Monday, February 8, 2010

Image from Blues Chapel and Last Word

Susan Lenz wrote about the exhibition, reception, and posted images for Blues Chapel and Last Words on her blog.


Cynthia Boiter's blog post on Blues Chapel and Last Words

Check out Cynthia Boiter's blog HERE!

February 4, 2010

Susan Lenz & Blues Chapel, women’s work, working women, women who WORK & Eboniramm

I’ve written about my friend, local fiber artist Susan Lenz, before — that’s because in many ways she is one of my she-roes. The work that Susan does resonates with me on so many different levels — much of it going back to the core of who I am. Many of you lovely readers may know that, in addition to writing about beer and arts and travel, I am also an adjunct lecturer on women’s and gender studies at the University of South Carolina. I came to this academic place in my life after spending many years studying sociology, focusing on gender roles and women’s experiences. When I was in grad school in DC, I read Alice Walker’s book — still one of the most important books in my life — In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In this book, Walker talks about how poor, unschooled, and under-valued women have not always had the luxury of canvases on which to express their creativity, and therefore, they captured canvases wherever they could find them. In the way they planted their gardens, for example, with the deep green of sweet peppers juxtaposed against shiny red tomatoes — in the arrangements of carefully canned produce on their pantry shelves — in the quilts and hooked rugs they made for their homes. Thus, in so many ways, the work that women traditionally did became, for many women, an expression of the creativity residing in their souls fighting its way out. This is yet another reason why no one has the right to say what is art or not. Art is gut and soul — the quilter and embroiderer feel this no less than the ceramicist or sculptor.

Susan Lenz’s primary medium of choice is embroidery. She calls herself a contemporary embroiderer — I call her a genius. Susan has taken this traditionally female art medium from the quiet laps of working women (all women are working women — whether they get paid for it or not; and by the way, most don’t) and placed it on the walls of galleries and art exhibits where it rightly belongs. But don’t expect samplers and doilies when you see Susan Lenz’s work — expect to be moved, shocked, overwhelmed, elated, and devastated. It can be intense.

Susan’s upcoming exhibit at Gallery 80808 on Lady Street is called Blues Chapel and Last Words. In it she has taken the images of 24 blues divas and adorned them with the gilded glory anyone who made the contributions they did, deserve. People like Ma Rainey, Billie Holiday, Bessie Smith, and Nina Simone. Susan has literally coronated these women with golden halos endowing them with dignity, engendering reverence.

I’m lifting the following quote from Susan’s blog –

“Early female blues singers lived in a male dominated society, in a segregated country, and worked in an industry that took advantage of their lack of education and opportunity,” Lenz said. “Physical abuse, drug and alcohol dependence, and poverty plagued most. They struggled, made sacrifices, and sang of their woes. They helped change the world for today’s young, black, female vocalists.”

Last Words, the accompanying exhibit which has been integrated very well into this show, represents the miles and hours Susan spent visiting cemetaries, literally across continents, collecting silken grave rubbings from headstones and monuments then bringing them home and transforming them into 30 art quilts. The arrangement of the exhibit is such that if Blues Chapel represents the Church, then Last Words serves as the church yard.

The opening of the show is Friday night, February 5th from 6 to 8 pm, with a performance by local blues artist Eboniramm beginning at 7 Pm in conjunction with The Blue Martini, which shares a hall with Vista Studio’s gallery. Eboniramm will be the lady singing the blues in tribute to the artists we will all be honoring on Friday night. My friend, the artist Susan Lenz, included. The reception will end at 8, but the gallery will be open until midnight, and the exhibit will also remain open for viewing as well. Then at 9, Eboniramm will reprise and expand her tribute at the Blue Martini for a $5 cover charge.

It’s going to be a beautiful night — I hope I get to see you there.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Jeffrey Day's blog post on Blues Chapel and Last Words

Jefrfrey Day's BLOG is the best place to learn about art events in the Midlands and beyond! Check it out HERE!

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Don't even think about sleeping this weekend

Thursday, Feb. 4

Exhibitions take you from the church to the graveyard
Susan Lenz began working on her series “Blues Chapel” in 2006 and “Last Words” in 2008. She wasn’t thinking about it at the time, but it turns out they made good neighbors like a church and a graveyard.
“Blues Chapel,” an homage to women in the blues. and “Last Words,” fabric pieces based on gravestone rubbings, open today at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.
“Blues Chapel” started as a part of a thematic show at the gallery, “The Blues on Lady Street,” to bemoan the never-ending streetscaping in front of the studios. Lenz admitted that she didn’t quite grasp the idea, but she did start learning about the blues, something she didn’t know much about. A strong feminist Lenz made 24 saint-like images of great women in the blues - Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Alberta Hunter and others. Many of these women had hard lives – suffering at the hands of the music industry, men, drugs and alcohol. (She pointed out that she was saying this two days after singer Beyonce won six Grammy Awards.)
These individual portraits grew into something bigger and turned into an installation complete with altar and candles in her tiny studio. Not long after, the Sumter Gallery of Art asked her to show the works in a much bigger space.

“Oh, I’m going to have to build a church,” Lenz said she thought at the time.
So she did adding “stained glass” pieces, a bigger altar, more candles and flowers and two church pews.

The genesis for this work was as random as for “Blues Chapel.” While at a residency in Maine in 2008, she was reading a book about quilting and it suggested using rubbings from graves in quilted fabric.
“I started doing these rubbings, but I thought it the back of my mind, ‘I’ll never use these,’” she said.

She was wrong about that. “Last Words” is made up of 30 grave rubbing quilts, 25 photo transfers with stitching and sheer fabrics embroidered with epitaphs.

Since stopping by those family plots in Maine, Lenz has done rubbings from California to Columbia and many places in between as well as England. The rubbings are from graves dating from 1596 to last year.

“I found one that said ‘Never accurate, but never dull,’” she said. Another for an artist couple (not yet dead) read “Actor to Ashes, Dancer to Dust.”
“You get a wonderful sense of these people,” Lenz said.

The show has a serious side. She wants people to think about how they will be and want to be remembered (not to mentioned disposed of.)
“I hope this opens up a dialogue for that to happen,” she said.

To help with that planning, the “Last Words” has sponsors: Shive Funeral Home and Fletcher Monuments. Both will have literature at the show. (Flipping open a monument book, Lenz was pleasantly surprised that a headstone could be had for $300.)

The artist had some extra work she wasn’t planning. When “Chapel” was shown in Denton, Texas, starting in November, one of the “stained-glass” pieces was sold. She figured the installation would work fine without that one piece. Then two weeks ago a Greenwood bank purchased the other five. (“Blues Chapel” has been shown several places; “Last Words” piece have been in regional, national and international exhibitions.)

“I've been working like crazy trying to create six new pieces,” Lenz said last weekend. “Same size, same ten-blue hours a piece It has been insane.”
(She finished them with a couple of days to spare.)
An opening reception takes place Friday from 6 to 8.

In conjunction with the show and just down the hallway at the Blue Martini singer Eboniramm performs tunes by many of the singers spotlighted in “Blues Chapel” at 7 p.m. The performance is free. For the second one at 9 p.m. admission is $5.

The show remains on display through Feb. 16. Because it is tied in to Blue Martini, the gallery will be open unusual hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday, Friday and Saturday; 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday Tuesday and Wednesday; noon to 6 Sunday.
The gallery, 808 Lady St., can be reached at 252-6134 and the Blue Martini at 256-2442.

The State Newspaper carries an article on Blues Chapel and Last Words!

Life & Style

Sunday, Feb. 07, 2010

Lenz' 'Blues Chapel' calls for reflection

Susan Lenz holds a special admiration for the sacrifices and hardships endured by some of the nation's most celebrated - and not so celebrated - female blues singers.

"They were true to their art. They took their hardships and they made music out of it," Lenz said.

But many died without the fanfare their artistic careers deserved, she said. "Many of these ladies deserve better."

It's with a passion for honoring those lives and encouraging others to reflect on their own that the Columbia fiber artist has opened "Blues Chapel" and "Last Words," at the Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.

The free exhibit, which opened Thursday, runs through Feb. 16.

"Blue Chapel," features 24 images of female blues artists that are positioned throughout a space that depicts a chapel and is filled with the sounds of blues music.

The accompanying "Last Words" is an abstract cemetery, featuring various gravestone rubbings that share the stories of the dead through the words and images carved in their gravestones.

The exhibit combines art quilts, mixed media photos, and fibers.

"Everything here is about creating memories," Lenz said.

Lenz first got the inspiration for "Blues Chapel" in 2005 while viewing an exhibit in the National Women in the Arts Museum in Washington, D.C., where staff members had created a room dedicated to blue singers.

"When I started this, I knew nothing about the blues," she said.

But while viewing the exhibit she was struck by the women's perseverance and their stories.

"Immediately, I got it. I got the sacrifices. I knew what the blues were about," she said. "When I was reading these bios, I could really identify with making art, even if people weren't paying attention."

So she wrote down the names, and has selected 24 of the 25 woman from that same list which includes Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday, and Alberta Hunter.

Renz admits she settled on 24 singers rather than the original 25 because that number provided a better fit for her display. But she hopes viewers will be as moved by the women's stories as many have been by their music.

"Early female blues singers lived in a male-dominated society, in a segregated country and worked in an industry that took advantage of their lack of education and opportunity," Lenz said. "They struggled, made sacrifices, and sang of their woes. They helped change the world for today's young, black, female vocalists."

In the accompanying "Last Words," Lenz combines quilts of grave rubbing, photographic images of angels in mourning and a series of chiffon-stitched epitaphs to create a space about remembering.

She collected many of the stories found in the epitaphs while visiting various cemeteries around the United State and in England.

Her hope is that visitors to the display will reflect on their own lives, and she said what memories each person holds closest is up to them.

"I'm hoping they'll walk away with an ongoing dialogue in their mind about memory and remembrance," she said.


Blues Chapel and Last Words

WHERE: Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, 808 Lady St., Columbia.

WHEN: Continues through Feb. 16.

GALLERY HOURS: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday; 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday, Friday and Saturday; noon to 6 p.m. Sunday.


Friday, February 5, 2010

Jeffrey Day's blog!

Blues Chapel and Last Words receives a wonderful article on Jeffrey Day's Carolina Culture Blog. CLICK HERE to access!

Thursday, February 4, 2010


(Above: SHIVES FUNERAL HOME....sponsor for Blues Chapel and Last Words!)

The exhibition has been almost completely installed. Thanks to the talented help of friends: Dolly Patton and her daughter Sims, Mary Langston, Regan Reagan, Margaret Neville, and Kim Bendillo the work went smoothly and was fun! There's still some signage to finish and the lighting to set.....but otherwise, BLUES CHAPEL and LAST WORDS is nearly ready for the public.

The RECEPTION is on Friday, February 5 from 6 - 8.....even though the show stays open until MIDNIGHT. Eboniramm is performing for FREE at 7 PM in the Blue Martini....just down the partner for the opening. (She'll be singing a second, expanded tribute at 9 PM with a mere $5 cover!)

(Above: The Christian Counseling Center. Sponsor for Blues Chapel and Last Words.)


(Above: Fletcher Monuments.....Sponsor for Blues Chapel and Last Words. The COOLEST brochures will be available during the exhibition!)

Last Words is an exploration of final memories, the ways in which we mark our lives on earth. It poses important questions about how we remember others but also how we intent to be remembered ourselves. It asks, "What are your final wishes?" To this end, the exhibition sponsors are more than art supporters but places to help guide personal answers.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Blue Martini is a COOL PLACE!

(Click on poster above or any image below to enlarge.)

Above is a poster announcing the upcoming Blues Chapel and "Ladies Sing the Blues"! Don't miss's going to be GREAT!

RECEPTION from 6 - 8 but the gallery stays open along with Blue Martini!

The music and art will be great. There will be a limited quantity of complimentary red wine...but why bother when you can buy a great martini in a fabulously cool glass! Shaken...not stirred!

Patrons just love the place!

What's not to like!

During the opening, the music will feature BLUES by Eboniramm.

Monday, December 28, 2009

DATES AND TIMES: Blues Chapel and Last Words

Blues Chapel and Last Words
Gallery 80808/Vista Studios
808 Lady Street, Columbia, SC
February 4 – 16, 2010

Opening Reception: Friday, February 5 from 6 – 8. The reception will include the free tribute “Ladies Sing the Blues…” at the Blue Martini, which shares the common hallway with the gallery, starting at 7 PM (a second, expanded tribute will be presented at 9 PM with a $5 cover).

Gallery hours: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11 AM – midnight; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday from 11 – 6; Sunday Noon – 6. (803) 252-6134 for Gallery 80808/Vista Studios.

Blue Martini hours: Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7 PM until past midnight. Doors opening on the night of the reception at 6 PM. (803) 256-2442.

More of Susan Lenz's work can be seen on her blogs:

Press Release

Susan Lenz presents BLUES CHAPEL and LAST WORDS, fiber installations at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios

Columbia fiber and installation artist Susan Lenz presents two related installations from Thursday, February 4 through Tuesday, February 16, 2010 at Gallery 80808/Vista Studios, 808 Lady Street in Columbia’s downtown arts and cultural district. The exhibit includes two distinct areas: Blues Chapel and Last Words.

Blues Chapel is an installation honoring the great women of the early Blues world. Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Nina Simone, Billie Holiday and Alberta Hunter are among the twenty-four singers depicted saint-like above an altar and before mahogany church pews. Music fills the gallery and the opening reception will include a free performance at 7 PM in the Blue Martini, just down the shared hallway. The installation has just returned to Columbia after two months in the Great Denton Arts Council’s Gough Gallery where it received extensive media coverage in the arts-oriented community.

(Above: Billie Holiday by Susan Lenz, one of 24 early female Blues singers honored in Blues Chapel.)

The installation is the artist’s tribute to the hard-singing, hard-living women. “Early female blues singers lived in a male dominated society, in a segregated country, and worked in an industry that took advantage of their lack of education and opportunity,” Lenz said. “Physical abuse, drug and alcohol dependence, and poverty plagued most. They struggled, made sacrifices, and sang of their woes. They helped change the world for today’s young, black, female vocalists.”

(Above: Father and Mother, Grave Rubbing Art Quilt by Susan Lenz. Click on image to enlarge. To see other art quilts in this series to be on view at Blues Chapel and Last Words, please visit the link above. Click on image to enlarge.)

If Blues Chapel is considered the “church”, then Last Words is its churchyard where the departed rest. Last Words, based on gravestone rubbings on fabric and collected epitaphs, explores the concepts of remembrance and mortality. This brand-new body of work is made up of over 30 grave rubbing art quilts, 25 photo transfers stitched with found objects (Angels in Mourning Series), and a focal point of sheer chiffon banners embroidered with hundreds of collected epitaphs.

(Above: Be Ye Also Ready, Angels in Mourning Series by Susan Lenz. One of 25 xylene photo transfers of cemetery angels stitched with found objects. Click on image to enlarge.)

“The work is meant to suggest the serenity of a cemetery, the connection with the past, and the frailty of life,” Lenz said. “Personal and universal issues of mortality are evident in the selection of words from the past that address the future.”

(Above: Eboniramm who will present a free tribute at Blue Martini during the opening reception and also a later performance that night with only a $5 cover charge.)

Ladies Sing the Blues…and it never felt so good! During the art reception on Friday, February 5th, the Blue Martini will present the tribute “Ladies Sing the Blues…” hosted by the “Queen of Blues” Bessie Smith, portrayed by singer Eboniramm. Eboniramm will spotlight Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Nina Simone, Anita O’Day and other female blues pioneers (all included in Blue Chapel). The Blue Martini will present a second, expanded “Ladies Sing the Blues…” starting at 9 PM Friday, February 5th. The $5 cover charge will include Eboniramm and more ladies singing the blues.

Exhibition: February 4 – 16, 2010
Opening Reception: Friday, February 5 from 6 – 8. The reception will include the free tribute “Ladies Sing the Blues…” at the Blue Martini, which shares the common hallway with the gallery, starting at 7 PM (a second, expanded tribute will be presented at 9 PM with a $5 cover).

Gallery hours: Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 11 AM – midnight; Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday from 11 – 6; Sunday Noon – 6.

Blue Martini hours: Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 7 PM until past midnight. Doors opening on the night of the reception at 6 PM.

Members of the media can schedule interviews with the artist by contacting her at (803) 254-0923 or mouse_house@prodigy.netMore of her work can be seen at http://artbysusanlenz.blogspot.com

For information on the concert “Ladies Sing the Blues….and it never felt so good!” Contact the Blue Martini at (803) 256-2442

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Victoria Spivey

Victoria Spivey

Victoria Spivey was born in 1908 andbegan her recording career at age 19 as a pianist at the Lincoln Theater in Dallas. In the early 1920s, she played in Texas gambling parlors, gay hangouts and whorehouses. Spivey wasn't afraid to sing sexually suggestive lyrics. She wrote many of her own songs. Her first recording, “Black Snake Blues”, was for the Okeh label in 1926. In the 1930s she moved to New York to record for several companies and perform in various African-American musical revues. She also toured but left show business in the 1950s, singing only in church. In 1962 she formed her own Spivey Records label. Her first release featured Bob Dylan as an accompanist. She was in demand on the folk-blues revival festival circuit and influenced a new generation of singers. In 1970, Spivey was awarded a "BMI Commendation of Excellence" from the music publishing organization for her long and outstanding contributions to many worlds of music. After entering Beekman Downtown Hospital with an internal hemorrhage, she died a short while later in 1976. Spivey is buried in Hempstead, N.Y.

Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith

Mamie Smith was born as Mamie Robinson on May 26, 1883 in Cincinnati, Ohio and lived until September 16, 1946. She was a vaudeville singer, dancer, pianist and actress, and appeared in several motion pictures late in her career. As a vaudeville singer she performed a number of styles including jazz and blues. She entered blues history by being the first African American to make vocal blues recordings in 1920.

She toured with African-American vaudeville and minstrel shows until settling in New York City in 1913, where she worked as a cabaret singer. She appeared in songwriter Perry Bradford's musical "Made in Harlem" in 1918. In early 1920, Okeh Records planned to record popular singer Sophie Tucker performing a pair of songs by Perry Bradford. Tucker was ill and could not make it to the session; Bradford persuaded Okeh to allow Mamie Smith to record in Tucker's place. Later that year Smith recorded the Bradford-penned "Crazy Blues”. These were the first recordings of vocal blues by an African American singer. “Crazy Blues” was a hit, selling a million copies in one year. The success of Smith's record prompted record companies to seek to record other female blues singers and started the era of what is now known as classic female blues.

Sippie Wallace

Sippie Wallace

Sippie Wallace was born on November 1, 1898 in Houston, Texas as Beulah Thomas. Her family was quite musical; her brothers were George W. Thomas, a notable pianist, bandleader, composer, and music publisher, and Hersal Thomas, and her niece was Hociel Thomas (daughter of George). In her youth she sang and played organ in Baptist church where her father was a deacon, but in the evenings the children took to sneaking out to tent shows. By her midteens, they were playing in those tent shows.

In 1915 she moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, married, and changed her name. In 1923 she moved to Chicago, Illinois and made her first recordings for Okeh Records as Sippie Wallace, "The Texas Nightingale". She was one of the popular blues singers of the 1920s, recording over 40 songs between 1923 and 1927, many written by herself or her brothers. In the 1930s she retired from most commercial performance, mostly playing and singing in church in Detroit, Michigan. She made some more recordings in the 1940s, and returned to touring in 1966 with the blues revival of that period, when her fellow singer Victoria Spivey convinced her to record a new album, Sippie Wallace Sings the Blues. That album made such a vivid impression on Bonnie Raitt, then a student at Radcliffe College with an interest in the blues, that she sought out and befriended Wallace, and fifteen years later in 1981, the duo recorded an album Sippie for Atlantic Records, which earned a 1983 Grammy nomination and the 1984 W. C. Handy Award for best blues album of the year. Sippie Wallace continued performing into her 80s. She died on her birthday in 1986. Sippie Wallace was inducted into the Michigan Women's Hall of Fame in 1993.

Shirley Horn

Shirley Horn

Shirley Horn was born on May 1, 1934 and began to play the piano at age four. After majoring in music at Howard University, Horn put together her first trio in 1954. Miles Davis invited her to open for him at the Village Vanguard in 1960, an engagement that led to a recording contract with Mercury Records and a life-long friendship with Davis. Quincy Jones became an admirer and mentor of Horn’s during this period, and produced two of her albums. After parting ways with the label over creative differences, she recorded a number of albums for the Danish Steeplechase label, which cemented her reputation as a singular talent. Horn was a devoted wife and mother, so much so that she eschewed touring for many years and instead chose to perform primarily in clubs around the D.C. and Baltimore area. In 1986, she signed with Verve and released fourteen albums to critical acclaim. She was received eight Grammy nominations, was elected to the Lionel Hampton Jazz Hall of Fame, and won the Grammy for Best Jazz Vocal Performance in 1999. She received many other awards and died on October 20, 2005 in her hometown of Washington, DC after a lengthy illness.

Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan

Sarah Vaughan was born in 1924. She sang in church as a child and had extensive piano lessons from 1931-39. After she won an amateur contest at the Apollo Theater, she was hired for the Earl Hines big band as a singer and second vocalist. Unfortunately, the musicians' recording strike kept her off record during this period (1943-44). When lifelong friend Billy Eckstine broke away to form his own orchestra, Vaughan joined him, making her recording debut. She loved being with Eckstine's orchestra, where she became influenced by a couple of his sidemen, Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. Other than a few months with John Kirby from 1945-46, Sarah Vaughan spent the remainder of her career as a solo star.
Sarah Vaughan recorded with several labels throughout her life and appeared in numerous films. Only during her last few years did her recording career falter a bit, with only two forgettable efforts after 1982. However, up until near the end, Vaughan remained a world traveler, singing and partying into all hours of the night with her miraculous voice staying in prime form. She died in 1990 of lung cancer.

Ruth Brown

Ruth Brown

They called Atlantic Records "the house that Ruth built" during the 1950s. Ruth Brown's regal hit-making reign from 1949 to the close of the '50s helped tremendously to establish the New York label's predominance in the R&B field. Later, the business all but forgot her. She was forced to toil as domestic help for a time but she returned to the top. Her status as a postwar R&B pioneer and tireless advocate for the rights and royalties of her peers is recognized worldwide. She was born in 1928 and ran away from home in 1945 to pursue music. She was introduced to the fledgling record company Atlantic. En route to NYC, Brown’s leg was seriously injured in a serious auto accident. This delayed her debut record for nine months. When it was finally cut, it became a hit. Her music then was regularly on the R&B charts. She appeared in the 1955 groundbreaking TV program “Showtime at the Apollo”. Then her popularity waned. After raising her two sons and working a nine-to-five job, Brown began to rebuild her musical career in the mid-'70s. Her comedic sense served her well during a TV sitcom “Hello, Larry” and in John Waters' 1985 sock-hop satire film Hairspray. She won a Tony Award in the 1989 for her Broadway appearance. She recorded for Fantasy Records in the ‘80s and ‘90s and hosted NPR’s "Harlem Hit Parade" and "Blues Stage." Brown's nine-year ordeal to recoup her share of royalties from all those Atlantic platters led to the formation of the nonprofit Rhythm & Blues Foundation, an organization dedicated to helping others in the same frustrating situation. Ruth Brown was still alive and publicly performing when Blues Chapel debuted. Sadly, she passed away on November 17, 2006 after a heart attack and stroke.

Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta Tharpe

Rosetta Tharpe was born March 20, 1921 in Cotton Plant, Arkansas; the daughter of Katie Bell Nubin, a traveling missionary and shouter in the classic gospel tradition known throughout the circuit as "Mother Bell," she was a prodigy, mastering the guitar by the age of six. In time the family relocated to Chicago, where Tharpe began honing her unique style; blessed with a resonant vibrato, both her vocal phrasing and guitar style drew heavy inspiration from the blues, and she further aligned herself with the secular world with a sense of showmanship and glamour unique among the gospel performers of her era. Signing to Decca in 1938, Tharpe became a virtual overnight sensation; her first records were smash hits, and quickly she was performing in the company of mainstream superstars. She led an almost schizophrenic existence, remaining in the good graces of her core audience while also appealing to her growing white audience.
During World War II, Tharpe recorded V-Discs for American soldiers overseas. In 1944, she began recording with boogie-woogie pianist Sammy Price; their first collaboration, "Strange Things Happening Every Day," even cracked Billboard's race records Top Ten, a rare feat for a gospel act and one which she repeated several more times during the course of her career. In 1946 she teamed with the Newark-based Sanctified shouter Madame Marie Knight. In the early ’50 they cut a handful of straight blues sides; their fans were outraged. Knight made a permanent leap into secular music, with little success. Tharpe remained a gospel artist, although her credibility and popularity were seriously damaged. Her record sales dropped off and her live engagements became fewer. Many purists took Tharpe's foray into the mainstream as a personal affront. She spent over a year touring clubs in Europe. Tharpe's comeback was slow but steady, and by 1960 she had returned far enough into the audience's good graces to appear at the Apollo Theatre. She continued touring even after suffering a major stroke in 1970, dying in Philadelphia on October 9, 1973.

Peggy Lee

Peggy Lee

Lee was born Norma Deloris Egstrom in Jamestown, North Dakota. After her mother died her father remarried and her stepmother was very cruel to her. So she left home, and in 1941, she joined Benny Goodman's band—then at the height of its popularity—and for over two years toured the United States with it. She recorded several hits and became a star. In 1944, Lee began to record for Capitol Records, for whom she produced a long string of hits over the next three decades. She also recorded for Decca Records (1952-56). She was also known as a songwriter with such hits as the songs from the Disney movie Lady and the Tramp, which she also sang. She also acted in several films and was nominated for an Oscar in 1955. Lee was nominated for twelve Grammy Awards, winning Best Contemporary Vocal Performance for her 1969 hit "Is That All There Is". In 1995 she was given the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In the early 1990s, she retained famed entertainment attorney Neil Papiano, who, on her behalf successfully sued Disney for royalties on Lady and the Tramp. Lee's lawsuit claimed that she was due royalties for video tapes, a technology that did not exist when she agreed to write and perform for Disney. She continued to perform into the 1990s and still mesmerized audiences and critics alike. After years of poor health, Lee died from complications from diabetes and cardiac disease at the age of 81 in 2002.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone

Eunice Kathleen Waymon, better known as Dr. Nina Simone (Hon.) was born on February 21, 1933 in Tryon, NC. She began singing at her local church and showed prodigious talent as a pianist. Her public debut, a piano recital, was made at the age of ten. Her parents, who had taken seats in the front row, were forced to move to the back of the hall to make way for whites. This incident contributed to her later involvement in the civil rights movement. At seventeen, Simone moved Philadelphia where she taught piano and accompanied singers. She studied at Julliard, thanks to the sponsorship of benefactors, but lack of funds meant that she was unable to fulfill her dream of becoming America's first African-American concert pianist. She was rejected by the Curtis Institute and believed it was because she was black.Simone turned instead to blues and jazz in Atlantic City nightclubs, taking the name Nina Simone in 1954;. She first came to public notice in 1959 with her wrenching rendition of George Gershwin's "I Loves You Porgy". Throughout the 1960s, Simone was involved in the civil rights movement and recorded a number of political songs. In 1971, Simone left the United States following disagreements with agents, record labels, and the tax authorities, citing racism as the reason. She returned in 1978 and was arrested for tax evasion (she had withheld several years of income tax as a protest against the Vietnam War). In 1995, Simone reportedly shot and wounded her neighbour's son with a pneumatic pistol after his laughing disturbed her concentration. She also fired at a record company executive whom she accused of stealing royalties. In 1993, she settled near Aix-en-Provence in the south of France where she died of cancer in 2003.

Memphis Minnie McCoy

Memphis Minnie McCoy

Memphis Minnie was born in Algiers, Louisiana on June 3, 1897 as Lizzie Douglas. She ran away to Memphis, Tennesse at age thirteen. She joined Ringling Brothers circus the next year. A Columbia Records talent scout heard signed her to a contract in 1929. Minnie recorded for forty years, a unique feat among female blues artists. She was a flamboyant character who wore bracelets made of silver dollars and was the biggest female blues singer from the early Depression years through World War II. She took up the electric guitar in 1942. She combined her Louisiana-country roots with Memphis-blues to produce her unique country-blues sound. Along with Big Bill Broonzy and Tampa Red, she took country blues into electric urban blues, paving the highway for giants like Muddy Waters, Little Walter, and Jimmy Rogers. She was married three times, and each husband was an accomplished blues guitarist: Joe McCoy (a.k.a. "Kansas Joe") later of the Harlem Hamfats, Casey Bill Weldon of the Memphis Jug Band, and Ernest Lawlers (a.k.a. "Little Son Joe"). Minnie recorded nearly 200 records with “Little Son Joe”. In the 1940s she formed a touring Vaudeville company. From the 1950s on, however, public interest in her music declined and in 1957 she and Little Son Joe returned to Memphis. In 1961, Joe died and Minnie suffered a stroke which forced her to spend the rest of her life in nursing homes until she died in 1973.

Luckily, she was able to see her reputation revived in the 1960s as part of the general revival of interest in the blues. She died on August 6, 1973. In 1980, Memphis Minnie was inducted into the Blues Foundation's Hall of Fame.

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams

Mary Lou Williams was born Mary Elfrieda Scruggs in 1910. She taught herself the piano by ear and was playing in public at the age of six. When she was 13, she started working in vaudeville, and three years later married saxophonist John Williams. They moved to Memphis, and she made her debut on records with Synco Jazzers. Soon, Mary Lou was the band’s top soloist and arranged much of the music. She wrote songs and arrangements for other top singers and bands as well, including Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, and Tommy Dorsey. She divorced John Williams in 1942 and married trumpeter Harold “Shorty” Baker. She co-led a combo with Baker before joining Duke Ellington. She played briefly with Benny Goodman in 1948 and actively encouraged young modernists who would lead the bebop revolution.
Williams lived in Europe from 1952-1954 and then became very involved in the Catholic religion. She retired from music for a few years before appearing as a guest with Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra in 1957. Williams wrote three masses and a cantana, was a star at Benny Goodman's 40th-anniversary Carnegie Hall concert in 1978, taught at Duke University, and often planned her later concerts as a history of jazz recital. By the time she passed away at the age of 71, she had a list of accomplishments that could have filled three lifetimes.

Sara Martin

Sara Martin

Sara Martin was born in 1884 and began her vaudeville career around 1915 in Illinois. In 1922 she was signed to a recording contract with Okeh Records by Clarence Williams. Williams wrote and played piano on a number of Martin’s early records. Sara Martin was said to have excelled as a live performer and was a star on the TOBA circuit in the early 1920s. She had a deep, full-bodied voice that compared favorably with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey but lacked the emotional punch of those two singers. She often sounded a bit wooden, like she was reading the lyrics on her records, although her diction was impeccable. She recorded four sides with Clarence Williams that included King Oliver on cornet in 1928. “Death Sting Me Blues” from these sessions is one of her better records and shows Oliver to be a master of the Blues. While primarily a popular singer, Martin could get low down on the blues and was billed as the “famous moanin’ mama” as well as “the colored Sophie Tucker” reflecting her dual roles as a Blues and Vaudeville performer. She toured the country until the early 1930s and recorded with Okeh until 1928. When blues faded out in the early 1930s Sara retired from show business but continued to sing gospel. She returned to her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky during the Depression and worked in a nursing home. She died of a stroke in 1955.

Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey

Gertrude Pridgett "Ma" Rainey

Gertrude Pridgett Rainey, better known as Ma Rainey (April 26, 1886December 22, 1939), was one of the earliest known professional blues singers and one of the first generation of such singers to record. She was billed as The Mother of the Blues. She did much to develop and popularize the form and was an important influence on younger blues women, such as Bessie Smith, and their careers.Born in Columbus, Georgia, she first appeared on stage in Columbus in "A Bunch of Blackberries" at the age of 14. She then joined a traveling vaudeville troupe and married fellow vaudeville singer William 'Pa' Rainey in 1904. They toured with the Rabbit Foot Minstrels as Rainey & Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues, singing a mix of blues and popular songs. In 1912, she took the young Bessie Smith into the Rabbit Foot Minstrels, trained her, and worked with her until Smith left in 1915. Also known, though less discussed, is that she was bisexual. Rainey never shied away from her feelings in her music. Rainey was outspoken on women's issues and a role model for future women entertainers who took control of their own careers. Ma Rainey was already a veteran performer with decades of touring with African-American shows in the U.S. Southern States when she made her first recordings in 1923. Rainey signed with Paramount Records and, between 1923 and 1928, she recorded 100 songs. Rainey was extremely popular among southern blacks in the 1920s. She retired in 1933 and died of a heart attack in 1939.

Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor

Koko Taylor was born on September 28, 1935 as Cora Walton, on a farm just outside Memphis, Tennessee. Taylor left for Chicago in 1954 with her husband, truck driver Robert "Pops" Taylor and in the late 1950s began singing in blues clubs. She was spotted by Willie Dixon in 1962, and this led to wider performances and her first recording contract. In 1965, Taylor was signed by Chess Records, recorded a major hit that reached number four on the R&B charts in 1966. It sold a million copies. National touring in the late 1960s and early 1970s improved her fan base, and she became accessible to a wider record-buying public when she signed with Alligator Records in 1975. She then recorded over a dozen albums for that label, many nominated for Grammy awards. She came to dominate the female blues singer ranks, winning 24 W. C. Handy Awards (more than any other artist). After her recovery from a near-fatal car crash in 1989, Taylor appeared in movies such as Blues Brothers (2000). She opened a blues club on Division St. in Chicago in 1994 but closed it in 1999. Koko Taylor was awarded the W. C. Handy Lifetime Music Achievement Award in 2007; won the 2008 Grammy for “Old School”, Best Traditional Blues Album; won the 2008 Grammy for Gonna Buy Me a Mule, Best Song of the Year; and a Grammy as the Best Female Blues Performer of 2008. Koko Taylor performed until her death on June 3, 2009.

Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters

Ethel Waters was born on Halloween in 1896 in Chester, Pennsylvania. Her first Harlem club job was at Edmond’s Cellar in about 1919. Later, she toured with Fletcher Henderson and was sponsored under the Black Swan Record label. By 1925 she was recording with Columbia Records. She was a versatile vocalist and gained popularity for her jazz, big band, gospel, Broadway, and popular music as well as for the Blues. She was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1949 for the film “Pinky”. In 1950, she won the New York Drama Critics Award. Before her death, she toured with Billy Graham. She was inducted in the Gospel Music Hall of fame posthumously.

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald

Ella Fitzgerald was born on April 25, 1918 but orphaned in early childhood. She was sent to an orphanage in Yonkers. She won an amateur contest sponsored by the Apollo Theatre in 1934, which led to an engagement with Chick Webb's band, which she took over following his death in 1939. She went solo in 1942. During the '40s she recorded successfully and appeared in films. Later, Fitzgerald severed her ties with Decca and joined Granz's new company, Verve. One of their first projects was a series of two-record "songbooks," dedicated to the nation's premier songwriters like Cole Porter, Rodgers And Hart, and George and Ira Gershwin. Nelson Riddle among others provided jazz-tinged arrangements, and these sets enabled Fitzgerald to “cross over” to a general audience. She also had smash albums singing with Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Ellington, Marty Paich, and Riddle. Granz, Fitzgerald's manager since the late '40s, kept her very busy, issuing her records regularly and booking constant festival dates. She kept going into the '70s, expanding her repertoire. Fitzgerald had eye surgery in the early '70s, and since battled recurring vision problems and illnesses in the '80s. A recognized treasure, several retrospective sets were issued in 1993, in recognition of Fitzgerald's 75th birthday. She died on June 15, 1996 from complications with diabetes. She is best known as a jazz vocalist and for her “scat” singing.

Edith Wilson

Edith Wilson

She was born Edith Goodall to a middle class black family in Louisville, KY, on September 2, 1896. Her ancestors included an American Vice President, John C. Breckenridge, and a woman who was the model for the Liza character in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Edith Wilson entered show business in 1919 at the Park Theater in Louisville. Shortly afterwards she joined blues singer Lena Wilson and her pianist brother Danny. Edith and Danny Wilson were married and the three formed an act. Soon, Edith Wilson was introduced to Columbia Records where she was paired with Johnny Dunn's Jazz Hounds for a series of 17 recordings made in 1921 and 1922.

Edith Wilson became a major star in the New York black entertainment world. She was a member, with the famous Florence Mills, of "Lew Leslie's Plantation Review" at the Lafayette Theater in Harlem. In the mid- to late '20s, Edith Wilson went to England and established herself as an international star. She appeared in non-singing roles on radio shows like Amos and Andy and in the Humphrey Bogart/Lauren Bacall classic film “To Have and Have Not”. Around 1950, Edith Wilson assumed the character of Aunt Jemima, promoting the pancake mix for the Quaker Oats Company.

Edith Wilson retired from show business in 1963 to work as an executive secretary with Negro Actors Guild and to involve herself with other charitable, religious, and literary activities. Her last appearance was at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1980. She died on March 30, 1981 in Chicago.

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington

Dinah Washington was born Ruth Jones in Tuscaloosa, Alabama in 1924. Her family moved to Chicago while she was still a child. She played piano and directed her church choir. Later, she studied in Walter Dyett's renowned music program at DuSable High School. For a while, she split her time between performing in clubs as “Dinah Washington” while using the name “Ruth Jones” with the Salle Martin's gospel choir. She made extraordinary recordings in jazz, blues, R&B and light pop but refused to record gospel music, believing it wrong to mix the secular and spiritual professionally. She was a member of Liionel Hampton’s band in 1942 and cut her first hit with Keystone Records in 1943. She charted numerous R&B hits in the ‘40s and ‘50s. With "What a Diff'rence a Day Makes" 1959, Washington won a Grammy for Best R&B Performance. What set Dinah Washington apart from her contemporaries, was her extraordinary diction and phrasing. She was married seven times, and divorced six times while having several lovers, including Quincy Jones, her young arranger. She was known to be imperious and demanding in real life, but audiences loved her. In London she once declared, "...there is only one heaven, one earth and one queen...Queen Elizabeth is an impostor", but the crowd loved it. During her marriage to football player Dick "Night Train" Lane, she died from an accidental overdose of diet pills and alcohol at the age of 39 in 1963.

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday

Billie Holiday was born on April 7, 1915 in Philadelphia as Eleanora Fagan Goughy. She became known to the world as 'Lady Day'. Much of Holiday's difficult childhood is clouded by conjecture and legend, some of it propagated by herself in her autobiography published in 1956. Her mother, Sadie Fagan, was allegedly only thirteen at the time of her birth; her father Clarence Holiday, was fifteen. Her parents married when she was three, but they soon divorced, leaving her to be raised largely by her mother and other relatives. A hardened and angry child, she dropped out of school at an early age and began working as a prostitute with her mother. This preceded her move to New York with her mother sometime in the early 1930s. Settling in Harlem, Holiday began singing informally in numerous clubs. Around 1932 she was "discovered" by record producer John Hammond. He arranged several sessions for her with Benny Goodman; her first-ever recording was "Your Mother's Son-In-Law" (1933). On November 23, 1934, she performed at the Apollo Theater. Holiday began performing regularly at numerous clubs on 52nd Street in Manhattan. She became one of the first blues singers to break the “color” barrier, appearing with white musicians. Yet, she was still forced to use the back entrance and wait in a dark room before appearing on stage. Once on stage, she was transformed into Lady Day with the white gardenia in her hair. Holiday was a dabbler in recreational drug use for most of her life. Yet, it was heroin that would be her undoing, taking it intravenously from about 1940. Drugs, alcohol, and absuvie relationships marred her success and affected her voice. She was arrested for heroin possession in May 1947 and served eight months in a women’s prison. Her New York City Cabaret Card was subsequently revoked, which kept her from working in clubs there for the remaining 12 years of her life. She toured Europe in 1954 and 1958. On May 31, 1959, she was taken to Metropolitan Hospital in New York, suffering from liver and heart problems where she died from cirrhosis of the liver on July 17, 1959 at the age of 44. In the final years of her life, she had been progressively swindled out of her earnings, and she died with only $0.70 in the bank and $750 on her person.