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January 5, 2012 at 4:26pm

Blues superstars perform Sunday in Olympia

Diunna Greenleaf will perform with pianist Clay Swafford Sunday, Jan. 8 at The Royal Lounge in Olympia. The show will be filmed.

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They have become blues superstars by different paths, but for both vocalist Diunna Greenleaf and pianist Clay Swafford, it has been their reverence for the history of the blues that has made them such a big part of its future. In the immediate future, they will be making history with their first performance in the Northwest on Sunday, Jan. 8 at The Royal Lounge in Olympia when Greenleaf, a nominee for this year's Koko Taylor Award for Best Traditional Female Blues Vocalist and the Blues Music Award for Best Traditional Blues Album, joins Swafford, widely regarded as one of the best blues piano players in the world, will perform as a duo.

Greenleaf has long been a fan and historian of the blues and gospel music. Raised in a gospel music home in Houston, she found her voice in church and grew up admiring Aretha Franklin, Koko Taylor, and Sam Cooke. But although she would grow up to become a teacher and a historian of blues music, she was initially resistant to making a life as a performer.

"I was perfectly happy working at the University," says Greenleaf, who holds a masters degree in counseling and is also a veteran of the armed forces. But she was asked, in the late '90s, to sing at the birthday party for fellow Houstonian and blues icon Teddy "Cry Cry" Reynolds. "Cry Cry wasn't doing too well and he told me it was his dying wish that I sing at his birthday party."

Greenleaf could hardly decline the dying wish of a blues legend, but that performance did not exactly launch her career as a performer. Although she and her band were asked to do other performances, they didn't take another gig until one year later.

"The next time we played was at Cry Cry's next birthday," she laughs. "Turned out he lived another year, and he said his dying wish was the same as it was the year before. He told me I couldn't hold it against a man for trying to keep on living."

And yet it was a later performance, a benefit for a young burn victim, that set the wheels of her singing career in motion, and even then, she wasn't the one driving the bus. After the benefit performance, a man inquiring about hiring the band - then called Blues for Mercy - approached Greenleaf about performing at another event. She told him that the band, which was made up of her students, had been assembled only for the fundraiser. The man insisted that he was willing to pay a premium price for the band, but she insisted the band was not for hire.

"One of the band members stepped up and said ‘now hold on just a minute, Miss G,'" she recalls. She said the man then offered to pay the band $7,000 to play his event, and at that point, there was nothing she could do to stop it. "The band had a contract drawn up so fast it made my head spin."

After her band, now called Blue Mercy, became the first - and still the only - female-led band to the win the International Blues Challenge, which the band won in 2005, Greenleaf's career and life changed. From that point, she was not only a historian determined to use workshops and classrooms to teach the legacy of blues greats, but she became one of the leading voices continuing that tradition with music of her own. She won the Blues Award for Best New Artist in 2008, and her 2011 disc, Trying to Hold On, is not only the subject of two current Blues Award nominations, but is topping charts in Europe and on XM Radio's Bluesville Station.

"It's nice to be appreciated," Greenleaf beams. "Especially since it's pretty unusual for a woman to hit the top of the traditional blues charts, unless her name is Etta James or Koko Taylor."

Meanwhile, back in Oakman, Alabama, young "Little Red Clay" Swafford became a fan and a student of the blues as a teen, and was soon traveling the blues circuit trying to meet and sit in with many of his idols.

"When I first got into playing I really did my homework," Swafford recalls. "My parents would take me to a lot of blues shows, and I wanted to meet all the old players. A lot of them are gone now, so I feel really blessed to have met them."

Not only met them but played for and with many of them.

Among Swafford's biggest fans were Muddy Waters pianist and Grammy winner Pinetop Perkins and legendary blues guitarist Hubert Sumlin, best known for his work with Howlin' Wolf. And of course the admiration was plenty mutual, with Swafford listing his experiences playing with the two legends, both of whom died in 2011, among the highlights of his young career. He was honored to have been part of the boogie-woogie piano documentary alongside Perkins and other piano greats Henry Gray, Marcia Ball and Jerry Lee Lewis. And Sumlin unexpectedly befriended Swafford after Swafford had performed at a blues festival several years ago.

"I had admired Hubert for so long," Swafford recalls. "And as I'm coming off the stage at this festival, he grabbed me by the arm and said ‘you sound really good, why don't you come up and play with me?' It was an overwhelming honor."

And there's plenty of praise coming in Swafford's direction from the legends. Pinetop Perkins famously observed of Little Red Clay, "I got ten fingers, looks like that boy has twenty." And Jerry Lee Lewis has looked to Clay to carry on the great blues tradition. "The boy can play," Lewis said. "And he's doing a darn good job of keeping this music alive."

"I do feel a responsibility to keep that Chicago and Delta sound going," Swafford acknowledges. "Most of the original players aren't around anymore, but we're doing our part to keep it going."

That is one reason for his visit to the Pacific Northwest, where Greenleaf will join him as a guest artist on his first CD project, being recorded this week at Exit 104 Recording Studio, the second release of the Austin, Texas-based Lost Cause Records.

"I'm excited about it, and I think it's going to be a great old school project," Swafford notes. "We're trying to create the atmosphere of an old-time house party. But the main thing is to get what I do out there so that people can listen to it."

"A friend once told me that very few people will remember what you do at a particular show," Swafford continues. "But a recording will stay with them, and they can share it with other people for years to come."

Sunday's show at The Royal Lounge is the subject of a documentary film project; audience members will be asked to sign releases allowing the use of their image in the project. Greenleaf and Swafford will be performing with piano and voice. A blues jam with the Olympia band Hurts Like Hell will follow the show.

[The Royal Lounge, Diunna Greenleaf and Little Red Clay Swafford, Sunday, Jan. 8, 7 p.m., $10 at the door, 311 N. Capitol Way, Olympia, 360.705.0760]

LINK: 2012 Best of Olympia voting is open!

Comments for "Blues superstars perform Sunday in Olympia" (1)

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RevLee said on Jan. 05, 2012 at 6:31pm

"...the boogie woogie piano documentary..." might be "Falsifyin'", filmed at Morgan Freeman's blues club.

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