Hey Gaye! Thanks for taking the time to sit down and chat with me. This is something I was always curious about: your last name is poetic, beautiful and a mouthful! What does it mean? Is it your given name?

A Yoruba priest gave me and my then husband the name "Adegbalola" in 1968. (SAY IT "AH.DEG.BA.LOLA!") It is a Yoruba (tribe/religion of West Africa--Nigeria in particular) name. The literal meaning is the king (ba) is coming into the honor (lola) of his crown (deg). Idiomatically, it means that I am reclaiming my royalty. At least that's the way it was explained to me by the priest. It felt right to me and I have used it every since (30+ years)-- although I have not legally changed my name. My slave name is "Pitchford." (My maiden slave name is "Todd.") For anything slave like (i.e., taxes, bills, etc), I use my slave name. For anything righteous, I use my righteous name. The only problem is when I go to the cleaners and don't remember which name I used.

Where and when did you make your debut on this here earth?

The first day of spring, March 21, 1944 in Fredericksburg, Virginia. Born, raised and still live here.

Did you come from a musical family? If so, how did they influence you?

My father played drums in a jazz combo--an organ combo, a la Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis, etc. He always had music around him. Lots of music in the household. Big bands too--Count Basis, Duke. Plus, he was always putting on shows for community fund raisers--teaching and directing songs and dances and skits. Later on, my dad and I started a theater group, which was active for many, many years.

My Mom ran the Youth Canteen. When I was a little kid, she'd bring home old records when the jukebox was changed. I'd get to hear all those old doo-wops. Played 'em til the grooves turnt white!

Your childhood sounds full of good music…music is flowing through your veins… Didn't you play flute in your high-school band?

And, I proudly add, I was good at it too. Used to practice two hours a day every day. Made All-State Band first flute three years. Maybe one of these days I'll pick it up again. Problem is, I don't have a decent flute.

You also have a son who is a musician?

Yes, he's into Gothic Industrial music. As a matter of fact, he and I are working on a project right now. We've performed together lately and it is absolutely thrilling. He is taking my blues songs and giving the music his treatment. Then I sing to his new tracks. It is going over great!!! I'm excited to be doing something so different, but it is still blues.

Gaye, you have had one eclectic professional career and man do I relate! How did you decide to become a biochemical researcher and a bacteriologist?

By default. Actually I wanted to be a doctor and started school in Pre-Med. It required more studying than my partying schedule allowed me to do. So I finished school as a biology major, chemistry minor, but my grades weren't good enough for med school. (I never bitch when I have to pay doctors because I fully realize that they gave up their youth.) Bio-chem and bacteriology were what I was trained in.

My mom is a retired bacteriologist. She went from the oldest of 11 kids living on a farm in North Carolina to bacteriology…it still amazes me. There were very few blacks in the field. Were there many African Americans during your time of study?

I suppose that was unusual, but I went into science simply because I loved it. I went to school at Boston University and there were a few other blacks in my department. My first job, however, was as a technical writer, then research, and bacteriology. I loved bacteriology, but when I moved back to Fredericksburg, I couldn't find a job in the area. That's when I went into teaching. Teaching fit me and I fit teaching.

It more than fit you! You were selected as the "Virginia Teacher of the Year" in 1982 ...I know this ain't a blues question on the surface, but the state of the American education system often gives me the blues… what is your opinion on why teachers are so underrated?

There's not enough time for me to go off on the state of the American education system. Teachers are underrated for lots of reasons, but the glaring one is societal values. If I only had a fraction of the money spent on Super Bowl Sunday, for example, I could easily create a phenomenal school district. This question, too, would require a lot of time more and time and space than what we have here.

How did you survive teaching middle school? ;-) 

I loved teaching middle school. Takes an unusual creature to teach middle school.

Amen to that…

The students don't know if they are boys and girls or men and women from one day to the next. They are the oldest children and the youngest adults. It is beauty/full to watch the metamorphosis. Especially with science. . . they are still full of wonderment and if one is a hands-on teacher, it's like doing magic. . . and the minds are developed enough to figure out what's happening.

I didn't leave teaching because I didn't like it. I got burned out. They moved the 8th grade to the high school and then gave me. . . YEARBOOK. Talk about a thankless job. It damn near drove me crazy. After five years of yearbook, I took a leave of absence and during that time. . . Saffire just grew.

Saffire and friend at a Tampa concert.  From L. to R.: Andra Faye, Gaye Adegbalola, P.W. Fenton, and Ann Rabson.

"Saffire the Uppity Blues Women" is widely accepted as being one of the most successful blues ensembles around. How did it all get started?

Success is indeed a relative term. Most people measure it by money and if that's the case, we're not that successful. But we are doing a lot better than a lot of blues bands. However, due to my health problems, Saffire only works 6 to 8 dates a month. Just enough to make a living and. . . and that is approximately what I made teaching…except now I have to pay my own health insurance!

But, I make a living doing what I love most. And therein lies the success. Anyone who can say that is successful.

I couldn't agree more.

In a nutshell, I played some guitar, but in the mid-seventies I heard Ann. She only played guitar then. I loved her playing and her repertoire. I literally begged her for lessons for years. I think she finally said "yes" to get rid of me. Well, we've now been playing together for over 22 years. We started doing duets in the late 70's and Saffire grew out of that.

Did you and Ann get immediate recognition for what you did, or did you toil on the club circuit?

Ann and I were duet for a few years. Saffire came into being in 1984. We went full time in 1988. From 84 to 90, we toiled and truly paid our dues on the club circuit. From 84 to 88, we had day jobs and worked in the area. When we first went full time on the road, it was really rough. Oftimes we stayed with friends of friends, oftimes we slept on floors or, worse yet, three old ladies in a cheap motel room. We played off nights for the door. Often we were minus money. BUT, we believed in our music and continued. We also went into group counseling - it was like a marriage without the love. That's a whole 'nother story. Suffice it to say, we did toil. Ann and I put in 16 hour days. We did it all--mailing list, accounting, booking, advancing, tech stuff, recording, etc.

At what point did you say, "OK, I am leaving this '9 to 5' and I think this music thing will work!" ?

Ann decided that when her daughter graduated from college she'd go back to music full time. She asked if we'd like to do it too. I said yes knowing that my son was just entering college. BUT, I was a science teacher and. . . science teachers are at a premium. If things failed, I knew I could go back to teaching.

You are a solo performer in your own right and one hell of a songwriter. Is music your way of presenting your political thoughts/ideas? Are they separate?

Thank you for the compliment! I used to be quite an activist (see bio page on my website). That has decreased with my time on the road. However, I try to use my music to empower and to tell meaningful stories. I think that you will find a political song, at least one that I've written, on every CD. Some are humorous and some are dead serious. On our new release, "Ain't Gonna Hush!," you'll find the "Blues for Sharon Bottoms" -- the story of a mother who lost custody of her son to her mother because she was a lesbian.

The Sharon Bottom's story was/is a tragedy for tolerance. Good for you that you let the world know through your music.

Now. I have to ask you about that "Silver Beaver" song, what motivated you to write that one. LOL! (haha, is that as dumb a question as you think. ;-) )

Actually, a friend told me that she was going to have a retirement home for lesbians and name it the "Silver Beaver Rest Home." I thought that was great! It is such a wonderful way to look at old age. I wrote that song for The Sisterhood, an electric blues band that I was working with. It's even better with an electric sound. The band folded and I passed it on to Saffire. Of course, I'm thinking on a sequel called "The Bald Eagle Blues!"


Is being a woman in the music business an asset or a liability? Being African-American?

For us, I think it has been an asset. Initially, we were a "novelty" item. Three old women playing blues. Then three old, ethnically diverse women. Then three old, ethnically diverse, raunchy women. Then, after a bit of this bullshit, it became, oh yeah, they play good music too. So, it drew people in, but we had to prove ourselves to keep them. I think women are proud of us.

I think being African-American is an asset for blues players. The authenticity is automatically there. Whereas, many whites have to prove themselves capable of having the blues. As I see it, blues has no color -- heartbreak is heartbreak. I wrote about that in a song called "The Equalizer." It's on "Cleaning House."

What are you thinking right before you hit the stage?

It varies. I'm the nervous one in the group. Often my hands sweat and my heart pounds and I ask God to give me guidance to share my soul. It mainly depends on the venue and the vibe. My thoughts also vary from song to song -- sometimes I'm on automatic pilot (like when I perform "Middle Aged Blues Boogie," for example) and other times I try to conjure up the ancestors (like when I perform Big Mama Thornton's "Life Goes On").

I love that song…

If you could tell young (and not so young!) women, who are starting out in the business, three nuggets of advice, what would you say? 

a) Listen to all kinds of music -- listen, listen, listen! 
b) Don't forget the business side of music -- it is perhaps as important as the talent. Most folks feel talent will get them over, but the business end is almost as important; and… 
c) Don't be afraid to play --so many of us sing and have to depend on someone else in order to perform. A piano or guitar will allow a certain degree of independence.

Where do you see yourself in ten years?

Doing what I'm doing now. Perhaps a little more jamming on the porch. Perhaps a little more lecturing. Perhaps more solo stuff. The project with my son (Blue Mama Black Son) has me excited right now and hopefully that, too, will have wings.

So girlfriend, when all is said and done, was it worth it?

An overwhelming YES!!! My only regret is that I didn't get into music earlier. I am blessed to have such goodness… to make a living doing what I love.


Visit the Gaye Adegbalola and Saffire websites.


©2001 Lea A. Gilmore and P.W. Fenton, All Rights Reserved.