Kansas City Blues Society column. JASON VIVONE talks a BLUE STREAK with QUEEN BEY
Queen Bey began gigging at age 12 and is still going. From 18th and Vine to Vegas, New York City to London, Germany to France, Costa Rica to Ethopia. She’s shared stages with the likes of Billie Holliday, Ella Fitzgerald and Dean Martin taking the sound of Kansas City with her. You may have seen her in one of Kevin Wilmott’s movies, NINTH STREET and C.S.A.
I worked with Queen Bey during a run of AIN’T MISBEHAVIN’ at the American Heartland Theatre. Not only did she bring in record-setting attendance but occasionally she’d bring me a bowl of her home-made chili.
Queen spoke to me by phone from L.A.
QUEEN: How does my phone sound to you?
VIVONE: You sound great, Queen…as always.
QUEEN: (laughs) Okay, honey.
VIVONE: What were the clubs like in Kansas City when you were developing your chops?
QUEEN: Oh, boy.They were rockin’… (laughs)… there were so many of them back in those days. You had the Orchid Room. There was the El Capitain.
VIVONE: Were the audiences integrated then, Queen?
QUEEN: Yeah, y’know, but at the Orchid Room there weren’t too many whites that came in there. It was mostly African Americans and it was still segregated.
VIVONE: What about white musicians?
QUEEN: Excuse me?
VIVONE: Were you playing with white musicians during that time….
QUEEN: Oh no no no. None of that. That wasn’t even happening. White clubs had their own people and not too often were African Americans ever playing in those clubs.
VIVONE: I think that’s something we kinda take for granted now.
QUEEN: Oh yeah… it was terrible. This is why we had the Mutual Musicians Foundation. Because in those days African Americans couldn’t join the White Union. So they had to form their own union…I think it’s there right off 18th Street.
VIVONE: Right, right. What kind of material were you doing to start off with?
QUEEN: Rhythm and blues.
VIVONE: Are there some artists or some tunes you could name for us?
QUEEN: That was back in the day. We had Esther Phillips – she was just starting out then. And LaVern Baker. And Ruth Brown. She was the one who did Mama, He Treats Your Daughter Mean.
QUEEN: Some hot rhythm and blues things back in the day.
VIVONE: You played those sassy women’s tunes, huh?
QUEEN: Oh yeah. There was Big Mama Thornton. She did You Ain’t Nothing But A Hound Dog but Elvis Presley – he was able to take that songs and make millions off it.
VIVONE: I wanted to ask you if Dinah Washington was also one of your early influences. I always hear her in you.
QUEEN: The first time I ever heard – I think I must have been 7 or 8 — I didn’t even know what this lady was doing with her songs—just mesmerized me. And I’ve been mesmerized ever since. (laughs.)
VIVONE: So did you guys differentiate material? This is R & B, this is soul, this is rock, or was everything mixed up in a giant pot?
QUEEN: Well, not really ‘cause jazz – Charlie Parker was hot in those days and most of the guys at the Mutual Musicians Foundation, they played jazz (pause.) Okay? But…they could play anything. They could play rhythm and blues, jazz, gospel. Y’know? It depends on what you wanted. We were versatile. I could hop into country and western if I wanted to because we were raised listening to the radio.
VIVONE: I would love to have heard that, Queen.
QUEEN: (big laugh) And yodel. Oh, yeah. (laugh.)
VIVONE: Alright. Next time I see you I’m gonna ask you to yodel for me.
QUEEN: I sure will. I’ll be happy to. (laughs.)
VIVONE: The New York Times called you the Queen of the Kansas City Sound. What would you call the Kansas City Sound?
QUEEN: I think the Kansas City Sound is somewhat of a shuffle. It has its own feel with it. Claude “Fiddler” Williams and I were in New York at Michael’s Pub and we gave them that Kansas City Sound. Jay McShann gave it that sound. It had a shuffle or beat to it. Y’know? It’s hard to explain but it has its own feel to it. People know that’s Kansas City. Maybe I’ll give you an example.
(At this point, Queen sings a bright horn line. Her voice turns percussive like a high hat and hisses like a ringing cymbal.)
QUEEN: And it has a feel to it. And you know automatically that’s the Kansas City Shuffle.
VIVONE: That’s great, Queen. So it’s uptempo?
QUEEN: Oh yeah. Music you can dance to. Kansas City always had that type of music that you could dance to. Nowadays, some of this music, you can’t dance to. A great lady and a dear friend of mine is Betty Carter. We were in Europe together and she told me “The music that’s playing now you can’t dance to it.” And she was right. A lot of it you can’t. The rap music – some of that. You can’t swing. You can’t have a partner and dance to this stuff.
VIVONE: Alright, Queen, anything you’d like to share with our Kansas City Blues Society?
QUEEN: Well, just keep on swinging and singing ‘cause the Blues and gospel and jazz—it’s all intwined together. One cannot be eliminated at all. It’s all fused together as one big melody. (laughs.)