The first show singer and actress Dorian Rush created for herself was a musical tribute to Janis Joplin. It ran for more than two years at the Warehouse District cabaret Le Chat Noir, and it led Rush to the blues.
“I got interested in blues with the Janis show,” Rush says. “Until then, I loved the blues, but I didn’t sing that much of it. When I started singing it, I discovered that listening to it was cool, but singing it was cathartic. All of a sudden, I understood: It’s not a song, it’s an attitude about life. It’s about releasing all the good, the bad, the pain, the anger, the joy. It’s putting it all out there and it scrubs your soul clean. It was the most powerful form of prayer, and it opened me up as an artist.”
For her new show, “100 Years of Women in the Blues,” which opens Friday at Teatro Wego, Rush delves into the music and connections between singers including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Aretha Franklin, Bonnie Raitt, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright and others.
“Researching Joplin’s inspirations brought me to Bessie Smith and Big Mama Thornton,” Rush says. “Big Mama Thornton wrote ‘Ball and Chain,’ which catapulted Joplin at the (1967) Monterey Pop Festival. That was the song that brought the crowd to its knees and made her an overnight sensation. Big Mama Thornton wrote that song while she was under contract with a record company. They owned it. She didn’t see a penny from that song. Janis knew that and took her on tour with her. She was like, ‘You’ve got to get something.’ That led to a resurgence of Big Mama’s career.”
Joplin also paid homage to Smith by buying a headstone for the legend’s unmarked grave, just weeks before Joplin died in 1970.
Rush had to narrow down a long list of blues artists and included some singers better known for work in other genres, she says. She narrowed the frame of her story by starting in 1920, when the first blues record was recorded. The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified a year earlier, Rush notes, and overcoming social and legal barriers is a theme in the show.
PONTIAC, Mich. (AP) — Three handwritten wills have been found in the suburban Detroit home of Aretha Franklin, months after the death of the "…
“The founders of blues sang about injustice and their lack of rights,” she says. “They were so progressive in their thinking. The blues women stood up and said women should be able to work and play like men do. That was not a popular idea at the time.”
Many early blues women didn’t allow the law to hold them back, Rush says. In response to segregated train cars, Smith, who was one of the most popular entertainers of her day, demanded that her record company provide her with her own train car.
“It was two stories tall, had seven state rooms, a kitchen and a bathroom,” Rush says. “It housed everyone in her group, and she traveled in style.
“Bessie was a notorious drinker during Prohibition,” Rush adds. “She broke the law on a daily basis.”
In her show, Rush is using singers’ favorite songs or best-known works. She’ll include Koko Taylor’s “Wang Dang Doodle.” Rush spent eight years singing in Bourbon Street clubs, where she heard Wright sing “Built for Comfort.” It became a personal favorite, and Rush used it in her own sets for years.
Rush has done a couple of musical shows featuring her and a band. In a tribute to Linda Ronstadt, she sang pop tunes, jazz, Latin and opera music. She shared the stage with Lisa Picone Love in a tribute to Carole King. For the blues show, she’ll be accompanied by Ainsley Matich on piano and guitar.
It doesn’t look like much now: a collection of surface parking lots, boarded-up buildings and a pizza joint, spread over a few hundred feet of…