Jefferson Magazine, No. 166, Sweden
Jan 21, 2011
By Ingemar Karlsson
In Åmål we witnessed three buxom ladies, all part of Woman of Chicago Blues, who gave the audience something extra in their stage show. All top caliber performers, Grana Louise especially upholds the legacy of legendary blues women. In our hemisphere, she is probably an unfamiliar name. A few hours before the performance I had an interesting chat with her.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up learning to act, sing and dance. I started with theater and ballet school, gymnastics and dance. Following school I took a 17-year hiatus to find out who I was and what else I could do. But all I knew was that I could sing and dance. I started late as a professional at the age of 33. When I was young I sang opera and show tunes. I had a high voice for blues. I had a seven octave rate. As a young girl I couldn’t picture myself singing blues music. In 1988 I returned to the entertainment business as a jazz singer where I sang old- style jazz and blues. After living a life where you experience setbacks, I discovered blues resonated with me. I fell in love with it. I noticed that every time I sang a blues song, I got response from the audience. So I began my current career as a jazz and blues singer.
Was there music in the family?
My brother was an amazing singer. My mother used to sing to me when I was little so I could sleep. She had a wonderful voice, but she never sang in public. When she discovered that I, at 2-3 years of age had the gift to sing, she taught me a lot and how to breathe right. She gave me the foundation and then let me evolve on my own.
Did the family listen to records?
Yes a lot, everything from classical arias to gospel. I am very grateful that my parents supported my taste in music. They looked a bit surprised sometimes but never stopped me. They never forbade me as a child to listen to any type of music. I could listen to what ever I wanted. I found the best performers in my parents' record collection. I like all kinds of music as long as it’s good quality. It need not be my genre, I love all music. I don’t know how I would do without it.
When did you come to Chicago ?
In 1998. I grew up in Ohio . I was born in Cincinnati and raised in Columbus , where I lived until I was over 30 years old. I then moved to Minneapolis where I stayed for five years . Then I ended up in Chicago . At first I sang mostly jazz , even a little Bessie Smith , Alberta Hunter and Lucille Bogan . Then , I got into Koko Taylor , Muddy or Wolf Tracks . I never felt that I had a voice that could handle it . I thought I lacked even the right feeling to sing Blues . My voice was very high , closer to Dinah Washington . But others heard me and thought I had it in me . While traveling through Minnesota , I met a band that needed a singer . T hey were on me all the time to come there to sing . I knew what they wanted but I also knew I couldn’t give them a wide repertoire of songs . When I came there , I had two songs : I'm A Woman , & Wang Dang Doodle . They were perfect , but I needed more . Finally , I gave in and went to the club and sang these two songs . When I was done I jumped off the stage and rushed towards the door . The owner of the club stepped in front of me and blocked the door . She introduced herself : " My name is Sandie and you've got a job ". What would I do ? I needed a job . So it started . I took myself to school to learn everything about the blues . Went to the library to learn more about the blues and began to slowly build up my own collection of songs .
What is your set list like these days , is it mixed ?
Yes absolutely with jazz , soul , gospel and r & b. I call myself a Vocal Musician although the Blues have been my main choice , and that gives me my livelihood , but it's not everything I do . In my career as an entertainer , I have a great mix . As I mentioned a moment ago , I attended a school that taught dance , theater and show music that has always been a part of me . I compare myself to good musicians who can play all styles . Getting stuck in one compartment may provide as much opportunity unless you get big breakthrough . It provides barely enough to eat and a roof over your head . But if what you do is good enough and fits anywhere , you can easily make it financially . You might not get rich but you do not have to go around poor .
I have met some artists who mention they must always sing their hit song s, no matter what.
I had the opportunity to get really close to Koko Taylor . She was a great mentor for me and I miss her very much . I was invited over to her at lunch and at Christmas. I could talk openly with her , she listened to me . She shared her own experience. I mentioned that I had a song that I hated singing, but people always requested . She asked me to sing it and I did . W hen I was done, she said quietly to me : “ Baby , don’t you think that I 'm tired of always singing Wang Dang Doodle ?” Wow , I thought, best to keep quiet and continue to sing the song the audience wants to hear . It was the best lesson I got from anyone . Nowadays I have a signature song , I didn’t know that it would become so , but the crowd demands it of me so unless I sing it , they become a bit sour on me .
Because they love it ! Apparently no one else does it the way I do . You can take nine people who sing the same song , but one does so in a special way , then that will be the favorite . I have tried to shake it off me , take a break from the song, but it didn’t work . It 's a funny song called “Big Fat Daddy .” I also have a signature song called : “ I Can’t Stand The Rain .” I make it my own way , a bit more modern and in a funky style .
Big Fat Daddy , is it your own song ?
It is an Irene Reid track. I buy CDs the way other women buy clothing and shoes . I go into old record stores and find cheap discs . Most are sold for under $ 1, they don’t know what they havel but I know what they have . I bought a triple album of Billie Holiday which added to my talk between songs . I just gave them $18 , but it is worth considerably more . When you listen closely to that album , you feel the atmosphere . That is how I found my place . M uch of this I have since added to my own repertoire . How can I put myself in a story ? How can I convey it to the audience ?
Could you have been an entertainer in the 1920s with dignity ?
Oh yes , I would have loved it . It 's the sort of music I associate myself with . It feels sometimes that I lived a past life . I've been to places I never visited but I recognize myself there . Probably , I have lived there or have appeared there in another life .
Women recorded the blues on records back then, but they disappeared after a few years .
Yes , men pushed them away when they discovered that there was money to be had . They took over and it has been almost all men since. Even today if you notice there are not many blues women who have the kind of backing that men have . There are a few of us out there . Actually there are more than you think, but few will ever be developed. I worry that African- American women with a perfect voice for blues may not get their fair chance . They kick us out every chance they get . Men can play but they don’t compete with us in song , and they know it . The song comes from the soul , from the heart . Every time I sing Motherless Children a cappella , there is not a dry eye in the auditorium , including my own .
Koko Taylor was, well, a kind mother to you other women in Chicago .
In a way, yes , she got further than many others did . She sang at the White House , accomplished as much as any artist . We were inspired by her . I do not want to be her, but there is so much she has achieved and I would like to achieve . She set a benchmark for us . It is a gift that we inherit . The artists before me went through the misery , down the un paved road . My personal opinion is we can’t let it die . We are who we are today thanks to Bessie , Billie , Ella and Koko .
Can you use their material or must it be something new ?
It still works . What I do is to make the music a bit fresher , but the main theme still works, how old the song was. You just have to arrange the song so it fits into today's time . The audience will understans the lyric as it applies to their experience . I sing “My Man Done Me Wrong ,” and “ Please Come Back Home .” I rearrange the theme as “ Oh You Leavin Me, Okay Let Me Help You Pack , ‘Cause You Never Comin’ Back !”
How do you plan the future ?
I don’t see too far ahead . You can plan but the results, you can’t control . I take one day at a time . I t ’ s more comfortable and more exciting for me . When I was young , I planned my life far ahead . Not any more.
Your last CD is on your own label .
Yes , but I have previously recorded for other labels, like Blue Diamond Records and Delmark . But now I have my own record label . I never thought I could do this . The inspiration to have my own I got from Prince . All he and Michael Jackson went through in the music industry, where they brought in large sums . If they have been cheated so I knew what to expect. Prince was more open when he fought against Warner Brothers . He gave out free suggestions on how to do it on your own. You don’t have to sit and wait for record companies , you can do it yourself . It got me a focus and a whole new world opened up . It's tough , you're the only one to take care of everything . You may sacrifice a lot . I hope eventually I can get up capital so I can hire someone to help me manage my company . Personally , I think I have a task from God to bring the blues to people . Maybe I will open new doors for someone . In the past I wondered why I never had any success as a jazz singer . Perhaps I may know the answer one day.
God only knows what awaits you .
Yes, only he knows . From the beginning I fled from the blues , I didn’t want anything to do with it . Could never have imagined that I would become a blues singer . When I lived in Minnesota, God sent an angel named Dave Moore Ford . He was from Texas but has resided in Chicago for seven years . He used to come in to the club and listen to me . One evening he came up to me and introduced himself and his friend Jeff . He asked if I'd been to Chicago and sang . " No," I replied . " Would you like to go there ? " Sure," I said. " Okay," he said and then he left . I didn’t see him for a few months . One evening after I finished a show and left the club , I received a phone call . It was Dave : " I’ve arranged a gig at the Kingston Mines Club in Chicago ." It went around in my head , “ What was he looking for ?” But I'm sober and I thought, calm down now . I told him that I could just take one date. " Okay," he said. " Do you want to bring a friend , don’t hesitate. " It was he who arranged it for me to come to Chicago . I was full of anticipation to get to town and hear blues music . But I quickly discovered that it was the same songs that were being played at home in Minnesota . When I sang "Smokestack Lightnin'” and “ Can’t Get No Grinding” people looked at me as if I was crazy . But they had to get used to it because that was what I wanted to sing . But it was not an easy journey . The point is that without Dave , I probably would never be where I am today . I have tried to find him but he is gone without a trace . E ven his buddy Jeff is gone .
Do you have band at home ?
Oh yes , two guitars , bass and drums .
No horns ?
I used to work with a five-piece band that was blowing . They blew me straight into the wall . It played so loud that my voice disappeared . But I like the piano . My ideal band would be guitar , keyboards , bass and drums .
Something you want to end with ?
I don’t want music people forced on people . Let your heart choose what you like . But keep the blues alive .