Imagine walking down Beale Street one evening in Memphis. As you approach the corner of Beale and 3rd Street, if it’s a warm evening with the doors open, you’ll hear this rich, full voice and occasionally the hard smack of a tambourine hitting something hard (turns out it’s a piano). That was my first introduction to Barbara Blue several years ago.
A singer, songwriter and producer (as well as one hell of a cook), Barbara—aka BB—got the attention of owner Thomas “Silky” Sullivan after she paid five bucks to sing “Me and Bobby McGee” one night at Silky O’Sullivan’s. He bought her a beer, had her sing another tune, then he called his wife, she came in and asked her to sing another song and they offered her a job on the spot. She has been the reigning “Queen of Beale Street” for more than 17 years now—June 7, 1997 was the first time she officially started her gig at Silky O’Sullivan’s, where she performs five nights a week with long-standing pianist Nat Kerr. This is in addition to performing and recording all over the world. (Note: Thomas “Silky” Sullivan was such an advocate for BB in the Memphis community. He passed May 31, 2013).
From the ‘Burgh to Detroit, back to the ‘Burgh and on to Memphis
A singer for pretty much her whole life, BB put together her own band in 1989, and has performed alongside some heavy hitters in the blues world such as Taj Mahal and The Phantom Blues Band, Bobby Rush, Ronnie Earl, Jeff Healey, Gaye Adegbaloba, Eugene “Hideaway” Bridges, Marcia Ball, Delbert McClinton, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Bob Margolin, Tab Benoit, Candye Kane, The Nighthawks….the list goes on. For years she immersed herself in music, inspired by Janis and Etta, among others. She sandwiched some time in her native Pittsburgh as well as Detroit. In 1997 she landed in Memphis where she has fully embedded herself in the music community and by 2011 she was selected as an Emissary of Memphis Music, which honors women who have made an impact and contributed to the culture of music in the city. In July of 2014 the Hard Rock Cafe in Memphis unveiled a display case of the gown she wore for the Royal Blue CD promotions. She also has served on the board for the Blues Foundation. Not too shabby.
BB has toured all over the world, performing at festivals, concert halls, bars and juke joints from Pittsburgh to the midwest, Boston to New Orleans as well as Hawaii, Australia, Great Britain and the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. Along the way she’s earned some accolades, including a Blues Foundation nomination as Contemporary Female Blues Artist of the Year in 2007, first-round Grammy nominations on more than a few albums, earned a spot to perform at the International Blues Competition more than a few times (in the ’80s and ’90s) and in 2001 was selected to be the tribute singer for the 14th annual Janis Joplin Birthday Bash in Port Arthur, TX, Joplin’s home town. The press has also taken notice, where she receives great reviews from publications and blogs worldwide.
She’s got about ten studio albums under her belt (and one in the works right now), along with three volumes of live performances of her shows at Silky’s. Sell My Jewelry, Memphis 3rd & Beale and Love Money Can’t Buy were all recorded with Taj Mahal’s band, the Phantom Blues Band—each of which was a first-round Grammy contender. Some of my favorite songs worth checking out: “Red Cadillac & the Blues,” “Trouble with a Capital ‘T’” and “Toolbox Blues.”
I recently had a chat with Barbara as she made her way back to Memphis from Little Rock, Arkansas—after performing at the “Celebrate 10” event for the William J. Clinton Presidential Library’s 10th anniversary. Y’inz can read all about it here:
GrateBites: Since you started your career in Pittsburgh, how has the Memphis sound and its musicians influenced your music?
BB: I grew up on Memphis music (old soul, Detroit, the Stax sound)….It always moved me. Great players, they’ve been doing it a long time. And the Memphis recording and studio musicians are the core people.
GrateBites: You’ve been in the studio recording a new album, MEMPHIS BLUE: Sweet, Strong & Tight. Anything you’d like to share about it?
BB: I’m back at the [infamous] Royal Studios with Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell as producer, and the Willie Mitchell’s house band. (Her previous CD, Royal Blue, was recorded there in tribute to the late Willis “Pops” Mitchell who passed right before recording began.) This is going to be a big “message” record. And the song selection is interesting, as well as the fact that Bobby Rush and Ronnie Earl agreed to be a part of it.
GrateBites: When do you anticipate its release?
BB: Boo’s involvement with the DVD Take Me to the River delayed the record’s completion. We will be ready by Dec. 19, with orders to be completed in time for Christmas eve delivery. (Take Me to the River is a documentary about the soul of Memphis music despite the south’s history of racial discrimination and segregation, expected to be available in January 2015. I will definitely be adding this to my collection.)
GrateBites: Will there be any type of tour to promote it? What’s coming up for 2015?
BB: We will see what happens, I want to see what possibilities come up. I might do a few festivals later in the summer.
GrateBites: I know you like to entertain, and you’re one hell of a cook. What is your favorite thing to make?
BB: At the moment it’s cold here, so I’m all about comfort food: stews…soups (from curries to black bean). I love stuffed cabbage, so I make it a soup! Much less work, but it tastes the same. I also like to make sweet potato bake, and being part Mexican I love Mexican food any time. I make a pine nut flan that’s to die for. Just the other day I made meatballs and sauce, chili, and chicken and dumplings. Definitely about comfort food right now.
Barbara has quite an extensive garden, and one of her specialties to make is tomato pie. I’m hoping she sends the recipe (hint).
I strongly recommend you check out Barbara’s work. She’s quite an entertainer with deep roots in rock, soul and the blues, and is such a genuine person. I cannot wait to hear the new album.
(August 2015) Barbara sent me her tomato pie recipe. Now that it’s tomato harvesting season, I did my own version of filling with what I had on hand and posted the recipe here.