"When I tell people--men, women, white, black, everybody--that I sing the blues, they squint or take a step back, or I see something move across their face as they think, `Oh, yeah,'" says blues singer Janiva Magness.
Blues fans still have a hard time accepting women playing the blues, Magness points out. But, quoting Albert King, she says, "It has nothing to do with the music. It has to do with the image of the music and where it came from."
An ex-Phoenician with strong ties to the Valley's current music scene, Magness is the lead singer with Fingers Taylor and the Lady Fingers Revue, a group that may succeed in changing a few of those worn-out preconceptions. The group is an all-woman R&B band, playing behind--and off the name--Greg "Fingers" Taylor, harp whiz and longtime member of Jimmy Buffett's Coral Reefer Band. Taylor formed the Revue to be the opening act for Buffett's current tour. Sunday's performance at Desert Sky Pavilion will be the band's first public appearance.
Besides Magness on vocals, the band includes Beth Mckee on piano, Nancy Wright on saxophone, Joyce Grimes on bass, Linda Geiger on drums and Debbie Davies on guitar. That a group of experienced musicians could be formed almost overnight shows how far female rock/pop/blues players have come. There have always been great women singers, but women instrumentalists have traditionally been shut out of rock 'n' roll, jazz and other forms of popular music. In the past ten years, however, things have changed, and now exceptional women players can be found in every branch of popular music. What began as a novelty with Heart and the Go-Go's has become a way of life. From the late Emily Remler and Shonen Knife to Bonnie Raitt and Saffire--the Uppity Blues Women, female musicians are now a potent force. Young female players now have more than a handful of all-important role models to emulate.
Despite such advances, much of the old sexism remains. The Lady Fingers Revue, for instance, trades on the gimmick of its all-female membership. "It's marketing," says Magness. "Fingers called John Mayall and said he wanted to know who the good female musicians were. And then there's the name. I really can't get with the whole `Lady Fingers' vibe. It's too cute."
How suburban white women get the itch to play rock 'n' roll or the blues can be a curious saga. Magness, a Motown native, always wanted to sing, but lacked confidence. Instead of getting up onstage and gutting it out, she went to school to become a sound engineer. Her first job was at the now-defunct Sullivan Sound Studios in Saint Paul, Minnesota.
That's where she got her big break. During a late-night recording session, one of the producers decided to add a back-up singer. Given the hour, a singer was going to be hard to find. Then someone remembered Magness could sing.
Fighting butterflies, the self- conscious Magness got up in front of the mic and let go. She sounded good on tape, good enough, it turned out, to convince a local singer-songwriter to produce her as a lead voice.
Things snowballed after that. Magness began to land more back-up studio work and even started to perform live. In 1980, after an abortive stop in Los Angeles where, she says, "Things were too intense, too fast and I was too scared," Magness moved to Phoenix. Frustrated with her directionless musical career, she decided to stop playing for a year to see if she could live without music. But in less than a year, Magness had quit a job as personal assistant to the owner of a local health-spa chain and had started vocal classes at South Mountain Community College. She had also begun sitting in with bands on the local club scene. The first Valley band Magness played with was the Blues Connection Revue, Big Pete Pearson's old band. At that point, it included drummer Elmer Scott, guitarist Matt Roe, horn players Emerson Carruthers and Bob Tate, bassist Jed Allen and harp player Bob Corritore, most of whom are still active in the Valley scene. In 1985, Magness, Roe, and Corritore left the Blues Connection, teamed with drummer Jerome Teasley and formed their own band, the Mojomatics. Winners of New Times' 1986 Best of Phoenix award for Best Blues Band, the Mojomatics could be found playing Tony's New Yorker Club, the Pony Express, and Freddie's, now the Sun Club. After a short stint fronting another local blues band called the Jaywalkers, Magness decided it was time to pack up and give La La Land another chance.
She arrived there with the intention of playing acoustic Delta blues. While in Phoenix, Magness had worked with guitarist Scott Spenner in the Blues Duo, doing tunes by the famous, like Bessie Smith, and the obscure, like Memphis Minnie.
"People in L.A. told me, `You can't do blues here and make any money,'" says Magness. "They'd say, `Delta blues are great, honey, but you can't do Memphis Minnie tunes here and get away with it.'" But she has gotten away with it. The Janiva Magness Band began by playing gigs in places like Mama Pajama, one of the combination coffee-house-and-used-clothing-store venues that thrive in L.A. Now the band has moved up to playing clubs along the California coast.
The Magness Band also includes a name that doesn't hurt if you're playing Delta blues. The piano player is Robert Johnson.
"The bizarre part is that our Robert gets royalty statements, not the actual checks, but royalty statements, from the estate of the real Robert Johnson," says Magness. "When he calls to tell them what's happened, it's pretty hilarious. He always has to start out, `No, I'm not that Robert Johnson. He's dead. I'm the other one.'"
The rest of the Lady Fingers have also had years of musical experience. The Austin, Texas-based Mckee spends a lot of time as a house player at Antone's. Grimes makes her living in New Orleans playing with the likes of Earl King and Snooks Eaglin. The drummer, Linda Geiger, is a Bay Area veteran who has toured with Lowell Fulsom, Brownie McGhee, and Charlie Musselwhite. Also a San Francisco resident, Nancy Wright has worked with Lonnie Mack and John Lee Hooker. Besides tenor, soprano and baritone saxophone, Wright plays flute, bassoon and piano.
The most accomplished member of the group is guitarist Debbie Davies. Brought up in a family of musicians who refused to buy her an electric guitar, holding firmly to the conviction that "women don't play electric guitars," Davies stuck it out and bought her own.
After years of playing rhythm guitar with all-male blues bands, Davies began playing lead with Maggie and the Cadillacs, a band led by Maggie Mayall, wife of British bluesbreaker John Mayall. One night Albert Collins came to hear her play, then invited Davies to play a test gig with his band. In late 1987, she joined for a short, three-concert New Year's swing through Texas. The following April she came on board permanently as second guitar.
Collins has become Davies' greatest supporter. He regularly stands back and gives her room to stretch out her own solos. Touring the world with Collins and appearing on his recent recordings has put Davies near the vortex of the often insular blues world. Such powerful connections could make her career.
Joining the Lady Fingers Revue is also a career builder. And, playing in front of arena-size crowds doesn't pay badly, either. Both Magness and Davies admit that money was a major factor in their decision to go with the tour.
But making money has also meant making compromises. The tunes in the Lady Fingers' nine-song set are more mainstream than a hard-core blues nut like Davies is used to.
"The set is shorter and has less blues in it than I'd like," she says. "It's been a give-and-take conflict between what Buffett wants as his opening act and what Fingers wants to do." Currently, the Lady Fingers' set comprises a couple of John Hiatt tunes, a harp instrumental, a Robert Cray knockoff and a couple other upbeat R&B crossover numbers. After the tour, Fingers Taylor and his Revue could do an album for the new record label Buffett is starting up. A record would go a long way toward a goal Magness and Davies share: making their years of paying dues pay off. At 38, Davies has managed through persistence and talent to crack into the fraternity of testosterone-fueled guitar heroes. But the real turning point is yet to come. She'll know that the male-female question in music is finally a nonissue, she says, when interviews like the one in a current issue of Guitar Player Magazine stop focusing on the fact that she's a woman. Until that happens--probably not in her lifetime--Davies is reveling in the kind of irony that comes with being a female player today.
"It was very, very hard to get started and then very hard to get good in this business as a woman," says Davies. "There weren't any female blues guitar players when I started. None. But now that I'm a legitimate player, the fact that I'm a woman has gotten me so much more press and exposure than if I was just another guy playing behind Albert. I think of it as my reward."
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Fingers Taylor and the Lady Fingers Revue will perform with Jimmy Buffett at Desert Sky Pavilion on Sunday, June 23. Showtime is 7:30 p.m.
"And then there's the name. I really can't get with the whole `Lady Fingers' vibe. It's too cute."
"People in L.A. told me you can't do blues here and make any money."
"The fact that I'm a woman has gotten me so much more press and exposure than if I was just another guy.