"The Wait Is Over. Good Things Are Now Happening To Toni Lynn Washington"
It was a red carpet affair. Larry Garner was there. Marcia Ball was there as was: Deborah Coleman, Ruth Brown, Magic Slim, Jody Williams, Sam Carr, Pinetop Perkins, Bob Stroger, Willie Smith, Art Tipaldi, Bill Dahl, Bob Vorel, Bruce Iglauer, Andrew Galloway, and Fred Litwin (to name a few that I recognized). The event was the VIPre-party for the 24th Annual W.C. Handy Awards in Memphis, TN. Toni Lynn Washington was there too. In town as a nominee in the Soul-Blues Female Artist category she also had the honor (and challenge) of providing the entertainment at the pre-party. This sassy and classy lady performed a smooth and distinguished set of tunes from a woman's perspective off her new CD, "Been So Long."
While onstage Washington is completely relaxed and confidant yet offstage this elegant lady of the blues is soft-spoken. Still feeling extremely excited to have performed in front of her idols, she told me, "I saw particularly one, Miss Ruth Brown, she was waving her hands and everything and I was absolutely blown away. To see so many of my favorite artists out there in the audience .and now I'm entertaining them! Can you beat that?!". (joyous laughter)
In a career that spans 4 decades, she can't recall her proudest moment. "(Although) every day working with these guys is a proud moment. We've been together a long time and we've done a lot of work and tours in the United States. I can't recall where one particular performance gave me any more thrill than another but this one certainly is! I think if I had to say this would be the most thrilling moment."
Having grown up in North Carolina, she has "always loved music for as far back as I can remember. I used to listen to artists like Frank Sinatra back in his really younger days, Doris Day, Patti Page, Nat King Cole when he had his trio and Ella Fitzgerald just to name a few. All of those people really influenced me and I knew that I had to do something like that in life. I did a lot of openings when I was younger. These are some of the people that I opened up for: Jackie Wilson, Johnny Adams, Big Joe Turner, Sam and Dave and Bobby Blue Bland and it was quite an experience to say the least. I opened up for Jackie Wilson a few times. It was just quite an exciting experience. It was a huge show and I just had my autograph book out and I was bumping into everybody that I thought was famous and taking pictures. I was just like a kid in a candy store there really."
There was a time in her life when she was not working in music. Her keyboardist/manager Bruce Bears reflects on that period, "She has done everything. This woman is a survivor, I'll tell you that much. She really is. She had to be." Toni continues, "I wanted to spend more time with my family and I moved from California back to Boston. In doing so I just wanted to take a breather and get my directions together and (then) I went back into it." Sometime around 1988 while Bruce was staying busy piddling away in local Boston bands, he says, "she walked into a club one night and sat in with the band that I was playing with and we have been playing together ever since. As soon as I heard her sing I'm like -- there she is, the real thing." The ageless diva reflects back, "Before that I had been freelancing/gigging with different bands. I was doing a lot of special functions in private clubs. This guy that was playing with me, one night he said this blues band was looking for a lead singer. I said to myself maybe I could be that lead singer and I went and auditioned for the job and I got it. Bruce clarifies, "the funniest thing about it is that we weren't even looking for a singer. She came in and obviously we weren't going to say no. That band only stayed together for a little while. About a year and a half and then we decided we better put a band together just for her. We did that around 1990 and then we did the first record in '95 and its been pretty good."
Toni loves living in Boston and feels, "We have some of the best music schools and we have a lot of musicians that are really great that are coming from the schools. There are a lot of musicians who come from other parts of the world to work there (in Boston). There is a lot of work in Boston. Lot of blues clubs - some are closing down and there are some that are opening up. I think (Boston has such a vibrant music scene) because the guys there -- they really know their instruments and they know the business and its like a community." Toni and her band not only regularly gig in Boston but right across the country too. Bruce says, "We stay busy. Its been a little slower this year. I think everybody would say its been a little slower. But we're doing OK (even though) the economy is down and a lot of clubs are closing."
After 3 acclaimed previous releases on Tone-Cool Records, Toni has recently moved to a far younger label based in Canada. She is very excited to have her newest recording out on Fred Litwin's NorthernBlues. "Some of the nicest people live in Canada. We were treated so well when we went to Canada and we're looking forward to going there again." It was Bruce who formed the new partnership. "Pat Mitchell suggested that I call him (Litwin) and I sent him a package and then I went and did a gig up at the Ottawa Bluesfest (with another band). I met him there and we got to talking. He checked the package out and called me right away." The new album was produced by Duke Robillard. "I was blown away when they told me he was going to be producing it. I said, you gotta be kidding me. Are you sure he wants to do this or are you twisting his arm? I found out that he is a really great guy to work with. His studio is a work of art and it was a pleasure being there. He made the performance very easy and I had a lot of fun performing with the different musicians that was on it. Before we went to Duke's we were at Bill Smith's studio down in Sudbury where we did all the preliminary work." In addition to Robillard (who also performs on a few tracks), other big-namers include: Gordon Beadle, Doug James and Duke's rhythm section. Even the liner notes involved a highly respected blues industry person. Toni believes the Blues Foundation's Pat Mitchell "did an excellent job (writing them). She called me up and we communicated back and forth. She wrote them in her own way." Bruce states, "To have her perspective on Toni was great. They got to talking and I think they talked for quite a while because they had to edit out quite a bit of stuff."
Toni isn't one to sing her own praises. About her new record she simply states, "I think the product is pretty good, sounds pretty good. There is a lot of blues. And we have a couple of ballads in there." As co-producer, Bruce is a little more assertive regarding the new disc. "The very first song is an Ella Johnson/Buddy Johnson tune and Toni has been doing those tunes for a long, long time. As a matter of fact, she is one of the first people to turn me on to that other than Duke Robillard. I had known the male singer's stuff but then talking to Toni I found out that his (Buddy) sister sang so we picked out I Want The Whole World To Know I Only Have Eyes For You. The second song we call it 24 Hour Blues but the name is actually Its Love Baby 24 Hours A Day -- that's the original title. A bunch of men did it before Ruth Brown got her hands on it and then Toni learned it from that version. We decided to do it more of a straight Chicago style blues so its really completely different from Ruth's version. We always cover at least one tune that she did on every record that we do. Same thing with Earl King. Unfortunately he passed a little while ago."
Washington believes blues music is "going to go forward. I'd like to see it just continue on what its doing now. We've got some really talented blues artists out there and new artists are coming up everyday. They are carrying on the blues scene by putting their signature on it and performing it their way. I think its gonna thrive." As long as Toni Lynn is on the scene, it will certainly thrive. "I love what I do and I'm going to continue doing what I do as long as I can."
Tim Holek, Freelance Journalist/Photographer: www.mnsi.net/~thblues
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