Chicago is known around the world for its Blues; it has a rich history of Blues performers that have influenced many famous musicians. Sharon Lewis is one of Chicago’s gems. Blues historian and host of Blues Breakers for over 25 years in Chicago, Tom Marker, DJ for WXRT, has been proclaiming her talent for years. Lewis performs regularly with her band Texas Fire in many of the established Blues clubs in Chicago, and at the annual Chicago Blues Fest.
A recent exhibition Blues for Smoke, currently at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through April 28, 2013, features exhibitions, lectures, readings, and performances by visual artists, writers, poets, and musicians whose work reflects the Blues. Originating at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, and curated by Bennett Simpson, it was given a two page review in the March 2013 issue of Art in America.
Blues reflects life; it encompasses all moods, milestones, and demographics using repetition and rhythm. It is part history, part sociology, part musicology; it is entertainment and art. Chicago’s talent pool goes deep in this genre, currently and historically. You are encouraged to get out there and listen up; clap your hands, tap your toes, and shuffle your boots. Enjoy.
What are your Chicago roots?
I arrived in Chicago in 1969, married, and had my son at a very young age. I’m originally from Fort Worth, Texas and my husband was from Chicago; he was in the army and was going to do a tour overseas. When he came back from Europe, he had issues; we couldn’t get along and I went to California. Six years later I returned to Chicago. I have two boys and one girl and they’re all ten years apart. The oldest is 44 and the youngest is 24.
What age did you start singing?
Before I could talk! My grandmother taught us songs and with my two sisters we had a group in church. I sang and played a little red tambourine. Over the years I sang in church choirs and was in the first ever Gospel Fest in Chicago in 1985. On Election Night 2012 I was one of ten singers who performed as Blues Mamas for Obama.
What was your first professional stage experience?
My first professional gig was May 5, 1993 at Buddy Guy’s Legends. Guy had put an ad in the Reader to audition Blues singers. My first band, Under the Gun, was getting ready for a show at Buddy Guy’s. At the time they didn’t have a name. Legends kept calling and asking the name of the band. The guitar player told us we’re under the gun for a name. Everyone agreed—we’re Under the Gun. I learned a lot from them. The guitarist and writer for the band, Steve Bramer, is a prolific writer. Steve and I wrote all the songs on my first CD Everything’s Gonna Be Alright.
Tell me about your current band Texas Fire.
My bass player CC, Carl Copeland, from Toledo, Ohio, has been with me the longest and he played with Under the Gun. Bruce James, from the south side of Chicago, writes beautiful music, sings and plays guitar. My drummer is Tony Dale, of Naperville, but I use another drummer for the gig we play every Sunday at Kingston Mines in Lincoln Park.
Do you perform individually with an unknown band?
Yes, and it can be awkward. In this day of technology, however, through email or a website, they can download and upload music. You provide a user name and password to the music folders and they download the songs and learn them. I just performed at a wedding in Switzerland last month. A girl got married and keeping with tradition, she skied down the slopes in her wedding dress. It was absolutely wonderful. I was able to bring my bass player and guitarist. We had a site set up where we could upload and download music. That is ideal because everything that I had to learn was put on my tablet; I use earphones when I’m going somewhere and listen to the music I must learn. Before, you had to send a tape or CD and they’d have to duplicate it. With this set up every member of the band can go in and download the music. We use SkyDrive.
Define the Blues.
It means many things to many people. But the root of Blues was a call to attention of an unbearable world for a lot of people. It tells stories of life and death. It’s hard to find a clear point to some songs because they can be so silly. The lyrics have to do with the people writing them. Basically illiterate, they had no formal education. So in that vein you can’t write with very much flair and flamboyance if your education isn’t evident. They are pure stories, but you can tell a lie in the Blues yet tell the truth about someone’s life.
What is the most exciting city internationally that you’ve performed in?
I think Prague. I’ve been there many times. I can ride the buses and trolleys in Prague like I can ride them in Chicago. Prague is one of those cities I could go back to forever. I always see something different and new. It’s fun to see the progress in the country and the city. When I went over there in the 90’s they had not been long out of communist rule. There had been a 10-year waiting list to get a phone. It was unfathomable. Then here comes the cell phone. We made this joke ‘I’d like to be the first man who brought cell phones there because he’s somewhere fanning himself. My friend replied, ‘No, he’s somewhere having someone fan him.’ The little things over the years show the progression of these people. They’re the only people that didn’t fight the Nazis, so the city is intact and beautiful.
Recently on facebook there was a photo of you and Mumford & Sons.
One tour, a few years ago, I played with Jan Korinek & Groove, the band from Czech Republic. It was a lengthy tour with some pretty big venues. We had a trumpet section, and in it was a fellow from England, Nick Etwell, who has a British jazz group called Filthy Six. Nick had just won a 2013 Grammy with Mumford & Sons for ‘Album of the Year.’
I didn’t know Nick was playing with Mumford & Sons. Every time Nick comes into town—he’s played Lollapalooza and other things—Nick, Ted (Dwayne) and I would always hang out. And this goes back some years. Nick would call and say ‘We’re going to be in town and we want to hang out; we want to eat and play, and you know all the fun spots.’ Last year Nick called and said ‘It’s Ted’s birthday and we want to celebrate.’ I asked who are ‘we’ and he said just some guys in the band.
They love Honky Tonk BBQ and I said we’ll go there. I use to play solo there for the dinner set, with my guitarist. I’m running late and when I get to the restaurant there’s a lot of people and I asked Nick who they all were. He said this is the Mumford & Sons tour and I ask who is Mumford and Sons? Everybody is just looking at me and they knew I was sincere because it just wasn’t washing over me. Ted was sitting next to me with his girlfriend and said ‘You know, Mumford& Sons,’ and I still didn’t know. He said ‘You’re doing the after-party.’ I said ‘Yes, in Dixon.’ I did their after-party in Dixon, Illinois. At that point Nick said ‘You know this is Ted Dwayne of Mumford & Sons.’ I said ‘No, it’s Ted.’ It never ever occurred to me that it was Ted ‘Mumford.’ They got the biggest kick out of that. They laughed ‘til they cried. It was wild. He’s my friend and I didn’t care what his name was.
Do you have a special ritual before you perform?
Because the band opens first with two or three songs, I go to a dressing room and try to clear my head. Some venues are hard gigs to play—hour on, hour off, and you’re not done ‘til 3:30 am. For a musician, it’s like having to talk for hours and be interesting to keep people’s attention.
There was a ritual of sorts where I would bless the stage with my band. We would form a circle with each taking the hand of the person next to them, saying out loud that together we can make it and we are going to do the same tonight. It was a spiritual blessing. I don’t stand on one foot holding a rabbit’s foot, shouting incantations or throwing rabbit’s blood. I know some people that do. It’s superstitious and it makes people shy away from you. That’s just a cloak for other things.
What do you wear when you perform?
It depends on the venue. I like to be comfortable. I’ve worn a lot of things by a young black designer in Chicago, Tennille White. Another source is Fashionable Addictions. I like eclectic things, clothes that are art. I dress for my age but not of my age; I dress to impress but I also want to impress me. People years ago came to my shows just to see what shoes I had on and they always would ask where I got those shoes. Now friends ask what country I got them in.
What’s your favorite song to perform?
Currently it’s a song that I wrote called Chicago Woman. It talks about the power of women and it has a really rough sound to it, as if the two don’t mix, but they do. You know that Chicago sound. It gets people’s attention, and it says:
I wanna tell you about a story of a woman I know
She’s not the kind of person that you ever want to owe
Born and raised on the main streets
A big city gal
With the kind of spirit that you can’t corral.
She’s a Chicago Woman and she won’t be denied.
I just did this song in Switzerland at a wedding. I say this is a song about powerful women in Chicago and I want you to replace Chicago with whatever city that you come from; and we all understand. That’s the power of my music. I can take something that is very serious, like the elders before me did, and make a joke out of it but get people to pay attention.
Where was Chicago Blues born and when was its heyday?
It came up from the South with Muddy Waters; he electrified it. Most of the people doing Blues in Chicago are immigrants from the South. There was a mass exodus after the Civil War, but even more so in the‘20’s and ‘30’s when people were trying to escape the horrible Jim Crow law. A lot of people are born here but very few of the generations before me were born here. They were transplants from the South—Muddy Waters, Son House. This is where it came from, the past generations, and in the Blues right now we have about three generations of musicians and singers.
Where do you think Blues is going from here?
The City of Chicago, Dominican University, and Janice Monti, Professor and Chair of Sociology & Criminology, have brought world focus to the Blues with the biennial symposium Blues and the Spirit. Howard Reich of the Chicago Tribune, and one of the premier Blues critics, was also involved with Blues and the Spirit and would like to make it happen every year.
The music genre called Blues is being recognized as cultural. This music was created from the backs of my ancestors. I’m not trying to sing Irish music, nor am I trying to sing Klezmer. I’m trying to keep alive what my ancestors have put forth. There are very few things that we can claim and I claim ownership with this. If you had asked me thirty years ago if I were going to be a Blues artist, I’d have thought you were crazy, but I grew to understand what this music is and what it means, now—I can claim it. What I’d like to see with this industry, this Blues genre, is to see the black artist get a lot more recognition.
What is the difference between Delta, Texas, and Chicago Blues styles?
Delta’s got more of that ‘twang,’ more of a country type feel, especially the traditional Delta Blues with Muddy Waters, Pine Top Perkins—those old guys. Texas Blues is more upbeat, with more of a boot kicking shuffle to it. Stevie Ray (Vaughn) was Texas Blues. It can be more‘rockabilly’ type music. Boot skid. Chicago Blues again is Muddy but electrified. When he came they called him the father of electric blues because they came from the South and there was no way they were going to get any power unless you sat in somebody’s corner; it was all acoustic guitar. I’ve been around the world and nobody can shuffle like Chicago. Chicago has a more polished and refined sound than the others. It comes from the Delta and what we call Soul Blues, another genre in the south; it’s almost like Blues R & B.
Is there a genre called Island Blues?
Yes, like my friends Mumford & Sons. I call that Irish Blues although Mumford & Sons are English Blues. How many strings are in a band? I started paying attention years ago when I was working at Kingston Mines. A few of the cast members from one of the musicals in Chicago, Lord of the Dance, came to Kingston Mines. I let some of the singers come up on stage and one of the guys sang Mustang Sally with me. I could see this Brogue trained musician becoming a blues singer. I went to see their show and what they did was take three genres, just like Chicago, Texas, and Delta Blues, and showed exactly how they were rooted the same yet different and that was the tap of Irish; they showed the three by comparison. It’s the same root but the branches are so different.
What Chicago labels still record blues and what label do you record with?
The same one I started with, Delmark, celebrating 60 years. This year they’re going to have a big celebration at the Blues Fest and I hope to be part of that. Another label still recording here is Alligator Records. My friend, Son Seals, who has passed away, was on that label; he was one of the drummers for Muddy Waters years ago.
Who are your favorite Chicago performing artists?
I love to see Sugar Blue. I caught the bouquet at his wedding. His wife Ilaria plays bass; she’s now expecting their first baby. On the female side, I’ll always go see Nellie (Tiger Travis).
Do you have a mentor?
Here’s my theory on the music: Anita Baker said something years ago, ‘Steal from everybody if you like it. They don’t have a patent on it.’ Steal from everybody if you like it, and use it; make it your own.
In life, my oldest sister would be my true mentor, Bobbie Hughes. She always gave me sound, precise advice, and was never pushy. She would say little things that would make me wonder, ‘If you want this to end, end it. It’s in your power.’ I was going through rough times and her words helped me.
Musically, I admire Tina Turner. She was one of those people that I relate to; she was going through something too then but I didn’t know it until the movie came out. Patricia Scott also is a music mentor. She married into the Scott dynasty in Chicago. Hollywood Scott and the Platinum Band, Howard Scott and the World Band, this is an entire family of musicians and they’re just incredible. Her husband, Buddy Scott, who died in 1994, was one of the Scott brothers, and Pat was the lead singer in his band
Buddy Scott and the Ribtips. I saw Pat perform in a tiny club which was as big as a studio and she had those people in the palm of her hand. She used to play at Blue Chicago quite a bit but is in ill health now.
What three words describe you?
Strong. Creative. Sensitive. I’m strong because I’ve had to be. I’m creative because I choose to be. I’m sensitive because I can’t help it. My friends say ‘She’s going to cry.’ I am sensitive too because I am a recovering addict which is not uncommon in the Blues world, which is sad to say. Crack cocaine did to the Blues world what heroin did to the jazz world in the 50’s and 60’s. By the grace of God and the power granted in myself I sit before you today. I’m proud to be alive, happy to be alive. Otherwise I wouldn’t have three little granddaughters to boss me around. They are 7, 5 and 4, but I think in all honesty they’re like 40, 32, and 25. That makes me sensitive too.
Where do you draw your inspiration from when you write music?
From life—funny stuff, crazy stuff—touching stuff.
What did you want to be at age 13?
I’ve always wanted to be a singer. Around 12 or 13, I started leaning more towards being a nurse because one of my older sisters was in nursing school. The careers for women were a nurse or a teacher. That was it. You never thought about being a lawyer or an architect.
What was a significant turning point in your career?
What pushes blues artists are the places they’re able to play. I was fortunate to be one of the headliners at the Monterey Blues Festival (California) and the Lucerne Blues Festival (Switzerland), the largest in the world. I played Chicago Blues Fest twice and I’ll play again this year. When people see names like that on your bio, they know the quality of your work.
What has been your biggest career challenge?
The financial aspect, that’s the biggest challenge. It’s hard to say I’m going to be broke. I have no problems getting gigs. Dealing with the booking agents, however, can be stressful. I had a very good living as an executive administrator for a law firm for 12 years. Two years ago I made the commitment to work solely as a blues artist. I own my own house but the car is in the shop; I’ve learned how to ride the bus in the suburbs. I love this genre and what I do; I love being a representative of what’s right and good about it. People are not allowing me, is that even fair to say, to make a living. I get angry with my friends when they buy bootleg stuff. I ask if they know what they’re doing to the artist who created that. They’re not allowing them to make a living. If somebody takes my CD and replicates it, I don’t make any money from that. Blues is my birthright and I should be able to make a living doing it. When people say blues they think of BB King, Bobby Blue Bland, or Buddy Guy. Financially it’s a struggle, the economics of it. In addition to singing, I do side work for plays and movies to make extra money when I can; I’d like to do commercials. I’d like to see a blues artist on Dancing With the Stars.
What has been your most rewarding experience?
Easy! In 2011 I was on tour with a band from Czech Republic, Jan Korinek, and we did a daylong seminar in Austria at the only performing arts high school in Europe. Formerly I was a teacher before I became an administrator. I taught under the JTPA (Job Training Partnership Act) program for the City of Chicago. Watching those kids hang on every word, being in awe, and having some of them come to the show was rewarding. We did a mini concert for them at the school.
I started the class off like this: ‘How many people want to be musicians? Every hand in the room went up. OK. How many people want to be broke? All the hands went down. So I say to you ‘If you don’t want to be a broke musician you better stay in school. Because if you think you can just be a musician you’re going to be broke. You need something else to level your life, especially financially. Nobody knows who you are when you get out of here and play on your first corner with your guitar case in front of you for people to throw coins into. Therefore if you play on that corner from 6-9 pm and you go home, be prepared to go to work the next morning. Don’t give up the day job. You’ve got to be able to support yourself.’ They really liked that although they didn’t want to hear that.
I used to teach a JTPA program course called‘Career and Professional Development.’ I helped people identify how to set goals. But first of all to set a goal you have to know the definition of a goal. It’s easy to say I want to be a doctor. But what do you need to do to be a doctor? I need to go to school. I need funding or scholarships, loans, grants. You have to establish a ground; this is your ground, this is your root. It then grows from that and you have several branches. My favorite quote is from black educator Benjamin Mays: ‘The tragedy of life is not reaching a goal; the tragedy of life is not having a goal to reach.’
What would you still like to achieve?
I’d like to be in a movie, and I’m writing a play that may be adapted into a movie. I auditioned for a movie but I had some issues that stopped me from getting the part. The role was for a blues artist in a George Clooney movie called Leatherheads. I wasn’t selected but when I finished my audition the woman said ‘You gave me chills,’ and no one had ever said that. I needed dental work and didn’t have the money. I finally had to get the dental work done as it was an investment; I’m a front face.
How do you relax?
A hot bubble bath, fragrant candles, and a glass of 7-Up. It looks pretty in a champagne glass. Put a little grenadine in it and it looks like pink champagne.
If you could have dinner with any performer, past or present, who would that be?
Any words of encouragement for today’s young artists?
Educate yourself first. It’s not glamorous. In all honesty the promoters I’ve dealt with are mainly because of Dave Specter. I’ve traveled a lot with him and while on tour Mr. Specter’s level of expectation is brilliant. I love that. I don’t have to have yellow roses and pink champagne in a room in order to perform. But I’d like to be able to sit down on the couch in my dressing room without expecting to get up with bugs. He taught me a lot including that they will treat you any way they want to if you let them. Learn how to negotiate and put those things in your contract. I am by no means a Beyonce or Mary J., but I’m a human being who expects to be treated as such. Educate yourself first, because it is business.
Oprah said Bill Cosby told her to sign her own checks. There have been bluesmen who have lost their cars and houses from recording contracts. The only way you can get around that is to be educated enough to know that you don’t know enough to make some decisions. I hired an accountant. You have to be educated enough to know how much education you really don’t have and fix it. Johnny Carson had the richest man in the world on his show once, and Johnny asked him a question. The man said to him ‘No I don’t, but I know who does.’ Don’t think you know everything; a Grammy is a wonderful thing but you can’t boil it and eat it.
What are you currently reading?
I’m reading two or three books; there are five on my tablet. I’ve just finished The Help by Kathryn Stockett. I loved that. I’m reading Vagina by Naomi Wolf. Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is actually an incredible book. I had never read it; I just saw the Disney version of it. It is actually quite an adult book.
Is there anything else you would like to say?
I’d like people to know that this is not an easy journey. There are many pitfalls, and right now there’s this war about whose music it is. We’re fighting for the music, and we’re fighting for a place. After this symposium Blues and the SpiritI wanted us to go further with some of these festivals, especially with regards to people hiring the talent. It’s one sided when you see a roster of 15, and there’s not one heritage artist on that roster, let alone a woman. Major festivals hire 33% heritage and far less than that of heritage women. I just want more fairness. Ciao.
Kathleen Waterloo had an 18-year career in interior architecture in Chicago. She received her Bachelor of Fine Arts from the School of the Art Institute in Chicago in 1996 and is currently an artist in Chicago.