimented me on my singing. Jim of course used to play with Etta, my idol.”
“After that, a very good friend of mine, who was a blues promoter in Orange County, the person who introduced me to Igor and told me about Kid, plus is a huge blues fan and supporter of mine, John Reilly, told me that I should do a record at Greaseland. He was the one who put the bug in my ear. So, in 2018, I cut my record there with Jim on keyboards and Kid on guitar. They both liked the finished product so much that Jim decided to put it out on his Little Village Foundation label. That was a big step for me. Because of their involvement, and the other musicians who played on it, that record got a lot of notice and favorable reviews. I feel so fortunate to be a part of that label. Jim has a knack for finding all of this super interesting music. I just love what he does.”
Recognition came her way once A Woman Rules The World was released, garnering Shay a 2019 nomination for the Blues Blast Sean Costello Rising Star Award and a 2019 Blues Music Award nomination in the Soul Blues Female Artist category. After a German promoter heard her at the album release party, he told Thomas Ruf about the dynamic singer, leading to her signing a deal with Ruf Records, who released her latest album, Stand Up!, earlier this year. While her previous disc was heavy on cover tunes, the new one switches the focus to ten original songs along with two covers. Despite the pandemic, it hit #1 on the Billboard Blues chart the first week of its release.
“I saw this as my chance to do an original album, so I spent a lot of time crafting it, with plenty of help from Adam J. Eros, my songwriting partner. We met back when I was working at the speakeasy. He was across the street at a dueling piano bar. He sings and plays piano. We wrote a few songs together for my previous record. Last year, we were working six months in advance of the recording sessions to get material together. Adam is an amazing musician and composer who doesn’t come from a blues background. He accompanied musicals growing up, had a full ride in college for classical piano, and a Masters degree from Berklee in film composition. That often allows us to craft great songs without worrying about genre. Loving the music as much as I do, it is important to me to have an original voice and sound. For some reason, in my mind, I wasn’t really an artist until I was making my own music. That is the best thing about the new record, having it be reviewed and doing so well – and I wrote it!”
“The problem that I have sometimes with the blues is that musicians expect the audience to be engaged automatically, to listen and be quiet. But our attention spans are so short due to social media and the Internet. So we have to do our job as musicians and performers to pull people in. Muddy Waters and B.B. King were performers. They were not just musicians. When I say entertain, I don’t mean in a vaudeville or campy sort of way. Some people just haven’t figured out how to command the space on stage. If it is just showboating without any soul behind it, that doesn’t make any sense. We have to entertain, to take people away from what is going on in the world right now. People need music more than ever. And if I could pick a performance idol that I aspire to be, it would for sure be Little Richard.”