The Philly guitarist/drummer/singer Sister Blue talks about Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, Janis Joplin and the Greek food

"Blues is music to get rid of the blues, not to give you the blues."

Sister Blue: A Deeper Shade of Blue-S

A Philly native, Sister Blue fronts a driving blues band, with powerful vocals and stinging guitar leads. For variety, Sister Blue also leads an acoustic duo, playing blues and ragtime, including renditions of her favorite Bessie Smith songs, as well as compostions of her own.

"A BELTER OF THE BLUES", is how "PHILA. INQUIRER MAGAZINE" featured SISTER BLUE in a 1998 feature of "LOCAL ANGLE". That same year "NORTHEAST TIMES" described her as a singer whose..."soul fights its way out and fills the room with well-seasoned wisdom and joy", and "strums her guitar with a trance-like fervor". In 1999, "CHESTNUT HILL LOCAL" exclaimed, "she bellows, belabors, and blasts the blues as if it's exploding from a howitzer. There are no pretty bows on her songs, just a barbed wire of passion hot enough to burn up the furniture in the room.

Prior years have seen SISTER BLUE on the same bill as JOE LEWIS WALKER, JOHN HAMMOND, SATAN & ADAM, SAFFIRE, as well as B.B. KING, BUDDY GUY, FABULOUS THUNDERBIRDS, TAJ MAHAL, ROOMFUL OF BLUES, KATIE WEBSTER, CLARENCE "GATEMOUTH" BROWN, PINETOP PERKINS, SUNNYLAND SLIM, RUTH BROWN, and LONNIE BROOKS, at the biggest outdoor east coast blues festival, the 1990 "RIVER BLUES FESTIVAL". Sister Blue has had the honor to grace the stage with blues greats: KOKO TAYLOR, and the late great ALBERT COLLINS and JOHNNY COPELAND.

Interview by Michael Limnios

When was your first desire to become involved in the blues & who were your first idols?

As a child, I was always drawn to music that was heavily influenced by the blues such as; Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, etc. My big “blues epiphany” came when I saw Muddy Waters for the first time at the age of fourteen. I knew that was the purist, most real music I ever heard. I was completely hooked. I didn’t pick up the guitar until the age of seventeen. I played my first professional gig at the age of eighteen

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

The first concert I ever attended was Chuck Berry with Bo Diddley at the age of ten. Being underage,  I used fake I.D. to get into clubs to see all my blues idols, Muddy, Willie Dixon, John Lee Hooker, Big Mama Thornton,  Koko Taylor, Charlie Musslewhite,  James Cotton, so many.

Being that I am a self taught player, the first year, I only played in the key of “E”, (still my favorite key to this day).  If my memory serves me correctly, some of the first songs I learned were; Sweet Home Chicago, Hey Bartender, & You Can Have My Husband.

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

I remember being very excited about the first time I opened for a national act which was Albert Collins. One of the times I opened for him, he had me join him onstage. Koko Taylor invited me to sing back-ups on Wang Dang Doodle with her. Playing at blues festivals, some with headliners such as BB King. Playing the Keswick Theatre was a treat as well. Truly anytime our music touches the soul it is a thrill. When somebody tells me how much our performance meant to them or inspired them it is a wonderful feeling. Not having enough gigs, or gigs where the audience, or lack there of, are apathetic is the worst.

How/where do you get inspiration for your songs & who were your mentors in songwriting?

I love the sarcasm and the double entendre in blues songwriting. Personal experience and perceptions of others experiences always lends itself to great blues song topics. The absurdities of the human experience offer many blues song topics. Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon, and Sonny Boy Williamson are amongst the greatest of blues songwriters.

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

I love playing BB King’s How Blue Can You Get. I can let go of a lot of pent up emotion & feel I can really sink into the guitar strings on a solo. I also enjoy playing Koko Taylor’s answer to Mannish Boy, I’m a Woman.

Do you think that your music comes from the heart, the brain or the soul?

The brain, the heart, the soul? I would say the soul, very philosophical question in defining soul from the heart. It’s the deepest part of yourself, where words end, music begins.

What does the BLUES mean to you & what does Blues offered you?

Blues is music to get rid of the blues, not to give you the blues. It communicates that I am a survivor of life’s trials & tribulations.  I’m strong, tough, & invincible. I serve as an MC for everyone to embrace this celebration of life & survival. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, where you come from, everyone is included & invited to enjoy this universal language of celebration. I sometimes can’t believe that I get paid to let go of all this frustration pent up inside of me, create something positive & it makes people happy. It is the greatest joy.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues?

I learn about cooperation & genuine affection with my band mates. Music can really touch people’s lives in such a positive way. Example: I play a drug & alcohol rehab every year & to hear people say that our music was the first time they felt high without drugs, was the best therapy they had, or showed them they could have fun without drugs, it touches both of us. When former combat veterans are treated as damaged goods, to be able to play music for them & tell them it’s an honor, to offer them the dignity they deserve, it touches the soul. When a young woman says, I was so afraid to go out there & play guitar but you inspired me, it makes a difference. I learn how strong & powerful the language of music is.

What do you learn about yourself from the blues?

The sound I strive to achieve begins with a deep groove, be it a shuffle, or soul tune. The tempo must never waiver. The band must be tight & work as a unit. My vocals front the band, & feature myself & my other guitarist on leads. Rhythm guitar is essential to my sound.  I characterize it as Chicago-style blues & funky old school soul.

What experiences in your life make you a GOOD musician?

Playing with varied musicians in many settings has strengthened my skills as a musician. I have played drums, bass, guitar, & vocals on gigs, & know precisely what I want for my sound & how to communicate that effectively to my band. It is an invaluable experience to have different perspectives on different instruments, & understand the role of each. I have also played in an acoustic setting, where your vocals & guitar playing are completely exposed.  Performing live, especially in a tough town like Philly, PA, makes you learn how to lead a band & engage an audience, a performance is something you also see, so performing a show is important.  I want everyone in the audience to feel like I’m singing my song to them, that everyone is part of the performance, & see smiles & laughter. Knowing the subtle nuances of blues music, including dynamics, phrasing, & when not to play are very important. Blues is not about what you play, but how you play it.

Do you think the younger generations are interested in the blues?

When the younger generation gets exposed to the blues, they enjoy it, but I don’t feel that happens enough. With this instant gratification society, with so many things distracting them, the attention span is short.  After twenty minutes they want something new & different.

Do you remember anything funny or interesting from the recording hours?

I find recording difficult. You don’t have the energy of the audience. Whatever is on record is permanent. I hear more than I should & I’m never satisfied.

Which of historical blues personalities would you like to meet?

Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Robert Johnson, Memphis Minnie would have been fantastic people to meet. I know he’s not a pure blues guy, but I would have loved to have meet Jimi Hendrix.

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

I learned some patterns & guitar licks from BB King, Albert, & Freddy King.  As far as singing, my mentor has been Koko Taylor. I’ve also learned a lot from Bessie Smith & Etta James, also Sam Cooke & Otis Redding.  I have always admired the rhythmic aspects of James Brown. 

I can’t deny the influence Keith Richard & Mick Jagger as a front man has had. You have to take your influences & put your own unique footprint on it. I’ve learned most from the musicians I have worked with over the years.

Of all the BLUES people you’ve meeting, who do you admire the most?

As people, the popular blues musicians I admire for their support would be Koko Taylor, Albert Collins, & John Hammond. Chris Duarte, who I recently opened for is a very kind person. Of course I admire the musicians in my band & my own blues community.

Who are your favorite blues artists, both old and new? What was the last record you bought?

Of course Muddy Waters is tops.  I bought a very impressive CD from an English artist named James Hunter.

Some music styles can be fads but the blues is always with us.  Why do think that is?

Koko Taylor’s husband Pops said it the most eloquently when he stated that the blues is the bottom of the barrel, everybody has to come back to the blues. It’s the truest most authentic form of American music, where everything else evolves from.

How do you see the future of blues music? Give one wish for the BLUES

I hope true live music continues to exist. I don’t see as many kids playing instruments. Popular music is contrived corporate glitz based on a young person’s look, fashion, & ability to dance. There is so much technology available to make the worst person sound talented.  If Jimi Hendrix had come out today, I’m afraid he’d be playing the club circuit. People’s heroes seem to be athletes not musicians I truly hope young people will be exposed to live blues & demand it & play it.

Do you have any amusing tales to tell of your gigs with GREAT BLUESMEN like Koko Taylor, John Hammond, & Chris Duarte?

Koko Taylor loved collecting pictures of people’s babies. Koko & her husband were down home friendly people. Ruth Brown was very friendly.  John Hammond is a very sweet soft spoken guy.  We still laugh how Chris Duarte commented how “fashionable” I was because I set my black bag, next to my black amp. It’s a joke because I where black t-shirts & probably thought having my bag right there was a true sign of a city girl.

How did you first meet Albert Collins? Three words to describe him

I met Albert Collins when my band opened for him the first time. Albert was very outgoing, had a great sense of humor, and was a very generous musician to let me come up & play with him.

Are there any memories from “Frosty” Collins, which you’d like to share with us?

Albert was anything but Frosty. He was a very warm kind man.

How you would spend a day with Bessie Smith & what would you like to ask her?

Since she lived in Philly, I’d like to show Bessie how it looks today & have her show me where she performed here. I’d show her the sign on Bainbridge St that boasts how that was the location where she lived. I’d show her where she is buried in the Philly suburbs & let her know her nurse & the first female rock star named Janis Joplin pitched in to buy her headstone. I would love to ask her about her complicated intricate melodies she came up with, who were her influences, & if she’d like to record something on today’s equipment so  she could show the world what she can do, & also if she would please do a gig with me!

Why did you think that Janis Joplin continued to generate such a devoted following?

Janis Joplin was the first female rock star. It wasn’t about her appearance, or being traditionally beautiful, or showing cleavage. She offered raw pure emotion with guts & defied the traditional definition of what it means to be feminine.

I wonder if you could tell me a few things about your meet with Koko Taylor

I first met Koko & her husband when I was a teenager. Her husband Pops was much more outgoing. They both were the kindest people. Koko even sent me a card congratulating me on the birth of my son.

Tell me a few things about your meet with Willie Dixon

I didn’t actually get to meet Willie Dixon, but saw him perform several times & believe he was on the bill I also played at a blues festival.

Would you mind telling me your most vivid memory from Johnny Clyde Copeland?

Johnny Clyde Copeland was good friends with Albert Collins. They were both from Texas. My friend Randy, who also has played bass for me, was his band leader. He had a similar jovial humorous outgoing personality as Albert. He was a very sweet man.

What characterizes the sound of local blues scene? 

Everyone has their own unique sound to offer. There’s a hard edge & upbeat sound in Philly that defines the way our city is. It is the most competitive market in the entire U.S.A.  You better be tough & good at what you do or you won’t survive well.

Which is the most interesting period in Phila blues scene?

There are much less venues to play blues in, or that have live music altogether than there used to be.  In the 80’s, national blues acts were playing every weekend, or more. There were many opportunities to open for big names in the blues, even though popular music was terrible at the time. The blues was alive & well.

Tell me a few things about your experience at local blues bars.

It’s much easier to play a venue that expects blues, than one where I have to hear “play some Janis” all night. You better have presence & know how to engage an audience, in addition to being a smoking act. I enjoy when the audience participates, even when there is harmless heckling & I thrive to have the better response. When you get the people dancing, & hollering, you know you’re doing something right.

Do you have a message for the Greek fans?

I wish Americans appreciated their own music the way everyone is Europe does. I love Greek food, Greek salads, baklava, yogurt, & spinach pies, so if you feed my body, I’ll feed your soul, deal? Maybe I can even learn to play bouzouki. Do they make them left-handed?

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