As the primary focal point of a veteran Chicago blues band boasting a proud history of spotlighting powerhouse female singers, Inetta Visor is a legitimate standout.
For the last 16 years, she’s fronted Mississippi Heat, harpist Pierre Lacocque’s traditionally-minded combo—and that’s a lifetime in the fickle blues business. Funny thing is, prior to joining the band in 2001, Visor hadn’t sung in a blues band before, exercising her prodigious pipes instead on rock and pop material in a series of local groups. The stylistic switch required some adjustment on Inetta’s part.
“It was different,” she says. “I had always listened to blues. I knew all about it from listening to WVON and Pervis Spann. But when you actually sing it, there’s like a special timing. And I was still singing pop. So I actually had to learn how to sing it, because there is a technique to singing it.”
Prior to bringing Visor into the fold, Mississippi Heat had featured Deitra Farr from 1993 to ‘96 and then the equally estimable Katherine Davis. That’s some serious talent. Yet Inetta has proven the ultimate front woman for the group, appearing on their last eight CDs. The transition from Davis to Visor didn’t transpire overnight; Inetta first tried out for the band in 2000.
“Katherine Davis had recorded a jazz CD, and she was thinking about going out and promoting this CD. And I auditioned for them at when Koko Taylor had a club (on South) Wabash,” she says. “Katherine changed her mind and decided to stay with Mississippi Heat. So in 2001, I’d always call different bands, because I was also a jobber at that time, to let people know if they needed a sub or a backup singer or whatever, I would be available. And I got ready to call Mississippi Heat—I still had their business card—and just as I put my hand on the phone, the phone rang and it was Michel Lacocque, Pierre’s brother, asking me if I was still interested in being with Mississippi Heat.” She was. Before long, Visor was in the studio working on their album Footprints on the Ceiling.
Pierre says he was impressed by “a couple of things—one, definitely her voice. Her voice was an Etta James type of powerful, yet sweet, yet melodic voice. I was very impressed very early with her ability to adapt songs, because we do original material mostly,” he says. “I need a singer because I write the songs. And I was very impressed with her ability to adapt to the songs, and also to the keys, which she’s done.
“She can sing in any key,” continues Lacocque. “It’s like Junior Wells once told me, ‘You know, Pierre, I can sing in any key!’ And here we have Inetta, who can do the same. So I was very impressed by that. Inetta’s a hard, hard worker, a team player, and really an unassuming star. Unassuming and very easy to work with, and she’s become a very, very dear friend and really a member of my family because we’ve known each other 16 years now, and we’ve traveled the world. So it’s been pleasant personally and artistically.
“She adapted very quickly to our material. With her, I can really explore many styles within the blues. I can do Santana type of stuff, which I enjoy. We can do reggae. I have reggae on the next album coming up, which is not recorded yet but I have the reggae (song) that she will sing. So she can adapt to many different genres, and she’s easy to guide,” says Lacocque. “She’s very easy to work with in the studio as well.”
Inetta did have a list of favorite blues singers when she joined the band, most notably Koko Taylor. “I did a contest at the House of Blues, and Koko Taylor and Bruce Iglauer from Alligator Records and a few other people were judges,” she says. “I won that contest, and she was one of the judges, so I met her. Nice lady. I met her when I auditioned for Mississippi Heat at her club with her daughter. And I met her again at the Blues Fest, I want to say it might have been 2008. Theresa Davis and a few other women were doing backup vocals behind Billy Branch. I was able to get backstage, and I met her again then. She was cool.
“Denise LaSalle is another favorite of mine. I love her lyrics. She has very sassy, very provocative, very female-empowered lyrics. Denise LaSalle has been an influence, because I like her storytelling in the songs. I mean, not just the provocative stuff, but she’s got some songs that really tell a story. That’s one of the reasons why she’s my favorite, is her writing and her producing.” There were other influences as well. “Definitely Etta James, because she had a powerful voice,” she says. “I liked Albert King. I fell in love with Albert King when I saw the movie Wattstax. Of course, I was crazy about B.B. King. Johnnie Taylor was my favorite.”
Lacocque has long displayed an uncanny knack for writing for his band’s resident chanteuses, reserving many of his finest creations for Inetta. “My favorite is ‘How Much Worse Can It Be?’ (from their album Delta Bound),” says Visor. “That’s really my life right there. He wrote some great songs for me, but that right there is my favorite.” Inetta has also contributed some impressive originals of her own to Mississippi Heat’s catalog.
“I would say the song that I’m most proud of ‘She Died From A Broken Heart.’ Because that’s a true story,” explains Inetta, who collaborated on the song with keyboardist Chris Cameron (it was a highlight of Mississippi Heat’s 2010 CD Let’s Live It Up!). “I lost a good friend in 2009, because after 17 years of marriage, we found out that her best friend had been dating her husband the whole time. And when she found out, in four years she drank herself to death.”
Mississippi Heat has released its last six albums on Bob Koester’s venerable Delmark label, beginning with 2005’s One Eye Open—Live at Rosa’s Lounge, Chicago (also available as a DVD) and continuing through Hattiesburg Blues (2008), Let’s Live It Up!, Delta Bound (2012), Warning Shot (2014), and last year’s Cab Driving Man. The connection has proven quite comfortable for everyone concerned. “It’s easy-going,” notes Visor. “Nobody’s yelling and screaming at you. The recording sessions are very, very smooth.”
Cab Driving Man was no exception. “I think we actually did the recording in two days. Of course, certain things had to be tweaked. Some people had to come back and overdub stuff, overdub errors, little small things. And I really practiced hard on that CD,” says Visor.
Along with Pierre and Inetta, the current core lineup of Mississippi Heat consists of guitarist Michael Dotson, bassist Brian Quinn, and drummer Terrence Williams. “The guys, they are very professional,” says Visor. “They’re very serious, but they’re a lot of fun. They’re fun to travel with. There are no arguments or nothing. All they do is get in the darned car and go to sleep! But they’re very good at what they do. Terrence is very serious about his drums. I mean, I thought Kenny was serious, but Terrence tunes the drums, and he does some things—he stands up on the drums. He says it does something to the drum skins. I’m like, ‘Oh, okay.’ I’ve never seen a drummer do all of that. And Brian is very, very serious about his bass. Everybody is very professional.”
Mississippi Heat’s Delmark CDs usually incorporate at least a couple of guest luminaries; past contributors have included guitarists John Primer and Billy Flynn, zydeco accordionist Chubby Carrier, and Sax Gordon Beadle. Inetta’s personal favorites?
“Lurrie Bell and Carl Weathersby,” she says. “We traveled with them, and Lurrie Bell, his laugh is just infectious. He doesn’t talk much, but when he does, it’s something. And Carl Weathersby is definitely my favorite because of the stories that he tells when we’re on the road about him being in Vietnam. He also talked about when he came home and was security for the group Enchantment. He tells a hilarious story about those concerts. I would say those two stand out.
I was always a big fan of Carl when he was on the road with us and telling these stories. A lot of ‘em were hysterical!”
Mississippi Heat does a lot of touring, both domestically and overseas. “We do Europe at least once or twice a year,” says Inetta. “We went last October, and we did Holland and Romania. My favorite was Greece. Greece was absolutely fantastic. Sat through my first earth tremor. I was like, ‘Okay, I’m ready to go home now!’”
Closer to home, everybody takes turns driving when they’re out on the road. “I always teasingly tell Pierre—sometimes he laughs, and sometimes he says ‘Don’t say that!’–‘Where’s my tour bus?’” laughs Visor. “But other than that, touring is very smooth. There’s been some incidents on the road where we’ve run into some humongous storms. And that’s always been comical, after we’ve come out of it, because we’re in these storms and the wind is knocking the van back and forth across the highway, and everybody’s in the van looking crazy!”
A native of the Englewood area on Chicago’s South Side, Inetta didn’t take the usual gospel-rooted route to learn her craft. “Everybody says, ‘Well, you started in church, right?’” she says. “I was not one of those that got a chance to start in church. Every time I paid for a robe, that robe got lost. And I said, ‘Well, I guess God doesn’t want me to sing in a choir. He wants me to do something else!’
“I always wanted to sing. As a matter of fact, when I was in second or third grade in an audition for a talent show, I sang Skeeter Davis’ “I Can’t Stay Mad At You.’ Back in the day, which they don’t do too much now, we always had neighborhood talent shows, where somebody would let the kids go in the basement, and we would charge a nickel at the door and we would put on a show. And of course, then you graduated and you sung outside under the street lamp or on somebody’s front porch,” she says. “There was a lot of opportunities. We auditioned to do the talent show at the Regal Theater, but I think we got cold feet and backed out.
“The only choir I did get a chance to sing in was when I auditioned for Richard Pegue, who was a disc jockey on WVON, one of the Good Guys. He started a choir called the Dubber Ruckie Choir, (later known as) the Halleluiah Chorus. And that was my first professional gig. 65 people singing R&B. I was about 17 or 18 years old at the time.”
Pegue moonlighted as the chief creative force behind the Penny and Nickel labels when he wasn’t on the air at ‘VON, writing and co-producing the Cheers’ local 1967 hit “(I’m Not Ready To) Settle Down.” Inetta wasn’t a member of the Halleluiah (sic) Chorus yet (which was formed in 1972) when they waxed their lone platter for Nickel, “I’ve Got To Find A Way,” but she was there when the aggregation performed at one of ‘VON’s gala Christmas concerts at Arie Crown Theater.
“By us being a choir, we had the biggest dressing room. And we were getting put out of that dressing room all night. The first person we got put out by was Diana Ross’ husband,” says Visor. “He was managing Chaka Khan. He came in and saw the dressing room, and all of a sudden management came in and told us we had to get out. Then it was a group called Hodges, James & Smith. Their management came into the dressing room.
“The final (group) that we got put out by was Sister Sledge. They were making their very first appearance in Chicago. They had just came out. I think they were out of New York. And they had a new album out. They asked last-minute to be on the show.”
The Halleluiah Chorus dispersed in 1976, but Visor was just getting started. “I continued to sing. A couple of the people in the choir put together bands and groups, and I did a lot of backup singing. One of the bands that I was with for awhile doing backup vocals was called TWT—The Whole Truth Band. I got a chance to sing some solo songs, but I basically did backup vocals for the members who were out front,” she says. “Our biggest rival was the Scott Brothers band.
“We had wonderful times. You want to talk about a reality show? That would have been a good one! That would have been a great reality show. I was with them for a long time.”
At the same time, Inetta was working at then-Alderman Roman Pucinski’s WEDC radio station on the Northwest Side as an engineer. “I went to Omega State Institute, because you know, back in the day, you had to have a First Class engineering license,” says Visor, who had the honor of integrating its technical staff during her 1976-85 tenure there. “I was the first black and the first woman,” she notes. “It was a foreign language radio station.” Still, singing remained Inetta’s passion.
“After I left TWT, I started a group called Sisters with Voices,” she says. “I put an ad in the paper for people who needed backup singers to get some work, which worked out pretty well. We got some work out of it.” One of the interested parties was a North Side rock band called Skyline, led by Marc Pulido. “They called us because they wanted backup singers for their band, and the other two girls didn’t want to go up north,” says Inetta. “They didn’t want to do rock. So I told him the other two didn’t want to come, and he said, ‘Well, what about you?’ So hey, I got on the bus and went up there and auditioned, and I got it.
“We went into the studio,” she says. “Tom Tom Washington, he worked with us on a CD, which was a good CD. But we still couldn’t get a record deal. And so I guess they were frustrated that they couldn’t get a record deal, and the band dispersed.” That was in 1986. There were gigs, including a few months of singing backup for reggae singer Carl Brown (“I didn’t even know what reggae was, but if it was paying, I was gonna do it”), but Inetta paid her bills by working for the Illinois Student Assistance Program, a gig she landed in 1989 and held onto for 21 years until her department was closed down. “I was a financial aid counselor, helping people find money to go to college and calling them to say they owed money,” she says.
After seven years apart, Pulido called Visor in 1993 to join another rock band he was involved with, Tainted Blue, starting as a backup singer with the Bridgeport-based group but quickly advancing to lead vocalist status. “They had always been a basement band,” says Inetta, who belted Foreigner, Stevie Ray Vaughan, and Journey covers with the group. “They had never played out in public, and me and Marc actually got them out of the basement to play in clubs all over the city. Our big accomplishment was, for three years in a row we did the Tinley Park World Music Theater Festival. That band disbanded in 1997, but they never thought that they would get as far as they got.”
Pulido pulled Inetta into his next project, World Class Noise. “Marc always took me with him, from Skyline to Tainted Blue to World Class Noise,” says Visor. “I do have a bunch of CDs that I was on there with them. But we never went overseas. It was a 12-piece band, but we did a lot of work around the Midwest. We were on the road, just doing things around the Midwest—every weekend we were out of town. Every weekend. And mind you, I was still holding down a full-time job during all of this.”
As dedicated as she remains to Mississippi Heat, Inetta’s been doing a little moonlighting of late. “I’m in collaboration with this musician, Mike Dangeroux. He’s a guitar player. Matter of fact, he plays all instruments. And he has a boatload of music. And I’ve been writing songs with him. I would actually like to write songs for other people. That really is where the money is, more so than performing. Especially since I found out that I can actually do it. We did do a demo of some songs that we did. We’re just right now trying to write the songs, to see if anybody’s interested,” she says. “We have a video on YouTube we did about the violence in Chicago called ‘The Time Has Come.’”
Visor sings that moving anti-violence blues theme in Dangeroux’s video. but don’t expect her to step away from Mississippi Heat anytime soon. “It’s a good fit,” she says. “Pierre’s a good person to work for. He really does go out of the way to try to help out the band members. It’s funny, because every now and then, I would be asked to come back to maybe do a sub for World Class Noise. And after being with them for a day, you’d come screaming back to Mississippi Heat, because now you remembered why you left!”
Visit Mississippi Heat’s website at: http://mississippiheat.net
Interviewer Bill Dahl is a lifelong Chicago resident who began writing about music professionally in 1977. He’s written for Vintage Rock, Goldmine, Living Blues, Blues Revue, Blues Music Magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and the Reader, and is the author of The Art of the Blues, a 2016 book published by University of Chicago Press, and 2001’s Motown: The Golden Years (Krause Publications). Bill was awarded the Blues Foundation’s Keeping the Blues Alive Award in journalism in 2000.