Issue 12-51 December 27 2018

magazine cover image of Barbara Blue

Cover photo © 2018 Marilyn Stringer

 In This Issue 

Marty Gunther has our feature interview with a Memphis Beale Street legend, Barbra Blue. We have 6 Blues reviews for you this week including new music from Matt Woods, Ron Spencer Band, Blue Largo, Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz and Giles Robson, Diane Durrett & Soul Suga and Fast Nasties.

We have the latest in Blues society news. All this and MORE! SCROLL DOWN!!!

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 Featured Blues Review – 1 of 6 

matt woods cd imageMatt Woods – Tired and Dirty

Self Released

10 tracks

Iowan Matt Woods is a craftsman whose music takes on the diversity of traditional roots music, from the Delta to hill country to urban electric blues and even getting into Gospel, country and folk music. Woods has now released four albums (two solo) and participated in the International Blues Challenge three times. He was nominated for a Blues Blast Magazine Award for Acoustic Blues Album of the Year in 2015 for his album Sawdust and Gasoline.

Woods here has written all the songs and performs solo. He starts his album with “I’m A Bloodhound,” getting a bit of a boogie going and picking out some nice stuff. He sings with authority and grit; here he tells his woman who is ripping him off that he’s “Gonna track her down like a bloodhound.” The threatened end result is a lot worse. “Train Goes By” is an upbeat and quick paced instrumental train song that shows off his chops and a little slide to boot.

“Always Tired” is a cool little blues with a nicely finger picked intro and then Woods wailing out the vocals. He bemoans life, trying to make some money to bring home to his woman, he aches and hurts as he works. Up next is “V8 Ford,” a rollicking number about driving his old V8 Ford to his woman’s house. This has a pretty pre-WWII feel to it, with Woods picking those strings with abandon. “Bootleg Me Mama” is a dirty old slow blues with a deep guitar riff to start things off. He asks his Mama to take him wherever she wants, even in the trunk of her car as long as he knows where she is.

“Now I’m Busted” is another fast paced slide guitar tune where Woods tells us how he’s busted and expresses his regrets. In “I Ain’t Leaving This Town” Woods picks and grinds out a nice mid tempo folky tune. “Spacement Serenade” is an acoustic guitar instrumental serenade. It’s pretty and light and airy. “You Need Me” is a swinging slide tune with some slightly compressed vocals that make it sound old. The guitar picking is sweet; Woods seems comfortable and completely in his element.

Things conclude with the slide guitar folk tune that could be a cowboy song or at least a country tune. The guitar howls and sings along with Woods in a slow and deliberately paced duet. More creative lyrics here, Woods has crafted some interesting and neat songs and performs them comfortably like a good old broken in shoe on a long walk.

This is a very, very nice album of acoustic roots music. Woods in in his zone, delivering ten great new cuts that fans of acoustic music will surely love as I did. Highly recommended!

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.

 Featured Blues Review – 2 of 6 

ron spenser cd imageRon Spencer Band – Into The Blue

Real Gone Records – 2018

10 tracks; 42 minutes

The Ron Spencer Band is from NY state and their PR claims that they have “over 180 years of experience” – a veteran band indeed! They formed in 2007 and this is their third album together. Ron is on guitar and vocals, Mark Gibson on vocals, Bob Purdy on bass and vocals and Ross Moe on drums; Dan ‘Cato’ Eaton guests on keys, sax and B/Vs, Jeff Moleski, Sharon Allen and Donna Colton also add B/Vs and Mike Davis plays Hammond organ on one cut. The album was recorded in Syracuse, NY and produced by Ron. Writing credits are shared out with Mark the main writer with four solo compositions, three with Ron and one with Bob, and there are two covers.

“Closer To The Bone” is a rocking opener, Mark singing of the pace of modern life as Dan plays some fine piano and Ron pulls out a Chuck Berry style solo. The strange looking title “(I’m Doin’) Ah-ight” makes sense when you hear the song, a rousing shuffle with more piano and sax on the outro from Dan. Mark’s vocals here are excellent as he expresses a degree of contentment with his lot. Ron’s echoed guitar introduces the swampy “Addicted To You”, Mark declaring that he needs to “work on my addictions, I know that it’s true, number one on my list, baby you guessed, honey it’s you”. The two covers are placed side by side at tracks 4 and 5: Moon Martin’s “Cadillac Walk” rocks along with Ron on slide and more pumping piano; “Blind, Crippled & Crazy” (Hodges, Carter, Robey) is a more frequently covered song and the band do a solid version with Ron playing soulful guitar alongside warm organ washes from Dan, Mark demonstrating that he is equally at home on a soul song as on blues.

The band plays a rhumba rhythm to the amusing tale of opposites attract in “So Wrong For Each Other” before the jazzy shuffle “It’s Time” gives Ron the chance to show us his T-Bone style guitar set against swinging Hammond work. “Callin’ To Me” has a Memphis soul feel with sax adding to the rhythm work, Ron picking out some appropriately Steve Cropper-style licks in his solo. “Fine, Fine Woman” is a frantic rocking boogie, great piano and Ron playing a fast-paced rockabilly style on this one. The album concludes with “Cold Outside” with a New Orleans rhythm (particularly in the piano work) combined with some BB King stylings from Ron.

Overall a very pleasant album to listen to. Ron demonstrates a sure touch in several styles and plays economically throughout – no shredding or grandstanding here! Mark proves himself an equally flexible vocalist, Dan’s piano is a distinct asset and the rhythm section plays its part throughout. Good stuff!

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.

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 Featured Blues Review – 3 of 6 

blue largo cd imageBlue Largo – Before The Devil Steals Your Soul

Coffeegrinds Records – 2018

15 tracks; 70 minutes

Guitarist Eric Lieberman and vocalist Alicia Aragon formed Blue Largo in 1999 and the story of how Eric returned to playing after battling valiantly against a crippling condition is told in Rex Bartholomew’s Blues Blast review of their 2016 album Sing Your Own Song. SEE HERE (

Now back with their fourth album, Eric and Alicia are again joined by co-producer Nathan James who adds a variety of guitars, percussion and backing vocals to the California recordings. Much of the band remains from the previous CD with Marcus P Bashore on drums, Taryn ‘T-Bird’ Donath on piano, Dave Castel De Oro on sax and Missy Andersen on backing vocals; newcomers Mike ‘Sandalwood’ Jones (bass), Rafael Salmon (organ) and Eddie Croft (tenor and baritone saxes) join in and there are occasional contributions from Johnny Viau (tenor sax on two tracks), Steve Ebner (trumpet on two tracks), Marty Dodson (drums on one track), Mike Tempo (percussion on four tracks) and Nena Anderson (B/Vs on two tracks); a gospel choir of Diane McCalester, Jacqueline Haynes, Nathaniel Greene Jr and Andre Buck contributes to one cut. Eric wrote ten of the songs here (one in collaboration with Nathan) and there are five covers from diverse sources.

A gospel style chorus vocal opens and closes “Wash Away”, a fine uptempo song about “making a new start” before the horns feature strongly on “If I Can Make It To Augusta”, a song inspired by Eric’s bike rides in which he challenges himself to get up ‘just one more hill’. Alicia sings this one particularly well and the sax work is great with Johnny taking the tenor solo and Taryn playing some bar room piano. The accompanying sleeve notes give Eric’s informative commentary about the songs and “Monrovia”, a fictional narrative which sounds like a Tarantino film with a Mexican mariachi soundtrack, turns out to have been inspired by making a wrong turn during a search for a repair shop! “Same Race” discusses the disproportionate number of black victims of shootings and the seeming lack of accountability for those crimes while the title track again uses gospel rhythms and Eric’s lyrics pay tribute to four seminal guitarists and challenges us to identify them – a task that Blues Blast readers should find relatively easy.

Those first five songs are all originals and demonstrate the variety of styles that the band can play. The five covers range widely as Eric takes on two very well-known songs from different backgrounds in “What Becomes Of The Broken-Hearted” and “Feeling Good”, the former a good stab at a Motown classic, the latter a fine version of the classic Bricusse/Newley song made famous by Nina Simone and covered by so many artists in recent years, from Lauryn Hill to Joe Bonamassa. The band covers a song by their backing singer Nena (Anderson) Cote which has a jazzy feel, especially in Taryn’s piano work and extends their jazz references with an instrumental version of Nat Adderley’s “Work Song” which appropriately features the two sax players. The final cover is “Bodas De Oro” by Cuban Electo Rosell, an instrumental beautifully played by Eric and Taryn who Eric believes must have been “an old Cuban guy in her previous life”!

The remaining five songs include Eric’s first instrumental composition “Grinder’s Groove”, which has a delightfully retro 50’s feel and a fun bonus track “Lose Your Money” with Eric and Nathan ‘messing around’ on acoustic guitars. Two more songs come from Eric’s very productive bike rides: “Every Time You Call My Name” is a great uptempo track with something of a rockabilly feel and “I’m Alive” celebrates the power of music while “The Long Goodbye” is a more solemn song, a moving tribute to the loss of a friend to Alzheimer’s.

With well-crafted original songs, carefully selected covers and great musicianship throughout this album has a lot to commend it and is just as good as the band’s previous release.

Reviewer John Mitchell is a blues enthusiast based in the UK who enjoys a wide variety of blues and roots music, especially anything in the ‘soul/blues’ category. Favorites include contemporary artists such as Curtis Salgado, Tad Robinson, Albert Castiglia and Doug Deming and classic artists including Bobby Bland, Howling Wolf and the three ‘Kings’. He gets over to the States as often as he can to see live blues.

 Featured Blues Review – 4 of 6 

joe louis walker cd image Joe Louis Walker, Bruce Katz and Giles Robson – Journeys To The Heart Of The Blues

Alligator Records

12 tracks

UK Blues harpist Giles Robson met Joe Louis Walker at the Amstelveen Blues Festival in the Netherlands in 2016 and was asked to sit in with him for a couple of numbers. He recorded a CD that year that returned to basic, traditional styled electric blues and when he met Walker he had the initial idea to develop a joint recording project. He listened to a lot of stuff and wanted to do a stripped down album of tunes. Walker agreed and suggested Bruce Katz, which Robson thought was a great idea. The three rehearsed for three days and recorded and mixed for five days at NRS Studio in Woodstock, NY to put their own spin on songs by many early blues greats. After listening to this CD, I must say they did a wonderful job.

“Mean Old Train” gets things started. Walker howls out the lead vocals, the harp is greasy and the piano is in the groove. This Papa Lightfoot train tune is a nice start for this set that Robson put together. Sunnyland Slim’s “It’s You Baby” offers up some more beautiful traditional blues with Walker picking and singing, Katz tinkling those keys and Robson blowing mean harp. Things slow way down for “I’m A Lonely Man,” a Rice Miller/Sunny Boy Williamson II cut. At this point, the minimalistic approach settles in nicely with the listener. Drums and a bass are not needed as the three continue to impress with their prowess. The harp is dirty and cool, the guitar is restrained but poignant and the piano is beautifully done. Slow and sublime, this is killer stuff. Washboard Sams’ “You Got To Run Me Down” is a rollicking and fun jump tune. Katz strides up and down the keyboard, Walker picks out some nice stuff and sings with authority. Robson sits this one out and the duo nails it. Blind Willie McTell’s “Murderer’s Home” is up next, a song about the despair about a return trip to jail. The tone of the cut is supported nicely by the trio and this slow blues comes off well as we feel the despair in their singing and playing. “Feel Like Blowin’ My Horn” is an old Roosevelt Sykes cut. This mid-tempo blues has Walker singing with authority and Katz banging the keys with equal forthrightness. The guitar solo is another stinging one and the piano solo follows similarly. Robson’s harp punctuates things sweetly.

“Hell Ain’t But A Mile And A Quarter” is next, a St. Louis Red honky tonk cut. Katz sets the tone on the piano and Walker once again shows his vocal abilities. No guitar, no harp, just a well done piano and vocal duet with lots of charm. The lone original follows. “G&J Boogie” was written by Giles and Joe and features harp and guitar sparring instrumentally in a very nice little boogie. Big Maceo’s “Poor Kelly Blues” gets a great treatment by the threesome as Walker testifies with emotion. The harp, piano and guitar sting and flutter about to match the vocals. “Chicago Breakdown” is another Big Maceo cut featuring Katz’ piano. He goes solo here on this grand instrumental showcasing why Walker wanted him on this album– so well done! “Hard Pill To Swallow” is a Son Bonds tune where the trio combine to set another great slow blues groove into motion and sell it well. Walker gets big solo here which is quite down home and cool and the Robson follows with his own. Things finish off with “Real Gone Lover,” a song popularized by Smiley Lewis. Stinging harp and a great guitar and piano groove make this special as does Walker’s authoritative vocal work.

This is a great CD. Walkers vocals are superb. He emanates the blues every time he opens his mouth. His guitar work is also interesting and cool. This is not the big, in your face electric guitar we’re accustomed to from him. Bruce Katz is, well, Bruce Katz. Few can make blues piano sound so good; he is a master at his craft. Robson has a unique tone and approach to his harp, making this collaboration even slicker. I enjoyed their take on the 11 classics and the new instrumental– there is some really cool stuff here. No rhythm section as a backup and you don’t notice. It’s a stripped down and excellent interpretation and set of performances– if you like traditional blues then this is for you– go out and buy it now, you won’t regret it!

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.

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 Featured Blues Review – 5 of 6 

diane durrett cd imageDiane Durrett & Soul Suga – Live

Self Released

25 tracks (13 songs and more)

Recorded live at two shows at Eddie’s Attic in Decatur, Georgia, this is Durrett’s second album with Soul Suga and her eighth overall. She appears to be in her element here with a rousing and soulful performance. Durrett sings and plays guitar; backing band Soul Suga is Melissa Junebug on drums, Yoel B’nai Yehuda on keys, Gregg Shapiro on bass, Markham White on guitar, Adam McKnight & Deborah Reece with backing vocals, Wes Funderburke on trombone and Kerren Berz on violin.

Durrett exudes soul , charm and power as she gets introduced and songs “Bright Side.” She tells us no one has ever gone blind looking at the bright side of things, a cure for a troubled soul. “Butters In The Skillet” has a big band intro and then Durrett comes in dripping with sweet butter on her vocals. “It Is What It Is” is next, a song about a relationship gone sour. Diane sings with emotion and power. Up next is “Wish It Would Rain,” a tune she wrote after the last drought, a pretty ballad that she offers up with restraint and builds up as she testifies to the crowd. “Love Has he Right To Be Wrong” gets a little funky groove going and Durrett sings with heartfelt feeling. A dog rescue was the synthesis for “Be Someone’s Angel.” Durrett tells us to go out of our way and do something special for someone. The dog she rescued had gotten away during a funeral and her recovering the dog added some sun to an otherwise dark day for someone; the song tells us to go out and be an angel for someone, too.

“All Is Well” is another pretty ballad, this one inspired by Durrett’s grandmother. The pacing and lyrics are full of grace and charm. “In Between Times” remains low keyed and somber and bilds and builds with emotion and feeling, showing off Diane’s chops. A short percussion solo serves as intro to “Sassy Larue,” an up tempo and swinging cut about an 1950’s singer. Big horns and support from the band help sell this one. “Summertime” is a soulful cover of the classic tune and Durrett does a nice job with it. A big trombone solo gets the crowd going and then Durrett closes with intensity before taking us out sweetly. “Don’t That Bring You Back” is a jumping and fun cut that Durrett and company nail. The organ solo is slick and then the trombone chimes in for a bit. The band takes us home at the end, a rousing and fun ride. The last song is “Woohoo” with a little honky-tonk going. Durrett sings with humor that she has a little woohoo in her hoohoo. Everyone in the band takes a turn to show off their skills over the 8 minute finale that leaves the crowd wanting more, a fine close to a fine set of shows and album.

I enjoyed Diane’s last album, but live she and Soul Suga are even more intense and fun. I enjoyed this CD a lot and think fans of soulful blues will too!

Reviewer Steve Jones is president of the Crossroads Blues Society and is a long standing blues lover. He is a retired Navy commander who served his entire career in nuclear submarines. In addition to working in his civilian career since 1996, he writes for and publishes the bi-monthly newsletter for Crossroads, chairs their music festival and works with their Blues In The Schools program. He resides in Byron, IL.


 Featured Blues Review – 6 of 6 

fast nasties cd imageFast Nasties – Nouveau Blues


CD: 13 Songs, 53:00 Minutes

Styles: R&B, Ensemble Blues, Jazz-and-Soul-Influenced Blues, All Original Songs

The UK’s Fast Nasties deem their style of music “progressive blues,” or as they call it on their latest album, Nouveau Blues. To traditionalists, that translates to “uh-oh,” so let me give them the down-low. This is an R&B extravaganza as flamboyant as Fourth of July fireworks, featuring clear homages to Santana, Eric Clapton, and other melodic guitar icons. This is also an ensemble blues extravaganza, featuring several instruments strutting their stuff simultaneously. Vivid? Yes, but there’s too much going on to focus on any particular instrument’s virtues. Even a traditional tune such as “Long Time Ago (Way Back When)” sounds a bit “crowded.” Blues fans, if you’ve ever been to a holiday party with more colors and flashing lights than you can handle all at once, but you’re still having a great time, that’s akin to what you’ll find here. To counter this, lead vocalist Eric Martin’s pipes are smooth yet strong. He doesn’t mumble or yell, holding his high notes on a pleasing pitch. The rest of the Fast Nasties follow his eclectic style.

“Our aim with this album,” explains Eric, “is to show that blues (as the purists know it) can coexist within the same composition as many of its subgenres: rock, soul, funk, and gospel. We try to weave a wide range of genres into our arrangements. That bleeding and layering leads to new interpretations of what blues can be; it gives our music a kind of richness and depth you don’t associate with traditional blues.” For further explanations, he adds, “Think ‘Motown meets Led Zeppelin.’ It’s built on blues roots, but the style we’ve developed uses that as a base for something much more melodically uninhibited.”

Performing alongside Eric Martin are lead guitarist Andreas Laursen; Robert Woods on rhythm guitar; Dan Montgomery on bass; Damon Cleary-Erickson on drums; backing vocalists Desiree Cross and Jessica Wolf; Bradford King on sax, and Chris Couvillion on trumpet.

The three songs extolled below are the catchiest out of this baker’s dozen of original tracks.

Track 01: “Hello Beautiful” – The clearest and most gorgeous homage to Santana that I’ve heard in ages, this album’s opener is exhilarating. “Hello, beautiful. Would you like to dance? I’ve been waiting all night for the courage to take a chance.” Such lyrics may be simple, but out of Eric Martin’s mouth, they emerge with poetic passion. Lead guitarist Andreas Laursen plays wingman in spectacular style. Grab a partner, everyone, because the first opportunity is the best.

Track 05: “Handle My Scandal” – With a killer bassline by Dan Montgomery, this blues-rock ballad depicts a Trauma Conga Line (as coined by TV Tropes). “It’s a cold, cold world when your money is low. You can’t pay your rent and you’ve got to go. I’m burning both ends of a waxen candle. Lord, please help me handle my scandal.” Another great line is, “It’s hard to tell right from wrong when your stomach is growling all day long.” Bleak yet beautiful in its way.

Track 06: “Get Right” – Heavy on horns, this is another great party tune. “Get right, get left!” cry the various vocalists. Improvisation is king here, as are enthusiasm and electric energy. One can imagine track six played during a car chase in a movie, down slick city streets at midnight.

As the Fast Nasties prove, a little Nouveau Blues goes a heck of a long way!

Reviewer Rainey Wetnight is a 38 year old female Blues fan. She brings the perspective of a younger blues fan to reviews. A child of 1980s music, she was strongly influenced by her father’s blues music collection.

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 Featured Interview – Barbara Blue 

barbara blue photo 1Just about anyone who’s visited Memphis in the past 22 years has fallen under the spell of Barbara Blue. The undisputed Reigning Queen Of Beale Street, she’s become an international sensation, belting out tunes and captivating many of the millions of tourists who visit annually.

Several of the top artists in the industry have participated on the 11 CDs she’s released on her own imprint since the mid-‘90s, and she has a diehard fan base — known as Blueheads. But despite her success packing up to 1,000 folks at a time into Silky O’Sullivan’s, where she holds court five nights a week, Barbara has inexplicably managed to fly under the radar of the blues mainstream.

When the Bluff City bid farewell to B.B. King after his passing in 2015, Barbara was out front, helping to lead the procession down Beale, and she was both a featured performer and speaker at the ceremony that followed. Described by guitar master Ronnie Earl describes them as a cross between an earthquake and a hurricane, her powerful alto voice has been filling the ears and shaking the souls of audiences for four decades.

But other than a previous article that featured her in a group setting, the interview you’re in the process of reading is the very first feature she’s ever received in a major blues publication – something truly unfathomable when you consider that she’s also played festivals across the U.S., Canada and Europe, has performed on 13 Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruises and, like B.B. and Rufus Thomas before her, serves as the host of her own Memphis-based blues radio program.

“I don’t travel as much in most people’s eyes to what they’re used to with other performers,” Barbara says. “I stay in the same place. But I reach more people (than they do) by singing five nights a week in the same location.

“Even then, though, I’m still 800 miles away from my family. I’m on the road every day, that’s how I see it. It’s like I tell folks: I’m not from the school where everybody gets a trophy. I’m from the school where you work your ass off and you’re good at what you do. I don’t know any other way.”

People don’t always visit blues bars because they’re happy, she insists, even though Beale Street is the best mecca for a good time in a 250-mile radius.

“What I’ve created is like a little ministry,” she says. “You come here to celebrate a birthday, a divorce, a bachelorette party or honor your kid who’s going off to war. Or you’re celebrating his life if he doesn’t come home. Or you’re remembering your mom after her passing.

“You come here. Your last best time is with us — that’s what I’m all about. It means something. Just last week, this woman comes up to me, hugs me. She’s crying and requests a song. She’d just buried her son and come from his memorial. It’s bizarre and beautiful at the same time how people reach out.

“But blues is the medicine.”

Barbara was born and raised in Pittsburgh, the daughter of a carpenter father who regularly participated in barbershop quartets after a hard day’s work. “He and my godfather, Uncle Dave, would go to the bar – every block in the city has one – and meet up with five or six of their friends to drink and sing. They weren’t hired. It’s just what they did.

“I like to joke that they’d sing a little bit, drink a little bit and then pick out a name — because my mother was always pregnant. There were seven of us. They wouldn’t even go to the hospital when she was having another baby. They’d just stay in the bar singing and drinking.

“They’d give the bar’s phone number to a nurse and wait for her call. When the baby was born, they’d name us – but wouldn’t go to the hospital.”

Barbara’s home was always filled with music – everything from Frank Sinatra, Roger Miller, Eddy Arnold, Tom Jones and Johnny Cash to Vicki Carr, Peggy Lee and Petula Clark to Ray Charles and Nat King Cole – all chosen by her dad — but you’d never hear the really deep soul or blues that permeated the airwaves. Like many parents in the late ‘60s, her dad was very resistant to the social changes that were happening across America.

“He was very white,” Barbara laughs. “My mom’s Mexican, and we used to tease him about it.”

barbara blue photo 2On the sly, though, she found a way to get around the ban. Like many kids in the era, she’d lay under the covers late at night with her transistor radio pinned to her ear. It was a time when 50,000-watt stations like WDAI in Memphis and WLAC in Nashville delivered blues and soul to audiences far from the cities they called home. Barbara was lucky though. Her choice was Pittsburgh’s own WAMO.

“I loved it,” she says. “I used to wake up with dead batteries in the morning because I’d fall asleep without to turning the radio off.”

Barbara grew up singing gospel in church. “I was like the Sister Act girl. I was the one they’d tell: ‘Shut up! You’re too loud!’ I was born with colic and never shut up,” she says. “I still don’t.”

Her world changed forever when she discovered Janis Joplin.

“I was mesmerized. I’d never seen or heard anything like her. I was nine-and-a-half or ten, and all the kids I was hanging out with were 16 or 17,” Barbara recalls. “I was a wild child. It was the summer of 1969, and they were all going to Woodstock. I was like: ‘I wanna go, too.’”

She was heartbroken when her mother said no.

The sounds of Santana, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal and Crosby, Stills, Nash And Young fascinated her, too. In an attempt to keep a better eye on her, Barbara’s mother arranged for her to start working at age 13 in the kitchen of Sonny Jim’s, a bar and restaurant still open today that was owned by people they knew from church. At least then, her mom thought, she’d know where to find her.

The bar booked rock bands on weekends, and Barbara began dreaming of stardom as she watched on from the kitchen. She relished the single drink the proprietors allowed her each night and also learned how to play guitar.

But it wasn’t all fun and games.

“When I was working there, it was known for fresh fried chicken,” Barbara recalls. “They had live chickens, and I would kill ‘em and I would pluck ‘em. Then I’d batter and fry ‘em. My dad would drop me off at four in the afternoon and I’d clean up until two in the morning.”

Blue and her mom weren’t getting along when Barbara graduated high school in 1977. “I knew she loved me, but you’re a kid, you’re a rebel. You just want to get out,” she recalls. “I wasn’t going to college because I was a girl. My brother went, but not me. It wasn’t a priority.

“I wanted to sing. I packed my bags and moved to Arizona a week later.”

She waitressed, cooked and served drinks at several biker bars and smaller clubs, which gave her the opportunity to make her dream come true. With plenty of guts and guitar in hand, she sang the songs of her youth – anything she could work out on six-string.

Three years later, Blue packed up and moved again – this time to Detroit after falling in love with a future ex-husband after meeting him at a friend’s wedding. She studied nursing for three years at Madonna University by day and worked at a nursing home into the wee hours of night, singing when she could find time.

Her education came to an abrupt end one day when she and a friend were “asked to leave” – ostensibly for asking questions that instructors deemed to be far more proper for medical students than nurses.

barbara blue photo 3As they were exiting, the friend – who aced her exams and became and MD shortly thereafter — asked Barbara what she was going to do with her life.

Sing, she replied.

“That would be good,” said the friend who is now a psychiatrist, “because music is the best medicine, and you’re really good at it.”

Detroit was home to frequent talent shows, and Barbara made the most of it, singing Patsy Cline tunes for country competitions and something entirely different for rockers, often capturing $100 or more a night for her performance. She also made good money singing jazz and standards.

“My friend Rob Younce was playing guitar in the Stone Country Band, who were a pretty big in Detroit for a long time, and I used to sit in with them, too,” she recalls. “One day, he leaned over to me and said: ‘I have to tell you: You have the best blues voice I’ve ever heard. You need to look into that. You’re wasting your time singing this.’”

Barbara took the words to heart. A short while later, another friend, Ron Oster, invited her to join his City Limits Blues Band. “Ron was musically aggressive, but he knew what he was talking about,” she says. “The bass player was a laid-back dude who played upright, and I was somewhere in the middle. We had a lot of fun.

“I loved Detroit and still do,” she says. “I played places most people haven’t.”

Although known for soul, the city’s also been home to several major blues artists, including John Lee Hooker, Bobo Jenkins, Baby Boy Warren, Doctor Ross, Alberta Adams, Little Sonny and Eddie “Guitar” Burns and his brother Jimmy.

Until it closed in 1999, a victim of what turned out to be a failed attempt at urban renewal, the Soup Kitchen — located a few blocks away from old Tiger Stadium — was both the oldest bar in Motown and the center of the city’s blues universe. An endless stream of international blues talent graced its stage, and it was there that local favorites the Butler Twins, Robert Noll and a young Thornetta Davis gave Barbara the chance to spread her wings.

A nomad at heart, Blue returned to Pittsburgh in 1987 and remained for a decade, during which she formed her first band.

“We played six nights a week at a different venue each night,” she says. “It’s a very musical town. I moved the equipment around in the trunk of my 1969 Chevy Caprice – a 12-channel soundboard that took three guys to carry.

“And I went through just about every drummer player in the city. I joke about that now: If you can’t count to four, you’re fired; if you play too fast, you’re outta here. I was always looking for dynamics and nuances.”

After about a decade of planning, Barbara recorded her first album, Out Of The Blue. Released in 1994, it was recorded in three days at The Control Room in Pittsburgh under the direction of its co-owners, musicians Robert Kasper and Jimmy Daugherty.

Blue visited Memphis a couple of times during that period to compete at the International Blues Challenge, but her move to the city literally came about through good fortune years later.

“It was 1997, and my friend Becky Derek and I went to Jazz Fest in New Orleans, planning to stay a week,” she recalls. “On the way down, we got to talkin’ and she told me how much she loved Tracy Nelson. I don’t know why, but for some reason during the trip, I read the lineup for another festival — Memphis In May — which was happening at the same time. I saw that Tracy was playing that Sunday.”

Becky wondered why Barbara suddenly cut their stay short by a day, insisting they drive up river. “Why?” she asked. “It’s a surprise,” Blue replied.

Becky was delighted when they caught Nelson in action, but feeling ill as night fell. Barbara decided to hit Beale Street on her own, knowing that, as was the custom, she could walk into Silky O’Sullivan’s, hand the piano player $5 and he’d allow her to sing with him on stage.

“I’d done it before,” she says, “but never during Memphis In May, which drew 100,000 people then, 250,000 today.”

barbara blue photo 4Located in the 100-year-old Gallina Building down the block from B.B. King’s, across the street from the Rum Boogie Café and caddy corner to W.C. Handy Park, Silky O’Sullivan’s once was the home of a saloon so larger that as many as 14 bartenders at a time worked in rotating shifts 24 hours a day. It once featured a horse racing parlor, and today, dueling keyboard players often face off on matching grand pianos on its stage.

The current establishment holds up to 1,000 people at a time, and was opened in the ‘70s by Thomas Daniel Sullivan as urban renewal was just beginning to change the neighborhood. Known as the P.T. Barnum of Beale Street, he emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland after gaining fame for his barbecue back home. Nicknamed Silky after Silky Sullivan, a famous thoroughbred from the ‘50s, he combined the best of both worlds in the bar, celebrating St. Patrick’s Day every day of the year while serving heaping portions of his trademark ribs.

Now deceased, he was a genuine character, sitting in a chair that resembled a throne, looking regal as he surrounded himself with cronies around a high-top table.

“People were standing on top of each other that night,” Barbara remembers. “I paid my $5 and sang ‘Me And Bobby McGee.’”

In that instant, her life was forever changed.

“Silky looks at me like ‘what the hell!’” she says. “You’d of thought he’d just seen a white elephant with purple eyes – it was that kind of look. He said: ‘Can you do that again?’

“I did, but I made him buy me a beer to do it ‘cause that’s the usual payment. I did it again — and he just looked at my like ‘what the hell?’ I guess I wasn’t watching the people who were cming in the door.

“So he comes back to me and says with his deep Southern accent: ‘I want to call my wife. Can you do that again when she gets here?’ I said: ‘Sure, but it’s gonna cost you another beer.’”

The wife arrived, and Barbara belted out the Joplin classic once again.

“When I was done, he introduced me to her, and they asked: ‘What would it take for you to come and work for us?’

“’What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘Like one day a week?’

“’No,’ they said. ‘Five days a week. We want you to work here.’”

After a quick negotiation, they agreed on a price. But Barbara was faced with a dilemma: Since the plan was her to perform with a keyboard player, she had to find one – and quick.

Fortunately, she remembered that Nat Kerr, a piano player from a small town north of Pittsburgh, was living in the area. They’d worked together previously in Steel City when, after meeting during a jam, he’d called her into the studio to record with roots musician Tom Pomposello. A producer who worked for several TV networks, he was in the process of making a children’s album, Peanut Butter And Jam, for Nickelodeon.

When offered, Kerr accepted the gig.

“I went home and told my mom I was going to work here for six months,” Barbara says. “Twenty-two years later, I’m still here – and Nat’s still playing the piano five nights a week. He’s even there when I’m not.

“I hook him up with other chicks,” she jokes. “If I’m not there, it still has to be a piano player and a girl singer.”

During her first decade in the city, Barbara released three albums, all of which prominently featured members of Taj Mahal’s backing band, known far and wide today as Phantom Blues Band, which included Johnny Lee Schell (guitar), Mike Finnigan (keyboards), Joe Sublett and Darrell Leonard (horns), Tony Braunagel (drums) and Larry Fulcher (bass) – all top sessions players in Los Angeles and a lineup that remains pretty much intact today.

She’d met them on an early Blues Cruise and spent the better part of a year in discussion with Braunagel about producing it. Recorded at Schell’s Ultratone Studios in L.A. as were the next two releases, it came into fruition as Sell My Jewelry in 2001, followed by Memphis 3rd & Beale (Silky’s location – 3rd Street has subsequently been renamed B.B. King Boulevard) in 2003 and Money Love Can’t Buy in 2006. A compilation album, By Popular Demand, followed.

barbara blue photo 5By an odd coincidence, two more three-CD efforts have followed: the first a session of live albums captured by longtime Blues Cruise sound engineer Dawn Hopkins during weekend sets at Silky’s with Nat on the 88s, then Royal Blue, Jus’ Blue and Memphis Blue, which were laid down at Willie Mitchell’s famed Royal Studios — once home to Bobby Blue Bland, Al Green, O.V. Wright, Ike and Tina Turner, Rod Stewart and a host of others — under the direction of Willie’s son, Boo.

Koko Taylor has always been one of Barbara’s favorites – even more so after a Blues Cruise encounter. “She and her band were running the late-night jam in an upper lounge,” Barbara recalls. “She’d just left both the stage and the room. They brought me up and asked me what I wanted to sing. I told them ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and the band looked at me like I’d lost my f’ing mind.”

Written for Koko by Willie Dixon, the song had been a monster hit for Taylor in the early ‘70s and a fixture in her set ever since.

“But I knew how to handle those guys,” Barbara recalls. “I had six $20 bills folded in my bra and pulled ‘em out. I said: ‘Twenty bucks – one song, “Wang Dang Doodle”.’

“I started singing. By the middle of the song, Koko walked back into the room with her daughter Cookie, sat in the back and watched. When I was done, Cookie walked up to me, put her hand on her hip and said: ‘My mama wants to see you!’

“I went ‘shi-i-it! All right, here I come.

“I walked back there and she said: ‘Sit down, girl.’ She leaned back with one arm over the chair like she used to and said: ‘Girl, awesome! I thought I was listenin’ to the jukebox.’

“I almost peed my pants. I told her: ‘Koko, I could die a happy woman right now! That’s all I needed to hear. Them other bitches can kiss my ass.’ She laughed so hard…”

Barbara usually includes one of Taylor’s songs on her albums. That’s true of her latest release Fish In Dirty H20. She steps out of the box somewhat on the title song, once the B-side to a Koko 45, which features a rap segment laid down by Al Kapone.

Produced in Nashville by Grammy-winner Jim Gaines, the CD features former Aretha Franklin musical director Bernard Purdie on percussion, a full horn section, backup singers and guest appearances on guitar by Schell and former Gregg Allman band leader Scott Sherrard.

“A couple of years ago, I walked into the Royal Studios and Al was there rapping along with Melissa Etheridge,” Barbara remembers. “I couldn’t believe they were doing this. In the time that followed, he kept suggesting that he do it with me.

“But I’m no copycat. I told him: ‘Let’s wait. We’ll do it later.’ Then, one day, he texted me and told me she’d never used the track.”

Barbara got the message when the new album was just about finished. The only thing missing was something to fill what Gaines perceived as a dead spot in the title cut. “I told him: ‘Give me a couple of days. I’m gonna bring you something I want you to hear,” Barbara recalls.

“I didn’t know what we were doing, but told Al: ‘Here’s the song. There’s a space in there. Fill it.’ He sent me back that scratch track and I about peed my pants again. I loved it.

“I didn’t know what Jim was gonna do though. I drove two hours and took him the track. I’m watching from behind, staring at the back of his head, as he’s sitting at his desk playin’ it. He’s bouncin’ with it. He turns around and gives me a look, and I’m thinking he hates it, but says: ‘I love it – but I think my professional friends are gonna think I’ve lost my mind.’”

Far more than an album of covers, however, the disc includes five originals penned by Barbara in collaboration with Sandy Carroll and Mark Normore, and another in collaboration with Muscle Shoals legend Spooner Oldham, whose hits include the Box Tops’ “Cry Like A Baby” and James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet.”

Barbara will be forever grateful to Purdie. Because of his talent and effort, she says, the impossible happened: nine of the tunes were recorded in a single take.

Be sure to catch Barbara live the next time you’re visiting Memphis, and be sure to check out her music at her website, — and check out her radio show at

Blues Blast Magazine’s senior writer Marty Gunther has lived a blessed life. Now based out of Charlotte, N.C., his first experience with live music came at the feet of the first generation of blues legends at the Newport Folk Festivals in the 1960s. A former member of the Chicago blues community, he’s a professional journalist and blues harmonica player who co-founded the Nucklebusters, one of the hardest working bands in South Florida.

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Chillicothe Public Library District – Chillicothe,IL

Legendary blues artist John Primer and the Real Deal Blues Band will present “The Blues According to John Primer,” a high-energy Chicago blues show, at 2:00 p.m. Sunday, February 10, at Chillicothe Public Library, 430 N. Bradley Ave., Chillicothe, IL 61523. The concert is free (donations appreciated). Attendees are encouraged to stay for a post-concert talk and Q&A with Primer about his musical life and experiences.

John Primer is a legend among blues artists: a two-time Grammy nominee, he helped to build the sound and style of Chicago blues over his decades-long career with his strong traditionalist blues phrasing, seasoned rhythm and blues vocals, and lightning-fast slide guitar techniques. Having played or recorded with a “Who’s Who” of blues greats, Primer’s personal accolades, including a Lifetime Achievement Award, reflect his countless contributions to the history of Chicago blues.

For more information, please visit or call 309-274-2719.

Prairie Crossroads Blues Society – Champaign,IL

Prairie Crossroads Blues Society continues holding two Blues Jams each month. Thanks to Pipa’s Pub, 604 S. Country Fair Dr. in Champaign for hosting these jams held the 2nd Sunday of each month from 4 to 7 pm and the 4th Wednesday of each month from 7 to 10 pm. The host band plays the 1st set and then it’s open to all the jammers in the house.

Sapphire will host on Wednesday December 26. On Sunday January 13the Jenkins Brothers will host. Alex and Benny Jenkins won the Solo/Duo Challenge at the Windy City Blues Fest this summer and are headed to Memphis in January to compete in the International Blues Challenge. This is also a fundraiser for the Jenkins Brothers.

In February the Blues Deacons will host and Sunday March 10, we welcome back Robert Kimbrough Sr. Robert is the youngest son of Junior Kimbrough and put on an amazing show at the 2018 Prairie Crossroads Blues Fest. Bring your instrument. For more info visit:

The Charlotte Blues Society – Charlotte, NC

The Charlotte Blues Society is pleased to announce its January Blues Bash on 6 January, 2019. The show will feature our International Blues Challenge band competition winners, the Chris Clifton Band, and the Solo/Duo winner, Jake HaldenVang, who will represent us at the IBC in Memphis.

Doors are at 7:00; music from 8:00 to 10:00, followed by an open blues jam. Admission is free to members with valid cards, and only $5.00 to others. The show will be at the Rabbit Hole, 1801 Commonwealth Ave., Charlotte, NC 28205.

We continue to collect non-perishable food and household items for Loaves and Fishes. 1 can? I can!

The Illinois Central Blues Club – Springfield, IL

The Illinois Central Blues Club has announced the line-up of talent for Blue Monday live performances held every Monday night at the Alamo, 115 North Fifth, Springfield, IL from 8:00pm to midnight. Additional information on any performer listed below is available upon request.

Jan 7 – Chris Camp and His Blues Ambassadors, Jan14 – Dave Weld & The Imperial Flames, Jan 21 – The Groove Daddies, Jan 28 – Billy Galt & the Blues Deacons, Feb 2 – David Lumsden, Feb 18 – Emily Burgess, Feb 25 – The Rockin’ Jake Band, March 3 – The Nick Schnebelen Band For more information visit

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