The Uppity Blues Women
Debut album from one of the best-loved contemporary blues groups. Includes "Middle-Aged Blues Boogie." "Sassy, brassy, raunchy...racy blues and ragtime tunes with rollicking jellyroll harmonies"--WASHINGTON POST
EARLENE LEWIS Bass and Vocals
ANN RABSON Piano, Guitar and Vocals
with MARK WENNER, Harmonica*
ANN sings lead on Take It On Back and Annie's Blues
EARLENE sings lead on Even Yuppies Get the Blues and all background vocals
GAYE sings lead on all other songs
PRODUCED BY Saffire-The Uppity Blues Women
RECORDED and MIXED BY Brian Bassen at King Snake Studios, Sanford, FL
ADDITIONAL RECORDING BY Jim Robinson at Bias Recording Company, Springfield, VA
ADDITIONAL MIXING BY Sam Fishkin at Chicago Recording Company, Chicago, IL
MASTERED BY Tom Coyne at DMS, New York, NY
COVER AND LINER PHOTOS BY Norm Shafer
COVER DESIGN BY Matt Minde
HAIR BY Garry Clayton of Charmante
UPRIGHT PIANO COURTESY OF Kenmore Inn
VERY SPECIAL THANKS TO Arleen Dowd
We have been blessed with the support and encouragement of so many people. Thank you all for believing in us. Specifically, we must thank: Alice, Faye and Gladys for being our role models of strong, independent, and in their own unique ways, uppity women; Clarence, Gus and Leonard for introducing us to the joy and beauty of music at an early age; George, Juno, Liz and Scott for their pride in and tolerance of our mid-life career changes, We LoveYou!!!; our musical family: John Cephas and Phil Wiggins, Maureen Del Grosso, Joe Savarin and the Blues Foundation, Bob Greenlee and the King Snake Crew, Bruce Iglauer and Alligator Records, and Kathleen Finigan, our agent. To our friends and fans and all of Fredericksburg, thanks for keeping the faith. We did it! May we all strive for peace in our lives and find a special healing power in the blues -- the universal equalizer. Love, Ann, Earlene and Gaye.
THE BLUES. There's no music more physically knowledgeable, or intentionally less "pure" in execution. The shoulder-shrugging, finger-strutting boogie woogie piano. The way the harmonica rounds and kneads and strokes a note. The bending and wailing of a guitar string, or the high lonesome of the bottleneck. The pulse of the standup bass. The sidelong come-on of an eight bar repeat. The voice's long slow slide into a high note -- the sound of longing, the shout of defiance, the crescendo of ecstasy and resurrection.
And humor. Because the blues is also about surviving, about taking hold of a bruising reality, rhyming it and riding it down. It's about honking, about moaning, about rolling your eyes and rattling your knees.
The blues is the sound of experience, of wry self-reliance, and for these three frank, funny, resilient women in their forties, it's the music of self respect.
SAFFIRE --Gaye Adegbalola, Earlene Lewis and Ann Rabson -- plays low-down blues for uppity women who know what they want when they want it. This is gospel-true, muddy water, make-my-own-bed blues, rock solid and wholly rolling. "Uppity" indeed, because whoever thinks these women have a "place" will have a hard time putting them in it. One is African-American, one Jewish, one part Cherokee; one comes from a jazz and R&B background, another from classical music, roadhouse blues and swing, the third from country and bluegrass. All they have in common is soul and experience -- hence "Saffire," the clearest of blue gems, multifaceted and with a sudden, sly glitter.
ANN RABSON, though born into a New York Jewish family, was raised in the Midwest Bible Belt. Hers was a musically eclectic family, playing classical, jazz, boogie woogie, the gamut (her sister Miriam is violinist with the Klezmer Conservatory Band). But precocious young Ann developed a taste for Big Bill Broonzy that led her straight to the blues. As a teenager, she took up guitar and she began performing professionalhy at eighteen. It was a frustrating, part-time career. By the late '60s she was living in Chicago, divorced and with a young daughter, working in an office by day and playing the blues at night. In 1971, she packed up and moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where her mother lived, and began performing full time. She played in bars, lounges, coffee houses, and, as she puts it, "dives." Music wouldn't pay the bills, so Ann went to work as a computer programmer, still playing five nights a week as a solo vocalist/guitarist, and honing her piano skills in her spare time. By 1982, she was an established regional blues artist, and her deep roots repertoire won her dozens of fans, including Gaye Adegbalola, herself an aspiring musician.
THE DAUGHTER of a Fredericksburg jazz drummer, Gaye Pitchford had been raised on Duke Ellington and Count Basie, but at age twelve, her musical imagination was ignited by a concert by down-home bluesmen Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. In high school, she favored the blues-flavored R&B of Etta James (her favorite singer "then and now") and Ray Charles. After entering Boston University, she became interested in the burgeoning folk/roots scene there and bought her first guitar, an acoustic Martin 0018, from a roommate. After living briefly in Washington, D.C., where she first tried moonlighting as a musician, Gaye moved to New York to work as a biochemical researcher. Ironically, it was in the inner city turmoil of '70s Harlem that she discovered the power of southern Pentecostal roots gospel groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds and The Mighty Clouds of Joy. Inspired by Big Mama Thornton to take up harmonica, Gaye became a street artist, mixing politics, blues and poetry into an increasingly radicalized street theater. She assumed an African name granted by a Yoruba priest, loosely meaning "she who is chosen to be born is coming into the honor of her crown." Returning to Fredericksburg with her infant son after her divorce, she became a high school teacher. With her father, she founded an experimental black theater/arts group. She was named Virginia Teacher of the Year in 1982, but having become a guitar student of Ann Rabson's, Gaye had begun devoting more time and energy to her own performing. By 1984, she was being offered bookings in rooms too large for a solo act, so she persuaded Ann to join her in a duo.
PERFORMING OR NO, Ann was still paying bills as a computer programmer. Among the students who signed up for her computer class was Earlene Lewis. Earlene, who has Cherokee blood on both sides of her family, had spent her childhood shuttling between Oklahoma and California, as her father strove to save up enough money to buy his own farm. When he finally did acquire five acres outside of Shawnee, Oklahoma (one cow, one pig, a few chickens), the family made their barn over into a house. Earlene's father played guitar, and with her mother, Faye, known as the "Kitty Wells of Shawnee," opened the home for neighbors from miles around for Saturday night country shakedowns. Earlene picked up a little guitar and piano; as teenagers, she and her sister performed as a duet for local church and 4-H functions. Earlene turned to bluegrass after she got out of school, but she was thirty before she saw a weathered standup bass on sale and plunked down $300 for it. In 1973, she and her husband moved to Fredericksburg, where she worked in management and played in a local bluegrass band.
IN 1984, Earlene signed up for Ann's computer class. When she had to make up a missed exam, Ann suggested setting up the test at Earlene's house so that Ann and Gaye could rehearse on Earlene's piano at the same time Earlene took the test. When they started playing, Earlene couldn't resist joining in with her bass, and a partnership was born.
Over the next few years, Saffire played regional clubs, women's and blues festivals and eventually won their way onto bills with such artists as Willie Dixon, Ray Charles and Koko Taylor, and at the W.C.Handy Blues Awards show in Memphis. Everywhere they played, new fans warmed to these three proudly middle-aged blues women. Even so, it was a leap of faith for them to give up their day jobs. Finally, in the spring of 1988, they agreed to go full time with their music and take hold of their hopes "before arthritis sets in." But that seems unlikely. As they sing in The Middle Aged Blues Boogie, "age ain't nothin' but a number." And Saffire's number has just come up.
-- Eve Zibart
Eve Zibart, also known as "Dr. Nightlife," writes for TheWashington Post