SUN NOV 04, 2012 AT 07:12 PM PST
Sandra Reaves-Philips’ show was a blend of music and theatre. She adopted the costume and persona of six female vocalists with snippets of the singer’s life coming out in her patter. Then she delivered performances in that singer’s style.
The show began with the band performing Duke Ellington’s “Take The A Train”. Then Reaves-Phillips came on stage as Ma Rainey.
April 26, 1886 – December 22, 1939
Ma Rainey was one of the earliest known American professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues.– Wikipedia on Ma Rainey
She recorded “See See Rider” in 1924. It has since become a rock and blues standard covered by the Grateful Dead and many others as “C.C. Rider”. Like many blues singers Ma Rainey often focused on the earthy side of life in her lyrics and Reaves-Phillips presented this well in her performance.Here’s Ma Rainey singing “See See Rider” with Louis Armstrong on cornet.
April 15, 1894 – September 26, 1937
Bessie Smith was an American blues singer. Nicknamed The Empress of the Blues, Smith was the most popular female blues singer of the 1920s and 1930s. She is often regarded as one of the greatest singers of her era and, along with Louis Armstrong, a major influence on subsequent jazz vocalists.– Wikipedia on Bessie Smith
Bessie Smith had a made for radio voice that sounds unusual today. Reaves-Phillips covered her songs “Gimme A Pigfoot” and “Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out” without adopting her vocal style. She did, however, include some of the bawdy humor that audiences in the twenties and thirties loved. Here’s Bessie Smith featured in the movie “St. Louis Blues”.
Bessie Smith in “St. Louis Blues,” part 1
Bessie Smith plays Bessie, a wronged woman. In the first clip at the start of the movie we see a humorous take on gambling and womanizing. In the second clip Bessie sings “St. Louis Blues” starting in her room with the intro “My man’s got a heart like a rock cast in the sea” then transitioning to a band setting with Bessie singing the standard arrangement.
Here is a clip of Bessie Smith recorded with Jimmy Johnson on piano. This song features her made for AM radio voice which even sounds good on laptop speakers. The lyric is replete with sexual humor.
October 31, 1896 – September 1, 1977
Ethel Waters was an American blues, jazz and gospel vocalist and actress. She frequently performed jazz, big band, and pop music, on the Broadway stage and in concerts, although she began her career in the 1920s singing blues.– Wikipedia on Ethel Waters
Reaves-Phillips sang “Stormy Weather” and “St. Louis Blues” in her Ethel Waters persona. As we see above “St. Louis Blues” is associated with Bessie Smith but Ethel Waters and many many others have also sung it.Here’s the original Ethel Waters version of “Stormy Weather”.
April 7, 1915 – July 17, 1959
Billie Holiday was an American jazz singer and songwriter. Nicknamed “Lady Day” by her friend and musical partner Lester Young, Holiday had a seminal influence on jazz and pop singing. Her vocal style, strongly inspired by jazz instrumentalists, pioneered a new way of manipulating phrasing and tempo.– Wikipedia on Billie Holiday
The centerpoint of Reaves-Phillips presentation on Billie Holiday was “God Bless The Child”. As well as putting on a Billie Holiday costume and persona she also adopted her famous vocal styling. Here’s Billie Holiday singing “God Bless The Child”.
Billie Holiday God Bless The Child
August 29, 1924 – December 14, 1963
Dinah Washington, born Ruth Lee Jones, was an American Pianist, Blues, R&B, Gospel, Pop and Jazz singer. She has been cited as “the most popular black female recording artist of the ’50s”, and called “The Queen of the Blues”.– Wikipedia on Dinah Washington
Reaves-Phillips did not hesitate to point out the problems these singers had in their lives. In the persona of Dinah Washington she bemoaned her inability to hold on to a husband. She then found the couple in the audience who had been married the longest and convinced them to dance while she sang “What A Difference A Day Makes”.Here is an extremely cool clip from television with Dinah Washington singing “What A Difference A Day Makes” and “Makin’ Whoopee” in front of the Louis Jordan Band at the Apollo Theater in New York City.
Dinah Washington was featured in the December 2010, issue of Oxford American which referenced her recording of the Hank Williams song, “Cold Cold Heart”. Since I am a big Hank Williams fan I had to include this clip.
October 26, 1911 – January 27, 1972
Mahalia Jackson was an American gospel singer. Possessing a powerful contralto voice, she was referred to as “The Queen of Gospel”. Jackson became one of the most influential gospel singers in the world and was heralded internationally as a singer and civil rights activist.– Wikipedia on Mahalia Jackson
Reaves-Phillips presented each performer well but when she sang as Mahalia Jackson it was like she was coming home. Singing gospel with a full voice is obviously something she is very comfortable with. In her Mahalia Jackson persona she mentioned Martin Luther King Jr. but she did not refer to her performance in Washington D.C. when King gave his “I Have A Dream” speech. Neither did she directly refer to her performance of King’s favorite song “Precious Lord” at his funeral.
Mahalia Jackson sings April 1968 Martin Luther King Funeral
This clip is extremely powerful. I still can’t listen to this without crying.
Here is Reaves-Phillips doing a Tribute to Mahalia Jackson at a church in Queens, New York.
She closed her show with the Bill Withers song, “Lean On Me”. Reaves-Phillips was cast as Mrs. Powers, the choir director, in the movie, “Lean On Me”, starring Morgan Freeman.
For an encore she did a sing along gospel medley. This show had everything. History, theatre, and music. Her band played great and also acted in the theatrical parts of the performance. If you get a chance to see her I am sure you will enjoy it.