I don't think of myself as a singer. I think of myself as a storyteller. I gravitate to songs that tell a story.
I was born, reared, educated, and held hostage here in Memphis — but "hostage" is lovingly said. Everybody wants to leave and go to New York or Los Angeles or Hollywood — they want to become a star. Not me. Oh, I've had a few opportunities to leave, but most of the time, I go the night before the job, work the job, and come right back — and be glad to come back! I've been only a very few places in my life: Toronto, Atlanta, Arkansas, Florida, and Mississippi. That's it! I just love Memphis. I'm pro-Memphis all the way.
I grew up in a big, old, rambling house. We had two pianos — a grand and an upright — and some other instruments. My daddy could play everything. His philosophy was: Just do the best you can.
My mom still plays piano and writes beautiful lyrics. On every CD I make, we put a piece on it by my mother. Around the world, I have 17 various projects, and I always include something that my mom wrote.
Nonetheless, when it was time to practice, my mother sat with us as we practiced. Or she'd be in the kitchen cooking, but she always had those ears tuned in. She could hear everything that was wrong! She didn't praise you much, but you knew when you were doing something good. Growing up, there was always music.
When I first sat down to the piano, I was about 3 years old. We were picking this stuff up just sort of by ear as children do. Mom said that wasn't good, that we needed to learn how to read music. Mother showed us some things, but she was a smart woman. She knew that sometimes the parent is not always the best teacher. So growing up, my two sisters and I took lessons from everyone, and I loved it from the very beginning.
Sometimes I'd get up in the middle of the night, just because I wanted to play. I'm nocturnal — wide awake at night. I would tap my mother awake. She'd sit up and ask if I was okay. Then she'd say, "You want to practice, don't you?" and I'd say, "Yes'm. Do you mind?" She'd say, "No, but let's put on our clothes."
You see, we closed off some of the house and just lived in a portion of it to save heat expenses. Of course, the pianos were never in the part of the house that was heated! Socks, shoes, sweater, jacket — we'd bundle up so I could play. Mom would sit there with me for three, four hours. And I'm compulsive. I want to get it right. So over and over and over — can you imagine how hard that was for her? It wasn't bad to me because that's the way I am. But to the person who's not doing it? She never said she was tired. I think she knew that I wasn't going to rest until I got it.
But growing up, I didn't want to just play piano; I also wanted to be a singer.
I took voice lessons for six years. One day, my voice teacher said to me, "I kept thinking there would be something redeeming, but you're just not a singer." I was 11 or 12. I was hurt, and I ran away. It crushed me.
I did not sing in public for 22 years. I played piano, but I refused to sing.
I graduated from Memphis State, working day jobs and playing music at night.
I didn't sing until Captain Phil McGee and Richard Boyington from Hottennazz came to my day job in 1984 to tell me the band had lost its piano player and singer. They were performing at the French Quarter in Overton Square. I said, "I'll be your piano player, but I don't sing." They stayed all day long trying to convince me to sing for them. Finally, I said, "Okay! Okay! Okay! You're going to make me lose my job! I'll give you two weeks to find a singer."
And that was it! I sang that first night. Oh, I loved it! It was not something I had to think about other than I was afraid the band wouldn't receive a good reception from the audience. I was afraid there would be negative feedback — that they wouldn't applaud or smile. I did not want the band to lose its job. But we continued to work there the next three years.
I also like working as a single act. I'm an observer, a watcher. I like to watch people's faces. I notice who the facility's patrons are, and I have that personal umbilical cord I share with all my "babies." They are my life's blood. I play music according to their ears. Likewise, if my music isn't resonating with the audience, I switch gears. If I have to play gutbucket, I'll do it. If I have to play naughty-but-cute, I do that. I am there to enhance the experience. I learned that from my father: If you can't figure out what kind of gig it is, don't go!
I memorize my pieces, and I take liberties with the memorization, all right enough, because I have to arrange the piece so I can make a presentation. I don't take away from what the composer intended. I need it to sound recognizable — to me and to the listener. I have to find something in that piece that makes me want to tell that story. I read the lyrics first. But as I read the lyrics, I read the music and listen to it in my mind. I have to decide whether this is a story that is relative to me. Can I be believable in the presentation?
I worked as a director of activities at a nursing home for almost 30 years. Now, I enjoy playing for different types of facilities and connecting with the residents through music.
I've worked in music almost every day of my life for more than 50 years, but I've loved it and still do. I don't regret it. Nobody loves playing the piano more than I do.
The piano I prefer to play is an acoustic piano. I have a Baldwin. I like a piano with a mellow tone.
My favorite type of music to play is '20s, '30s, and '40s. And I like to do the obscure. If they can hear it on the radio, why would they want to listen to me doing it, because I will not — cannot — sound like anybody other than myself.
Most people don't know that I collect rocks! All kinds — quartz, geodes, rose rock from Arkansas, a piece of Mt. Kilimanjaro. When my babies travel, they bring me back a rock — something that is indigenous to the area. It's something about the fact that rocks are stable, that rocks have been here forever, and they tell you about the Earth.
While I'm playing I don't even think about what my fingers are doing. They're just doing their own thing. I don't know how that works; it just does.
When I'm behind the piano I have a personality. I'm the good-time girl. When I'm not behind the piano, I have no personality. I'm the death of the party.
The first thing, every morning before anything else, I go to my piano and touch it. I want to make sure it is still there. I have dreams, nightmares about my piano. When daybreak comes, that's when I'm ready to go to sleep. I nod off. I have four clocks, and they all go off at different times. I sit straight up, swing my feet out of the bed, and I go to my piano. It's like I'm scared something happened to the thing I love most. I've been like that all my life.
Growing up, my pets were two fish — Pete and Petey — Bobby the bird at first, and then three kittens — Midway, Expressway, and Miss T.B., short for Tinker Bell. They were thin, scrawny siblings I adopted from the Humane Society on Central when I was young. The lady there asked, "Are you sure? I don't know if these are strong. But if they last the week, they'll live forever." And they did almost live forever! Anyway, they were so tiny that I was afraid to leave them by themselves, so I put them in my purse when I went to play piano at church choir rehearsals. This went on for months. One night, they got out of my purse. Every song the choir sang, the kittens sang, too! I didn't say a word! I just kept right on playing, and the choir just kept right on singing, and the cats just kept right on singing, too! The reverend found the kittens, and I had to tell. After that, we — all four of us — were not welcome back together! Those kittens lived together for 18 years, and they are buried together.
It warms my heart when I'm playing in restaurants, and I see little children who, while they are eating, hear the music and find it enjoyable. They're waving a french fry or something, and their little heads and bodies are dancing in their seats. The parents notice the child having a good time, and they look at me and smile.
As a performer, the first thing I do when I walk in a room is figure out what kind of patronage the facility has. It goes back to my father's philosophy: If you can't be the best at your job, don't do it. That is something I've followed all my life.
My boyfriends are Tom Lonardo on drums — my partner in crime and my heart; the magnificent Tim Goodwin — the maestro — on bass; and the inimitable Jim Spake, the emperor of sax and one hell of a player — they all are magnificent! And I love those men. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to play with them.
I have an affinity for a drummer who can use brushes. I'm a brush woman. If a drummer can't use brushes, I don't gravitate to him.
My first paying piano-playing job Away from the family? Macedonia Baptist Church. I was about seven years old when they started talking to me. I told them they had to talk to my mother.
When it comes to clothing I'm a dungarees and T-shirt kind of girl. That's the way I am all the time. I'm not a sequin kind of girl.
The most unusual place I've ever played was in a log cabin. The fellas and I played for an Arkansas State University hunting club on a weekend retreat, I believe. There was snow on the ground, and it was very rough, but they were all music aficionados and very educated. They knew their blues and jazz!
It takes guts to do many things, but it doesn't take guts to sit at the piano. It's a genteel instrument — well, not always the way I play it, but it is thought of that way.
Playing the piano makes me feel empowered. But as soon as my time is up, I revert back to my introverted nature, packing up my things and moving on to the next job.
If I couldn't have been a storyteller I would have been content to just accompany, to just play. That's an honor in itself.
The longest I've gone without playing a piano I can't answer that. Even when I had my appendix out, my mom brought a little piano up to the room. I play every day. Every day.
The person I most admire is Nancy Brinker. Her only sister, Susan G. Komen, died of breast cancer in her mid 30s. Nancy made a promise to Susan that she would never be forgotten. She then founded the Susan G. Komen for the Cure to educate and inform the public about breast cancer and further funding and research to cure it. I admire her love for her sister and for keeping her promise in such a remarkable way.
My three favorite radio stations: WEVL 89.9, the volunteer station; WUMR 91.7, the all-jazz University of Memphis station; and WMPS-AM 1210, Dr. George Flinn's station, which plays the music of my life.
I manage the stress of my profession by … I have no stress in my profession. I don't deal with managers, agents, technicians, makeup artists — there's no one telling me what to do. I just walk in, go to the piano, and play.
The trait I most dislike about myself is my obsessive-compulsive nature.
The misperception I battle most is that I'm an extroverted, bubbly, "fun-time" girl. I'm not — unless I'm behind the piano.
I have never gone to a colleague's performance and asked to sit in. It's very common with some musicians, but it's just not what I do. I like to go to support and enjoy whoever is performing.
My favorite subject in school was literature. I love to read.
The only time I would lie is to keep from hurting somebody's feelings. White lies. I don't ever want to hurt anyone's feelings.
My greatest achievement is surviving.
I'm quickest to anger when someone is being condescending — to me or to anyone. If you have to demean someone to make yourself feel important, I don't like that.
My biggest vice is shopping. I don't really get a chance to shop, but if I could, I'd like to shop for everything!
The catchphrase I most overuse … Have a nice day! It's a genuine feeling in my heart, but I do say it too much!
My favorite fairy tale … So many fairy tales are scary! "Rumpelstiltskin," Grimm's fairy tales, "Little Red Riding Hood," "Goldilocks and the Three Bears" — I mean, Hansel and Gretel are going to be cooked in the oven! To me, as an adult, they're all scary.
Success is … I don't know that I'd call myself successful, but I love to play my piano. Many people look at fame, money, and things they've acquired as success. I don't.
My greatest extravagance is reading magazines.
Behind the piano, I never feel lonely. When I think about all the people who have gone before me, who made it possible for me to have the opportunity to perform, they are with me all the time —all the time.
As I get older I am more grateful. I've learned to appreciate things more.
If I could meet one person, my first choice would be Danny Thomas. He was a thinking man. And he must have been awfully compassionate — and persuasive — to accomplish a body of work like St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. No child in the world is turned away. He followed through on a promise he made to God. I admire all that so much.
Before I die, I … Oh, I don't want to die!
My favorite cocktail is grapefruit juice — on the rocks!
My final 2 cents … Be true to your goals. I think some people lose sight of that. Do what your heart tells you to do, and do the best job you can — every time. No matter what happens, never stop playing. Just keep the music coming, and play on.