That Chicago has a myriad of female blues singers and artists is highlighted by these interviews of six singers, all of whom make Chicago their home. The interviews by Mike Stephenson took place in Chicago at various locations during 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013. Without the huge help of Jim Feeney, this article and the interviews would not have been possible.
Go directly to: Lady Lee, Grana´ Louise, Claudette Miller, Demetria Taylor, Laretha Weathersby or Zora Young
They call me Lady Lee and I’m from Lexington, Mississippi, a country girl. I moved to Chicago in 1969. I got into music with Cyrus Hayes he hired some girls and they didn’t show up and Cyrus bought me on stage when he knew that I could sing. Me and Cyrus have been married twenty one years. I Met Cyrus here in Chicago at a lounge on 71st and Western. I wasn’t into music at all until I met Cyrus. I used to like to write songs but never thought about singing. I met Cyrus at one of his shows and we got married about six months after that. We met at a lounge called Different Strokes and Fabulous L’Roy was playing there as was Cyrus.
I started singing about three years after we married but I was trying to sing before that. I have been putting my all into singing for the past six years. We perform together and we call ourselves ‘The Couple Of The Blues’. I made up my kind this is what I want to do. I have recorded with Cyrus on that ‘Mr. President’ CD. I work about every week at the weekends and use the same band as Cyrus and I have plans to do my own recordings. My real name is Leevarn Hayes that’s why they call me Lady Lee. I’ve sung at the Chicago blues festival with Cyrus. My musical influences are Koko Taylor and Denise LaSalle and I like Gladys Knight. I mix with other singers in Chicago like Claudette Miller and I have sung with Mary Lane, Peaches Staten, Nellie Travis, Ramblin’ Rose and others.
Originally I’m from Ohio, and Cincinnati born and Columbus bred, and I didn’t leave Ohio until 1993 when I moved to Minneapolis, well actually St Paul which is a suburb of Minneapolis, and I started working so quickly. I’m fifty-nine now. I wound up having to move there because I got stuck in a blizzard one night after a show. So I thought that’s it, I’m moving to Minneapolis, and I was there for five years and I have a wonderful fan base there, but there wasn’t room enough for me there. I scared a lot of artists there as my popularity grew so fast. I ran into an angel, and I love telling this story. He was originally from Texas and he lived in St. Paul, but he used to live in Chicago for six or seven years and he fell in love with the blues and when he heard me sing, and I didn’t even know he was there, in this little club I used to sing in, at one side they had a sports bar and the other part was the stage area.
He would be on the sports bar side listening to me and finally he, Dave Morford, and his friend came over to me and asked if they could talk to me and we sat down and talked, and he asked me if I had ever been to Chicago and I hadn’t and he asked me if I would like to go, so the answer was yes. I didn’t see him any more until, after a gig in the early hours I get a phone call, and it was him and he told me that he had a gig for me at Kingston Mines in Chicago on March 30th and 31st. I thought wait a minute, as on the 30th I had my debut at this jazz club that I had been trying to get into for ages, so I didn’t want to give that up. So I told him I couldn’t make the 30th but could make the 31st. So that worked and I went to Chicago to the Mines, and met the manager and Doc the owner and they treated me so well. I got up there and sat in with J.W. Williams And The Chi Town Hustlers. We rocked the house and that was in 1998. I was still in Minneapolis and I had gigs there but I was coming back and forth to Chicago so often, so I wound up moving to Chicago in mid 1998.
Before all of this I grew up with music, my parents loved music. My mother used to sing to me when I was a little girl and she had an awesome voice and she was my first inspiration into singing, as I wanted to touch people like she did with her voice. My oldest brother, he had a huge voice that would make the angels in heaven weep. Music has been a part of my life all of my life. I started singing when I was two years old and I have been performing since that age. I was like a prodigy child. I was a singer, a dancer and actress and a ballerina for sixteen years of my life. I had a seven octave voice and with that range there is little rock and roll you can do, so I was often in operas and Broadway shows and stuff like that. So the crutch of my musical entertainment was in theatre and most of this was going on in Columbus, Ohio. My name then was Grana Smith. Nobody knew who Grana Louise was until 1988. I had taken a seventeen year hiatus from performing, so when I came back I came back on my own terms as a classic jazz and classic blues artist. Every chance I get to do jazz, I do, as I love it. Sometimes I feel I was born too late, as I love that forties and thirties era of music. You just don’t have that anymore, it’s gone, and I try to resurrect that every chance I get. The classic jazz it is like Billie Holliday, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Ella Fitzgerald thing, and classic blues it is Bessie Smith, Ida Cox, Alberta Hunter, Ruth Brown stuff.
Before I moved to Chicago I did some recordings which was blues stuff. The kind of blues I do now, and have for the longest time in my professional career, I couldn’t stand it when I was growing up. I never got to hear what they call the party records, the raunchy, risqué blues, but had I have heard that I would probably have loved the blues but since I only heard that downtrodden stuff I thought that was not for me. But when I moved to Minnesota, every time I sang the blues the folks would swing from the roof and I couldn’t understand it. There was a band that was looking for a front person and they wanted that Koko Taylor type thing but I couldn’t do that with my high pitched voice, and the band would not leave me alone and they kept coming after me to sit in with them, so I did eventually. So I sat in with them and I knew I could do two songs ‘Wang Dang Doodle’ and ‘I’m A Woman’ and as soon as I did them the crowd started dancing and hollering and when I finished I tried to get out of the club.
The owner came up to me and told me the job was mine, so I needed to work. This was in Minneapolis in 1994 and I’ve been doing it ever since. The first recording I did was a duet with a gentleman named Jo Juliano who put out his own CD titled ‘Fighting The Blues’ and it was a Koko Taylor, Lonnie Brooks type thing. There was a DJ named Lady J at KFAI in Minneapolis, she started her own record company called Diamond Blue Records and she recorded me and the group I had sung with called The Blue Diamonds, and that was in 1998 as I had just moved to Chicago, and the CD was called ‘Hit The Big Time’. It did very well and got excellent reviews but unfortunately the distribution company went down so that hurt a lot. So that was the end of Diamond Blue Records but I love that woman for getting me out on CD and getting me known around the world. After that CD the ball started rolling.
After I moved to Chicago it seemed that things exploded. I was playing at all premier blues clubs regularly and I played with just about every blues musician there is in Chicago at that time, as I didn’t have a band of my own. Once they got used to me and got to know me and respect me as an artist, I started getting musicians that wanted to work with me, so I got a band. However there have been some lean days, it hasn’t all been peaches and cream, at first not working, not getting a gig. It was either all or none, nothing in between. I don’t know how musicians do day jobs and play music, that did not work out for me at all. So It was all or none and then I started working weekly. I’ve worked at Kingston Mines, B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted and Andy’s Jazz Club, where I worked quite often, then I got to Blue Chicago and that became my home. That club gave me the opportunity to get my own band in Chicago as most ladies who play at Blue Chicago don’t have their own bands. I love the fact that Blue Chicago features the ladies and the club recorded their artists.
So when that ‘Mojo Mamas’ CD came out it was funny, as it was a toss up between me and Big Time Sarah, as to who they were going to put on the video and who they were going to put on the CD. At the time Sarah was a Delmark Records artist, so they stuck me out front on the CD. I have two numbers on that CD ‘Good Woman Go Bad’ and ‘Somebody Done Told Me’. That CD sold well and from that CD Gino, who runs the club and label found out I could write songs so he had plans to make me his first solo artist. But for various reasons that didn’t happen so I decided to get my own label and my own publishing company. Then in 2003 I released my own CD called ‘Generations’ which took off and did very well. Being an independent record label owner is wonderful but it is so difficult and hard when you have no one to back you, but you. There is so much to do and sometimes you just don’t have the energy to do it. I released a single on my own label with a Dutch band called Cosy Cotton. They got me on a big show, the Caribbean Sea Jazz Festival in Aruba, and I’ve been going ever since in October.
From there, I am now with Delmark Records and I have a new CD out called ‘Gettin’ Kinda Rough’. That came about because me and my wonderful band were entered into the Blues Challenge, the first one they had here in Chicago. The bottom line is, we won as representatives from Chicago at the International Blues Challenge for Chicago’s first blues society and this was in 2010. We did not win the Blues Challenge itself, but from that part of the prize was six hours free recording time at Delmark. So I took the band to the studios and I was recording one of my titles called ‘Big Dick Mississippi’ and Bob Koester heard it and loved it. So we got talking about a deal and that’s how I ended up recording that CD for Delmark, thanks to that song.
The name of my band is Troublemakers, no matter what musicians I have playing with me. Who I have been working with for the past eight years is Carlos Showers, he is my lead guitarist, Tom Holland when he is available. I have been working with John Hill who has some serious medical problems which does not allow him to play at present. I have Ricky Nelson on drums, Luke Pytel, I have Tim Austin’s son Duwayn on drums as well. I always want quality musicians with me. I have Bill Hargrave on bass, and when he is not available I get Kenny Hampton and other musicians like Andre Howard, Brady Williams and Pookie Styx, Melvin Smith, Vino Louden, all are class musicians. I’ve worked with Michael Coleman, James Wheeler, Mike Wheeler, Roosevelt Purifoy and so many others. I have had regular gigs at Blue Chicago. I have been travelling out of the country on a regular basis, so that made it difficulty to have a regular spot at the club, so we worked at having a weekend gig at the club once in a while.
I have plans for other recordings, but I’m not sure with who and with what label. I need to be creative. I also play some jazz clubs in Chicago and I still do theatre, and I am in a movie with Magic Slim and it’s an indie film. I play Magic Slim’s wife and we own a juke joint in Mississippi and we have a hit record, and his wife dies and comes back as a ghost. We are still filming the movie. We are shooting the movie in rural parts of Illinois that look as though it could be in Mississippi. I am also doing a show called ‘Songs Of Fallen Women’. I have done that once before and I played the ghost of Lucille Bogan. The first showing of it was with Katherine Davis, who did the ghost of Alberta Hunter, and this time I will still be playing Lucille Bogan and we will be revamping all those good old songs. I’m doing a DVD/CD documentary called ‘Slave In The Mind’ which is a project we have been working on since 2008. I have a song called ‘Modern Blues Remix’ that you can download digitally and that’s just released.
Both Mike Stephenson and Jim Feeney would like to take this opportunity to thank Claudette for her hospitality shown to us when we interviewed her at her house on the West side of Chicago in June 2013.
I started singing when I was about eight years and started out singing gospel. I was born and raised right here in Chicago, born in Cook County Hospital. I grew up in Jew Town so it was a melting pot of folks coming into Chicago. From there my mum moved to the West side of Chicago, near Roosevelt and Kedzie. During that time I had started singing Doo Wop on the street corners. I was also very active and I did a lot gymnastics and stuff like that and ballet. Back then we didn’t have a lot of activity and I was very athletic and I always loved swimming, so I would go and swim. They had a dance class there and I would go there and learn African dance. So I ended up getting into gymnastics there and I loved it. I became a lifeguard and worked in Douglas Park for a few years.
But my passion was always music so, in order to do that, Douglas Park used to give us a lot of space where you could go there and they would allow you to rehearse and to practise our craft for a couple of hours a couple of times a week, and I ended up meeting up with some guys who had a band called The Equallows who were a Doo Wop group and I became their lead singer and we did a lot of harmony stuff. Chess Records at the time were looking for artists and they would come over to us and observe us, so we had this great opportunity with Chess, but one of the guys in the group didn’t show up for a session with Chess so after that they didn’t want the group as they thought we weren’t professional. After that the group went their own way, which was disappointing. I also used to sing in the choir in the school so I was always into singing and athletics and stuff. I also used to sing in the church at this time and I did all of this for a number of years until I got around sixteen and then I decided I wanted to have kids.
I had my first child at sixteen. When I got around eighteen I met Albert King. I was still doing a little singing here and there. There used to be a lounge on Central Park and Roosevelt where Al Green used to sing at. Little Walter would come through the neighbourhood and try and sit in and do our craft. When I had met Albert, he told me I had a good voice and that I should come and check him out, so that’s what I did. He turned me onto the blues and I was gone from that point on.
So I travelled with him on the road for a couple of years to St Louis and Milwaukee and places like that, I did lead vocals when I was with him. I met Emmanuel Arrington and Alvin Cash, both from the West side of Chicago. They were affiliated with Albert King. You know that Alvin did that ‘Twine Time’ song. And then I found out he used to come down to Jew Town every Friday and Saturday to play on the street. I used to live on Fourteenth Street and there was a grocery store, Levis, on the corner and I would go around there to see the guy playing the spoons and playing the washboard. We would go there to be entertained, so that’s how I ended up meeting Albert and the other two, and as I said I travelled with Albert for a couple of years. He taught me how to really sing the blues and I used to enjoy that, until my mum made me quit.
She told me I shouldn’t be doing that and that I should be going to school. I sang a couple of more years after that but it wasn’t anything really big. I ran into Albert about two years before he died.
I stopped in the music field and raised my kids and did all of the parenting thing and I got back into music about twenty years ago. I was out of music for about twenty five years. When I was raising the kids I would occasionally drop into a club and sit in and do a few things but I wasn’t working; it was more of an enjoyment and trying to keep myself involved and I love the business and I used to like watching the artists perform. Looking back, I wish I had of pursued music more but when you are young and you have children early, being a parent is number one.
I’ve always lived on the West side of Chicago and I have an older sister who lives on the south side and she was always asking me why I didn’t sing any more and I told her that I didn’t know anybody in the music world any more. She said I should come out with her and her friend, as they used to hang out at 75th Street where there was a club, which I think was called Jimmy’s Place, and a lot of the entertainers in Chicago would go there. So I ended up going there a couple of times with her and one night she tricked me. She told somebody that I can sing and they called me onstage and I hadn’t sung for so long and I was so nervous my legs were shaking, and I told her never to do that again, but she did it repeatedly. A lot of entertainers would go to that club as they had live entertainment, so every weekend I would come out and sit. So I made up my mind one day, as I really missed not singing, as it was like a part of me was missing.
So I started training myself to come back and get my voice together and to find out what was going on in the music scene as everything had changed. It took me a while to do that and was about nine years ago that I really started. Nine years ago I met Tenry Jones, the King Kong Rocker, I knew his family. I had had an accident, as I got hurt when on my job, and I had retired as I couldn’t walk, and I had just moved to this house. Tenry called me and said he needed a female singer so I told him I can sing but I can’t move and he said that sounds good to him. So it went on from there and I started doing gigs with him and we still play together now on occasions. I was with him for regular nearly six years and then he decided he was going to so some stuff with Johnny Drummer so I then started doing stuff on my own.
I have played with just about all the bands out there in Chicago, like Howard Scott, Pete Allen who is now deceased, Johnny Wayne, Little Scotty, I used to go to Koko Taylor’s jojnt and sit in with her, Willie Kent, The Chi-Lites. I’ve opened up for Billy Branch, I’ve done some stuff with Mavis Staples at Artis’ club. I’ve opened up for Artie ‘Blues Boy’ White and Tyrone Davis. I have worked with Walter Scott and his band and we have collaborated on a lot of things over the years, including Chicago Blues Festival. They are my friends as well as people I have worked with. I have been doing some work with Toronzo Cannon recently at a casino and he is a fabulous young man, very courteous and respectful. Me and T J play regular together, he is my bass player and backbone. I have opened up for Lonnie Brooks and that led me to meeting Ronnie Baker Brooks, I didn’t know they were related, and I’ve since done a couple of things with him. I’ve worked with jimmy Johnson. All of them are such nice, down to earth people.
I have done my own recordings that I did myself. Bob Murphy, he used to play with the Staple Singers for a long time, he did a lot of the mixing on my own project. I wanted to see how it would come out. My son and my granddaughter wrote some of the songs, along with myself, and I did three covers on the CD. I recorded the CD in 2007 and they were my first recordings and I recorded it in Chicago, and it’s called ‘All In Time’, has eight numbers on it and it’s on Miller Music label, which is my own. I’m working on some new recordings at present. I have had some issues, my mum and my daughter passed and so I was taking care of them, so now I can move forward. I wrote the songs about three years ago and I’m working on them now, trying to get them together. The main thing is, I enjoy singing and entertaining. I play a little keyboards but not good enough for the stage. I’m still involved with the church and still sing in the church as often as I can. When I had my mother she required a lot of care twenty four hours, as she was in her nineties, and sometimes I would try to take her to church with me. Just about all the musicians I know play in church on a Sunday. I sing at the Pleasant Valley Baptist Church; I used to sing in the choir, now I just sit in the audience.
My vocal influences are Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughn, Dinah Washington, all these people I admire. A lot of them they are jazz vocalists and this is what I used to do before I met Albert, was jazz and Doo Wop. I tend to do a variety of music, not just all blues, some r&b, some country, some jazz, I try to be versatile. When people come out and see me perform, my job is to make you have a good time, and that, when you leave at the end of the night, you have enjoyed yourself. When I get on the stage it’s all about having fun. I try to change the pace on my shows. One of my sons can play just about anything and my other son is trying to learn how to play bass. I play Blue Chicago club regular and B.L.U.E.S on Halsted twice a month and I’m also a regular at Lee’s Unleaded, that now has a new owner. I’ve been to Buddy Guy’s Legends with Peaches Staten to support her, so they could hear me.
I was born 1973 and I’ve been into music since I was five years old. I remember when my father, Eddie Taylor, used to have people coming over to the house, people like Sunnyland Slim, Carey Bell, Johnny Littlejohn, Eddie Shaw, Hubert Sumlin and that’s a few of them that I can remember because I was so young. My Mum Vera Taylor used to have fish fries and stuff like that and have people come over to the house, and I used to go around the house singing stuff like ‘Wang Dang Doodle’. This was the stuff that caused me to want to get into the blues. As I grew up I moved into hip hop a lot and I broke away from that as I wanted to do something different and I started hanging out with my brothers Eddie Jr and Tim and Larry.
I particularly used to hang out with Eddie Jr because we are eleven months apart from each other so we are practically almost twins. So I started singing at home and when I was twenty one I started going out to the clubs. Blues was always within me because of the family but I didn’t know when it was going to come out. I just love the music I respect all the Chicago blues women and I get along with all the blues guys. I wouldn’t trade this for nothing, I love singing the blues. A lot of people say I sound like Koko Taylor but that is just how my voice is and how it sounds. I have a belting voice; I can sing low and I can sing high but I like to belt it out like Koko and Big Mama Thornton and Bessie Smith, Memphis Minnie and I love her. Now Memphis Minnie and my father’s mother, my grandmother, they went to school together and Memphis Minnie used to nurse my daddy Eddie. So there is a lot of blues history within the family. I started off singing at B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead and going to jams and things and I would go to Buddy Guy’s and jam with my uncle Jimmy Burns and jamming with different people so people would get familiar with me, to know who I am.
I got my break when I started singing at Blue Chicago that has become one of my regular gigs. I sing with J. W. Williams and his band at the club just about every week. We are just about to tour Japan. I also do some work with, and sing with, Charlie Love. I tour at times and have done some work with Tail Dragger and Deitra Farr, which is called ‘Chicago Women’s Kings & Queens Of The Blues’, we’ve been to California and Oregon. I can’t give enough praise to Delmark Records for considering me for a CD. I have learnt from other singers like Koko Taylor, Zora Young, Bonnie Lee and all the old schoolers. I was on The Divas show at B.L.U.E.S. on Halstead and I went against nine other female singers and I won in 2010. So Steve Wagner from Delmark Records came out to hear me and he said he wanted to record me so I went in and auditioned for Bob Koester and Delmark decided to record me, so I now have a CD with the label called ‘Bad Girl’.
When I first started getting into the blues, my brothers Eddie and Larry had a huge influence on me. We used to get together and jam and in my mother’s house we had a room where we used to play. Tim and Larry would set the drums up and my uncle Willie Burns which is Jimmy Burns’ brother used to be on bass. My mum used to sing, Eddie used to be on guitar and we used to have a nice time and I learnt so much from them all. As I got older I used to hang out with my brothers and they are all a great inspiration for me, I love them all. If it wasn’t for them and my parents I wouldn’t be where I am today. We still have that connection now, although we are all doing our own separate things in music. Eddie does his thing, Larry has his own thing and Tim he still plays with Eddie Shaw and travels all over. We are all trying to keep the Taylor and blues legacy alive.
I used to sing at Rosa’s in Chicago when I first started out. I have sisters that sing also, there is Brenda Taylor and Edna Taylor but she has moved to the church so she don’t sing blues no more. I used to sit in at Rosa’s playing drums but I got Carpel Tunnel trouble so I had to stop doing that. We used to have karaoke nights at times and we used to pick out Koko Taylor songs and Memphis Minnie shows and sing them and we used to have a house full of girls over there and put on a talent show.
I’ve done some recordings with Wolf Records before the Delmark CD. I’ve done a song on two of Eddie Jr’s CDs for Wolf. I did ‘Mama Treat Your Daughter Mean’ and ‘Let Me Love You’. When I first started out I was so nervous in the studio. When I did the recording for Delmark, Steve Wagner told me that he wanted to hear that club voice from me because I was so nervous and my voice was shaking and I thought I was going to blow it, so I had to tell myself to be calm, I had to go the washroom and settle myself down. For the Delmark CD I picked my own musicians as I wanted an all star traditional West side sound to take the people back to the days when father was here. I wanted a deep hard sound so that’s why I got Billy Branch and used a saxophone, and that’s why I got the legendary Eddie Shaw and that’s why we used Eddie Taylor Jr and we used Roosevelt Purifoy on the keyboards and it all came together. Big Time Sarah is also a guest on the CD.
I have my own band and I also sing with other people, which is a good thing for me to explore different sounds with different bands. I have Mike Wheeler on guitar in my band, Larry Williams on bass, Pookie Sticks on drums and sometimes I use Brian James or Roosevelt Purifoy on the keyboards. I sometimes use Omar Coleman on harp. We try to keep the traditional blues sound going but we mix in stuff from Aretha Franklin and Jackie Wilson, so that it’s not slow blues all night. If I get a chance to do another CD I plan on doing original numbers, and I’m writing songs now for that and I want to do Chicago blues. I like to go out and see other bands like Billy Branch and Magic Slim and Byther Smith, John Primer, Nellie Travis, Shirley Johnson so I go out and see these artists and we have a good time and they know me now.
Other family members are into music, my daughter Christine, she is seven years old, and she sings blues and my fourteen year old sings blues who is Regiana Walker. There was some talk that our family were related to Koko Taylor but to my knowledge that is not true.
We are thinking of doing a family CD with my brothers. I also want to do a live DVD as well. I would also like to perform some of my father’s songs that are not that well known. I’m also learning to write music. Music is a full time thing for me, my husband has a good job. We moved to this area to be safe as I used to live on the South side of Chicago in the eighties and they were shooting kids and kids couldn’t go to school, so I got tired of that. So we saved our money and moved over here so when the kids get on the bus to go to school nobody bothers them, so we don’t have to worry about that any more.
The Taylor family has such a great musical legacy and thanks should go to Wolf Records for putting records out on our family. They recorded my mother Vera Taylor but she passed before she got to hear the CD. She inspired me a lot but she passed away; she fell dead in the house and we thought she had a heart attack. It would be really great to get a family CD out. I have regular gigs here in Chicago and I am touring overseas at times as well, like Japan. I do some shows with other Chicago blues women like Big Time Sarah and Gloria Hardiman and others.
I was born in Chicago in July 1961. I would like to say from early on, from about six years old, I came up in a Baptist Church where my mum was a soloist at the church. So as a little kid I was able to monitor and watch my mother performing at different church functions, and I think primarily that is where I got the idea to the fact that I could do that. By seven years old I decided I wanted to sing but I was too young to be in the choir, as the age limit was twelve years old or something like that. After me begging and begging, they let me have a try and I was able to prove I could do it and they let me into the choir.
The church was The New Israelites Missionary Baptist Church in Chicago. From then, from about nine years old, my mother decided to put me into piano lessons and a guy called Professor Allen was teaching me to play gospel music only, and I was learning to play by ear. I know it was a huge sacrifice on my mum’s part, because at that time she was a single parent raising seven kids and I was the youngest. As time went on she had me doing children’s day at the church, doing recitals and things, and as time went on I think I got a little bored it being only gospel music, although I was too young to understand that at the time, and I didn’t appreciate the quality of music that they were trying to introduce me too.
At the age of ten I asked my mum if I could stop the lessons as I wanted to sing, and eventually the lessons were dropped, which is something I regret nowadays. The good thing is that I went on to direct the church choir, the children’s choir, and I was active in that up until about eighteen years old. In my last year in high school, I had a music teacher who had an unorthodox way of teaching us music and he gave us an assignment. Everybody had to pick two tunes to bring to the class and one was to play to the class and the other song he wanted us to sing it. There were some people in the choir who had a band and I didn’t know this as I hadn’t thought about performing in a band outside the church, and there were a couple of classmates in that band that, when they heard me sing my song, they tried to get me to come to their neighbourhood to sing in their band, as they needed a girl singer. And I told them no for sometime but after a few months, one of the classmates lived on the same block as some of the guys in that band and she convinced me they were good.
So I let her talk me into going over to see this band and it was like a garage band, it was ten pieces, and that was my first experience with a band. I think the band was called something crazy like Effective Communication or something like that. They were based in the hood in a tough neighbourhood. We weren’t together for very long though and we would play whatever people paid us for. It was fun though but we ended up breaking up as we had tried fundraising, as one of the guys in the band was the treasurer, and we came back after a fund raiser and he was gone and the money was gone.
So I went my way with somebody else and formed another band. In 1980, I did a show at Minnie Riperton’s family church although she had already passed by then. We were the opening band and in the second band the director noticed me and stopped me after the show and we exchanged numbers and he went on to become my husband, Marvin Weathersby, for the past thirty years. His band were recording and accomplished and song writing, and they took me from that garage band to the next level of performing. We made a conscious decision at that time that I wouldn’t perform with his band, as having a couple in the band may cause some issues. The name of the band was Everything Was Pleasure and they were a large band and my husband was the bandleader. He played guitar and was a singer and they did original songs and I thought that they were out of my league. Some of the musicians I met through that band,
I got into my church to form choirs and play as musicians to help me at the church at different functions. Years went by before I started performing with the band, as I would just enjoy going to their shows. When the band started recording in about 1983, which was the year we married, I started performing with the band and we had decided to start investing in recording equipment so Marvin could record his own songs. Before that he had been going to Odyssey Recording studios on 18th and Michigan recording, so when we got together we thought that we could invest in our own recording equipment and maybe open up some doors. This was my passion at the time, rather than becoming an entertainer.
I started singing more and more in the recording studio and so for many years I have been recording as a background singer when people came to our studio, which we used to rent out at times. We had all types of musicians coming through the studio, like Biscuit Miller and we did a lot of acts that were just trying to get something on tape, a lot of them were neighbourhood folks. I was mainly a back up singer. I did do some lead vocals sometimes when we were copyrighting some songs. We had quite a few gospel artists come through the studio and all types of music, and this is how Marvin was earning a living at that time.
The main reason for having the studio was to record the material that Marvin was writing, that I could sing and get it copywritten, and possibly get it out there for other artists. So it was never a goal of mine to be famous or be a top act. We then put together a band so as to play private events, and that’s when we realised how good we were together. We called ourselves the Rift Band and the Machete Band, and more recently we have been performing as the Laretha Weathersby Band and we have been together as a band for the past fifteen years. We have our own label called Machete Records and Machete Productions and that name came from our past name, Cutting Records, and our logo had a machete going through it and the record was like cracking into pieces, so that’s how we came up with the name. My husband plays keyboards, bass and lead guitar and drums. He is a cousin of Carl Weathersby.
We had been gigging from 1995 to 2000 as the Rift Band, which had Marvin on bass, and we had a great lead guitarist named Plez Penson and we were all left handed and we had a left handed drummer as well, so we started calling ourselves The Left Hand Band. At that time we were playing at neighbourhood clubs, and we would have to go in to prove ourselves to the club owners, who used to say they would only give us so much money until we built up the crowd, then they would double the money, and we always did well and he made more money, and at some point he decided he didn’t want to split that with us, so we would move to another place. Our band members were freelance and had other commitments and I decided that I didn’t want to lose the flexibility of getting a gig and keeping the constant working going.
Marvin has a brother, Ramone, who Marvin taught to play bass when he was a kid and we thought that his brother would be a very good fit, because of his loyalty, and in 1998 or 1999 we decided to go with him on bass, which was a very good fit, and that’s when we started doing the Koko Taylor Celebratory Lounge and Kingston Mines, because by then I had been doing some freelancing with several groups around Chicago, and with Howard Scott And The World Band for six years. So my name was starting to get out there and I was getting to be known on the blues circuit. Marvin’s brother Ramone helped me on the blues circuit and he used to frequent Artis’ Lounge on the South side, and he met a guy named J.W. Williams and his Chi Town Hustlers band, and every week he would brag about how good our band was. So J.W. was asking where the band was, so we went to Artis’ one night and it was great and J.W. loved us, and from there a real bond developed between J.W., myself, my brother in law and my husband and we are just like family right up to today, and I still sing with J.W. regularly.
For about a couple of years J. W. would try to persuade me to come with him to the clubs on the North side to sit in with him. I didn’t want to just sit in without rehearsal, as my band used to rehearse a lot. Three or so years later I got a call from him and he told me I was on a show with him at Kingston Mines and I went there and it was just awesome, and after that day I never looked back. Once the club owners at Kingston Mines saw me perform they began to call me up to fill in for other female artists that couldn’t make it on the day, so I was then working with, and for, the club and other artists.
I got a chance to sing with Quintus McCormick, Charlie Love, Dion Payton, Sam Goode, and Andre Taylor. Quintus called me one day, as he had double booked himself, and he asked me if I and my band could play his gig at the Kingston Mines, so that’s how my band was introduced to the club, and that’s how I met Howard Scott, as his band were playing the club on the other stage the same night. I had to visit the club another night when Howard was playing, and his brother Walter Scott came up to me and said he wanted to speak with my husband, and it was about me doing some upcoming shows with them, and my husband told him to call me, and we then agreed to meet at a small club in the hood and that’s when I met Pat Scott, the singer, and it was that night I got the chance to sing with Howard Scott And The World Band and the rest is history, as for the next six years we worked and worked every week.
After working with Howard Scott I decided to take a break, as at that time I was also booking myself and my own band. I learnt from Howard that I could be doing other events that were not so hard and gruelling as the club scene. I started doping some private functions that was less work,just one set and more money. I was off the club scene from about 2001 to about 2005, as I was focussing primarily on private functions. The name of my band at the time was The Rift Band. After a while, I started missing the excitement of the clubs and the vibes and the people, as a lot of the clubs I was playing were a tourist attraction, so you were meeting people from all over the world. So I called J.W. Williams and told him I wanted to start doing the clubs again and he asked me what I had in mind. So we talked about me doing the Blue Chicago club and he agreed, and this was in 2008, and then J.W. called me and told me the club owner wanted to see me and then I was given a start date for the club. As well as Blue Chicago, I have still been doing Kingston Mines and B.L.U.E.S. on Halsted. At Blue Chicago I have been singing with other bands, an example being, doing ten days a month with five different bands and I liked that. That is how me and Linsey Alexander ended up together for such a long time, for about three years.
More recently I still perform at Blue Chicago and I love singing with so many different musicians. I perform at Lee’s Unleaded, but often I go there to be a patron, it’s more of a neighbourhood place for me and to meet friends. I’ve finally got a recording out that I am very excited about. When I first started working at Blue Chicago I noticed that all the artists had their own CDs and they all sell their CDs to make ends meet, and the audience from all over the world can get a souvenir, so I thought I should get a CD out. My CD is called ‘Dance The Blues Away’ and it’s on the Machete label. We decided to name the CD ‘Dance The Blues Away’ as I am passionate about getting people happy. My husband Marvin produced the CD, it’s all original material from Marvin and we are looking at distribution for it, such as getting it into stores and on CD Baby.
I also play with Vance Kelly And The Back Street Band, and with many members of the Platinum Band, which would include Kenneth and Hollywood Scott. I perform with Carlos Showers and Ronnie Hicks, and I still have my own unit that includes my husband who is band director and plays lead guitar and background vocals, and we call ourselves Laretha Weathersby Blues Band. My husband also has a band called Marvin ‘The Maestro’ Band. I have a web site at: www.larethaweathersby.com and I’m on Facebook and also on You Tube.
I come from the bible belt, Mississippi. My mother liked gospel and everything you do needs to be related to that, so that’s how I got this feel for this music, was in the church from the preachers, and it’s the same thing only one is talking about God, and the other is talking about life, so that is how I got the feeling of the blues. And she didn’t allow me to sing or listen to blues music but I heard it any way, because when she went to bed I would put the radio on and put my ear to it. I was born at West Point in Mississippi and we moved to Chicago when I was about seven. I went to school and I did what my mother told me and I used to go to church seven days a week. The church I came out of, I’m really proud of, as it is still producing singers.
I saw Mahalia Jackson there and Joyce Davis and many recording artists in the gospel world. This was at The Greater Harvest Church, and Reverend Body was the pastor there in Chicago and I met Shirley Caesar there, she was a member of the choir. I got into the blues as it’s always been there. When I was on my way to the church for rehearsals I used to have to pass by Theresa’s Lounge and I heard this music come from there, like Junior Wells, and we would sneak around the club with the big kids after the church service and listen to the blues. Also right down the street was the Trocadero and you could hear everybody there. Mr. ‘Billy The Kid’ Emerson, I got to know his music, he started Denise LaSalle out. He is now a minister here in Chicago and has been for the past twenty years and he doesn’t do anything with this music any more.
Sunnyland Slim and Junior Wells I saw more of back then. I heard them a lot and I guess it must have stuck. People call me the female Junior Wells because he had more influence on me than I know. My grandmother knew Sunnyland Slim from the south and my girlfriend’s mother was his girlfriend it was just one big circle. Little Walter was in that crowd too and that’s how I got to know Sunnyland and I got to know Lovie Lee and Eddie Taylor. I was singing back then, but not that well as my timing was bad, so I had to go through the process of learning to sing in key and be able to hear. I had to get my up and comings, you don’t just walk into this music and master it. I wanted to learn and I worked at it and I used to sit in on blues guys’ rehearsals. Bobby King used to let me sit in when he was rehearsing.
I used to hang out with as many groups as I could, like Pete Allen, and we got together and got ourselves a group together called The Misfits and we were really misfits. One guy would have on combat boots and we didn’t match at all but the music came together. Smiley Tillman was in the group. This was around the early seventies. Sunnyland was one of the first people to have taken me out but I had also been out with Bobby Rush doing soul music. I used to go out and sing with Tyrone Davis and Little Johnnie Taylor. I had been struck by the soul bug before I got into the blues. I also did some work with Albert King and he was a friend of mine.
Sunnyland Slim cut my first forty five on his label, ‘Feel Like Stroking’ and ‘Bus Station’. I cut that in Chicago, and Sunnyland put it out on his Airway label. Sunnyland was influential in many people’s careers. He would let me sing on his shows. I got going in the blues world and starting touring, including Europe where I have been many times. The first tour I did in Europe, Hubert Sumlin was with us. The first two or three records I did, Eddie Taylor was on them and Lovie Lee cut one with me and he got Eddie Taylor to play on it. I worked with Jump Jackson, playing at hotels. I did whatever I could do to master my career. I put out a cassette with Maurice John Vaughn and I’ve worked a lot with Maurice and I’ve known him since he was young. That cassette was on my own label. I did an album called ‘Stumbling Blocks And Stepping Stones’ with Maurice who produced that album. I did an album on Deluge called ‘Travelling Light’.
I’ve done some recordings for Delmark Records. ‘Learned My Lesson’ was my first, Ken Saydak produced that, then ‘Tore Up From The Floor Up’ and then ‘The French Connection’. I am writing songs all of the time. My working area is the world and I do less and less work in Chicago these days, as I got used to eating regular. Europe I go a lot too. With the bad economy I don’t travel with a band like I used to. I go out alone and it makes it easier for people trying to book you as well, as long as they provide me with good musicians. I have a regular band when I do play in Chicago and the area. I use Walter Scott a lot, but I have many good musicians that I have known over the years and I just get on the phone and ask them if they can play. I like the old guys, Al Block and others. You have some new young guys that are hot, like Mike Wheeler and he is nice. He has great personality as well as being a great musician.
I do a little jazz at times and I still do soul sometimes, but I stick with the blues mainly. I tend to mix the music up and with Walter Scott you can do that, as he knows his job. I used to sing with, and cut my musical teeth with, Scotty And The Rib Tips and I probably did more with them than I did with anybody. If you wanted to get your musical game together, that was the band to be with as they knew all of the tunes and were excellent musicians. This was back in the days when I was sitting in with musicians and bands. I don’t sit in anymore as, if they see you are free all of the time, why would they want to pay and see you. I’ve worked with Johnny Shines in the past and I did some European shows with him and I’ve also worked with Larry Davis and he had one of the best voices I have heard. I’m still travelling, I’m going to Turkey, Spain, Copenhagen. I’ve been to South America as well and they really look after you there. If nothing else, I have travelled a lot and seen different cultures.
Text and photos: Mike Stephenson