BWW Interview: Sharon Lewis Carries On With the Blues

Except for the particular world a musician travels in, they at times can be left off the radar of the mainstream industry. So many go for years, and while you might find a photo or a small write-up in a magazine dedicated to that style, there might not be much else.BWW Interview: Sharon Lewis Carries On With the Blues

One person who broke up and out of that long ago is Sharon Lewis. Speaking with her from her Chicago home, Lewis is humorous, forthright, outspoken, and unafraid to say what she thinks about any subject, music or otherwise.

Last year's Delmark release, Grown-Ass Woman is an example. The album swaggers with Chicago-style blues, and the music stands on its own. "I am very, very happy," Lewis says, "because I think it is a personal work for me, there's a lot of meaning behind this CD."

"Freedom" for Lewis is one of her favored tracks, "because it's very apropos for the day, what's going on in the country and so on. And 'Can't Do it Like We Do,' and 'Hell Yeah,'" with a bigger laugh.

(Live in Moscow, "They're Lying," from Grown-Ass Woman)

"Can't Do it..." is a statement that makes plain where the blues lie. Lewis appears to tweak, if not criticize those who use the blues, rather than play within it. She is quick to say, "I'm never mean, unless it's necessary, you know. You stand up for yourself, your rights, and what you believe. I wrote that song because of things that were going on around me. I think," she added, "there's this misappropriation of blues and heritage musicians as always are getting a raw deal."

Let's make sure we get that word away from how it's used of late. I've heard, and can see in some instances where artists move out from their blues roots, and there are a quite a few bands through history that did that. I asked Lewis if she views it that way.

"Sometimes yeah, you know, 'oh he's a blues-rock artist,'" she says. "There's no such thing as a blues-rock artist, you're either blues or you're rock. Sorry, I can't do it like that, and most of 'em are using it as a stepping stone for rock, because they can't get into rock, but they can get into the blues fairly easily."

In terms of Grown-Ass Woman, her second recording for the Discovery imprint of the label, Lewis calls the experience a positive one, in particular her relationship with producer Steve Wagner. "He's a bit of a taskmaster," Lewis admits, "as he should be, but also gave me a lot of freedom to showcase my talent and that's what I needed, but at the same time keeping a firm finger on the music and how it should be."

BWW Interview: Sharon Lewis Carries On With the Blues
Sharon Lewis

She goes on, "He hates when I say this, but I'm gonna say it anyway. Steve basically discovered me pretty much, way back in '93. He placed an ad in the Chicago Reader for a blues singer, and I was at that point trying to decide what I wanted to do with my singing. I really wanted to be heard, and I felt I had a message, so I had auditioned with four or five bands, and Steve's band was one of them. I took Steve's offer, because they were doing original stuff, and I didn't want to imitate. The only way I couldn't imitate was do original stuff."

That band eventually turned into Under the Gun. "We couldn't think of a name, Buddy Guy's (nightclub) was calling, 'We need a name,' "and that's all we could think of."

Lewis is also ready with praise for her current lineup, Texas Fire. The band has long roots in the scene, and many have years with Lewis, including guitarist Bruce James. (Bassist) Andre Howard has been with Lonnie Brooks; (drummer) Tony Dale is my brother from another mother," she adds with a chuckle, "I'm godmother to his son, so we're more like family than a band.

'I try to let everyone do their thing," Lewis continues. "I'm not like, 'this is what we're gonna do,' blah blah blah. I'm not sticky about that as long as we're in the same key and got the same groove. (laughs) But I really try to let them be themselves; you do what you I and I do what I do, and between all of us we'll have an incredible show and an incredible CD, and that's how it worked out."

When it comes to defining herself, Lewis says, "I know I'm blues, I'm not pigeonholed in the form of blues I do, and therefore the originality is allowed to flow, but inside of me, more than anything I'm a granny." She laughs and says, "When little girls and new little people call me Granny, it just melts my heart. I couldn't ask for more, 'cause I could've been anything, God knows I could've been anything but gratefully I lived long enough to see my children have children. Does that anything to do w/music? Yeah, happiness is picking up your granddaughters and they have 'Blues Train' on their iPod!"

Born in Ft. Worth, Texas, Lewis' upbringing was night and day from where she is now. "My mother died a week before my first birthday," she explains, "and I was raised for a while my grandmother, and she died on the same day as my mother, seven years later. And my grandmother was from the Church Of God in Christ. (They had) very strict ideals about living in this world, a very strict upbringing for a while. I think if my grandmother had lived we might not be having this conversation, I'd still be in Texas and probably be a missionary (laughs), it was not joke, I tell you."

Lewis speaks of a past that would be enough to shock most, but she does so, without apology. "In a way people may think I'm being callous, "she says, "but I'm not. But in a way for me and my siblings it was a blessing that she died, because we would not have been able to do the things we've done, seriously. I had a great time with my siblings, and I was the last of eight children. One of them taught me to read; I could read before I went to school.

'After my grandmother passed, I went to live with an uncle for a year and I call it the year from hell, 'cause I was verbally, sexually and mentally abused for a solid year. And it was abuse...I'd never encountered anything like that."

Music was one way out for Lewis, beginning with the gospel sounds she heard in the church. "I sang with two of my sisters, we had a little trio. I think the first song I learned was 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken.' I enjoyed it, I could sing before I could talk almost.

'I tell people I had three venues I went through," Lewis explains. "My first love was gospel, and after my grandmother died it became R&B. The first time I heard 'Duke of Earl,' oh my God," she recalls, again with laughter, "I think that really was the first I ever heard that wasn't a gospel song. I got the opportunity to meet him last summer, he lives here in Chicago. But I moved off from R&B to blues; if someone told me I'd be singing blues, I'd told them you're outta your mind!"BWW Interview: Sharon Lewis Carries On With the Blues

Lewis moved to Chicago in 1975, and recalls her introduction to the South Side club scene, the famous Lee's Unleaded Blues. She recalled Patricia Scott, who sang for years in Buddy Scott and the Ribtips before stepping out as a front woman. "When I (heard) Pat Scott singing 'Walk the Floor,' I thought, my God, I was in heaven."

Lewis eventually found her way onstage in Chi-town. "I sang at the third gospel fest before it was called that in Chicago," she explains, "but R&B was what I listened to. I loved Motown, I still do, but back then when it was in its defining moments was when it was the best: the Supremes, the Temptations, Patti LaBelle, Marvin Gaye, that was heaven to my ears."

As for touring, Lewis has gone to Europe fairly often, with recent shows in Georgia, Italy and Russia. She agrees that the appreciation for music over there is heartfelt, and in some cases incredibly strong. "I remember the first time I played in Poland," Lewis recalls. "You first have to understand most of those people have never seen a black person, in person. And here I am, a black woman with these long locks, and this big voice, little woman with this big voice and they're like, 'Oh my God!' The first show I did in Poland. we got there at like 9:30, 10 in the morning there was a line outside the venue already...and they made 'em get out of line because they said it was too early. We went to eat; we could see from the restaurant, they were slowly getting back in line an hour later. I'm like," she finishes with a laugh, "these people are not to be deterred! They stood in line and by the time we went to the hotel and got to back to the venue, the line was two miles long."

The Internet also showed it's good for another thing, putting the artist in touch with who's coming to town. "They go on YouTube," Lewis says, "they see I'm coming to their town. The deeper you go into Europe, last year I went to Armenia, but when you go to the places that are kind of cut off form the world basically; they are just so much more appreciative that you would come to their country. I think the reaction is not as strong when you're in places like Paris, or even Prague for that matter, 'cause they've seen a lot."

(Sharon Lewis & Texas Fire, live in Copenhagen)

You often see old footage of girls fainting when they were in proximity of stars, but Lewis had it happen to her. "I was in Warsaw," she explained. "I touched this girl and she fainted, I'm like really! That was an incredible moment for me: she was looking at me, they were interviewing me, and there were a lot of people around. I kept looking at her and wink just to put her at ease. She was just this young girl, maybe 14, 15 years old, very pretty. She kept looking at me, so I walked over to her and said hello in Polish, and I touched her on her arm, and she fainted away. (Her friends said) she's just so overcome."

The common touch is a thing not all performers have, but Lewis is unafraid to get intimate with an audience. "I'll come offstage," she says, "I want them to know I'm human and I'm accessible. I've never had a problem (with an audience), knock on wood. In fact, the guys in the audience sometimes think they're my security. They're like, 'Don't get too close to Miss Lewis!' I appreciate that, but I love it when I can get with the audience, get close to 'em, that's my Zen. That is my Zen."

BWW Interview: Sharon Lewis Carries On With the Blues
Sharon Lewis & Texas Fire, live onstage

Lewis also touched again on the future of the blues world. "If things don't change," she says with some seriousness, "it looks grim to me for heritage musicians. That's sad to say, because this is our culture, basically a birthright. This country made itself; this music was developed and came off the back and the sweat of my ancestors."

I take Lewis' description as one that means artists who carry on the blues from the past, but perhaps with their own twists. "(They're) gonna have a hell of a time," Lewis goes on. "Marquise Knox is one, and I look down in the Delta and I see Robert Kimbrough, Jr., I see people like that, and I see people like Kenny Smith (son of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith), who played with me for a long time. People like that, and there are some people here in Chicago, Mike Wheeler, to me one of the best singers out there now. Ronnie and Wayne Baker Brooks (sons of the recently departed Lonnie Brooks), but their task is gonna be harder than what there is now."

In terms of comparisons, I don't have one to put Lewis up against, but Lewis says, "There's a few people that have dubbed me the Nina Simone of the blues." That does not bother her. "Absolutely not. I am Sharon, and nobody sounds like Sharon but Sharon, and I can't sound like these other people, but to be compared to some of these incredible talented people. I am honored and blessed.

'You know who the best critics are? The drunks in the bar with the bottle, that waddle up to you. I had one in particular, and you could tell the gait as she's walking toward me that things were just not altogether there, but she walks up to me with this bottle, she looks at me and says, 'you know who you sound like?' I say, 'No, but you're gonna tell me.' She says, 'Yeah, you're like Janis Joplin and Tina Turner all rolled in to one!"

Lewis laughs heartily. "That's not bad company. I consider it a compliment, but I also want them to understand I am who I am on my own."

What is next for Lewis is potentially a new album, and Texas Fire is seven or eight songs deep into the next recording. As for live shows, Lewis says to the uninitiated, "I say this at the beginning of every show: you don't know me but by the time I'm done with you, tonight, we're gonna be best friends." I like that closeness with my audience, five or five thousand the show is always the same."

Photo Credits: Howard Greenblatt

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