Ann Rabson it is so good to get the chance to chat with you. So, let's start with the basics, where and when were you born?
Click here to hear a sample from Ann's "Music Makin' Mama" CD on Alligator Records
I was born in New York city - but left after a week. I was born in 1945. The day I was born my uncle was reported missing in action over the Pacific and F.D.R. died. I was raised in Michigan, Indiana and Ohio.
You were lucky to see many diverse sections of the U.S. Did your geographic surroundings have any influence on your musical development?
Well - when I was four years old I heard Big Bill Broonzy on the radio - I guess that wouldn't have happened outside the mid-west. Other than that I don't think so. I never really felt a part of those places where I grew up.
Music seems "second-nature" to you. Do you come from a musical family?
Oh yes. My Dad and Step-mom play many different instruments and have various scholarly musical interests. My Mom sings and my brother (Steve Rabson) is an accomplished jazz pianist (although he has a day job), my Sister (Mimi Rabson) and Nephew (Kenji Rabson) are full-time musicians. She played violin on my Music Makin' Mama album and I recently played a small Eastern tour with a trio and Kenji was on bass. Mimi's husband, my brother-in law (Dave Harris) is a professional musician specializing in trombone and organ. My Daughter, (Liz Rabson Schnore), is starting to revive her musical career after the birth and first year of life of my Grand-daughter, Georgia (who we are hoping will fill out the family band with drums). Liz sings and plays guitar and bass and (gasp) accordion.
I'm not going to start on cousins but I could. Holidays are big jam sessions.
My father has a company called E & R Music engravers. He publishes the Saffire song books 1 & 2 and he and Dave Harris are currently at work on an Ann Rabson songbook which will be available gigs and maybe through Amazon.com. He also has a catalog of music of various family, friends and people of shared interests.
You are truly an inspiration to those of us who believe that we can conquer an instrument even though we are out of our teens (laughing). What instruments do you play? When did you start playing?
I sing, which I started as a young child in the 1940s. I play guitar which I started playing in 1961 and piano which I started playing (other than goofing around) in 1980 or so. Looking at this pattern I guess I'm due for a new instrument in the 00s. Hmmmm.
What was your professional career(s) before you decided to concentrate on your music? Was there a pivotal moment when you decided that music is what you were meant to do?
Actually, my first real career was as a guitar player. Not counting years of waiting tables (badly) and such. I got my first paying gig when still in high school. I spent several years as a full-time Mom. Several times in my life I took jobs programming computers when times got tough. I have been a full-time musician with occasional day jobs to supplement for a long time. I haven't had a day job at all in a long time and plan to keep it that way.
Why the blues Ann?
When I was 4 and heard Bill Broonzy on the radio it was clear to me that this was my music. I had heard lots of different kinds of music in my home but this guy was singing my heart. I was too young to understand the lyrics - about infidelity and such - but I picked up the underlying feeling of being powerless and frustrated and putting it into words and music.
Oh yes, I had the same experience. I always could feel the music even when I did not understand the direct meanings. Who were/are some of your musical influences, especially piano blues/barrelhouse/stride musicians.....any women of note?
Mary Lou Williams is the main woman piano influence. My Dad had some 78s of her in her boogie woogie days. You can hear her playing in mine and my brothers even though he plays no blues and I play no jazz. Georgia White was another early influence.
Pete Johnson, Meade Lux Lewis, Pinetop Smith and Albert Ammons were early influences. Also Leroy Carr and Jimmy Yancey who is still my main source of piano inspiration. Later ones include Archibald and 'Fess and Big Maceo and Otis Spann and Charles Brown and Amos Milburn and...
I love piano blues and I believe that it should have its prominence right next to all of the guitarists we identify as blues-folks. My good friend Marc Borms, who lives in Erembordegem, Belgium and who is a very talented blues and gospel pianist who I was so lucky to perform with last year (and this coming November!) has really turned me on to a lot of the piano blues artists. He has also interviewed you and counts you as one of his musical influences.
Now, you are on the road often (to say the least!). Can you share any funny/scary/crazy incidents that have occurred? Blues Artist you have worked with....
I was playing the Chicago Blues festival with Saffire a few years ago. As I walked onto the ground, the day before we were to play, there was Willie Dixon surrounded by people. We had met several times before and recently had shared nearly 1/2 and hour of very interesting conversation about music/life/politics/history alone together in his dressing room in at the Handy's in Memphis. I thought I'd stay out of the way and pay my respects later. As I walked by I heard this deep deep voice call out "Hey Ann!" I don't remember exactly what he said - where you going or come over here or something. I went over and we talked and he said he'd be there when we played the next day. Did I sleep that night? No way! Then I relaxed when I didn't see him at the gig. As we were breaking into Wang Dang Doodle I saw this BIG hand come up and then the rest of him. Gaye was out front singing and strutting and didn't see him right away. Her face - when she saw him was wonderful! It was a high point in all our lives. We were all great admirers of Mr. Dixon's. He made me nervous because I respected him so much but a nicer more interesting and charming fellow would be hard to find.
WHAT an experience ANN! I am truly envious….
I've had the pleasure of backing up or playing with Jimmy Rogers, Billy Boy Arnold, Erwin Helfer, Milt Hinton, Snookey Pryor, Sonny Rhodes, Jay McShann, Big Nancy, Sax Gordon, Joe Krown, Nappy Brown, Bob Margolin, Sleepy LeBeef, Katherine Davis and many more. Jammed with many more and opened for many many more.
How was "Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women" developed and what is your reaction to the success you have received?
Saffire started as a gig. Gaye Adegbalola (who was an ex-guitar student of mine) and I did a some gigs together at that time. This time we added a bass player. People just kept asking us back and giving us money (not much but enough for part-timers - which we all were at the time). I had taken a day job to put my daughter through school and been arranging my life so I could go back into music when she was done. When she graduated I told Gaye and Earleen that I was going on the road. I said if they wanted to join me that was OK but if not I'd help them find a replacement. I was amazed when they each decided to take a years leave of absence and go for it. I hadn't realized they were that serious. They both had careers they loved. Gaye was Teacher of the Year in Virginia one year - which is a VERY big deal!
I've been delighted and very surprised with the success Saffire has achieved.
Why did you seek a solo career?
Well - I was in highschool and bored. If you mean while Saffire is going on you need to realize that I've had a quiet little solo career going all along. When Saffire worked so many gigs I cut back but always kept my hand in. Saffire has now cut our schedule back to about 1/2 time so my interest in my solo career has come to the fore again. It is my intention to keep the solo career at no less then 1/2 time from here on in. I find it very gratifying. A couple of years ago I put out the album Music Makin' Mama and I'm currently at work on songs for a new solo recording. I'm really excited about this upcoming project.
What makes you keep going during the hardest of times?
I know that no matter what crap is going on - soon I'm going to be playing the music I love. When my hands are on the keys or the strings I feel no pain.
What has been your proudest musical moment?
I was asked to play a song alone for the W.C. Handy Awards last year. It was very scary - all those musicians and industry people - folks who KNOW their stuff - in the audience. I did I'm Gonna Stop You From Giving Me the Blues from Music Makin' Mama. I was very pleased with my performance and reception.
A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to play WWOZ's Professor Long Hair Piano Night in New Orleans. That was a close 2nd.
Like all of our society, race and surrounding issues seem to permeate everything we do. What do you say to the nay-sayers out there who think blues should only be done in one way?
I can only speak for myself. This is my music and I don't care what arguments I hear - some of them very compelling - I can't change that.
I would say a few things:
When you begin to tell people what they can do based on race you have the danger of saying - Jews (I am not really white, you see) shouldn't play blues and African Americans shouldn't have jobs in commerce or some such crap. This is a very bad road to be traveling.
Is Kathleen Battle or was Leontyne Price an inferior opera singer because they were African American? Is Don Byram less of a Klezmer player because he's a Gentile?
How does it feel to be a role model for the younger women who are seeking a blues career? What is your advice to them?
It feels really good to have young people telling me they get inspiration from me. I know the young (and not so young) women get inspiration just from seeing me out there doing it and I love that. I also love that people of all ages and genders are getting piano inspiration from me. I feel that the piano is a great instrument which is due for a resurgence in modern blues. I hope I can instigate that.
When all is said and done and the lights fade, how do you want to be remembered?
I just hope people will still listen to my recordings and get the kind of pleasure I get from listening to the players who proceeded me.
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