Skip to main content
HomeBarbara Blue

Barbara Blue: MBS Member Feature Story

(Originally published in the June 2015 Memphis Blues Society Newsletter)

As Told to Mark E. Caldwell

  

I talked with Blues musician/vocalist Barbara Blue over lunch on May 28, 2015 for this story. This is the day after Memphians' said their goodbyes to B.B. King during his funeral tribute procession on Beale Street. Barbara, who helped lead the procession, sang and spoke on behalf of B.B. King. A photo taken of Barbara Blue, Vince Johnson and other local Bluesmen and Blues women leading the funeral procession was on the front page of the Commercial Appeal (Memphis) newspaper the day of this interview. Soon after we sat down for lunch, Barbara began receiving messages from several friends that saw her photo from the procession in local newspapers around the country. The photo of Barbara was picked up by the Associated Press (AP) and distributed through their news services. I saw Barbara was quite humbled by this newfound press that propelled her into the national spotlight. How did this Midwesterner get to Memphis and to this point in her Blues music career? This is Barbara’s story as a Blues Woman in Memphis, TN.


Barbara Blue was born and raised in Pittsburgh, PA with four brothers and one sister. She remembers Pittsburgh was a very blue collar town that loved the Pirates, Penguins and Steelers. Her father Lou and Uncle Dave (Barbara’s Godfather) sang non-professionally in a barber shop quartet and her father was also a carpenter. Barbara remembers sitting on his workbench. He would hand her nails to hammer into wood. Barbara smiled and told me “I’m pretty good with a hammer and nails!” There was always music in her home while growing up. The family played the radio and her father had a collection of records he liked to play. In Barbara’s words “The musicians on the records included an insane mix of music from Frank SinatraNat King ColeRay CharlesRoger MillerPetula Clark, Vicky Carr and Johnny Cash & The Beatles.” Barbara and her siblings often sang to the records while they were playing. Barbara recalls “I liked to switch the radio to the Soul station, that’s where I heard Ray Charles and B.B. King. We weren’t allowed to listen to the station. At night I used to sneak my transistor radio under the covers in bed. I’d listen to the Soul station and get a good hour in before I fell asleep.” Barbara then laughed and said “Then I’d wake up in the morning with dead batteries because I forgot to turn off the radio!”

  

Barbara’s mother took her to church to sing. Barbara taught herself to play guitar. She had friends over in her backyard where she sang and played guitar for them. She also performed in shows in grade school and high school. At age thirteen, she got a job in the kitchen at Sonny Jim’s. Bands played there and Barbara closely watched and listened to them all. While growing up, the first record Barbara remembers buying was by Janis Joplin. This is a time when the Woodstock artists including Richie HavensTaj Mahal, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Janis Joplin were popular. Barbara liked them all.

 

Soon after High School graduation in 1977, Barbara was longing for an adventure. Within a week she packed her belongings and moved to Phoenix, AZ. In Phoenix she took a job as a waitress, tended bar and cooked at a biker bar where she also played a guitar gig. Around 1980 she met her first ex-husband in a wedding for a friend and packed her belongings and moved to Detroit, MI.  She performed music gigs there including at the Soup Kitchen. She remembers performing with the Butler Twins and Robert Knoll, and she met Thornetta Davis in Detroit. She formed her first band there and she also performed with a country band. She entered local talent shows that paid $100 to the winner. One day the guitarist in the band looked at Barbara and said “You have one of the best Blues voices I’ve ever heard. I think you’re wasting your time singing this.” Barbara replied “I haven’t really picked anything. I also do rock n’ roll and Jazz.” He responded “I really think you should study Blues.” Barbara knew a little Blues, and she decided to study the genre a while. Barbara’s first Blues band was called City Limits Blues Band. Around 1987, Barbara moved back home to Pittsburgh. Back home she formed the Barbara Blue Band and sang six nights per week at a different venue each night.

 

While growing up, Barbara always enjoyed singing and she knew singing is what she wanted to do. She went to school for Nursing and Medical Technology, but afterwards singing was her profession of choice. In college she also took a vocal course and in Detroit she took vocal breathing lessons. She considers her early Blues influences to be Janis JoplinTaj MahalRay Charles, Eddie Arnold and Johnny Cash. As she got older, she looked to the new musicians that came into her life performing Blues, She said “To be a good musician you have to continuously learn and absorb what others know.” She made three records with the Phantom Blues Band. These were the best Blues musicians she knew at that time in her life. Then she made three records at Willie Mitchell’s Royal Studios. There she got to hang out with Teenie HodgesLeroy ‘Flick’ HodgesSkip PittsLester Snell, Steve Potts, Dave Smith, Michael Tols, Rev. Charles Hodges and Lannie McMillan & The Royal Horns. All of these incredible musicians influenced her music career.

 

In 1997, Barbara and her friend Becky Derek visited Memphis during the Memphis In May Music Festival. They came to see Tracy Nelson perform on Sunday. Her friend became ill during the visit and had to stay in bed. While her friend rested at their hotel, Barbara went to Beale Street. She had been to Memphis several times before when she brought her band to town for the IBC (International Blues Challenge). She went to Silky O’Sullivan’s and paid five dollars to sing on stage with the famous dueling piano players. Afterwards, Silky O’Sullivan came up to Barbara and said “Can you do that again?” Barbara said “Sure, if you buy me a beer!” Silky brought her a beer and she got up and sang again. Barbara saw a look of amazement in Silky’s eyes while she sang. Afterwards, he told Barbara “I’m going to call my wife. Can you do that again when she gets here?” Barbara replied “Sure, buy me another beer please!” Silky’s wife came to the show and watched Barbara sing again. The Sullivan’s offered Barbara a job that night to sing at the club. She drove back to Pittsburgh, packed her belongings and moved to Memphis two weeks later to start the job. She told her mom she’d be gone six months. Barbara practiced with pianist Nat Kerr (also from Pittsburgh) and on June 07, 1997 they played their first show at Silky O’Sullivan’s. When she moved to Memphis, her father was ill. She traveled back to Pittsburgh every other week to be with him. This was a rough time for Barbara and her family. Eleven months after her move, Barbara’s father passed away. Her mother came to Memphis later and told Barbara “I honestly believe this is where you should be and are meant to be. We miss you.” Barbara said “These words helped me keep my sanity with living away from my family.” She’s been performing at Silky O’Sullivan’s for eighteen years.

 

Barbara planned her debut record ‘Out of the Blue’ for about ten years. In 1993 she went to the Pittsburgh studio The Control Room with musicians/producer/owners 

Robert Casper and Jimmy Dougherty to record. She had the record planned so well it took only three days of studio time to complete. She co-produced ‘Out of the Blue’ and it was released in 1994. This is the only record Barbara recorded in Pittsburgh. To-date she’s recorded ten U.S. records and released one euro record. She’s the co-producer on each. After her debut record, she recorded her next CDs in sets of three: three ‘Live at Silky’s’ releases; three with the Phantom Blues Band and three with Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell at Royal Studios.

 

For the new ‘MEMPHIS BLUE ~ Sweet, Strong & Tight’ record, Barbara wanted a real Memphis record. She asked some of her Memphis friends including dueling piano players Earl RandelTim Plunk & Craig SchusterReba RussellDelta Joe SandersNancy Apple and Lorina McMinn to contribute songs for her to record. The record also includes songs by Ann Peebles and David Porter & Isaac Hayes. Members of the Hi Rhythm Section backed Barbara in the studio. Some of the guest musicians that appeared to add some spice & grease to the tracks are Ronnie Earl (guitar), Bobby Rush (harp), Sonny Barbato (accordion) and Cody Dickinson (washboard).The record is pure Memphis and Barbara’s vocals shine throughout.

 

Aside of touring around the United States, Barbara has toured abroad to Australia, Canada, England, Norway, Aruba and on The Legendary Rhythm & Blues Cruise. The new record ‘Memphis Blue’ is getting a lot of attention from fans in Belgium and Denmark.

 

Throughout her career Barbara Blue has performed with some of the Blues genre’s best including: Taj Mahal & The Phantom Blues Band, Jeff Healey, Dutch Tilders, Eugene ‘Hideaway’ Bridges, Anthony Gomes, Marcia Ball, Delbert McClinton, Maceo Parker, Al Jackson, Pinetop Perkins, James Cotton, Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin, Tab Benoit, Fiona Boyes, Corey Harris, Sean Costello, The Nighthawks, Big Mike Griffin, Candye Kane, Zack Harmon, Trudy Lynn, Carol Fran & Gaye Adegbaloba.

Barbara has written and sung commercials and briefly worked with Nickelodeon. She also sang background vocals on Mark “Muleman” Massey’s 2014 record ‘One Step Ahead of the Blues’. Barbara couldn’t use a microphone in the studio. She had to sing to the back wall while the other musicians faced forward. Don Nix and Larry Nix produced the record for Mark at Ardent Recording. Barbara remarked “I do love session work.”

 

Barbara performs five nights per week at Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street. Some of her fans’ most requested songs are: "Low Down Dirty Dawg"  “Drunken Angel”,” Tool Box Blues" “Bobby McGee”, “Piece of My Heart”, “Lake Charles” and “Moonlight Over Memphis”. Barbara’s fans have asked for a long time if “Hands Off” was on one of her records. Barbara recorded the song on her new record ‘MEMPHIS BLUE’.


I asked Barbara if she had any unforgettable experiences that have occurred during her music career in the studio, playing on the road or with people she’s met. She shared several stories with me:

On a Legendary Blues Cruise, Barbara was in the Jam room with Koko Taylor’s band. After Koko left the room, she offered each band member $20 to let her play “Wang Dang Doodle” with them. They agreed and played the song with her. About half way through the song, Koko Taylor came back in the room and Barbara thought "YIKES!!!" she was in trouble now. They kept playing the song. After the song, Koko Taylor’s daughter came up to Barbara and said “My mama wants to see you.” Barbara said “Okay” while thinking ‘This could be bad.’ Barbara went and sat down at the table where Koko Taylor was sitting. Koko leaned back in her chair and said “Girl, I thought I was listening to the juke box.” Barbara said “Well, thank you (for the compliment) Miss Taylor.” This was a special moment for Barbara.

Another time Barbara was in Aspen, Colorado with Taj Mahal at the Aspen Blues & Jazz Festival and Ray Charles and the Raelettes were also in the lineup. They went to a Jam afterwards and Barbara sang with a piano player there. Barbara’s friend Jana came up to her and said “This guy is telling me I gotta go get my horn, I want to play with her.” It was Al Jackson (Ray Charles’ band leader). Al came back to the room where Barbara was and they performed “Lover Man” together. Half way through the song Al copped one of Barbara’s licks. Barbara said “For a singer, that’s the ultimate compliment. It was beautiful!”

  

When Barbara is inspired she writes songs. Ronnie Earl gave her a small leather book she writes her songs in now instead of having written pieces of paper everywhere. Barbara has several Blues musicians she likes to listen to. They are Lil’ Ed & The Blues Imperials, Vince Johnson and Earl “The Pearl” Banks. When Barbara isn’t playing music or doing music business she has eight rescue dogs and four rescue cats she takes care of. She lives in the forest, likes to chill, meditate, watch the hummingbirds and do Tai Chi. She’s a great cook and has a large garden. She likes to paint, although she hasn’t’ had much time to do so lately.

 

I asked Barbara what here favorite things about Memphis are? She said “Music is number one and you can’t beat the home cooked food, and Gus’s Fried Chicken!” She also likes that many of the people are church minded. She said “No matter how rough things might get, no matter how mean someone might be, you can talk Jesus to them and they’ll calm down. They know all about him, they were raised on Jesus.”

 

May 2015 was a big month for Barbara Blue in Memphis. On Friday May 08 she was awarded Beale Street Brass Note #141 by the Memphis Music Commission at a ceremony at Silky O’Sullivan’s. Later that night she had her official ‘Memphis Blue’ CD release party at the Hard Rock Cafe. The Hard Rock also placed a memorabilia case with one of Barbara’s dresses from her "ROYAL BLUE" CD photo shoot. On 

Wednesday May 27 she helped lead B.B. King’s funeral tribute procession down Beale Street.


Barbara sees wonderful things ahead. She has friends that would like to record with her. She also has a lot of songs in her head she could record. She’d like to record an old Blues record some time and her mom keeps asking “Where’s the Christmas record??”.  She has three bands scattered around the country she can call on to perform with her. She’d like to tour in Belgium, Denmark and Norway to support ‘Memphis Blue’. She also would like to perform on the main stage as a "MAIN" act at the King Biscuit Blues Festival.

Barbara is at a good point in her life. She said “It’s really weird, there’s a vibe right now in my life that is good. I think all the good I’ve done in the past is doing this and I can’t stop it. It’s like everything I’ve directed my energies toward over these years are coming to fruition in my life.”


Barbara Blue Awards and Accolades:

  • 2015 Beale Street Brass Note
  • 2011 Emissary of Memphis Music
  • 2007 Blues Music Award nomination for Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist
  • 2001 Premiere Player Award for Best Newcomer - The Phillips Award

     

    Barbara is endorsed by Heil Microphones. She’s been using the microphones exclusively for the past four years.  

    For more information about Barbara Blue and her music:

  • Website: http://www.barbarablue.com
  • Facebook: Barbara Blue
  • Twitter: #memphisqueenbb
  • Instagram: barbarablueofficial

     

    To purchase her music and merchandise, go to:

  • http://www.barbarablue.com/music.html
  • CDBaby.com

  

Online schedule for upcoming shows: http://barbarablue.com/schedule.html

 

Barbara Blue can be seen live at Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street every Wednesday, Thursday and Friday 7-9pm, Saturday 5-9pm and Sunday 4-8pm.

 

Online YouTube music videos (select) of Barbara Blue:

Barbara Blue "Drunkin' Angel"

09-02-2012, 2012 Memphis Music & Heritage Festival, Folklore Hall, Memphis.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wb33LFuo09s

 

Barbara Blue Live At Court Square Memphis "Down Broken Heart Row"

5-14-10, Court Square, Main Street, Memphis

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FZ-dFu9r8QA

 

 

The interview for this story took place May 28, 2015

 

© 2015 Mark E. Caldwell, All Rights Reserved.

 







____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________