Beale Street Blue 

From the Steel City to the Bluff City, Barbara Blue arrives with Sell My Jewelry.

Standing on stage at Silky O'Sullivan's on a recent Saturday night, a human jukebox for a mid-size audience of tourists, Barbara Blue has a table of Canadians in the corner, who are more interested in sucking on Silky's ribs than paying attention to her, and a gentleman from Chicago standing at the bar who just can't get it right.

"Play a Bee Gees song!" he yells, to which Blue, glancing at her tip jar and rolling her eyes behind dark shades, responds, "Boy, you better go to the money machine." A few songs later he tries again, calling out for something from Midwestern teenybopper blues singer Shannon Curfman. "I don't even know who the hell that is," Blue says.

But Barbara Blue has seen rougher crowds. Along the road from her native Pittsburgh to her regular gig at Silky's, Blue once worked a biker bar in Detroit where the bartender kept a gun under the counter and instructed Blue, "If I ever tell you to get down, hit the floor and don't get up until the bullets stop flying."

Blue, whose new album, Sell My Jewelry, might be the strongest blues record to come out of Memphis this year, passed through town several times with her previous band, playing blues contests. On one trip through, she sang at Silky O'Sullivan's -- and Sullivan offered her a job. Blue accepted, anticipating a six-month adventure that has turned into four-and-a-half years and counting, and Blue doesn't plan on returning to Pittsburgh. As her mother told her after a visit, "This is where you belong."

Blue describes her Silky's gig as "blues singer turned musical prostitute." She sings what she wants and might do songs the audience requests, but $5 in the tip jar will almost certainly get your song sung. On this Saturday, Blue is accompanied only by piano player Nat Kerr and is backing herself on percussion through a mix of handclaps, footstomps, and tambourine.

Her set is diverse, as it would have to be to please both herself and the patrons who have gathered to hear her. There are predictable touches -- Memphis soul nuggets ("I Can't Stand The Rain," "I'm Your Puppet"), blues standards ("I Just Want to Make Love to You"), and the ubiquitous "Walking In Memphis." But Blue also strays far afield of the blues, everything from Fleetwood Mac and Roger Miller to John Prine's "Angel From Montgomery," and, on this night anyway, "Rocky Top."

"Rocky Top" is a request from an animated couple from Mississippi -- Jonathan and Dana -- who Blue says are regulars at her weekend gigs. They seemingly want to celebrate the University of Tennessee's football victory over Florida hours earlier. The man from Chicago can't stand it and puts $5 in the tip jar to stop the song. Jonathan throws in another $10 to get it started back up and taunts his Northern nemesis.

Blue seems to be having fun working the crowd, a touristy mix that, on this night, ranges from Philadelphia to Florida to Alaska. "I know what I'm doing up there," Blue says after the show. "I know how to pull the energy out of a crowd, and I love that. I can tell pretty quick who I want to talk to and who I don't. The thing is to get what I want out of them. I like to let everybody be who they are up to a point, but if they start to cross the line, I'll back off them."

Blue was doing fine in Pittsburgh, playing six nights a week with a full band, and it was there that she recorded her only prior record, Out Of the Blue. But she says her Beale gig affords more opportunity than was available in Pittsburgh. "There weren't any promoters or record company people coming through Pittsburgh," she says. Working in Memphis, by contrast, has helped Blue take her music overseas, to Norway, Australia, and England. Memphis also provides a connection to blues roots that Blue cherishes. "Here I get to hang out with the Fieldstones and go to juke joints in Mississippi and sing," Blue says.

Blue traveled to Los Angeles last October and spent 10 days recording Sell My Jewelry with Taj Mahal's Phantom Blues Band, this year's Handy Award winner for blues band of the year. Blue credits this coup to her friendship with Mahal, whom she met six or seven years ago aboard a blues-themed cruise where Mahal was performing and she was, well, cruising.

Sell My Jewelry was produced by Mahal percussionist Tony Braunagel (who also co-wrote the title track with Blue). Other significant Phantom Bluesers who play on the record include keyboard veteran Mike Finnigan, who has worked with a host of A-list artists, including Etta James and Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and guitarist Johnny Lee Schnell, who has worked with Blue favorites Bonnie Raitt and Lucinda Williams. Blue wasn't intimidated by her accomplished supporting cast but did find a difference in approach. "I cut five tracks in one day and they all thought I was crazy," Blue says, "but I'm used to going three straight hours without taking a break. I can't afford to be a prima donna."

The result is a very strong modern blues record that balances smooth soul-blues a la Robert Cray ("Back By Popular Demand") and bar blues crowd-pleasers ("Trouble With a Capital 'T'," "Brought Together By the Blues"). Blue also contributes some original compositions to the project, most notably the slow-groove John Lee Hooker tribute "From the Delta To the Golden Gates." But Sell My Jewelry might be at its most interesting when it strays further from the blues base. Blue's cover of local singer-songwriter Nancy Apple's spare and beautiful "Don't Lead Me On" is a slow-burning stunner, sounding like a lost early soul classic from (if the gender was inverted) Bobby Bland or Garnet Mimms. And Blue also includes a fantastic rendition of Lucinda Williams' "Drunken Angel," another Silky's staple.

"I'd do ['Drunken Angel'] live and people would come up to buy my old record, hoping it was on there," Blue says. "I'd send them off to get [Lucinda Williams'] Car Wheels On a Gravel Road and they'd come back and say, 'We like this, but we like the way you sing it better.' I like to say that if I had $5 for every time I've been asked to sing [the Janis Joplin-identified] 'Me and Bobby McGhee,' I wouldn't be driving a '94 Dodge. But I think 'Drunken Angel' may be replacing it as my most requested song. I had a guy awhile back who gave me $160 to sing it three times in a row."

But if there's any singer whom Blue most evokes, it would have to be Joplin. Blue straddles blues, rock, and soul like Joplin did, and when she bears down hard, the vocal comparison is unmistakable. Blue closes Sell My Jewelry with a Joplin song ("Turtle Blues") and her Silky's sets include Joplin tunes. "Here they say I sound like Janis," Blue admits. "But when I went out to L.A. they said I sounded like Etta James, and that was a relief. It's okay, though. I love Janis. It's a soul thing with Janis. She wasn't afraid. Period."

Blue will be pulling out all the stops for her record release party Monday, December 10th, at the Lounge, recruiting an all-star local band that will include Howard Grimes on drums, Leroy Hodges on bass, Jack Holder on guitar, Robert Nighthawk on B-3 organ and harmonica, Dedrick Davis and Richie Hale from James Govan's band on horns, and a back-up vocal trio of Nancy Apple, Susan Marshall, and Reba Russell.

It also has the air of a coming-out party for Blue herself. "I finally feel that I'm getting recognition from the major Memphis music people, that they realize that I'm not a flash in the pan," Blue says. "I love Memphis and want to keep living here. I want that big house on the South bluffs."

You can e-mail Chris Herrington at herrington@memphisflyer.com.

Barbara Blue CD Release Party

The Lounge, Monday, December 10th, 6:30 p.m.

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