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Lady Mem'fis: Expressions of a Legacy

Jack Bowers By

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Lady Mem'fis is actually from Louisiana, but that's unimportant, as her soul is pandemic (look it up). Unlike too many of her pallid contemporaries, the Lady sings with honest emotion, not to mention a sizable measure of talent. One senses that she not only understands the lyrics to the songs she sings but empathizes with them as well, so visibly honest is the impression of heartache and yearning on, say, Willie Nelson's "Crazy," Lennon / McCartney's "And I Love Him" or Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You." Lady Mem'fis can be playful too, as on "Teach Me Tonight," "Them There Eyes," "Such a Night" or Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies." She pays homage to the legendary Billie Holiday with "You've Changed" and the heartrending "Strange Fruit," to blues monarch Ray Charles with "It's Alright." At her core the Lady's a blues singer herself, as she affirms on "It's Alright" and Miles Davis' "All Blues," but she's no less engaging when reprising torch songs ("Stormy Weather," "You've Changed"), folk melodies (Avery Robinson's "Water Boy") or lighthearted pop tunes. Stylistically, there are occasional nods to Billie, Dinah and others, but Lady Mem'fis has a special persona of her own, built on tradition but thoughtfully framed and deeply personal. What's her secret? The Lady offers some insight in the liner notes: "As I sang certain songs," she writes, "I could smell and taste the red clay dirt from back home . . .I saw all the people in the neighborhood — the ragman, watermelon man, gambling man and, yes, the preacher man. I saw big families, little families and ladies walking under the hot sun with beautiful umbrellas. I reached back and retrieved those feelings, thoughts, smells [and] colors . . .I thought of all the heartache, pain, joy and laughter of those who came before me and paved a way so that my travels might be a bit easier. I thank heaven for them." And in the end, it is their song that Lady Mem'fis sings. It's interesting to compare her version of "Strange Fruit" with Billie's, as they are dissimilar in style yet comparable in their anguished response to its melancholy theme. Further comparisons are pointless, as Lady Mem'fis sounds nothing like Lady Day, nor does she bear much resemblance to Sarah, Ella, Carmen McRae or any of the other prominent Jazz and blues singers who have gone before her. The voice sounds closest to Dinah, or perhaps Alberta Hunter, but even here the similarity is more casual than precise. Lady Mem'fis does it her way, and that could be refreshing enough to turn some heads. The Lady has excellent support on this self-produced album, and she gives her amigos plenty of space in which to flex their improvisational muscles. Tenors Bobby Tynes and Robert Stewart are especially impressive, with brief but forceful statements as well by a number of others. This is one of the best vocal albums we've stumbled upon in many a moon, and it's disheartening to think about how few others may have a chance to share our excitement.

Contact: Lady Mem'fis, P.O. Box 15865, San Francisco, CA 94115-0865. Phone 415-621-3778; e-mail ladym27@hotmail.com; web site, www.ladymsings.com

Track Listing: Blue Skies; Stormy Weather; Exactly Like You; Crazy; And I Love Him; All Blues; Teach Me Tonight; The Very Thought of You; Them There Eyes; You've Changed; Such a Night; It's Alright; Strange Fruit; Water Boy (65:08).

Personnel: (collective) ? Lady Mem'fis, vocals; Bobby Tynes, Robert Stewart, tenor sax; Tammy Hall, James Campbell, piano, keyboard; Kash Killion, cello; Mike Bacile, Mark (Heshima) Williams, bass; Ranzell Merritt, Mark Lee, drums; Raul Ramirez, percussion.

Year Released: 2002 | Style: Vocal


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