Q&A with bluesy, jazzy and soulful "singer's singer" Paula Harris: This San Francisco lady is on her way!

"I miss the creative explosion that is evidenced in all American music around the midcentury. Where Jazz and Blues were allowed to evolve into R&B, Soul, Country, Pop and all the musical niches we have today. Now, there are so many genres and micro genres that everyone seems to be too busy trying to fill their miniscule niche instead of just creating great music."

Paula Harris: "Speakeasy" Tells the Truth 

Digs even deeper into her connection with mid-century jazz and blues legends. A completely acoustic album featuring a classic trio format of piano, bass and drums, Paula’s newest release “Speakeasy” (2019) is a true synthesis of Jazz and Blues with bits of soul and funk thrown in at times. Perhaps the two most surprising elements are the fullness of sound they achieve and the absence of a guitar. Paula Harris raised in South Carolina in a musical home where her Father, an avid music lover, introduced her to legendary influences such as Aretha Franklin, Etta James, Chaka Khan, Stevie Wonder, B.B King, Joe Cocker, & Dr John. It wasn't a large step for Paula to find the voices that spoke most prominently to her developing style in Diane Schuur and Phyllis Hyman, Francine Reed, Koko Taylor, Della Reese and Millie Jackson. Paula has shared the stage with such notable acts as Ray Charles, Bill Pinkney and The Drifters,William Bell, Oleta Adams, Freddie Cole and others.                Paula Harris / Photo by Andrea Zucker

"Speakeasy is an album that pulls inspiration from a time when Jazz and Blues were the "Pop" music of the day rather than separate genres. One day it dawned on me that the terms "Jazz and Blues" are frequently paired together- but they are very different in both style and approach."

She has garnered a impressive reputation with both the audiences she performed for, as well as with the Bands she has worked with. Band leader “George Carere” describes her as a "Vocal powerhouse" and a "Dynamo" on stage capable of captivating audiences with her distinctive voice and charm. Paula has not always been a “Blues singer” She has performed with several symphony orchestras (as a classically trained vocalist). Lou Rawls described her as “ A vanilla coating on a chocolate soul”, Ray Charles asked her if she was black or white, William Bell (a principal Architect of the Stax/Volt sound and WC Handy Award  Recipient says "Paula has one of the finest modern blues voices around and her phrasing is impeccable" and William Shatner was only capable of commenting “ My GOD! What a voice!” after attending a performance in Aspen Colorado. Paula has shared the stage with such notable acts as William Bell, Oleta Adams, Bill Pinkney and the original Drifters, Tommy Castro, Kenny Neal, Chris Cain, Kid Andersen, Freddie Cole, Daniel Castro and numerous others. This lady is on her way!

Interview by Michael Limnios                       Photos by Andrea Zucker

Paula, when was your first desire to become involved in the music and who were your first idols?

I’ve known I was a singer since I was a little girl. My Dad was a roadie for several bands in the 60’s and I grew up listening to early soul and funky blues. Etta James, Della Reese, Sarah Vaughan, Aretha Franklin and Gladys Knight were some of my earlier influences. When I was 6 I used to make my parents dinner guests listen to me give " Concerts" I'd use a spoon or a brush for a mic and sing for them...I even had choreography! LOL...My fav song when I was 6 was Helen Reddy's "I am woman"!

What was the first gig you ever went to and what were the first songs you learned?

The Christmas concert when I was in the 11th grade. I had to sing “White Christmas” in front of the whole school and I was shaking so bad you could see my skirt trembling.

How has the Blues and Jazz music influenced your views of the world and the journeys you’ve taken?

I was one of the first diagnosed cases of ADHD (Attention deficit Hyperactivity disorder) in SC back in 1972. I was always seen as the weird kid who couldn't sit still and who was a disciplinary problem, the one who was "Gifted" and just not living up to my potential.  Music laid down the foundation that taught me how to function normally without medication by teaching me to set a series of short stair-step goals that all worked together to reach the objective. Where most people say " I'm going to make an album" I had to think "Notes to measures to melodies to songs to albums". Music made me feel like the artists I heard "Got me" and that I wasn't alone. The angst, passion, and sometimes naughtiness of the blues records I grew up listening to made me feel understood, soothed my heart and sense of humor. Singing Blues is where I get to cut loose vocally and emotionally and it feeds my soul. And the complexity and sophistication of the jazz music appeals to my head. Jazz taught me control of my instrument and ultimately my environment.  Music was also the first activity where I felt connected to the people around me. And music was the means through which I received my first taste of acceptance and approval. As a person who still has ADD, jazz and blues are the only way I can use both the mathematical left side of my brain and the emotional creative right sides. So, I'm not sure if they influenced my "views and journey" because music IS both my journey and colors all my views.

How do you describe "SPEAKEASY" songbook and sound? What has made you laugh from album's studio sessions?

Speakeasy is an album that pulls inspiration from a time when Jazz and Blues were the "Pop" music of the day rather than separate genres. One day it dawned on me that the terms "Jazz and Blues" are frequently paired together- but they are very different in both style and approach. I wanted to create something that deliberately kept one foot in each genre. To do that we had to go back to the instrumentation of that era- which meant no "electric" instruments. It also meant that we had to figure out a way to get a big modern sound out of an acoustic trio. And more importantly- It meant I had to be vocally on point because there is no "Hiding behind a wall of sound or horns" With only a trio and vocals- every person is exposed and has to be on point. I also wanted to walk the line between a sophisticated mid-century nightclub and a more rural juke joint.

Regarding studio sessions. if you have ever been to Kid Andersen's "greaseland"? THAT in itself is an adventure! There is a grand piano in the kitchen sandwiched in between the stove and the sink. His Living room has every musical instrument you could think of (and some you've never heard of) He busted out this weird thing he bought from a homeless guy called a "Water pipe" and said " Hey let's put this on Haunted" I've been waiting to use it!" So, we did. It's the spooky sound at the end of the tune. (How he even knew WHAT that thing was when the homeless guy offered it is a mystery to me! ) The drums were set up in one corner of the living room behind a wall of plexiglass. And the first day, the Bass was in the garage while I was in the laundry room with vocals. I literally had my song notes on the washing machine as I sat at the mic peering through a hole cut into the wall into the living room. It was a warm day that first day and Rich's acoustic bass kept going flat because of the heat. It was literally knocking on 100 out there because the "Garage" is also the control room with all the computers etc in it. So between the temp outside and the computers it was literally like a sauna. Rich is not a young man either so we were kinda worried about the heat taking a toll. So, the next day we brought Rich into the living room behind another built-on-the-spot wall of plexiglass and recorded. There is an upright piano on the porch and there are always people coming from unexpected corners introducing themselves. It's the most unorthodox studio...possibly ever! And I don't think it was built. I think it evolved. And the long wall of CD's, and pedals and other guitar paraphernalia in the hall show that it evolved with love. Kid is known as a blues guy but he is also a surprisingly well-rounded musician. He'll drop theory about a Miles Davis song with a quip about Son house in the same sentence. Then he'll turn around and make a comparison between a pop group I never heard of and Chaka Khan. He uses that knowledge and literally creates magic in those walls. He caught the exact vibe and feel I wanted for this album.

"I am locked in with an audience. There is energy between us… the more appreciative they are- the better my performance gets. It’s hard to pour your soul out to an audience that doesn’t seem to appreciate it… but when you know they are right there with you and the things you are singing about- it’s easy to open up and lay it all out on the stage."

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

There have been too many to count but I would say the most life altering one was my chorus teacher Mrs. Frye. She gave up a career as a professional opera singer to be a mom, wife and teacher. And she pulled a withdrawn 12-year-old Paula into her classroom and said "Child, if you learn what I teach, you will be able to sing whatever you want for as long as you want without messing up your voice which is a gift from God!" She saw potential and taught me I was special because of my voice.  She also told me- "The hardest thing you will ever learn is who you are and how to be that person in all you do. Theory is easy! Finding and expressing your unique voice is not. It will be a lifelong journey and no matter how much you think you know- there is still a lesson to be learned" That is also the best advice anyone ever gave me and it allows me to take constructive criticism to this day as the valuable thing it is rather than being insulted.

What do you miss most nowadays from the music of the past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

I miss the creative explosion that is evidenced in all American music around the midcentury. Where Jazz and Blues were allowed to evolve into R&B, Soul, Country, Pop and all the musical niches we have today. Now, there are so many genres and micro genres that everyone seems to be too busy trying to fill their miniscule niche instead of just creating great music. Blues people tell you if it doesn't sound like what has already been done in the industry such as shuffles, 1-4-5 changes etc. that is it not "Blues". Jazz seems to be a long list of very talented people recycling the great American songbook- which seems to have stopped somewhere in the midcentury. Why is this? Did we stop creating great music in the 60's? I think there is something fundamentally wrong when a group of people can get together and play songs with no rehearsal. Jazz musicians call from a pretty narrow set of tunes, and blues musicians pull from an equally narrow set of forms. I'd like to see music get back to the creative thing it is supposed to be.

I am fearful that both genres will die, or only exist as historically significant footnotes if they are not allowed to evolve. Country music went through something similar in the 90's when Shania Twain and Mutt Lang came along and brought it from the twangy rhinestone, fringe and big haired thing it was into something modern, fresh and cool. Now country rivals pop music. Now I see fabulous musicians who are jazz and/or blues labelling themselves Indie or alternative artists because the title of Blues and Jazz has become so restrictive. My fear is that subsequent generations will be hearing jazz and blues- but will not realize it because of "branding" Why are we so caught up in labels? There are really only two kinds of music...good or bad.

What are some of the most important lessons you have learned from your paths in music circuits?

Don't sell yourself short.

Don't second guess it when you feel a connection with a song

Appreciate your musicians!

Allow each musician in your scope to be themselves and embrace the unique qualities they bring to the music.

Take people on a journey during a show. That means love songs, songs of heartache, irreverent numbers, mixing original music with covers and mixing standard covers with re- imagined covers, and allow each band member time to shine... it validates them as musicians and it keeps your audience from getting ear fatigue. No matter how good you are- changing it up in a show keeps an audience interested. Appreciate your audience! Without them you are a karaoke singer in your living room.

What does it mean to be a female artist in a “Man World” as James Brown said? What is the status of women in music?

I never felt it was a "man's world" We would be extinct if it were. And though I had my share (and probably several other women's as well) of men behaving rudely, condescendingly, or inappropriately towards me in my life, I don't believe in victim mentality. And in most cases, if I am honest with myself, the only person or entity capable of getting or holding me down is myself -and limitations "I" accept. And there might be women out there who feel it is difficult to compete against men. For me...competition is competition. When I was up for a BMA for my first album and didn't win. I be-friended Big Llou Johnson who did win that year. I respect his talent and think he's a darn nice guy. In fact, I respect him so much, I made him a Special guest on "Speakeasy". Competition, if the victim mentality is removed, is a healthy thing that SHOULD inspire all of us to continually evolve and be better. That said I also enjoy doing all female shows and celebrating the experiences we have all shared as "women" Being a part of a sisterhood is a beautiful thing. And to end the question you asked... if you listen to the words of that James Brown song...it might be a man's world. But it "wouldn't be nothing, without a woman or a girl" to make being a man worthwhile.

Let’s take a trip with a time machine, so where and why would you really want to go for a whole day?

I'd go back to when I was getting acceptance letters from colleges. I had a partial scholarship offer from Julliard one day. But I let a music professor at Clemson convince me and my parents it was too expensive to live in New York and that "the chances I me making a living from music were pretty slim" I let another person's disbelief in my talent to cause me to walk away from the one place I should have been at that point in my life. It was something I knew in my bones was the right choice and it is the only time I have ever ignored that inner voice. If I had it to do over again, I would have done whatever it took to get there and I would have taken that scholarship!

"All the bad things that ever happened. Heartbreak, embarrassment, Sadness, hurt, loss… They teach you to have emotion, they make you take an honest look at yourself and they also allow you to feel the music rather than just singing the notes."

Any of blues jazz standards have any real personal feelings for you and what are some of your favorite?

“Some of my best friends are the Blues” is something I remember listening to as a little girl. I was a weirdo and had trouble getting along with other kids so I just shut everyone out and put up a front that I didn’t “want” friends. I used to spend hours in my room and music truly was my best friend. I also love all the Etta James songs. I knew when we were recording the CD that she  was close to the end and I wanted  tribute to her because she was such a big influence. It was so hard to select one to put on the album. We went with “Damn Your Eyes”  which I felt we could do in such a way that I could do her justice while still maintaining my own identity as a singer. But the most well written song that I have yet to record is “ You don’t know what love is” The lyrics are beautiful and I think that even though it is known as a jazz standard- it is also a perfect blues song. The first line is- “You don’t know what love is, until you learn the meaning of the blues”.

What does the BLUES mean to you and what does music offered you?

The blues are the basis for every form of American Music… Jazz, soul, country…even Funk. The blues are the genetic DNA of every genre I grew up listening to.  Singing and songwriting isn’t something you can do before you learn your ABC’s. Growing up listening to “Blues” was like learning my ABC’s. It gave me an understanding of how words form rhythms and how chord structure gives you a framework to put a melody into. They also are a great representation of how just a few lines can paint a visual and emotional picture. They offer me an outlet to express myself and every emotion from Anger or Joy…to Tears or Laughter. It’s a very cathartic experience.

What do you learn about yourself from music?

That there isn’t very much that has happened to me that someone else hasn’t also experienced. On one hand it makes you feel  less unique but on the other hand it also makes you feel more connected to humanity.

How do you describe your philosophy about the music?

Say what you feel- or choose songs that say it for you…and sing it with all your heart… and allow your emotions to come through in the music. As long as you’re genuine you will connect with your audience- even if that audience is only yourself.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

All the bad things that ever happened. Heartbreak, embarrassment, Sadness, hurt, loss… They teach you to have emotion, they make you take an honest look at yourself and they also allow you to feel the music rather than just singing the notes. It’s kinda hard to hear a 12 year old sing about “Loving and losing” and “believe” it ya know? The more you live- good and bad…the better you can perform. Those experiences are like an acting class for your voice. You can’t sing with conviction about something you have never experienced. Does that make sense?

Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?

The worst was when I was in my 20’s and 30’s and venue owners, music producers or  other people in the music industry tried to act like I needed to offer them sexual favors to become famous. LOL..see? There IS a reason you’ve never heard of me! I turned down numerous record contracts because I wasn’t attracted to the slimeballs that were offering them- but I still have my dignity and self respect. No one can take that from me- and nothing is worth giving it up for. I’d rather be a great karaoke singer no one has ever heard of…than a famous pop diva who is famous because she went to bed with influential men. The best moment would be a tossup between the times I performed with symphony orchestras (OMG! What a feeling to have 72 people playing in your band!), and when I competed I the 2012 IBC in Memphis. It was the first time I had ever performed my original music for such a big audience. To see that auditorium full of people give a standing ovation to one of my songs was SUCH an emotional moment for me! It validated all the years I stayed true to being a musician when everyone was telling me “Get a real job”.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Albert Coleman?

(snort of laughter)... Albert Coleman was such a character!  The “Atlanta “Pops” Symphony did shows with only one rehearsal- and often we only ran through songs one time! (It’s very expensive to rehearse that many musicians) The show went on no matter how bad the rehearsal was.  I had a music professor at Clemson University create a chart from a 1960’s Barbara Streisand tune called “ Like a Straw in the wind” It was a beast of a tune with tempo changes and all sorts of hard progressions. Normally there are a few problems in any new chart and this was no exception. But we ran through the song in rehearsal and instead of ironing out the problems- Albert said “ It’ll be fine”! We got to the concert and had about 6000 people in the audience. It was an outdoor concert. The song was actually going really well until the final big progression leading up to the end. I  heard the orchestra level dropping off and turned around to see what the matter was. Albert had apparently been wearing suspenders on his pants and they had come loose. His Pants had fallen down (by the way he was wearing a white tux and red boxers with little hearts on them- LMAO!) When Albert reached to pull them back up the music scattered off the stand because of the wind. When I looked back I saw Albert bent over trying to hold his pants up, pick up the music AND conduct the band… and he was a few hands short of getting it all done. I turned around , raised my hands and conducted the orchestra while I sang through that final progression and gave Albert enough time to get his pants up and the music back on the stand. I can honestly say he never gave a dull performance!

"Etta James….she showed me that singing doesn’t always have to be “pretty”  but that it DOES have to sound good!… She also showed me that rawness and passion can be as pleasing as “ tone” …and much rarer to find- therefore more valuable in many cases."

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from William Bell?

William Bell… First of all I have to say that for anyone who doesn’t know him- William is one of the most prolific song writers ever. He has numerous hits to his own credit but also has MANY more with other people like Booker T. I thank god that I was ignorant enough in my youth that I was unaware of that side of him or I would never have had to balls to show him any of my songs (rueful laugh)  But I do remember him reading several of my lyrics and chuckling to himself. When William really gets tickled,  he has this wheezing kind of laugh… one of my songs got him going like that. When he finally got his breath back he looked up at me and said  “Paula- you’re a BAD girl! “ (of course he meant that is a good way because of my naughty lyrics).
Also for those of you that don’t know it… William is a sushi LOVER! We had many a sushi dinner after or before the studio when I was in Atlanta (and here is a secret inside bit of info- one of Williams favorite Sushi buddies is Maurice White from “Earth Wind and Fire”- they grab a sushi dinner anytime Maurice is in town!). One more memory about William: William has a record company called Wilbe Records in Atlanta. He has tight security around his building for a good reason. The entrance to the Studios is kinds of in the back of the building and there isn't a lot of traffic back there. It;s also pretty dark. One night Ginette, his Assistant, had gone out to her car to get something and on the way back in, a man who was obviously high on something stumbled out of the dark tried to rob her. He had a gun and was waving it around. Ginette is a smart lady and she quickly figured out the man wasn’t going to be logical because of whatever he was messed up on... (she also said she knew a moving target was harder to hit than a point blank still one) so she made a run for the door of the studio. The man actually fired that gun at her! He hit the metal strip surrounding the door of the studio and missed her by less than a foot! When she ran into the studio and told us what had happened- WOW- was William ever MAD! He called the police. And I can’t remember if William had his own gun or not- but I do remember he braved going out into the hallway to make sure the door was locked. I also remember thinking that I sure wouldn’t want to cross William when he’s in a temper!

Which of historical blues, jazz, and soul personalities would you like to meet?

Well I have met Etta James, Lou Rawls, Ray Charles and Gladys Knight… So I’d have to say Miles Davis (I love anyone that thinks outside the box the way he did…he also refused to allow people to “ Label” him as one thing or another as far as his music was concerned.) Luther Vandross (I love his open elegant arrangements and beautiful vocal interpretations), Big Mama Thornton and Alberta Hunter (both sound like the "Bette Midler" of their day and like they loved to have fun), Little Milton (love his funky takes on the blues) and I’d still love to meet Aretha Franklin, George Benson and Chaka Khan.

From whom have you have learned the most secrets about the music?

Etta James….she showed me that singing doesn’t always have to be “pretty”  but that it DOES have to sound good!… She also showed me that rawness and passion can be as pleasing as “ tone” …and much rarer to find- therefore more valuable in many cases.

"That there isn’t very much that has happened to me that someone else hasn’t also experienced. On one hand it makes you feel  less unique but on the other hand it also makes you feel more connected to humanity."

From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?

They all sing and play the same thing… they are all musicians. Only difference is one can wear a skirt without raising eyebrows! LOL

Some music styles can be fads but the blues/jazz is always with us. Why do think that is? Give one wish for the BLUES...

Like I said earlier- The Blues are the DNA that every form of American music is based on. Jazz is the daughter of the blues and is unique in that freedom of expression is encouraged. Jazz is also something that appeals to musicians because you have to know the roots of what you’re playing before you can elaborate on it. Jazz is basically elaboration and variation of the blues.
My wish for the blues is that people STOP saying the Blues are dying and recognize that the blues are alive and well in what is being labeled Pop and other genres of music these days. Listen to Amy Winehouse (Rehab, and pretty much anything she did), Duffy (especially her Song “ Mercy”), and Adele (Rolling in the Deep)… can’t you hear an old black man stomping his foot on the porch and slapping his knee singing “There’s a fire- starting in my heart…reaching a fever pitch and it’s  bringing me out the dark”? The blues are NOT dying- they are simply being called something else. They may be evolving for a younger audience and away from the 12 bar standard format- but they are far from dead. My wish is that people stop trying to put each singer and song into such little boxes like pop, jazz, blues, funk, soul, trip hop, punk… I mean seriously… there are blues festivals that even make you specify “ What” kind of blues you do… swing, jump, delta, Chicago… what is with this obsession with Labels? What can’t we just get back to enjoying GOOD music? Who cares what it’s called. Music is NOT something that needs to be overthought it only needs to be enjoyed. My second wish is that people stop trying so hard to “define” what the blues are and just enjoy the music.

How would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage? What compliment do you appreciate the most after a gig?

I am locked in with an audience. There is energy between us… the more appreciative they are- the better my performance gets. It’s hard to pour your soul out to an audience that doesn’t seem to appreciate it… but when you know they are right there with you and the things you are singing about- it’s easy to open up and lay it all out on the stage. The compliment I enjoy most is when people tell me that had an emotional response to something I sang. I especially love to hear that I made them laugh and cry all in the same show.

What is your “secret” music DREAM?

No secret…I want to be able to make a living playing my music. Of course a few awards like a BMA or a Grammy would be gratifying- but as long as I can pay the bills through sharing something I love like I do music- I am already living “the dream”.

Happiness is……

Doing what you love… and success is doing what you love and getting PAID for it.

"The blues are the basis for every form of American Music… Jazz, soul, country…even Funk. The blues are the genetic DNA of every genre I grew up listening to."

Are there any memories from studio and gigs with all GREAT MUSICIANS, which you’d like to share with us?

Too many to list. I’ve been doing this a long time. But the most recent was in recording one of my previous CD. We went into the studio with hopes of recording 4 good songs. That’s ambitious for one day by the way. The chemistry was so strong between the musicians that we ended up recording 8 songs- AND we ended up having 2 hours left over at the end of the day which we didn’t even need. THAT almost never happens! All of the songs were done in 2 takes or less that day. The studio technician said we generated more usable material than any other group he’d worked with. And the amazing thing was we only had ONE rehearsal to get ready for the studio. That kind of chemistry is a rare and special thing and I am looking forward to doing the second half of the album with them next month. That special group I am referring to is comprised of Joey Fabian on Bass- he is the bassist with all my different bands and is solid as a rock in his playing… he also looks like he’s having sex with his bass while he’s on stage which is always interesting to see (grinning) Terry Hiatt on guitar. Terry is a Bay Area Legend and that is saying a LOT because the San Francisco Bay Area literally has hundreds of the best blues bands in the world all in one place. Derrick D’mar Martin on drums… OMG- this guy can steal a show from a front person from behind the drums if you’re not on your toes! He was with Little Richard  for 16 years and is the best drummer I have ever seen! The fact that he is also such a great showman is an added bonus. And Simon Russell… why this man isn’t famous is beyond me! He plays the piano with a beautiful elegance that never clashes with any of the other instruments and his choice of chords is unique and innovative. He really shows a strong jazz  and gospel background in what he does. Plus… even though he doesn’t do it on my album- you should hear him sing! He sounds like a cross between Bobby Womack and Teddy Pendergrass!

Paula Harris - Official Website


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