Q&A with Sallie Bengtson of NOLA Blue & Blue Heart Records - a music aficionado with a heart full of blues

"Music is a powerful emotional vehicle for expression of human feelings, and therefore will always be intertwined with all aspects of the human existence."

Sallie Bengtson: A Heart Full Of Blues

Nola Blue, Inc. is owned and operated by Sallie Bengtson, a music aficionado with a heart full of blues. Sallie has a degree in Business Administration and Management from Albright College and more than twenty years of business experience in various administrative, management and ownership roles. The opportunity to combine her business skills with her enthusiasm and passion for music is a dream come true, and shines through in all of her efforts. NOLA BLUE, INC. was established in 2014 with blues legend Benny Turner as its first client. Recognizing the need for Benny's story to be told and music to be heard, work began across three major areas: worldwide distribution of his music, active marketing of him as a world-class performer and collection of photographs and interviews for his autobiography.

(Sallie Bengtson of NOLA Blue Records & Blue Heart Records / Nick Gould Photography)

Four years, one award-winning autobiography and three critically-acclaimed albums later, label expansion began in 2018. Blind Raccoon, the PR Agency of Record, is led by Betsie Brown, who brings nearly two decades of music marketing experience to her work. When new music is released, she ensures that all corners of the globe are notified and kept updated on all the latest artist news. 2019 marks the establishment of the Lone Star Blues & Heritage Festival. Located in East Texas, not far from the birthplace of Benny Turner, it is the perfect opportunity to honor the inspiration for beginning this business, celebrate the legacy and support the future of Texas blues. Betsie Brown, owner of the publicity and media services company Blind Raccoon, and Sallie Bengtson, president of NOLA Blue Records, launched a new label and give new option for musicians via the Blue Heart Records imprint, established between Nola Blue and Blind Raccoon four years ago. Blue Heart Records is a female-owned, independent, full-service record label devoted to championing multi-generational blues and roots artists. 

Interview by Michael Limnios   Special Thanks: Betsie Brown & Sallie Bengtson

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

My love of blues and soul has led me to explore and understand the origins of the music, both geographically and historically, to an extent that I otherwise might not have. Some of my favorite cities are favorites because of the music I've enjoyed there, and some of my most memorable travel experiences have been directly linked to music events. I think in a broad sense, blues and soul music provides the soundtrack to my life - the highs, the lows and everything in between. It's an integral part of my daily existence.  

What do you learn about yourself from the Blues people? How has the music influenced your views of the world?

Overwhelmingly, I have gained a much broader life perspective through immersion in the blues and its history. Hearing stories of those whose lives were influenced both directly and indirectly as a result of slavery, racism and oppression in America quickly brings those school history lessons into sharp perspective. It also gives me insights into the ongoing current race-related struggles in America in a way I wouldn’t have otherwise had.  I find it both heartbreaking and tragic, and it only makes me redouble my efforts to support and uplift our beloved blues men and women as much as I can.

At the same time, I think that feelings such as sadness, despair and hopelessness are universal emotions of the human experience regardless of race or gender. There are seemingly countless factors that can contribute to those “blue” feelings on an individual level. 

"I’m proud to be a female label owner, but at the same time I don’t believe it exclusively defines me. I’m so fortunate that my very first corporate work experience was overwhelmingly positive in this regard, and it laid a strong foundation for my confidence as an individual, rather than exclusively as a woman. Certainly, as a demographic group, women are faced with challenges, barriers and perceptions, but I don’t think they’re unique to the music industry." (Photo: Sallie Bengtson & Benny Turner, Memphis TN)

What were the reasons that you started a Blues/Roots label? What is the story behind the name NOLA BLUE?

I actually started my company and named it Nola Blue before working in the blues & roots music industry! When forming my corporation, I needed a name, and combining my favorite place with my favorite music had a really nice ring to it. When my original endeavor ended and I found myself at a professional and personal crossroads, I decided to follow my passion and work with the music that I love.

I began my “blues work” with the goal of writing a book about bluesman Benny Turner’s life story, which I had always found to be very interesting and something that should be documented and shared. It was during the course of that research and development process that I became intrigued with the business of making and selling music, and figured it would be an important companion to the autobiography already in progress. Suddenly a whole new world opened up for me; a world in which I could use my business education and experience combined with my passion for blues music and really flourish in an impactful way, both for artists and for my own personal and professional satisfaction. It was a pretty incredible epiphany at a time when I really needed something positive to cling to. Ironically, “having the blues” was and still is a very good thing for me!

What characterizes label's philosophy and mission? What is the hardest part making your label's roster?

My mission seems to be ever-evolving, but at its core is my “heart full of blues” and the desire to be instrumental in creating, preserving and perpetuating the music that is so meaningful, enjoyable and inspirational to me. Having grown up in a very musical family, I’ve always known that it takes so much more than talent to be successful as a musician. Having a strong support system is an equally important piece of the puzzle, and to be able to use my skills and gifts to help provide that to musicians I respect and admire is as much of a blessing as it is a vocation.

How started the thought of Blue Heart Records? How do you describe label's philosophy and mission?

The mission of Blue Heart Records is to provide independent artists with a service combining the promotional excellence of Blind Raccoon with the distribution channels and label expertise of Nola Blue for a professional support system designed to help maximize the impact and success of their music releases. A comprehensive release plan based proven success helps prevent the missed opportunities that can be inevitable without adequate experience. Being able to access such a personalized service while maintaining independence and rights ownership is a valuable asset for growth. Having grown up in a very musical family, I’ve always known that it takes so much more than talent to be successful as a musician. A strong team providing support can be equally impactful. Using my skills and gifts in support of musicians I respect and admire is as much of a blessing as it is a vocation. 

"I've learned the impact that one person's genuine efforts can have on the life of an artist, especially when combined with other like-minded people working as a devoted team. There is no greater feeling for an artist than to have the full backing of a supportive team. I've learned that even something as fundamental as leading with honesty and sincerity isn't as fundamental as one might think. And maybe most importantly, I've learned that when you find your passion, whether it is writing, performing or providing services in the music industry, absolutely nothing else compares to it." (Photo: Sallie Bengtson & Betsie Brown of Blue Heart Records with Benny Turner)

What would you say characterizes Betsie Brown and Blind Raccoon in comparison to other PR agencies and publicists?

Working with Betsie and Blind Raccoon was a pivotal point in the development of Nola Blue Records, and I have come to learn of many others who feel the same. Put very simply, she accelerated the path to success for Nola Blue Records. Her intelligence, strategic insights, work ethic and international network are second-to-none, and perhaps most importantly, the Blind Raccoon reputation is golden.  Betsie says what she means, and she means what she says. You can be assured that she won't over-promise and under-deliver, because she approaches everything from a practical and realistic perspective, and then she works very, very hard. 

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? Are there any memories which you’d like to share?

Meeting Benny Turner twenty years ago is of paramount importance to my place in the blues industry today. The seeds of friendship that were planted at that time have blossomed into an amazingly rewarding and mutually-beneficial working partnership that has literally transformed my career path.

I met Benny because of my friend, Debra Clark, who introduced me to the music of his first, self-produced CD, “Blue And Not So Blue.” My friendship with Debra began because of our mutual love of blues music and New Orleans, and it has come full circle because we now work together in support of the music we love so much. Her graphic design work provides the professional visual impact of our projects. She puts forth great effort and gets paid blues wages in return, so she is an angel among us, for sure!    

Lastly, I cannot overstate the importance of my friendship and work partnership with Betsie Brown of Blind Raccoon. When I hired her to promote my second Benny Turner release, “When She’s Gone,” I had no idea that I would find such a kindred spirit in so many ways. Joining forces with her organization has been a huge blessing and a valued mentorship as well. I’m very fortunate to have a team of individuals who have grown to become close friends and invaluable business partners. Everything works together synergistically for a grand result!

"I would make sure that music is inherently valued so much that people are inspired enough to be willing to buy it. There’s a social media post titled “Respect the Artist – Buy The Music” that is very impactful." (Photo: Sallie Bengtson of NOLA Blue and Blue Heart Records with Benny Turner & Cash McCall)

Are there any memories from the late greats Cash McCall and Frank Bey which you’d like to share with us?

I met Cash McCall for the first time in Memphis in May of 2018. It was a joy and an honor to have him among Benny Turner's guests at our table at the Blues Music Awards. There were so many memorable moments, but two things from that evening will always remain in the forefront of my mind. Benny and I drove Cash home that evening, and when we first got in the car I asked him his street address for input into the GPS on my phone. As we were getting closer to his house, Cash started giving me some directions, and I told him that I was OK because I had everything on my phone. He quickly turned his head in surprise and said, "JESUS CHRIST! Your phone tells you how to get places?  Lord have mercy!" Then, as we turned onto his street, he told me to watch for the house "with Willie's van in the driveway." That seemed easy enough. After we dropped him off, Benny was telling me that I didn't realize "what an important dude" he was. I nodded my head and assured him that I remembered that they have a long history together going back to the gospel days in Chicago in the late 50's. And Benny said, "Yeah, but he played with Bo Diddley, man! And Etta James and Willie Dixon, and... well, you know that's Willie's old van in his driveway!" WHAT?! When Cash mentioned Willie's van, I assumed it was a friend or a neighbor's van, but his casual landmark reference was to Willie Dixon's van! Sadly, I only knew Cash for a short time, and only got to scratch the surface of hearing his stories and learning first-hand about his musical legacy.

When I think about Frank Bey and the memories, I’m always filled with peace.  A phone call with Frank never ended with "goodbye," it ended with "peace," right through the very last time I spoke with him on the day before his final surgical procedure. Frank had an aura of peace to match his infamous parting word; a deep peace within himself as well as a philosophy of his interactions with the world around him. I think that even my young son felt that special magic of Frank's peaceful presence. I brought him with me when Frank performed at a festival in our city, and we went backstage to greet him after the show. My normally insecure 11 year-old went straight for Frank and threw his arms around him in a giant hug that may have shocked me even more than it shocked Frank! I didn't even have a chance to make the introduction before my son took matters into his own hands! The joy in Frank's eyes and his smile during that special moment will live in my heart forever. Just as with Cash McCall, I didn't have the gift of much time to really hear about Frank's musical career, but in his case we all have the gift of a documentary film about his life.

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

I've learned the impact that one person's genuine efforts can have on the life of an artist, especially when combined with other like-minded people working as a devoted team. There is no greater feeling for an artist than to have the full backing of a supportive team. I've learned that even something as fundamental as leading with honesty and sincerity isn't as fundamental as one might think. And maybe most importantly, I've learned that when you find your passion, whether it is writing, performing or providing services in the music industry, absolutely nothing else compares to it. Working in the music industry requires the passion to work many long hours, accept seemingly endless dead leads, false hopes and a steady influx of work to be done; but every drop of blood, sweat and tears melts away in an instant when the music hits a new place on the charts or gets a rave review, nomination or award. Possibly even better, when the thrill of a live show begins, the crowd is loving it, and I can witness the true joy that music brings, knowing that my own special role in the team helps to support that communal experience is a pretty wonderful feeling. 

"My mission seems to be ever-evolving, but at its core is my “heart full of blues” and the desire to be instrumental in creating, preserving and perpetuating the music that is so meaningful, enjoyable and inspirational to me. Having grown up in a very musical family, I’ve always known that it takes so much more than talent to be successful as a musician. Having a strong support system is an equally important piece of the puzzle, and to be able to use my skills and gifts to help provide that to musicians I respect and admire is as much of a blessing as it is a vocation." (Photo: Sallie "Blue" Bengtson)

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

I grew up during the MTV and new British Invasion era of the 1980’s and that was my first real exposure to popular music when I was with friends. Since my entire family is filled with classically-trained musicians, that was the only music played in our house.  So, having cut my teeth on what I call “intellectual” (classical) music, and then turning to heavily-synthesized pop music, when I discovered the blues in my early adulthood, it turned my world upside down and it hasn’t been the same since. The depth and breadth of emotional expression in the pure blues form is an incredibly powerful force, and one that resonates deeply within me. As technology continues to “improve” our lives, it can also simultaneously interfere with genuine, authentic musical expression. That is actually a big inspiration for our establishment of the brand-new Lone Star Blues & Heritage Festival. When Benny Turner was given the opportunity to produce a festival in East Texas that would kick off during the weekend of his 80th birthday (October 25-27, 2019), there was no question about whether we would do it! The park atmosphere is like taking a walk back in time to old East Texas, which is the perfect backdrop for the acoustic performances to be held on the porch stage. Unplugged and without effects, we’ll be honoring the tradition of raw musical expression, straight from the heart and soul of the performers.    

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would make sure that music is inherently valued so much that people are inspired enough to be willing to buy it. There’s a social media post titled “Respect the Artist – Buy The Music” that is very impactful. It presents a $5 cup of coffee and a group of performing musicians, and highlights the disposable nature of coffee versus the enduring benefits of music, and the time and costs of creating it. The same could be said for people who are turned off by paying a cover charge to see a band or tipping them for their performance. Musicians are sharing their artistic gifts in ways that touch others emotionally, yet somehow music gets taken for granted as being as much of our atmosphere as the air we breathe, rather than a result of the artists hard work and dedicated efforts to earn a living. Somehow the perception of musical value needs to be renewed.

"My love of blues and soul has led me to explore and understand the origins of the music, both geographically and historically, to an extent that I otherwise might not have. Some of my favorite cities are favorites because of the music I've enjoyed there, and some of my most memorable travel experiences have been directly linked to music events. I think in a broad sense, blues and soul music provides the soundtrack to my life - the highs, the lows and everything in between. " (Photos: Sallie Bengtson with Benny Turner, Jimmy Johnson, Frank Bey & Nola Blue family)

What does to be a female label owner in a “Man’s World” as James Brown says? What is the status of women in music?

I’m proud to be a female label owner, but at the same time I don’t believe it exclusively defines me. I’m so fortunate that my very first corporate work experience was overwhelmingly positive in this regard, and it laid a strong foundation for my confidence as an individual, rather than exclusively as a woman. Certainly, as a demographic group, women are faced with challenges, barriers and perceptions, but I don’t think they’re unique to the music industry.

What is the impact of Blues music and culture to the racial, political, and socio-cultural implications?  

Blues music was born out of the struggle and suffering of the African American community during a very disturbing period in American History. Sadly, we continue to experience new and different disturbing periods in our history, and that will continue to fuel protest songs as well as songs of hope and inspiration. Music is a powerful emotional vehicle for expression of human feelings, and therefore will always be intertwined with all aspects of the human existence.

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

That’s easy! I would go back to the late 60’s and early 70’s and instead of just entering this world, I would be old enough to be immersed in all of the incredible music of the time. I can listen to it and appreciate it now, but to be in the moment, experiencing it live at iconic events and venues I’ve read and heard so much about would be an amazing experience. I would especially love to have seen Benny Turner and Freddie King on stage together and witnessed the intense musical energy of those shows that inspired so many and have remained such powerful experiences for them to this day. I can’t count how many emails I’ve received or personal stories I’ve heard from fans who are so excited to connect with Benny and relive their favorite memories of his brother and him from those days. I soak it all in, while secretly jealous that I will never have those memories. Thankfully, the emergence of Benny’s career as a solo artist and my management role have given me the opportunity to make my own inspirational musical memories!

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(Photo: Sallie Bengtson, Benny Turner & Bobby Rush)

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