'Blues is a Woman' Blends Music and Stories

  • by Sari Staver
  • Sunday March 26, 2017
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The Blues is a Woman ensemble
The Blues is a Woman ensemble

A group of highly regarded Bay Area musicians is launching their new ensemble theatrical concert at Freight & Salvage in Berkeley on Thursday, March 30.

At the concert, the Blues is a Woman Ensemble will release its six-track original cast recording, "Blues is a Woman," and perform the new concert, which highlights the powerful contributions women have made to the rise of the blues music.

The six-woman band, each a professional musician, includes Tammy Hall (piano), Daria Johnson (drums), Ruth Davies (bass), Pamela Rose (vocal), Pat Wilder (guitar), and Kristen Storm (saxophone).

The multimedia concert, which was performed before a sold-out audience in Santa Cruz in February, includes a scripted story about the history of women blues artists with rare historical film of the artists.

The new production, according to Rose, in a phone interview with Bay Area Reporter, is a "hybrid with all of the elements of a blues concert," with scripted dialogue "that comes off as an on-stage conversation as we walk through the decades and think about the racism and hard knocks that these women endured in the music business.

"Whether you're a concert goer or a theater person, I think you'll be delighted. Bottom line is these are great musicians playing their hearts out."

While the ensemble does not identify as an LGBT band, many of the performers included in the historical review were lesbian or bisexual, including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Libby Holman, Sophie Tucker, Alberta Hunter and Big Mama Thornton, according to Rose.

Their new original cast recording, available for purchase on Amazon, features six songs, led by the title track, "Blues Is a Woman," written and performed by Rose, with songs by Hunter, Sippie Wallace, and Peggy Lee.

Following its debut in Berkeley, the show will open for a month-long run at the Custom Made Theatre in downtown San Francisco this August. Details about that show will be announced on Rose's website, www.bluesisawoman.com, later this spring.

Tickets are selling fast for the March 30 pre-launch party, said Rose.

"We were thrilled with the reaction of the audience at our first show in Santa Cruz last month."

Rose said she hopes a national tour will follow, as it did for her earlier ensemble theatrical concert, Wild Women of Song: Great Gal Composers of the Jazz Era, which toured for six years following a successful local roll out in 2010.

Rose, 60, grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother's family had deep connections to the Vaudeville community in Chicago, so she grew up "listening to the American Songbook," she said. "Music has been part of my life all along."

Musicians in the The Blues is a Woman cast/band at their recent Santa Cruz concert.

As a child, Rose said she always enjoyed singing and writing songs, but said, "I was fairly shy and introverted, so people who knew me back then can hardly believe I turned out to be a performer."

Rose's performances began in the 1970s in Berkeley, where she studied 19th-Century History and hung out with musicians she met at college. When she offered the musicians songs she had written, they insisted she perform with them.

"That's how it all began," she said.

After college, Rose said she had a day job to support herself, including one at Green Apple Books in the Richmond.

"I'd wander home at 10pm and passed by what were then some of the great spots to perform in the city," she said, including Holy City Zoo and Last Day Saloon, both of which have since closed.

Later, she was able to support herself with a career in music-related jobs, including some that involved singing jingles for the California Raisin Advisory Board, Taco Bell, and Super Cuts.

The idea for the new show grew out of Rose's experience performing her earlier theatrical concert, which celebrated the life and times of the women who wrote songs in the days of Tin Pan Alley.

In 2010, Rose created a multimedia concert that showcased the works of some lesser known figures including Maria Grever and Ida Cox, as well as well known artists like Alberta Hunter and Peggy Lee. The show played to sold out audiences in London and Los Angeles, and also appeared at the Monterey Jazz Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Cal Performances, and the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

Rose, who identifies as straight, said that many of the women who performed in the early classic era of the blues were lesbians, including Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, and Sophie Tucker.

These women "were so glamorous and so inspiring," said Rose. "They were fiercely independent" at a time when most women were not. The lesbian performers "were certainly not interested in either getting married or staying on the farm, living in dire poverty."

"It's shocking to us today to remember what normal relationships between men and women were back then," Rose said. "But most of the women who loved women had to keep that a secret."

When women became popular as blues singers in the 1920s, "it was a huge game change for the music industry," said Rose.

Initially, music industry executives believed that the African American women singers would appeal to a "Negro audience." As it turned out, the "sultry, powerful, passionate" voices of these women was a sound that "everyone wanted to imitate," Rose added.

"Women were the bomb, the rock stars of the day and are credited with being the popularizers of the blues," she said.

Ma Rainey, considered by many to be the first superstar of the classic blues woman, was married but known by many to be a lesbian, said Rose.

In 1925, Rainey was arrested after a police raid at a party where several women, including Rainey, were found together naked and having sex.

Rainey's song "Prove It on Me" was about the experience "of being a bull dyke," said Rose. "Her writing was salty and honest. She was totally out there with it."

"Blues is a Woman: Wild Women of Song, from Ma Rainey to Bonnie Raitt," the CD release concert of the cast recording. $24-$26. Thursday, March 30. 8pm. 2020 Addison Street, Berkeley. www.thefreight.org