Music Thursdays with Richard Steele: Blues Fest

June 7, 2012

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This week on Music Thursdays, we're celebrating the blues, by playing the music of artists performing at the Chicago Blues Festival in Grant Park this weekend.

The festival comes at an interesting moment in the history of the blues. More than ever, the music is being played by white artists, and some are concerned that African-American musicians are being quietly shut out of an art form that, at its core, speaks to the black experience. We're examining the vitality of the blues and whether it’s losing its African-American core.

Just like many other blues and gospel performers from her era, Chicagoan Katherine Davis started her musical journey in church, and then in the early 1980s, went on to study classical voice. She continued to sing gospel and then started performing blues and jazz in small Chicago clubs. She got a great opportunity around 1984 when she appeared in the Kuumba Theatre production of In The House of the Blues, where she played Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. She did her first album titled Dream Shoes. This track is called “Rock This House” from that same package.        

Mavis Staples is a Chicago music legend who, along with her family The Staples Singers, became an integral part of the American music scene with numerous Grammys and hit records. Mavis Staples is hard to categorize because she touches on so many genres, but her very unique voice conjures up thoughts of the blues no matter what she sings, so for  my money, she’s got to be included in that category of vocalists. 

On this occasion, Mavis joined forces with Natalie Cole and the late R&B blues icon Ruth Brown on the stage at the 2003 Blues In a Bottle concert in New York at Radio City Music Hall. The song was “Men Are Like Streetcars” and they sang it to Bill Cosby when he surprised the trio by joining them on stage. It was a rare occasion for a great blues dedication.             

Demetria Taylor was born into a blues legacy: Both of her parents were blues artists. Her father was especially well-known – he was bluesman Eddie Taylor. He played on just about all of those great Jimmy Reed recordings in the ‘50s and ‘60s. He actually taught himself how to play back in his Mississippi hometown. Then he taught the basics to his homey, Jimmy Reed. Taylor’s daughter, Demetria, was the seventh child out of eight. Folklore has always indicated there was something special about the seventh child. This track is called “When You Leave, Don’t Take Nothing” from her Bad Girl album.            

Zora Young is another Mississippi-born blues singer whose family moved to Chicago when she was very young. She began to sing gospel at her childhood church. When she became an adult, she started singing blues and R&B. She played with many of the blues greats including Buddy Guy, Junior Wells and B.B. King. In 1982 she toured Europe on a bill with Bonnie Lee and  Big Time Sarah in Blues With The Girls. Since then, she’s done many European blues tours. This recording is from her album Tore-up From The Floor Up. The track is “I’m Gonna Do The Same Thing They Did To Me.”