An Interview with Dona Oxford: Music is like life. It's always more fun to play with other people than to play by yourself.

"Blues is a feeling. It's not about the melody or the type of drum beat or the tone of the guitar."

Dona Oxford: A deep funky groove!!
In a dramatic scene reminiscent of the life story of many a blues legend, Doña Oxford was born in a parking lot in the back seat of an old Chevrolet. Although the event perhaps falls short of qualifying as the stuff of fable (since it occurred not in the Mississippi Delta, but outside a hospital on New York City’s ritzy Upper West Side), Doña’s impatience to enter the world was an early indication of the guts, determination, heart and soul with which she imbues her music.


After Oxford’s father, a trumpet playing Episcopal Priest, died when Doña was only fifteen months old, Doña and her mother, an ex-cabaret singer, moved to Upstate New York. Inspired to play the piano after being given a one-octave toy piano as a gift, Doña began taking lessons at school. Meanwhile, Doña’s mother exposed the youngster to many types of music, escorting her daughter to everything from punk rock shows at CBGB’s to Tom Jones shows. By age seven Doña was performing publicly and started formal classical training, which she continued until sixteen.
Simultaneously, Doña developed a great love for musical theater and began singing and acting extensively in both regional and Off-Broadway plays. She also became attracted however, to the primal rock ‘n roll of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. At 17, Doña applied and was accepted to New York University’s prestigious Tisch School of the Arts, where she studied drama.
While in college, Doña began working as a waitress at the now-defunct Lone Star Café, a legendary New York City meeting ground of the blues and roots music elite. Soon Oxford was sitting in at open-mic nights. It was at one of those early informal jam sessions that Doña met and became very close friends with Arthur Neilson, the two formed a band called Oxford Blues.
In addition to leading her own band, Doña continued to sideman and her reputation as a top-notch keyboardist and vocalist continued to grow. Oxford has performed with such legendary performers as Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Bob Weir, Hubert Sumlin, Son Seals, Lonnie Brooks, Sam Lay, Jimmy Vivino, Kenny Neal, Shirley Dixon, Shemekia Copeland, Popa Chubby, Bernard Allison, Willie Kent, Jody Williams, Jimmy Johnson, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Creed guitarist Mark Tremonti, and her idol, former Chuck Berry sideman and Father of Rock & Roll Piano, Johnnie Johnson!
Doña has toured all over the world, bringing her amazing keyboard playing and vocals with this many accomplishments, one would think that Doña Oxford must be satisfied. Not so! In addition to playing around the world and indulging her diverse interests (Doña is an accomplished drummer, graphic artist and auto mechanic), and she has performed on many Major Motion Picture soundtracks.


Interview by Michael Limnios


Dona, when was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?
As a little girl, I was attracted to RAGTIME music; Scott Joplin, Zez Confrey. This led me to Boogie Woogie, Meede Lux Lewis & Pete Johnson, which then led me to blues, Albert Ammons & Jay McShann.  But I really fell in love with early Rock & Roll pianists, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnnie Johnson, & Little Richard.
When I got to meet Johnnie Johnson, Chuck Berry's Piano Player, it changed my life. He became my teacher, my idol, and my friend.



What was the first gig you ever went to & what were the first songs you learned?  
The very first song I ever learned was a boogie version of “In The Mood, by Glenn Miller. My second song was The Entertainer by Scott Joplin.  I don't remember my first concert because my mother brought me to many shows of many famous artists, since I was a baby. But the first one I really remember was Liza Minnelli.  I remember being struck by her high energy and showmanship. I was only 6 years old.  My first show I ever performed was a contest for young songwriters at my local school. But my first 'paying' job was at a local New York City bar called Dan Lynch's (now defunct). I played with a bunch of local musicians.


Any of blues standards have any real personal feelings for you & what are some of your favorite?
Sadly, I feel that many great blues standards have been ruined by being overplayed by bad blues bands.
Blues is a feeling. It's not about the melody or the type of drum beat or the tone of the guitar. I understand the joy people find in trying to replicate that perfect sound, but that's not what the blues is. It's an expression of an emotion.  I talk about this later (below) in my story about Willie Kent & The Gents.


What do you learn about yourself from music?
Music is like life. It's always more fun to play with other people than to play by yourself.  You may stumble and hit a wrong note, but if you stop and make a big deal about it, it just draws more unwanted attention.  If you ignore it and keep going, it makes for a much more interesting journey!!


How do you describe your philosophy about the music?
I think there is nothing sexier or more important than showing your vulnerability in your art. When I see artists who are too self-aware I find that the music is not as good. When you let it all 'hang out', it makes for a more authentic art.


What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?  
What I've learned about becoming a good musician is:
You have to listen. It's not about what YOU want to say. It's about working together with others and creating the music in the moment. And the only way to do that is to listen to the other musicians on the stage. Don't overplay. Less is more. Listen to what the others are doing and find those little gaps or spaces and then fill them in, as needed.


How do you get inspiration for your songs & what do you think is the main characteristic of you personality that made you a songwriter?
I grew up on old movie musicals. The lyrics are so smart and witty. Cole Porter, Rogers & Hammerstein. They tell stories. And the Blues is the same. It tells stories. I don't like modern music because the lyrical content has nothing important to say. Any great song, wether it's Country, Jazz, Heavy Metal, Rock or Blues has a great story to tell. That's the kind of music I love the most. I love telling stories. I love creating.


Which was the best moment of your career and which was the worst?
Best moment of my career: I got a chance to open for Johnnie Johnson at a club in NYC. He seemed impressed with me and he said that I sounded just like him! What a compliment!! After the show, he gave me his card and told me to call him if I am ever in his hometown of St. Louis, MO. Well a few months later I was touring in St. Louis and I was too nervous to call him. I didn't want to bother him. After all, he is a legend!! But my Guitar player, Arthur Neilson insisted that I call Johnnie. Arthur said, “The man asked you to call him, you have to do it!!”. So I did. Johnnie answered the phone himself. I reminded him who I was; “the little girl from NYC”, he seemed delighted that I called. I invited him to the show, but he wast sure if he'd be able to get to the club, but he said he would try.  Sure enough, In the middle of the show, in walks Johnnie Johnson!
On the intermission, I asked him if he would like to play with the band and he said.... (and this was the best moment of my life)... “NO, I don't want to play. I want to sit back, relax, and listen to me!!”  I was so honored!!


What is the “think” you miss from the Lone Star Café, NY?
The Lone Star Cafe had an amazing energy. They always had great artists. I saw Albert King, James Brown, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Johnny Copeland, Eric Clapton, LuAnn Barton. So Many amazing musicians would play every night of the week.  I wish there were clubs like that today.  



Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?
I never got to see Jay McShan or Otis Spann or Sunnyland Slim. I wish I could see them play live.


From whom have you have learned the most secrets about blues music?
My favorite “lesson” was when I was playing with Bassist, Willie Kent & The Gents from Chicago. I had played with Willie for 2 years and knew his entire repertoire. One day he called out a blues standard that everyone knew, but it was not in his repertoire, so I asked him, in what key he plays the song? He turned to me and said, “It doesn't matter.” I was shocked!!  I said, “But Willie, the band needs to know what key to play the song.” Again, he said, “It doesn't matter”.  I thought maybe he didn't understand me, so I asked again, “But Willie, we need to know what key is good for you to sing in your vocal range. In what key do you want us to play the song?”  He came close to me and said in a very stern and firm voice, “It doesn't matter in what key you play the song. I will find a way to tell the story!!”  That was the best lesson. It taught me, what I said earlier about the blues, that it's not the melody, or the tone, or the rhythm, it’s the story!! And a great bluesman always finds a way to tell the story even if he has to change the melody.


Of all the BLUES people you’ve meeting, who do you admire the most?
There have been so many. Johnnie Johnson is at the top of the list. He was an incredible musician, but more importantly, a very humble man.


Υou have been met Chuck Berry?
I never met Chuck Berry. And from what I've heard about him from other musicians, I don't care to.  


Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?
Because it does tell a story. It shares the heartache, the joy, the laughter, the pain. It's also a basic, simple rhythm and chord structure that feels innately familiar.


Give one wish for the BLUES.
People think that because the blues has a simple structure, that it is easy to play and as a result, everyone thinks they are good at it.  But it's deeper than that and it's really more intricate. Recently I was hired to play with a mediocre blues band. It actually hurt me. I was so depressed and it was the worst musical experience of my life. And yet, they thought they were fantastic. It was sad.   I hope that people will honor the genre and not dilute it by flooding the market with bad quality blues music.


Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Keith Richards?
Here is a copy of my story about Keith Richards.  I will say that he was one of the nicest and most humble men I've ever met.  Also... he's tiny!! He's got the body of a 14 year old boy!! I was very surprised. Legends often seem larger than life. I didn't think he would be that small.


From the musical point of view is there any difference and similarities between: bluesman & blueswoman?
Yes. In my experience, most great male musicians start out as teenage 'social misfits' who spend hours practicing their craft in their bedroom and rarely give any time to dating or partying. They are focused solely on their craft. However most female musicians are more interested in looking pretty and being the center of attention; for example the lead singer with long fingernails and lots of make-up and big hair.
Very few female musician's spend the required hours of social deprivation needed to be a great musician. There are definitely some of us.  We recognize it in each other and acknowledge it. But it is rare.


What is your “secret” music DREAM? What turns you on? Happiness is……
A deep funky groove!!


Which is the most interesting period in your life and why?
“NOW” is always the most interesting. I'm a person who loves to create and once I've achieved something, I get bored and move on to the next thing, so I'm always living in the “Now” or “Future”. I rarely stay with one thing for too long.


Which of the musicians you have worked with do you consider the best friend?
I played with Arthur Neilson for 13 years and he is like a brother to me. He always looked after me.  I miss playing with him very much. I moved to Chicago after September 11, 2001 World Trade Center attack in NYC. And then I moved to Los Angeles. He stayed with his family in NYC to play with Shemekia Copeland.
But I will say that the band I have now in Los Angeles is truly my family. We fight together, we eat together, we love one another. We make great music together. It's a wonderful relationship.


Are there any memories with all GREAT MUSICIANS, which you’d like to share with us?
I've played with so many amazing legendary musicians: Son Seals, Hubert Sumlin, Lonnie Brooks, Buddy Guy, Bernard Allison, Levon Helm, Bob Weir, Shemekia Copeland, Debbie Davies, Keith Richards, Jimmy Vivino, Jody Williams, Willie Kent, Jimmy & Syl Johnson, Johnnie Johnson, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, Popa Chubby, Phil Upchurch, Albert Lee, etc. I just feel so honored that my art has taken me around the world with all of these people. It's a blessing.


Where did you pick up your style, how would you describe your contact to people when you are on stage?
Well again, I try to tell the story. And I think people connect with it. We all feel pain, joy, sorrow, happiness. So it connects us in the moment. Everyone can relate to a good story about breaking up with your ex-lover or about a joyous occasion. I think it makes for a much better show when I can look someone in the eye in the audience and feel that they understand me and I understand them.


Dona Oxford’s Official site





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