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Wachteligence: Shirley Lewis - The Voice of an Angel

By A.J. Wachtel
December 2010

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Your grandparents may tell you there was nothing like seeing Etta James perform, and your parents and older siblings may mention that Koko Taylor was the female blues voice of their generation, but they never heard Shirley Lewis testify onstage. There may be other singers who cast a larger shadow, but after hearing Shirley's emotion, range and splendor live and onstage one quickly realizes they all pale in comparison to her unparalleled vocal supremacy and unmatched spirit of expression. She has the voice of an angel and the powerful delivery of an earthquake. Fasten your seat belts and read on as Shirley preaches to the choir:

A.J. Wachtel - You have a new gospel project out this month(Gospel Jubilee Concert.) What's the story behind this and why didn't The Lewis Gospel Singers reunite?

Shirley Lewis - I have always ended my shows for years with an uplifting spiritual song. FOR YEARS, because God gave me this voice and an opportunity to share with others my warmth and love for people through music. We still sing when we have family reunions and when I go to New Jersey to visit my family. My sister has come here to New England for some gospel and Christmas shows to perform with me in recent years.

A.J. You are a very spiritual person. How does this effect your career as a blues vocalist?

Shirley Lewis - It makes my voice more richer and pure because of the gospel background.. And to me blues grew off of gospel music. Thanks for saying I am very spiritual and thank you for recognizing this. I believe that having a caring and loving heart makes me spiritually connected.

A.J. - What's the relationship between blues and gospel music?

Shirley - I am a little bit ahead of you as I said above blues grew out of gospel once people were able to speak about their feelings, their ups and downs and what they truly felt and went through. Blues was a safe way to say it and was acceptable to people who didn't understand the plight that was locked up inside folk who sang the blues, Surely, they couldn't express this in gospel songs.

A.J. - Twenty years ago you were diagnosed with diabetes. How has keeping your disease under control changed your lifestyle? Is it difficult to be a diabetic and a professional entertainer?

Shirley - In the beginning it was a hard battle because my sugar levels were up and down and I had to keep monitoring myself to make sure it was OK. However, I was glad I had eaten healthy before the diabetes which has helped me to be taken off the diabetes medication and just keep doing what I am doing and I should be able to just take Metforman which just helps to balance me. I was not a candidate for diabetes and I wasn't overweight when I became a type 2 diabetic so everyone; let me tell you, stress on the pancreas can cause diabetes That's what caused mine; after many tests they discovered this. Never stopped performing just watched my sugar levels. Today, I am not taking any diabetic medication and have lost 16 pounds in the past 6 months. So I'm doing pretty good, I think.

A.J. - What observations do you have on how the national and local blues scenes have changed over the years? You were part of the original blues wave that introduced black music to white audiences. What memories do you still have of this experience?

Shirley - Thank God that B.B. King never gave up his craft and continues because he and Ray Charles opened the eyes and ears of people in this country. Europeans already knew that Americans had tried to make it a taboo music.Even today they give it a back door on radio stations in prime time.Blues is a music for all people and I find sometimes here in Massachusetts we have still not opened to this and there are so may people of color here who sing and play the blues but we don't see them around in many of the events here. New Hampshire and Maine, yes. It is like we are invisible here.I go down to Roslindale on a Thursday at The Bistro and you can see the talent in that room. Yet when there is a big event we don't see them on the bill. Very interesting to me. I get myself in trouble when I speak out about this:some people think I am talking about myself, which I am not. I would like to see INclusion not EXclusion. Or when one of us goes to an event we used to acknowledge a fellow performer is in the house. I do it still, but others- even those who are supposed to be celebrities- don't.

A.J. - Who are some of the icons you've shared a stage with?

Shirley - I have shared the stage with so many over the years: Lucky Peterson, Koko Taylor, James Cotton, Buddy Guy (even playing his club in Chicago), Pinetop Perkins, Les Sampson,Luther Guitar Jr. Johnson, Guitar Shorty, Mighty Sam McClain, Ronnie Earl, David Maxwell, Ron Levy, Marcia Ball, Ruth Brown, B.B.King and many more.

A.J. - In 1963, you auditioned for a band that opened for B.B.King and you have been friends with him ever since. Any great B.B stories you'd care to share?

Shirley - You know, I'm glad you asked this. B.B. would sing in the area where I was and I would make sure he'd receive a single rose from me. He came down to a club where I was singing and sat in with me. The Cafe New York, on Robson Street in Vancouver, BC. Over the years he's always been welcoming. I remember when he came to the Casino in New Hamphsire. The staff tried to keep me from going backstage and his manager came out and told them: “Shirley is ALWAYS a person who is allowed backstage; she is an old friend of his”. And the pages' mouths dropped; I will never forget that.

A.J. - You have won many music awards in your life. What are some of the most important ones to you?

Shirley - When I was very early in my career, I received the Most Courteous Entertainer Award in Vancouver, BC. Then I was put in a magazine called Remember The Cave with all your famous people from the U.S. like Mitzi Gaynor, Bette Midler, Tim Buckley; and that was very exciting. Getting awards for Unsung Heroine from Mayor Cohen was an honor here in Newton (Ma.) for helping seniors and children. The LA Award from Blues Trust Productions' Greg Sarni was amazing. And the Living Blues Legend Award from the Down Home Blues Society, Inc. was great but you know i cannot name them all but they all have special meaning to me because I am humbled by the experiences.

A.J - You are a poet as well as a songwriter.. What is the difference for you between writing a poem and writing a song? Is a song just a poem set to music?

Shirley - Some of my poetry is put to song and others are just poetry. I have also received awards for my poetry from the International Society of Poets. Writing is therapeutic and gives me a way to put my feelings out there.

A.J. - What covers do you do onstage and why?

Shirley - Even though I may do some other artist's song, there is no reason behind it. I just love to sing and I choose songs I can make my own onstage rather then sing them like the other artist would do. (I'm) just having a good time onstage.

A.J. - Any advice to young musicians trying to get their music heard in this tough economy?

Shirley - Be original and be true to yourself and stand by your convictions. Do not be swayed by others who may try to take advantage of you. This is what I was told when I started out in the business and still today I don't drink, smoke or take drugs.

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