What makes a great blues singer?
The very question reminds me of the quip by the Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart when asked to describe his threshold for what is pornography. “I know it when I see it,” he snapped, instantly stamping into law books the subjective and lack of clearly defined parameters that surround certain slippery subjects.
I know Etta James, Janis Joplin, Alberta Hunter, Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Victoria Spivey, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe were great blues singers. Each of the bodies of these amazing performers was imbued with the blues as they sang with shouts, moans, wails and groans in their sad, melancholy way. They made the blues come alive.
While the blues originated in African-American communities in the deep South at the beginning of the 20th Century, it spread fast. Delta, Piedmont, Jump and Chicago blues developed. Then, after World War II, the electric blues.
Somehow, along the way, the blues hit Brooklyn, New York, and last night I saw a blues performer from that unlikely place that I would rank with the very best.
“I know it when I see it.”
Her name is Amy Coleman and she’s not a newcomer. A friend suggested I see her at 78 Below, the new music club at 78th Street and Columbus Ave. in New York City, where she plays once a month. It was the perfect intimate environment with a sound system to die for.
She, and a veteran, polished backup band, started out strong with “Bump and Grind” and moved quickly into such rousing blues staples as “Hootchie Coochie Man” and “Honkey Tonk Woman.” But when she sang Etta James’ “Damn Your Eyes,” you instantly knew this was a one serious blues performer.
The term "blues" comes from the "blue devils,” meaning the overriding sense of sadness felt by African-Americans living hard lives in the deep South. It goes all the way back to 1798 to playwright George Colman's one-act farce, Blue Devils, which first tackled the subject. Now—after years of rock, heavy metal, hip hop and reggae—were are back to the blues.
It’s still considered the “devil’s music,” with accusations that it stirs controversy, incites violence and creates poor behavior to all who embrace it. Amy Coleman incorporates that defiantly into her performances, and like all great entertainers, it’s imbued in her body movements and facial expressions.
Watching Coleman perform reminded me of another great white blues performer I once saw. As she sang, I could visualize an older Janis Joplin on stage. In fact, it was as if Joplin had not died at age 27 and had lived on to have a fruitful career. This was especially true when Coleman performed “Me and Bobby McGee,” Joplin’s only number one hit. The resemblance between the two performers, at least to me, was eerie.
That didn’t escape others as well. Coleman, also an accomplished actress, was chosen to play Janis Joplin in “Beehive” at the Village Gate a few years ago. Astute casting, methinks!
Coleman’s band contributed in a major way to her stellar performance last night. Andy Bassford on guitar was simply superb. He co-wrote Coleman’s “Sad Old Blues” and sang with her on a few numbers. Leroy Guy played bass and Donna Kelly was on drums. Doing a guest stint on drums was Ronnie Murphy, regular drummer for Jimmy Cliff, the Jamaican musician, singer and actor. In all, this tight band provided a stellar set of electric blues.
Near the end, Coleman performed the stunningly beautiful “Stormy Monday,” a blues song written by T-Bone Walker and first recorded in 1947. The lyrics portray a person who is separated from their love, and is suffering from guilt in some way because of what they have done. A classic blues story.
The song has become a standard for blues and blues rock artists over the years, but Coleman made it her own. Adding that personal signature is why Coleman is such a fine artist.
I’m a new fan and you should be too.