by A.J. Wachtel
In my book, there are not many performances more entertaining than seeing and hearing an incredible blues diva belt out a song in front of a great band. Case in point is Ms. Blue singing with Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters. For the first time in two decades the Blues Foundation’s 2014 Blues Music Award’s “Best Blues Guitarist,” Ronnie Earl, has increased the voltage of his band with the addition of this extraordinarily talented vocalist. And make no mistake, this is a perfect match made in heaven.
Noise: Before you were a performer you were a corporate trainer. Are there any similarities between standing in front of an audience of business administrators training them and standing in front of a crowd of blues lovers and singing to them, in terms of preparation, stress and personal fulfillment?
Diane Blue: The two situations are really like apples and oranges… no comparison. Corporate training is work. Performing the music that I love is my passion. Obviously, corporate training wasn’t doing it for me in terms of fulfillment, that’s why I left it behind.
Noise: The way you got into music is extraordinary in a very bluesy way. Fact or fiction? One day after school, in a classroom as a trainer, you heard musicians playing in another nearby classroom. After you walked over and met them you sang one of the few tunes you were prepared to perform at the time, “House of the Rising Sun” and hit it off so well that this event suddenly became a chance encounter that changed your life.
Diane: I always credit my friend and first accompanist, Paul White, with encouraging me to sing in front of people. My sister had taught me how to play “House of the Rising Sun” on my dad’s beautiful old Gibson acoustic guitar that we had at home. I was really shy about playing and singing in front of anyone, but I played it for Paul, and then he offered to learn any song that I wanted to sing. He also gave me my first harmonica and encouraged me to teach myself how to play. A few months later, he forced me to go to my first open mic. We played three songs. That was the beginning in the early ’90s.
Noise: Your vocal style is influenced by artists Nina Simone, Koko Taylor, Dinah Washington, and Aretha Franklin. What part of each icon do you think is most evident in your own sound and onstage persona?
Diane: Well, thanks for saying that my vocal style is influenced by these great artists. I have a great amount of respect for them as singers… but really, I chose to cover their tunes because of the lyrics or the groove. I try to be myself and deliver the message of a song as genuinely and soulfully as I can. That’s the basis of my style.
Noise: You are both a strong singer and a skillful harmonica player. What blues harp players have had the biggest effects on your playing and what part of their sounds do you use in yours?
Diane: When I was starting out, everyone told me to listen to the great players like James Cotton, Little Walter – you know the list – guys like Butterfield, Charlie Musselwhite. There are a lot of great players who emulate the old school tone and might even be able to quote original solos and hooks note for note. That’s not me. I sorta do my own thing, trying to emulate horn lines or even guitar licks instead. I play what I feel, and try to interpret songs in my own way. People tell me it’s different, in a refreshing sort of way, and a lot of folks seem to like it.
Noise: Your singing is soulful and sassy. You can go from singing a funky soul song to a sweet ballad. How do you maintain your high level of passion for each extreme and then change styles in the blink of an eye?
Diane: Each song has a life of its own. Any professional musician will tell you, the song deserves the utmost respect and the best treatment from a musician. I try to select music for my repertoire based on the way it makes me feel. You’ll never hear me singing angry, hateful, or hurtful lyrics. I do what I do to hopefully move people in a positive way, so that’s the focus when I sing any song.
Noise: While singing at the open mic night hosted by Little Joe Cook at The Cantab in 2008, you met Italian blues bandleader Roberto Morbioli; front man for The Morblus Band from Verona, Italy. You have toured all over the world with him. What are the differences between European and American audiences and care to share a short story about a great gig at a cool club in a foreign land?
Diane: Our mutual friend, Jim Carty (local blues media man), brought Roberto into the Cantab one night when he was in Boston. Roberto had told Jim that he was looking for a female singer to feature with his band in Italy. He heard me sing some R&B, and I played some harp, and then he offered me a two-week tour in Italy! The first tour was just clubs in Italy, in the winter months, as I recall. Afterwards, I went back a few times and did some clubs and festival gigs with him in Italy, Luxembourg, Germany, Holland, Belgium, and we also got an opportunity to play in Romania (Sighisoara Blues Festival) and in Bulgaria with Liviu Pop (a drummer who lives is Connecticut but is originally from Romania).
The European audiences are so appreciative of hearing an American deliver traditionally American music. In Romania and Bulgaria especially, they were so hungry for American music. I sold out of all of my CDs in an hour at the fest in Romania, so I had no product when I got to Bulgaria. That was really surprising, and made me feel pretty good! I was really treated like royalty by the festival organizers, and sometimes even the town/city officials who would honor me with a gift or flowers on stage.
Noise: You have played with Chicago blues guitarist greats Ronnie Earl and Muddy’s sideman Luther Guitar Jr. Johnson, Big Jack Johnson from Clarksdale, Mississippi, and Irma Thomas-The Soul Queen of New Orleans. What’s the difference in singing a Chicago blues tune and a Mississippi or New Orleans blues melody? Is there any difference in the way you sing in front of two great but very different axe-men Ronnie and Luther?
Diane: As I mentioned before, when I sing I try to be myself and deliver the message of a song as genuinely as I can. It doesn’t matter who I am with on stage, except that I get nervous when it’s the first time, just because I don’t know what to expect or what they might expect from me. It’s a good kind of nervous energy, though.
When I played with Luther “Guitar Jr.” Johnson (who was Muddy’s sideman), he called me and asked me to play harmonica with the band at the Iron Horse Music Hall. His saxman, Cookie, didn’t make it to sound check, so he wanted me to fill the gap. Well, Cookie showed up for the gig, but Luther let me stay on stage for the night. He paid me, so it was a legit gig. Cookie was really kind to me, telling me the key of each tune and coaching me through the tunes. He’d help me figure out horn lines and then he’d play a harmony line. That was the first time I played as if in a section.
With Big Jack Johnson, I played with him at Red’s Lounge in Clarksdale, MS – a real juke joint – during the Juke Joint Festival in April one year. Dick Lourie, saxman and poet, introduced me to Big Jack and told him that I played blues harp. Mr. Johnson invited me to sit in with his band. I figured I’d play a tune and sit down. After one song, he said, “You’re a monster on that thing, stay up here and play some more.” So I did. Big Jack Johnson was SO kind and mild-mannered. A beautiful person with a really big heart. And a genuine old-school bluesman.
Irma Thomas is SO lovely, inside and out. I had met and hung out with her band after a show that she did at the Regattabar in Cambridge. The guys in the band actually came to the Cantab and hung out at my gig after their show at the Regattabar was over. They told Ms. Thomas about me, and invited me to the show the next night. She called me up and asked me to sit in on harmonica. After she heard me play on one song (“Hip Shakin’ Mama”), she started singing “Baby What You Want Me to Do” and I sang harmonies with her. She hugged me and said, “You don’t know how many harmonica guys want to get up and play with me on that Blues Cruise… THAT was refreshing, Miss Blue!” She was so kind to me. It was really a thrill to be on stage with her and her outstanding band.
Singing with Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters is incredible. It’s truly a spiritual experience every time I’m on stage with them. Ronnie’s playing is so heartfelt and intense, I can hear him grunting and moaning the blues while he masterfully plays his beautiful guitar. Ronnie tells me all the time, his band is like a family. To me, it truly is a privilege and a blessing to share the stage with Ronnie and the Broadcasters. They are such seasoned veterans, and a really tight band. It really makes me reach for a very high bar and dig deep to deliver my best performance each time. Ronnie doesn’t use a set list, so that really keeps me on my toes!
Noise: You are the first female vocalist in Ronnie Earl & The Broadcasters in two decades and you have been the featured vocalist on the band’s last two releases “Good News” and “Father’s Day”. How did this happen and how does this change the band?
Diane: I think it was in 2009 when I met Ronnie, doing a duo gig at Right Turn in Arlington (www.right-turn.org). He came to the gig (with his guitar), sat in while I sang. Afterwards, he asked me for my card, and called me to “sit in” on a few gigs – at the Regent Theater in Arlington, at the Bull Run in Shirley, at TCAN in Natick, the Narrows in Fall River… and after that, he would ask me frequently to sit in on many of his gigs. On his 2013 CD, Just for Today, he included a live version of “I’d Rather Go Blind” that I sang with him at TCAN. Then, on his 2014 CD, Good News, he asked me to go into the studio and sing four songs, and I co-wrote one of these with him and Debbie Blanchard (“Six String Blessing”). I was the only vocalist on that CD. In 2015, on the Father’s Day CD, I sang on several tunes, doing a couple of duets with Michael Ledbetter of the Nick Moss band. Shortly after the release of the record, Ronnie asked me to join the band!
The only change to the Broadcasters band is that now I’m in it! They continue to be a tight unit, performing the soulful Ronnie Earl instrumentals that his fans love to hear. But now, the concerts also include some songs with me doing vocals, and every now and then, I’ll play harmonica too. Sometimes Ronnie lets the band take a bathroom break, and he and I will do a couple of country blues tunes in duo, then the band will come back and play for another hour. Ronnie doesn’t take breaks in between sets. He lets the momentum carry him and keeps going when he’s in the zone.
Noise: You are currently working on the band’s next release. Is their a title yet?How is that going and when do you expect it to be released?
Diane: Yes, we were in the studio in early December for 2 days, and now it’s down to the mixing and final production details. I don’t know the title yet. It’s really up to the label, Stony Plain, to decide when it will be released, but I would guess that most likely it will be released in the spring of 2016.
Noise: On your debut album Blues in my Soul, on Regina Royale Records, you sing with Boston’s Queen of the Blues Toni Lynn Washington. How is it different singing with another vocalist and care to share a cool Toni Lynn Washington story with us? How are your two voices and styles similar and different?
Diane: Our styles are very different, but we complement each other, I think. Toni Lynn Washington is so amazing. She sings the blues so righteously. She has a quality and tone that is something truly special. Indescribably soulful and real. And yet, her speaking voice is so gentle and soft. She’s exceptionally versatile, and she likes to put her treatment to songs, stylizing songs by giving them a different groove, or maybe changing the phrasing to make it her own. She’s remarkably talented, and I respect her so very much. And, she really knows how to get an audience in the palm of her hand. I learn from her every time we share the stage together.
When I was recording my album, Blues in my Soul, in early 2015, I chose to cover a couple of Koko Taylor tunes. One of them Koko actually covered a Bobby Blue Bland song, “Nothing You Can Do,” and the other one Koko wrote, “Jump for Joy.” The songs just needed Toni Lynn’s vocals. I asked her to come in the studio and trade verses with me. We worked on arrangements together in my car, while we rode to the studio. She offered her ideas about some backup vocals for a couple of other tunes, which I thought were great suggestions. She sang exactly the way I wanted to hear it – with the deep, rich Toni Lynn tone and attitude that I love! I really admire what she does, and I love her as a person.
Noise: What do you see the national and local statuses of blues and all music scenes in general, and what’s in the future for Diane Blue?
Diane: Wow. That’s a big question. Not sure I can comment on all music scenes in general. The Blues seems to be alive and well in the NorthEast, especially with Ronnie Earl fans. There are blues festivals all over America, and they seem to be going strong, with new artists emerging all the time, so that’s a good thing.
It really is difficult to make a living playing music these days, unless you reach the national touring level, but even then, it’s always a hustle. As for the music itself, there are no shortages of Blues Jams, at least in the Boston area. Some of them are during daytime hours, so younger musicians can attend with parents, as well as people who have day jobs can go and not worry about being out too late when they have to get up and go to work the next day.
I think the future of the blues really depends upon educating the younger generation and helping to foster an appreciation of the music and the history of it. Blues in schools is one idea that would help. Funding is difficult, so I know someone (sound engineer Bob Sloane) who has made it his mission to raise funds to bring blues to schools in Massachusetts, for a start.
What’s in the future for Diane Blue? Touring with Ronnie Earl & the Broadcasters and hopefully writing some new music sometime. I enjoy being a featured artist on special shows and continuing to make music with my friends (a roster of musicians with whom I frequently perform in the greater Boston area). Ronnie has asked me to open with my band for the show in February 2016 at Blue Ocean Music Hall in Salisbury, MA, so he’s cool with continuing with my thing, as well as being the singer in his band. Once or twice a year, I like to do an all-female band showcase with some local female musicians and my friend, Lisa Mann from Portland, OR (who won the 2015 Blues Music Award for bass player).
Hopefully, I have a long way to go on this musical journey. I feel very blessed and fortunate to be where I am today. I don’t take any of it for granted. I am extremely grateful to Ronnie Earl for extending so much kindness to me. It’s inspiring the way he lives his message of “Spread the Love.” I also appreciate my wonderful, loving, supportive husband who really understands that I need to do what I do, to feed my soul.