In 1993, because so many of our really good Bay Area blues entertainers are women and deserved to be honored, we set about to book the ‘Women and the Blues” edition of the Fountain Blues Festival.
It was somewhat hard to find the right headliner, several were considered, and found wanting for one reason or another, usually budget related.
I had always loved La Vern Baker’s hell-bent-for-leather style and my research found that she was still quite good live. We booked her not knowing that she had a secret that we didn’t hear about until a few days before the event. La Vern had had a stroke six months before and had recuperated secretly. We were left without much choice, but were partially relieved that she was sending her musical director, Barry Freidman(I believe was his last name) to rehearse NITECRY, our backup band, a couple days early.
I have to admit that I was not really too worried about La Vern. This was the woman who, in the mid-fifties, sued Georgia Gibbs for her note-for-note copy of La Vern’s huge R & B hit “Tweedlee Dee” that crippled La Vern’s sales; and failing that, got her congressman to try to outlaw plagiarized (copied) songs; and failing that, bought some airline insurance before one of her tour flights, listing Georgia Gibbs as beneficiary, with this note for Ms. Gibbs, “You need this more than I do; if I die, you are through!”. Headlines around the country! This was just not done by a young woman, even a popular entertainer, in those days!
NITECRY opened up the show then backed up everyone that day except for the one other absolutely necessary component, the great female blues guitarist. The Associated Students Program Board had booked a very successful Richard Pryor concert a few years earlier, we had booked Albert Collins to open and he had a great second guitar in his band named Debbie Davies. Little lady with a big guitar sound who performed real songs, with real solos. She was perfect with her own band, and this started a series of two more appearances by Debbie at the FBF.
NITECRY needed a break that day. They had backed up everyone else, playing almost five hours of great, sensitive support. Extra Ordinary. Most of the other musicians were already known to us personally, through gigs at SJSU. Beverly Stovall was and, I hope, still is one of the greatest keyboardists alive, and without peer on the organ bench. Lady Bianca Thornton had been our first regular, appearing from 1985 thru 1990. Bianca would have been very unhappy not to have been invited. Ms. Taylor P. Collins had enthralled our audiences with her vocals, her band, and her completely unique style. Nancy Wright is still, today, one of the best tenor players in California. Her tone the envy of many, many other fine saxophonists. Vala Cupp (RIP) had been featured by John Lee Hooker for a few years, so why not us? Liz Fisher had played with every good blues band in Santa Cruz for years, and was a natural for our Festival.
Barry, the music director, had mentioned that la Vern had recently been diagnosed with diabetes. I told him that my daughter Crystal had been diagnosed at age seven, and would be a good resource for understanding and answering La Vern’s probable puzzled questions. Diabetes is very hard to get used to, and they had a long and intense session before she went on. La Vern pumping her hard for examples and anecdotes. Crystal seemed to be by her side the entire day.
Barry had also asked that the lyrics to the songs be printed extra-large, and placed on a music stand for La Vern. They were worried about the post stroke memory loss possibility.
She treated her co-stars like she was their biggest fans.
I cannot forget her huge cat-like horn rimmed glasses, and her immense smile (as big as her monster voice) and the endless hug she gave Crystal as they emerged on the way to the stage. Barry mentioned that she had cried later on, from relief.
Oh, and La Vern didn’t even notice the lyric sheets, immediately had them taken away, and just sang her heart out for all of us, and especially for herself. At least three encores, everyone on the stage at the end.
One very, very, extremely tough and beautiful human being. Hope you were there.