It’s hard to believe blues is dead when so many great artists are still working and recording. Though far removed from it’s hey-day in the early part of the 19th century and revival during the ’60s and ’70s, the blues is still alive and full of soul. Living proof is Chicago resident Zora Young, who will be headlining at the upcoming Beltline Blues Festival in Calgary.
Originally born in West Point, Mississippi, Young moved to Chicago at a tender age and became absorbed in the blues culture, catching snippets of artists like Junior Wells and Buddy Guy outside of South Side clubs as she walked home from choir practice. Now, even after 30 years of performing and numerous overseas tours, she has five full-length albums to her name, including 2005’s Tore Up from the Floor Up. Though she regrets not having more recordings, she acknowledges the importance of luck in the music industry.
“I’d love to record more, I’m very unrecorded,” notes the 58-year-young Young. “[It’s about being at the] right place at the right time, [and] who knows who. Of course I regret it. I think I’d be a lot farther in my career had I been able to record more. [But], I’m going to record one way or another. I think an artist should record at least every three years.”
Young didn’t receive a lot of opportunities to record, but she did get many chances to work with blues legends such as B.B. King, Willie Dixon, Mississippi Heat as well as the aforementioned Buddy Guy and Junior Wells. Because of her deep, gravely tones, she admits to having performed a lot of “man songs,” while still enjoying the prominent female gospel-singers of the ’50s and ’60s.
“I can’t be held responsible for the tone quality of my voice,” says Young. “But I love the female vocalists. I like Dinah Washington, Mahalia Jackson, and all those girls. I’d love to work with some of the ladies, like Etta James, [or] Koko Taylor. I’d really love to work with Mavis Staples.”
When Young is compared to other artists, it’s often to James and Taylor. However, she isn’t content with just following in the well-tread paths of older blues musicians. Besides including originals on each of her albums, she tries to put a new spin on any covers she performs.
“It’s necessary to be original and be creative and do your own stuff,” emphasizes Young. “Sometimes it’s also necessary to do a couple of covers because if people aren’t so familiar [with you], quite often, they need to hear a cover. I do covers not for me, but for the audience so they hear something they recognize. Some audiences–if you do all originals–they’re bewildered. They don’t know what to think.”
When Young hits the Beltline Blues Festival Sat., June 24 with local artist Johnny V, she’ll be continuing a time-honoured tradition of the blues in Calgary, alive and breathing despite the closure of the legendary blues bar, the King Eddy, where many blues artists played, including Young. Blues bars are becoming a rare sight, but the music has not yet followed the venues on the path to oblivion.
“It always feels bad to think that your art form will die with you,” says Young. “I kind of suspect that the blues will never die. It has never really been pushed; it crawls on its own because it’s reality. It’s the truth. Whenever you’ve got that kind of music around, it’ll always be around. Maybe not always in such big forms, but it’s always around. I think it’ll be around long after I’m gone.”