A FEW MINUTES WITH… Diunna Greenleaf

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By Don Wilcock

Johnny Cash had it. Willie Nelson, Frank Sinatra, Ray Charles, Buddy Guy and Roy Buchanan did, too. It’s that thang that’s never been properly labelled, but when you’re experiencing that performer, you just know they’re more at home on stage than in their own bedroom. It’s their real comfort zone. All the rules go out the window.
You trust them wherever they take you. If these artists were a food, they’d be organic with no GMOs. They can make mistakes. No matter. They’re in the zone. They can perform in styles having nothing to do with the category the industry suits jam them into. No one cares. When you see them, it’s love at first sight.

Diunna Greenleaf, headlining Rory Block’s Blues and Gospel Fest on Saturday night (July 21) at Chatham’s PS21, is just such an artist.

Fundamentally, she’s a gut bucket, big-legged blues shouter from Houston, Texas, home of one of her influences, Big Mama Thornton, who showed Elvis how to sing “You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog,” and gave Janis Joplin what-for when Janis copied her “Ball and Chain” inflection for inflection.

Blues Queen Koko Taylor was Greenleaf’s friend, and shortly before she died, Koko got into a discussion with her about a “coronation,” a passing of the Blues Queen torch. “That was not something that I welcomed actually,” says Greenleaf.

Why?

“Because heavy is the head that wears the crown, baby, OK? First of all, being the Queen of Blues would strip me of some of my freedom to be able to sing or write or play anything that I want to, OK? Because people would only expect of you to hold up the banner correctly, and they only expect traditional blues from you, OK? And they
would only expect to hear Chicago blues, and I’m a Texas girl, OK? And I want to play the different forms of blues, OK? And a lot of people knew the blues music is not just sad music. Yes, I love being what they call bottom-of-the-barrel, gut-bucket blues, but there is also so much more. And also I didn’t want rock-blues to take over all of us.”

Greenleaf had nothing to worry about. After Taylor died in 2009, her daughter Cookie held a “coronation” at the Chicago Blues Festival declaring Shemekia Copeland her mother’s successor. Not that Copeland has fallen into any of the boxes Greenleaf was worried about. In fact, Copeland’s new album, America’s Child due out August 3 on Alligator Records, is an eclectic triumph that includes a duet with folksinger John Prine and features songs composed by Americana artists Mary Gauthier, Will Kimbrough (who also produced the album) and Oliver Wood.

But I digress…

Greenleaf fits squarely into Rory Block’s theme of women’s empowerment at her fest and points out the Me-Too movement is old news to blues women through history like Bessie Smith, the 1930s blues singer that Rory Block pays homage to on her just released A Woman’s Soul album on Stony Plain Records.

Greenleaf explains, “Back when I produced my first blues festival, I named it the Willie Mae Big Mama Thornton Festival. Koko called me immediately and told me how happy she was about that, and how proud she was that I had named the festival after a woman.”

Of course, Greenleaf sees herself as woman, but as a person first, “just doing what was necessary to get the job done. I was a college graduate looking at the world with different eyes because it was never my intent to veer from everything, so on and so forth. So, they had already paved the way in so many ways. This thing has been
turned around again out of necessity over the years, because in the day of Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, all those girls WERE the band leaders.”

She points to Lonnie Johnson from early in the electric blues era as someone who treated women as equals in the blues business. “He didn’t seem to have a problem working for women like Victoria Spivey, OK? Victoria Spivey was from Houston, and was the one who started the Spivey label.”

Spivey was the first black woman to head a record label in the 1961, and she recorded Muddy Waters, Memphis Slim, Otis Spann, Big Joe Williams, Lonnie Johnson and Louis Armstrong. I have distinct memories of listening to her and Howlin’ Wolf discuss the status of blues at the 1970 Ann Arber Blues Festival, the first blues
festival to feature nearly 100% black artists.

Yes, Greenleaf transcends the clichés and boxes of the music industry. She may be a big legged blues mama, but her feet never touch the ground. In her 60 years on this earth she has earn a masters degree in educational counseling and worked in the field, spent 20 years as an Army officer, and taken care of her sisters’ children
after the sister passed. Did I mention that she’s traveled the world performing?

She was Living Blues magazine’s Critics’ Choice for Female Artist of the Year in 2015. Her latest release, Trying to Hold On, reached No. 1 on XM/Sirius Radio Bluesville, No. 1 on French Blues charts, and reached the top of blues charts in the UK, Australia and U.S.

But it all comes back to her childhood and mama. “It’s difficult for me to sing ‘Precious Lord.’ That song’s carved on my mama’s tombstone ’cause people used to call for her to sing it all the time, and they used to call for her to sing all the time “Oh, Ship of Zion,” and when all the nuns’ gospel things she used to sing around the house, I sing them with ease and fun. Happy memories laughing.

“It’s hard to sing ‘Precious Lord.’ I used to sing it all the time before. I can still sing ‘Oh Ship of Zion.’ There’s overwhelming sadness in singing that song. I don’t know. There are probably others that it’s not every day that somebody has asked me to sing. At the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis they asked me to sing ‘Precious Lord.’ I had to actually leave the stage. I did finish the song, but I just needed to get out of there.

“I never wanted to block my emotions out because then it would just be work. It would just be a performance. For me, the performance is not over when the performance is over.”

WHAT: Rory Block’s Blues and Gospel Fest Weekend
WHO: Diunna Greenleaf & Blue Mercy
WHERE: PS21, Chatham
WHEN: Saturday (July 21), 8pm
HOW MUCH: $25; students $10

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