Susan Tedeschi: Dreams and Legends

Alan Bryson By

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A string of Grammy-nominated albums, along with a critically acclaimed and commercially successful DVD of her appearance on the American television program Austin City Limits, have helped to establish Susan Tedeschi as one of today's premiere blues artists. On top of that, she's performed in front of millions of music lovers by headlining numerous festivals and opening for music legends like B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Bob Dylan, The Allman Brothers Band, and the Allman Brothers Band.

Her appeal extends well beyond the blues. For example, she and her husband, Grammy-winning guitarist Derek Trucks Band, were asked to join Wayne Shorter as Herbie Hancock's special guests at his Seven Decades Birthday Celebration at the Hollywood Bowl, scheduled for Sept. 1, 2010. Moreover, this spring she was the only female artist included in the Experience Jimi Hendrix tour, and her electrifying performance of three songs at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Tribute to Janis Joplin earned her a standing ovation.

Indeed, her powerful voice—combined with her soulful and nuanced phrasing—invite comparisons to Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and Bonnie Bramlett, but as with any serious artist, she clearly has her own unique voice. Her guitar playing has proved to be an ideal adjunct to her ample vocal gifts. Her playing has an assertive attack quality that is reminiscent of a bygone blues era and is especially effective when doing Chicago-style blues.

For the past decade she and her husband have led separate bands, maintained separate musical identities, and kept up a grueling tour schedule. Collaborations were limited and complicated by contractual constraints, but the 2010 launch of the Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi Band brings together two of the hottest performers on the contemporary music scene.

Chapter Index
  1. Early days and upcoming events
  2. Mike Bloomfield, Ronnie Earl and Songwriting
  3. BB King and Les Paul
  4. The New Band
  5. Magic Moments

Early days and upcoming events

AAJ: You and Derek really have come a long way since 1999. In your wildest dreams, could you have imagined back then that you would be invited as Herbie Hancock's special guests at his 70th birthday celebration at the Hollywood Bowl this September?

ST: That's right, thinking back to 1999 I never would have dreamed that I would be hanging out with Herbie Hancock in 2010. I remember when Derek and I were at the Grammy Awards in 2000 for my first nomination and the first person I actually went up to was Herbie. I think I went up to him and Aretha Franklin and said, "Hi, I'm a fan!"

AAJ: You're also on Herbie Hancock's new CD and DVD; what was that experience like?

ST: It was incredible. He came here to our studio and brought a camera crew and (drummer) Vinnie Colaiuta. It was just the two of them and they got together with Derek, Kofi Burbridge [on flute, keyboards], Oteil Burbridge [bass guitar] and myself. So we recorded a track for his new record here at our studio.

He stayed for three or four days and he was fabulous. He's so great and we just had such a blast with him, he's an amazing human. He's a sweetheart, down-to-earth, and inspiring. You know, he's just incredible, he makes it look so effortless and easy.

AAJ: Your fans will be very interested in having a chance to see your studio and see you and Derek working with Herbie, so that's nice for Herbie, too.

ST: It's amazing with this new record of his. He's been going all around the world. He's been to all these amazing places, and it's so funny, it's like France, England, Africa and Mumbai, with Jacksonville, Fla., thrown in the mix.

AAJ: Let's go back a little bit. There's a story about drummer Buddy Rich that his parents said they knew something was up with him when he was a year old. He was sitting in his highchair and tapping with his spoon in perfect time to music in the background. What have your parents told you about when they first sensed you had a musical gift?

ST: My mom said I used to sing in the crib. She said I used to make up songs. She said I was the happiest baby, and every morning when she would come in I'd be singing away. So before I even spoke, I was singing.

When I was growing up, instead of putting us in daycare, my mom would get us in plays that she was in. We'd be in the chorus or whatever. So, there I was at six- years-old auditioning for the musical Oliver. She was in the show and my brother and I played workhouse boys. That was my first real show. I learned songs, lines and even a Cockney accent. I had a blast with it and it came to me very naturally. I could memorize lines pretty quickly.

When I was around five or six, I started acting and did that even through high school and college. Then I kind of got burnt out on it and wanted to just focus on music. There were a couple of things I didn't like about it. One, you're not really your own boss. You're at the mercy of the director's whim. Number two, if you're acting all the time, you really don't know who you are as a person. I'd been acting from age six to 18, so emotionally I was getting a bit confused.

Once I quit acting I became more focused and knew what I wanted to do.

AAJ: In terms of music, many people feel the human voice holds a special place. You know, there are billions of voices, and like snowflakes, no two are alike. Somehow, after just three notes, you know if it's Ray Charles, Louis Armstrong, Johnny Cash or Aretha Franklin. And, of course, the human voice, unlike an instrument, has the added dimension of combining the beauty of tone with the power of language. It isn't an easy question, but what do you think makes for an iconic singer?

ST: I really think it has a lot to do with the actual tone of the voice, and like you said, if you can recognize somebody after a few notes it really has something to do with their own special character and blend of all their influences. For example, there was a period when you could listen to Ray Charles and he sounded like Charles Brown. He was singing and copying other people. Later on he developed his own style that was influenced by all these people, but he became the artist we know as Ray Charles.

I think that's very true for me and most singers, you have so many influences. For example, I became friends with Norah Jones back in 2000 when we were doing a show—this was before she had become famous. She was talking about all her influences, people like Billie Holiday and Nina Simone and others, and you could kind of hear a bit of that in her style, but at the same time, even back then she had a very distinct sound. I thought, wow, she really has a sound, you can hear it. She doesn't sound like all the other singers.

That's the thing: you have your influences but you need to have your own style. So many people have influenced me, people like Aretha (Franklin), Etta James, Irma Thomas, Ray Charles and Donny Hathaway. I'm sure they influenced my phrasing, how I might go about creating a certain tone, holding a note, and how to let it out. It's a whole bunch of different variables.

It's interesting when you think about the sound. With Derek, even though he's a guitarist, I think of him as a singer. It's the same, he has a voice and if you hear a couple of notes, you know it's him.

AAJ: Yeah, it's remarkable; without any effects, just a guitar and amp.

ST: Exactly. And he's a melodic and very vocal player; he sounds like a singer. Do you know what I mean?

AAJ: Yes, especially when he plays slide because he doesn't use frets and it isn't a series of distinct notes. His playing has a fluid singing quality.

Also that's true what you said about Ray Charles—he also went through a period when he was enamored with Nat "King" Cole's singing and piano playing and copied him. But man, once he became the Ray Charles we all love, he could take the most overplayed standard, make it his own, and give you the feeling that you were hearing it for the first time as it should be heard. It's hard to believe that he could give a person goose bumps with a song like "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning," but he did.

ST: I totally agree, he killed it. I was blown away too when I heard that song—I was like, "That's from Oklahoma?" [Laughing] "Is that the same song!"

AAJ: You know, it's interesting, Miles Davis once said that his approach to phrasing came from listening to Frank Sinatra.

ST: Really? That's interesting, and when I think about it, yeah, I can hear that.

AAJ: You have a degree in composition and performance from the Berklee College of Music, but when I listen to you sing I have the impression that perhaps Gospel music has had the strongest influence on your singing. Where did that come from?

ST: That came from Berklee. I was in the Gospel choir there—that was my most influential class at Berklee. We would meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays for two hours at a time, and our director was a young guy by the name of Dennis Montgomery III from Shreveport, La. He was directing the choir in Shreveport when he was eight years-old; he has perfect pitch and plays piano and organ and pretty much conducts the choir with his head! Or he'll occasionally lift one hand from the piano.

That was a huge growth time for me, I think that changed my whole sound. Before that, I probably sounded more like Linda Ronstadt until I started Gospel choir. People would come up to me and say, "Wow, you sound like Bonnie Raitt," and I'd say, "Who's that?" Then I realized that Linda and Bonnie had been covering a lot of the same songs in the early '70s. And because I had been doing Linda's songs and trying to make them my own by giving them a bluesy touch, it came off sounding like Bonnie. That was kind of cool, because I didn't even know who she was then.

I thought she was great, and she had a lot of blues influences. She was a big influence in my early 20s when I started playing guitar because there weren't many female guitar players to look up to.

I was so sheltered when I was growing up in Norwell (Massachusetts). It wasn't until I went to college in Boston—which was only 30 minutes away—that I was exposed to diverse cultures. There were people from Japan, Australia, and a lot of Southern kids, so for the Gospel choir that was a big influence. We had all these different cultures coming together and it helped to shape me and make me more aware.

In Norwell, I thought the only African-American guitar players were Bobby King, John Lee Hooker, Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. Then in college and in the record shops, I found Otis Rush, Freddie King and Magic Sam, and I thought, "Man, who's been hiding these people from me?" They became my favorites and it blew my mind that culturally we can be so segregated and miss out on all these treasures.

AAJ: Your recording, Hope and Desire (Verve, 2005), was quite a change for you. You didn't play guitar or write any of the songs, and in some ways, it must have taken you out of your comfort zone—but it really did highlight your versatility and depth as a vocalist. Was that your label's idea?

ST: That was Joe Henry's idea. I choose him to produce that record. That was my first record on Verve and I'd just had my baby girl, Sophia, and I just didn't have the time to write because I was nursing. As a new mom you don't get much sleep or time to yourself, so Joe's idea was to get some great soul tunes that perhaps people aren't too familiar with. He suggested we do a cover record and use his guys. And come to find out it was Doyle [Bramhall II], who I knew, so I was excited about that. And when I was living in Boston and at Berklee I used to play with the other guys on the record, so I was blown away by that.

When I was a teenager I was in a band called the One Eyed Jacks and the drummer was Jay Bellerose, and he turned out to be one of Joe's studio guys living in L.A. He'd been busy, when we were in college he had been dating Paula Cole and she became famous and he was on the road with her. Then he was on the road with Jeff Beck and all kinds of people. He'd been the first drummer I'd ever had, and he would help me out with projects, but when he starting dating Paula, I had to find another drummer.

I graduated Berklee at 20, so here I am at 18 and looking for a drummer. I found this other kid, he was really sweet and I thought he was a really good drummer, and he ended up doing all my projects work for the next two years. That was Abe Laboriel Jr., who's become the number one drummer in the world now—he plays for Paul McCartney and everybody. I couldn't believe how small the world is, that these two guys that I'd worked with in college would end up being the top call guys in L.A.

AAJ: Doyle did a great job for you on that album, and it seems like he's been a real good luck charm for you and Derek.

ST: He did a great job for me, and yes, he's really been great for me and Derek. We both adore him. It's funny, before Derek really got to know Doyle, I kept telling him what a great guy he was and that he was going to love him. Derek was a little skeptical, like, "Yeah, why do you think that?" But I knew they would hit it off. Once they did the Eric Clapton tour, they became like instant brothers. They still talk everyday and are pretty inseparable.



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