Austin City Limits

Everything's Coming Up Aces for Angela Strehli

Angela Strehli today.
Angela Strehli today. Photo by Paul Moore
It had been nearly two decades since vocalist Angela Strehli stepped into a recording studio to cut a solo record. But she knew if she didn’t, there just might be some disappointment at home. After all, it was longtime husband Bob Brown who suggested and encouraged her to make a new record that would pay tribute to some of her musical heroes.

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During the ‘70s and ‘80s, Strehli was a reigning Queen of the Blues in Austin. She gigged constantly and released a series of albums.

The Lubbock-born singer was also (with namesake Clifford Antone) a co-founder of the legendary Antone’s blues club and in the next decade founded and was President of Antone’s Records. The label’s first release was Soul Shake by...the Angela Strehli Band.

“We all thought Clifford was a little crazy. But he was crazy for the blues!” Strehli laughs. [Antone died in 2006]. “He knew that if he got the real masters of the blues to the club, people would appreciate it more. At that time, the blues had disappeared and wasn’t even getting played on Black radio.”

Strehli and Brown moved to northern California in 1989, where they opened and still operate their restaurant and nightclub, Rancho Nicasio. But the result of that initial marital discussion is here in sonic form with Ace of Blues (New West/Antone’s Records). The now 76-year-old Strehli will support it with a handful of live rare live dates, including two in Houston at the Mucky Duck on November 17 and 18.

“It made a lot of sense to me to do this record because I realized why I was able to think I could be a singer and take myself seriously, and it was because of these artists who inspired me,” Strehli says. “And I hope that it brings them and these songs to a new audience who might not be familiar with them.”
She notes that it was “a challenge” to wrap her voice around some of the material as it has understandably changed and roughened a bit with age. But it does give the material a more lived-in and wistful feel of experience and gravity.

On O.V. Wright’s “Ace of Spades,” she includes an added vamp about how “Ace” became her nickname, something she was called by artists like Muddy Waters, Otis Rush and Little Milton when they’d come to Antone’s, which she called her “Blues College.”

So, was saying “An-gel-a” just too many syllables for these legends?

“Ha! Probably!” Strehli laughs. “It’s hard when you’re an artist trying to remember the names of everyone you interact with, so I was sympathetic to that. Plus, it’s too hard to yell ‘Angela!’ across a crowded room with music. ‘Ace’ is much easier!”
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Muddy Waters and Angela Strehli onstage at Antone's, 1975.
Photo by Bill Cross
Ace of Blues features a  dozen tracks, all but one written by and/or associated with artists that she has admired since the start of her career. So, listeners get Bobby “Blue” Bland (“Two Steps from the Blues”), Elmore James (“Person to Person”), Chuck Berry (“You Never Can Tell”), Otis Rush (“Gambler’s Blues”), Howlin’ Wolf (“Howlin’ for My Darlin’”), and Jimmy Reed (“Take Out Some Insurance”) among them.

The package also includes an interview with Strehli and a thick booklet that features not only Strehli’s reflections on the songs, but scores of photos from her career. Many of them with the artists represented on the record, and many taken or collected by Clifford’s wife Susan.

Strehli was especially fond of Muddy Waters, represented here by “I Love the Life I Live.” She first met him in 1965 after traveling to Chicago specifically to see the as many blues greats live as possible. Then they reconnected a decade later when he played a three-night stand at Antone’s, calling Strehli up on stage to sing with him multiple times. Their mutual admiration is reflected in several pictures in the booklet, singing and dancing together. “I had a lot of fun with Muddy!” she says.

One of her closest friends, though, was singer/guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan. Strehli pays tribute him on “SRV,” the album closer and only original tune on Ace of Blues. She says it took her nearly two years to write in order to get it just right.
She first met Vaughan when he was a teenager and had moved to Austin with older brother Jimmie, then co-founding the Fabulous Thunderbirds. The band would not only back the visiting blues greats who came to Antone’s but would also have national hits in the ‘80s and bring a bit of Austin to the world with “Tuff Enuff,” and “Wrap It Up.”

Stevie had been in some bands but decided to pursue a solo career. That meant moving up to the mic and singing lead vocals while acting as front man. He told Strehli that he was a bit intimidated by the prospect. Strehli responded with a suggestion of a song that would become a big part of his musical legacy.

“I did various little tasks around the original Antone’s on Sixth Street and was sitting at the back of the stage one day. Stevie was a fan of my singing. He came in and said he wasn’t confident in [himself]," Strehli recalls. "And I told him to pick just one song—only one—that he loved and felt in his heart and could just sing that as loud and proud as he could to himself until it was just part of him. And then he could relax.”
The song was “Texas Flood.” The original was written by Larry Davis and Joseph Scott, recorded in Houston for Duke Records and released by Davis as a B-side in 1958. Vaughan and Double Trouble recorded it for their 1983 debut record, naming the whole album Texas Flood.

It became one of his signature tunes, the title of the definitive biography by Alan Paul and Andy Aledort, and even the name of an SRV tribute band. It’s also popped out soundtracking packaged news reports about Hurricane Harvey.

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“I had already been doing that song at every concert of my own. But Stevie really made it known entity!” Strehli says, further praising the impact of her friend who died in a helicopter crash in 1990. “He did so much to introduce and [spread] the blues to people who really didn’t know much about it before.”

Ace of Blues marks the first released on the combined New West/Antone’s label. New West has acquired the rights to the Antone’s catalog, including Strehli’s previous solo and collaboration efforts, along with a bevy of other artists.

Hopefully, reissues or expanded editions of those titles will follow. In a dream, that would include Dreams Come True, Strehli's 1990 collaboration disc with fellow Austin blues queens Marcia Ball and Lou Ann Barton.

Strehli adds that she’s excited to play the Mucky Duck in Houston, where’s she’s already performed with her “supergroup” The Blues Broads (which includes Dorothy Morrison, Tracy Nelson and Annie Sampson).

“It’s a great room that’s not too big, and I can actually look at people in the eye when I’m singing to them!” Strehli says. “And Houston has always had a wonderful and heavy blues scene.”

Angela Strehli plays at 9:30 p.m. on Thursday, November 17 and 7 p.m. on Friday, November 18 at McGonigel’s Mucky Duck, 2425 Norfolk. For information, call 281-357-9478 or visit $48. Both shows will also be livestreamed on YouTube, with tickets $48.
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero