On the Blues Highway
Soul singer Trudy Lynn was born, raised and graduated from high school in Houston's Fifth Ward. Since that time, her voice has taken her around the world, from Thailand to Belgium and most places in between. Lynn doesn't often play showcase dates in her hometown, where she still lives, out near Intercontinental Airport, but when she's not traveling the festival tour in Europe or taking a frequent recording or business trip to Ichiban Records in Atlanta, you can find her on Tuesday nights, gracing the stage at Evening Shadows.
Evening Shadows is a tiny blues club on Old Spanish Trail near Scott Street, and Tuesday nights it plays host to the Joe "Guitar" Hughes Famous Blues Jam, a place where Houston's itinerant players can go in relative anonymity to hone their chops in front of an appreciative audience of blues aficionados and musical peers. On this night, the lineup is famous indeed. Hughes anchors the band with his presence, Hughes sideman and Houston Blues Society president Sonny Boy Terry adds harp embellishment, Eugene "Spare Time" Murray holds down bass, Cloris Grimes blows sax and Eric Olsen taps the drums. But the queen of the evening, the vocalist the band spends half an hour warming up for, is Trudy Lynn, who's recently been nominated for her first W.C. Handy Award, the most prestigious honor in the business of the blues.
The road leading Lynn to this place and this honor, a road littered with blues anecdotes and history, started when Lynn was a mere 13 years old.
"Back in those days, you was a teenager, baby, you was ready to go out on Sunday evening," she says. "They'd always have those Sunday matinees, you know, the band would play at Walter's Lounge, used to be on Lockwood, and you know who the band was? Big Tiny and Albert Collins. That's the first people I got on the bandstand with. Me and my brother, and we did "Nighttime is the Right Time" as a duet, it was a real popular tune."
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After Lynn graduated from high school in 1965 ("We're not going to talk about no age, though..."), she took off for a summer vacation at her aunt's home in Lufkin, where she hooked up with a group called the ABCs, performing at a white blues club called the Black Cat. Lynn's repertoire at the time consisted of three songs.
"That's where I got my stage name from, though. Trudy. We were just sitting around thinking "what are we gonna call you," and I looked on the wall and it said Trudy up there, and I said Trudy Lynn, that's it."
Though Lynn had performed in her high school choir and with a teenage jazz group called the Chromatics, it was the summer experience in Lufkin that solidified her drive to make a career out of singing. "I had enrolled to go to school for x-ray technology -- I had taken tests and everything -- and I got down there and I got up on that stage with that group and that was it. I still have a letter that thick my mother wrote me," she says, holding her fingers half an inch apart, "trying to get me to come home. But I just started singing blues. Right there in Lufkin."
When that formative summer ended, Lynn returned to Houston and almost immediately went to work for Leo Baxter's Big Band, a popular ensemble that made its living performing at the Army bases scattered around Texas. That gig lasted about a year, and in 1967, Lynn joined up with Clarence Green's top-rated band.
"That's where I got all my training, all my schooling, right there with Clarence. He was tough. If your shoes weren't shined, that's a fine. You be late, you get a fine. I was sitting down once and I pulled out a sponge to damp my face, I got a fine. Me and him got into it that time. I paid the fine and everything, but you know, he just believed in being groomed when you go on the stage. You've got to present yourself right when you're gonna work in front of somebody. How you look is, to me, about 75 percent of what you do. I got that from him and I've stuck with that."
Take one look at the long curve of Lynn's outrageously manicured nails (she still sometimes works as a cosmetologist), and you know she took the lesson to heart. Lynn's a self-admitted shoe freak, and her closet, she says, is "something else."
Lynn worked with Green for seven years, during which she gave birth to her three children, now aged 22, 24 and 26. "I was right there on the bandstand, pregnant and all, singing, stomping, everything else."
In 1973 Lynn recorded her first 45's, "Long Live the Blues" and "What a Waste" for the local Sinnett label, and around that same time, she stopped working with Green and eased into a solo career that took her to very nearly every nightclub in town.
"There's not a hotel I haven't worked in. I never stopped working. During that time, in the '70s, when Superfly and all this was going on, if a club didn't have a band, a little three-piece band, nobody wouldn't come in there. You had to have entertainment. Disco come in in the late '70s into the '80s, so a lotta clubs started closing down, a lot of musicians lost jobs, but I never stopped. I jumped right on in, whatever was on that radio, I stayed with it. I did a variety of music, I didn't just do blues. I did country and western, whatever it takes to make that gig, "cause I had three kids."
It's an openness to a broad range of material that you can hear in her recorded work. Lynn's second Ichiban album, Come to Mama, features her soulful take on the Judds' "One Woman Man," and Lynn professes an extreme fondness for Billy Ray Cyrus' "Achy Breaky Heart."
"Country is close to blues to me, just in a different flavor. ItÕs just presented differently."
By the late 1970s, Lynn was recording sides such as "I'm a Believer" and "Love is a Strange Thing" for Huey "The Crazy Cajun" Meaux, and later, a 12-inch called "Bring the Beef Home to Me" for the Gemstone label, a product that Lynn says finally opened doors for her overseas. Her first album for Ichiban, 1989's Trudy Sings the Blues, included a medley of the same name that paid tribute to Hop Wilson's legendary "Black Cat Bone," which she's sung all around the world -- from Lionel Hampton's club in Paris' Meridian Hotel to the modest stage of Evening Shadows the night of our interview.
The tentatively titled 24 Hour Woman, her fifth album for Ichiban, is due for a late summer release, after which Lynn and her band (including members of Curtis Mayfield's pre-accident group) will return to Europe for another string of engagements. She expects she'll make the transatlantic round trip four times in the coming year.
But right now, relaxed at Evening Shadows, Lynn allows herself a bit of self-congratulation. When I ask if she remembers what she was doing when she heard the news of her Handy nomination, a thrill for even the most honored blues legends, she doesn't hesitate.
"I had just left 'Frisco, where I did a show -- this was about two, maybe three weeks ago. We had left and came to Atlanta, I was starting on the album so I was in the main office there. I saw the [Ichiban] owner, John Abbey, walk in with an envelope, and he read it, and he looked at it, and he looked at me. He said guess what, you're in the W.C. Handy. I said you've got to be kidding. It was something, I had to sit for a minute.
"I really feel like I deserve it, I do. I put some years in this, you know? And what else am I gonna do? Turn around and do what? Same thing I'm doing, ain't nothing else I can do. I just want my piece of cake," she admits, with a laugh that says she knows just being nominated is an awfully big slice. "I just wanna be remembered, that's all. That's my goal.
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