Di Anne Price Is A Treasure Indeed
Life's treasures are often found when and where they're least expected. When I volunteered to review a CD by Di Anne Price for Blues On Stage, I'd not yet heard her music. The disc - "A Good Man Is Hard To Find" - turned out to be a superb outing, Di Anne's smoky voice and rollicking piano leading "Her Boyfriends" through a set of standards straddling the line between blues and jazz and encompassing the best of both. Better, that review led to an offer to interview Di Anne. And that led to a delightful chat with one of the warmest, wisest, and most wonderful people it's ever been my pleasure to encounter.
Di Anne Price doesn't tour, at least so far; she's spent her entire life in Memphis, and all of her adult years playing music in bars, restaurants, stores . . . any place, in short, that will have her. She favours material of a bygone age, yet has the rare and precious ability to reveal something new in even the most time-worn of musical chestnuts, invariably finding the emotional core, the very heart of each song she sings. And in listening to Di Anne, our own hearts are somehow enlarged by the experience.
Memphis has long been known as a musical city, its reputation established long before a callow and fresh-faced young truck driver with the unlikely name of Elvis waxed his first recording at fabled Sun Studios and went on to change popular music forever. Di Anne Price recalls growing up in a household where music was as integral as air. "My mom, my grandma, my dad all played music. My dad could play anything. If someone needed a drummer he'd say "sure, I can play drums." He'd take any job around."
It was her mother, though, that provided Di Anne with most of her early education. "She'd help me, any time of the day or night. I can remember waking up and wanting to play. And mom would get up with me - she'd never say no, not now - and she'd work with me, even in the middle of the night." Some things came easy, others hard. "When I was little I had an ear. I could pick up almost anything. I don't really have an ear anymore. I still have short, stubby fingers, though. I needed mom's help just to stretch enough to make chords," she laughs.
Di Anne's musical education didn't stop in the front parlour. "I have a double major in sociology and music from the University Of Memphis," she states proudly, "but I still think the best education for a musician is on-the-job training. That's where I really learned to play."
While Di Anne remembers her father's differentiating between what he called 'good' music ("He liked Stan Kenton, Ellington, Red Norvo") and 'serious' music ("by that he meant classical, Mozart and all that"), Di Anne herself makes very few distinctions. "I think of myself as a storyteller," she explains. "There are so many songs that are haunting, that have adult themes, and I try to find a way to tell the story behind it all." It's a theme that comes up again and again in conversation. Yet while she'll tackle almost anything - torch songs, standards, ballads - that provides her with a narrative framework to explore, she has her own very personal parameters. "I won't do songs that have no hope. I love to sing the blues, but I won't limit myself to it. I'll sing anything, anything except the stuff that's all over the radio. Why would people listen to me sing it when they can hear the original version any time?"
"I've never thought of blues as 'downhearted music,'" she continues. "My mom used to say, "there's nothing wrong with that music." When I sing it I actually feel empowered by it. I learn something every time. And even in the sad songs I find the rainbow after the rain. It's all about the presentation. You have to roll with it. I'll say to myself, this sadness isn't going to get me; I cannot force myself to be downtrodden. If it's a song about 'my man done me wrong,' I'll sing it as though it's his loss, not mine!"
Di Anne considers herself fortunate indeed to make her living doing what she loves best. "I think everybody plays better than me, but they don't enjoy it as much as I do," she says with a chuckle. "I'm just happy to have a job, to perform in front of an audience. Some people are picky about the places they'll play, but me, I'm not picky. I'll play a hamburger joint if they want me! I just love to play. Even if no one else is listening, I'm listening."
Given the venues she plays, there are bound to be some who don't listen; treasures, again, are often overlooked by those in a hurry. Still, Di Anne's more at home in clubs, restaurants, even stores, than she is on the concert stage. "There's one place I play where the kids come and sit on the stairs - we call it the VIP section - and just listen. That warms my heart!"
Di Anne's been working steadily since retiring from her job as the social director at a nursing home. (One would guess she was very good at that job; while she asks that the tales she tells not see print, it's safe to say that rules were bent on occasion in the interest of "making people happy," a pursuit that seems central to her character). "I have no social life," she claims. "I don't go out much. I can't dance, and haven't been to the movies in years." There are no regrets, however. "I've managed to go through this world playing piano almost every night of my life." She's happy to do so in virtually any configuration, whether as a solo artist or with a band. Her current group, aptly named "Her Boyfriends," includes drummer Tom Lonardo ("I call him my 'partner in crime.' We met twenty-three years ago and have been playing together on and off ever since"), saxophonist Jim Spake ("I've known Jim for eight or nine years now") and bassist Tim Goodwin. "They're all very busy, touring here, there and everywhere around the world," says an obviously proud Di Anne, "but we play together at least once a week, and they always take care of me." Di Anne likens their accompaniment to the most intimate of acts. "Playing with them makes my back tingle. It's like making love," adding, with a sly, almost girlish giggle, "Can I say that?"
Each a strong individual, together they're more than the sum of parts, their support intuitive and deeply sympathetic. Returning to her narrative analogy, Di Anne says, "When we play, we're telling a story, and no matter where I start, they go with me."
It's no wonder her 'boyfriends' are devoted to her; Di Anne's approach to songs is a nothing less than a sideman's dream. "I don't do any yelling or screaming or theatrics," she says, "the songs are strong enough on their own. They're timeless, and I always say if it ain't broke I'm not about to try and fix it. I don't try to reproduce someone else's version, but I do try to get to the heart of the song, to find the meaning in it that appeals to everyone." And to do that, she believes in playing it straight. "I want real drums, real bass, and I want it to be my voice that people hear, not something created in a studio," she explains. "When I play this music, sing these songs, I'm saying "share this with me. Share this story.""
Di Anne has just released a new disc, this one featuring songs requested by her fans; the title song, "Reekin' With Love," and one other were written by Di Anne's mother, with whom she still lives and speaks of with affection and respect. "I love her writing," she says. The rest of the playlist consists primarily of standards and what she terms 'cutie pies' - "you know, a little bit naughty but still nice." And Di Anne herself wrote one song in conjunction with Mr. Lonardo - "Elaine," a stark and chilling examination of a September evening in 1919 when a revolt by sharecroppers ended in bloodshed. It, too, has a maternal influence - "The feel came from my mom," acknowledges Di Anne. Written for a television documentary on the incident, it's the only song on the disc that isn't thematically consistent. Of the others, Di Anne says "It's the story of a free woman, someone who's been through it all, and now she's looking forward, ready for a new adventure." Even the leadoff track, "Key To The Highway," generally taken as a song about leaving a bad situation behind, has more to do in Di Anne's hands with the optimism inherent in setting out for new experiences.
Indeed, a sense of optimism is a part of every song she sings; there may be a hint of melancholy, but it's inevitably tempered by resilience, a strong sense of self-esteem. Di Anne divorced many years ago and has been alone ever since, but she's by no means lonely. "I'm too busy," she laughs, "but I won't say it wouldn't be nice to have someone in my life, just to spend a rainy afternoon with. I wouldn't even mind if he watches sports. Feminists might be outraged by this, but I'm very old fashioned - I love to cook for someone, to take care of someone; I'm very nurturing." She's both patient and philosophical about it all, though. "It might happen anytime," she says, "I'm sure there's someone. I just figure we haven't met yet!"
While Di Anne has no qualms about recording in the relatively sterile studio environment ("It's just about the music!"), selling a million copies isn't the compelling force behind the recording process. "This music is very important to me. I don't want it to die." And her commitment is absolute. "First thing every morning, before I do anything else, I go by my piano. I may not play it, but I just like to rub it, to touch it and make sure it's still there."
There's simply nothing that brings her greater joy than performing for an audience, yet Di Anne sounds humbly surprised that people reciprocate. "We had a big CD release party for "Reekin' With Love," she says. "There must have been five hundred people there. I felt so honoured that they'd come out to see me." She's currently looking forward to a New Years Eve engagement, clearly excited at the thought of performing for a crowd on such a special occasion. "It's like a dream come true," she says in wonder, "it's a fantasy!"
That same sense of wonder and excitement is amply apparent in every note Di Anne plays; it's that quality of discovery and unabashed delight, contrasted with an equally obvious maturity hard-won through experience, that gives her music such depth. There's never any doubt that she's seen her share of heartbreak, yet she's refreshingly undaunted, unjaded by life's hardships, still very much grateful for the gift of life itself.
"I live for my music. It's what I do, it's what I am. And I'd rather do this than anything I know. I'm fortunate. I love my life."
Di Anne may indeed be fortunate; but speaking to her, listening to her music, it's abundantly clear that we with whom she shares her stories are the ones truly blessed. Spend some time with Di Anne Price. Your heart will be a little warmer, your soul a little wiser, and your world a little richer for it.
Yes, she's that good . . .
Di Anne's discs are available through CDBaby, or through her own website at www.dianneprice.com.
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