‘Blues Is a Woman’ mixes history, music and theater in Petaluma
Popular San Francisco singer Pamela Rose has been belting out the blues for a long time, and as she searched for great songs to sing, she found out that the women who made the songs famous were not always well-known themselves.
Ultimately, her research turned into “Blues Is a Woman,” a new stage show she terms a “scripted concert,” blending historical background, storytelling and live performances of great blues songs.
Previously performed in March at the Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse in Berkeley, the show gets another one-night-only engagement May 14 at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma before it opens in August for a monthlong run at the Custom Made Theater Co. in San Francisco.
“‘Blues Is a Woman’ is a very different show,” Rose explained. “It’s not a concert, and it’s not a musical. We call it a theatrical concert. It’s something I’ve been developing for the last two years.”
Working with a five-woman band, Rose has put together a program of songs, spoken histories and projected images that traces the influence of women on American blues, from Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Etta James to Nina Simone, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin and Bonnie Raitt.
“After San Francisco, I hope to be touring with this show nationally at performing arts centers, festivals and small theaters,” Rose said.
Her goal may sound ambitious, but Rose has a track record.
“I created a previous show called ‘Wild Women of Song: Great Gal Composers of the Jazz Era,’ seven years ago. I had put out an album and all the tunes were jazz standards written by women,” Rose said.
“I was so amazed when I started doing the research and found out how many of the women were really prolific, and whose names should have been totally familiar to me, but I knew nothing about any of them. So I started this mission and it became my life’s work.”
“Wild Women of Song” has toured nationally and internationally for the past seven years, from San Francisco to New York to London, and now Rose is ready to launch her new show, still featuring both unsung and famous musical heroines, but this time switching the emphasis from jazz to blues. And the blues show is much more of an ensemble effort than the jazz show was.
“I love the blues,” Rose said. “I’ve been teaching and singing about the blues for many, many years, but I also knew this show just couldn’t be me talking about it. Honestly, it’s not a white woman’s story to tell. So I wanted to have an ensemble of players, all of whom would share in the storytelling and the singing.”
So, in “Blues Is a Woman,” Rose shares the stage, the narrative and the vocals with pianist and music director Tammy Hall, bassist Ruth Davies, gutarist Pat Wilder, drummer Daria Johnson and saxophonist Kristen Strom.
“They all are actors in this show,” Rose said. “They’re all singing and sharing the storytelling. At the same time, we’ve upgraded the projected images.
“It’s not just PowerPoint anymore. Sometimes, there are images that take you back in time to 1919 in Missouri, and sometimes we can project film of Nina Simone, right there in the room, singing for the audience. We have quite a bit of film.”
But despite the extra effects, the emphasis remains on live performance.
“Mostly, we’re singing the songs ourselves, Sometimes, we’re playing and adapting and interweaving our narrative and our music around what you see on the screen,” Rose said.
No one should get the idea that “Blues Is a Woman” is solely for women or for blues fans.
“If you follow the story of just blues, let alone women in the blues, it’s really the story of American popular music. If you watch the blues being adapted through decades it’s still there,” said Rose, 60, a veteran of the popular Bay Area soul ensemble The Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra.
“You hear it from the early field hand songs to church music to vaudeville blues with Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey, who wrote songs that popularized the music. You hear it in the boogie woogie piano players that were coming out of the ‘30s and ‘40s, many of them women, and the big band music in the ‘40s. You hear it in the early rhythm and blues shows with Ruth Brown and early Etta James, when she was on the road with the Johnny Otis Show,” she said.
“We talk about the songs of protest in the early ‘60s, when these songs came back to us as songs of resistance, with Nina Simone and Aretha Franklin. All through the ‘70s and ‘80s, you heard it again in rock ‘n’ and punk music.”
Throughout the show’s rapid trip through American musical history, with creative direction by Jayne Wenger, one message comes through clearly, Rose said.
“The women were always there, and it’s just extraordinary that they always get overlooked when people talk the history of the blues. When you talk about the blues, the first image that comes to mind is a guy with a guitar, but there’s so much more.”
To Rose, the power of a lady singing the blues is undeniable. To prove her point, she simply cites Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” from 1923.
“You can feel the ache and the throb in her voice.”
You can reach staff writer Dan Taylor at 707-521-5243 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @danarts.