Based on airplay reports, the top blues album last year was Marcia Ball's "Live! Down the Road," released on Alligator Records. Unless you're into the blues, you've probably never heard (or heard of) this talented lady, although she's been on the scene for over thirty years.
Truth is, if you depend on commercial radio to hear the best divas in music today, you may be missing the most musically gifted ladies around.
Take Candye Kane, Janiva Magness, Thornetta Davis, Rory Block and Shemekia Copeland, for instance. These fantastic blueswomen will amaze you on stage, but don't hold your breath waiting to hear them on radio.
Still, my wife Sue and I know these performers deserve to be heard over the airwaves because we've seen them in person and enjoyed their recordings as well.
In mentioning Marcia, nick-named "Too Tall" Ball, you should know she's a keyboard virtuoso. An acknowledged star of the Bayfront Blues Festival in Duluth in 2001, it isn't surprising she has created a favorable impression with a live disc.
Making her home in Austin, Texas, Marcia has a pleasant drawl that speaks to her southern upbringing. At Duluth, she commanded the stage and demonstrated her New Orleans-style R&B. She breezed through "Red Beans and Rice," "Just Kiss Me Baby," "Hey Big Shot," and "Craw Fishing" to the delight of the crowd.
Another stand-out performer at the Duluth show was Candye Kane, a unique commodity on the blues circuit. The former adult entertainer may be over the top with her costumes and politics, but her voice'll knock you out. She's a large lady with equally-big vocal abilities. Her song-writing is top rate, too, with lyrics that may surprise you.
Other great blues ladies have been spotlighted during blues festivals in Marquette during the Labor Day weekend in 2004 and 2005.
Janiva Magness, who hails from the west coast, gave a stand-out performance during her debut Upper Peninsula performance at the first Bluesfest, held at Marquette Mountain. She's released half a dozen top-notch CD's on small independent record labels, somehow escaping the notice of millions of music fans. Still, she perseveres. Her latest effort, "Do I Move You," appeared this month and may be her best yet. Janiva's exceptional talent has been recognized with several W. C. Handy Awards in the blues community. In concert, you won't soon forget Janiva's trademark rubboard or distinctive vocals. She deserves mainstream stardom.
Folks attending the second Bluesfest were treated to memorable performances from veteran singer Rory Block and the lesser-known Thornetta Davis, who hails from Detroit.
Rory, a genius on acoustic guitar, learned her craft from blues legend Son House while still a teenager. As an interpreter of traditional country blues, Rory is unsurpassed. She has devoted her life to that endeavor, and it showed in concert. Her CD catalog is extensive and excellent as well.
Thornetta's talent hasn't been exploited to the fullest. While she puts on an enthusiastic performance, ably demonstrated on stage and in a five year-old disc "Covered Live At the Music Menu," her song selection is uninspired. She's got power, personality and soul, but "Hound Dog" isn't what she should be singing. She needs to break out of the Motor City scene.
And, what can you say about Shemekia? She's the daughter of blues icon Johnny Copeland and actually worked in a dry cleaners at the beginning of her music career. With three strong albums to her credit, she's earned every bit of her success. During a concert at Northern Michigan University on March 19, 2004 she sang "It's 2 A. M.," and other classics that would jump right out at you if you ever heard them on the radio.
But don't bet on it. Radio, for better or worse, is almost exclusively the provenance of Britney Spears and Jessica Simpson. That's better for Britney and Jessica, worse for us.