Toni Lynn Washington is a singer's singer.† With her captivating vocals, she has captured the heart of blues world. Toni Lynn's career spans over four decades.† This multiple W.C. Handy Award nominee has sung with a list of the "who's who" of soul and blues performers.† Performing in the Boston area for several years, she debuted with the Toni Lynn Washington Band in 1992.† In 1995 the band took the national blues scene by storm with the release of "Blues at Midnight". "It's My Turn" is her latest release.† It is truly her turn now! I sat down for an interview with Toni Lynn Washington and ended up having a chat between girlfriends...
Where are you from?
Actually, I am from Southern Pines, NC. It is about 90 miles south of Raleigh. I was born December 6, 1936.
What happened to your southern accent?
(laughs) It's still there!
When did you leave Southern Pines?
I left Southern Pines at an early age. I was about 13. We moved to Boston.
You must have had a huge "culture shock" moving from Southern Pines, NC to Boston...
Very much so. In Southern Pines everything was segregated. When I got to Boston, I found it pretty strange to be socializing with white people, especially as a child [going to school together].
When did you start singing?
I started singing at an early age. I use to sing in the church choir...
...Yeah, most of us started in the church. Is that where you whet your appetite for performing?
Yeah. I also listened to the radio a lot and learned songs from the radio.
Some of the old standards like Doris Day and Frank Sinatra. This was back in the 40's, you know, the war years...I became aware of Dinah Washington later in the 50's.
Did you come from a musical family?
No, I am the only one.
After you moved to Boston, your mother realized that you really could sing. Your mom took you to clubs while still very young. You were often too young to even be in the club. What was that experience like?
Well, it was...I can't really describe what it was like. She would take me to the club and I would get up and sing with the jazz band. I would sing the standards.
How did the band react to you being so young?
There were a lot of young girls out there trying to get started. I don't really recall them feeling any different.
This was during the 1950ís?
Yes. I worked at The Louis Lounge, The Hi Hat, The Palace...it is hard to recall them all. That was a long time ago. (laughs) The club Louis Lounge was a very popular place. I worked there quite a bit.
Once they heard you sing they kept asking you back. That must have been really something for a teenager.
Yeah, it was. I wasn't really concentrating on a singing career. I just would get up and sing...I had no real goal or direction to be a singer.
You were married quite young and moved to New Orleans. How different was that for you?
Well, it was quite different. You know New Orleans is a big city. Boston is a big city too, but the people [in New Orleans] were very warm and open. Very nice.
In New Orleans you are surrounded by the music. How did you get involved in the music scene?
By that time, I was singing here and there. So, I just went to the clubs and got up and sung. I was nervous. It wasnít intimidating. I just got up and sang the songs that I knew. A lot of them were jazz and a lot of them were blues and were very familiar to the musicians.
Who was Edward Frank?
He was a keyboard player in New Orleans. I went to the city and signed up with Kin-Ti records and he was one of the producers there. He produced one 45 for me called "Dear Diary" one that I wrote myself. I was in my early twenties then.
Like you, I was married very young. Was your music an "escape" from all the responsibility or was it something you were driven to do?
It was something I was driven to do. I can't explain it. It is just something that was in me. I began to get into it even more a little bit later in life. My mom took care of my children for me.
How many kids do you have?
I have four children two sons and two daughters. They are all grown and have their own families now. I am a grandmother now! (laughing) I have sixteen grandchildren and one great-grandchild.
When did you start touring?
During the 70's I moved to Los Angeles. I hooked up with three guys and we called ourselves "The Sound of the Seventies." We did USO shows singing R&B music. We did a lot of touring. We even opened for Jackie Wilson.
What was it like working with Jackie Wilson?
He was a fantastic person. I only met him once. He was fascinating. He was an absolutely terrific performer. The tops.
I opened for Sam and Dave and several more. I can't even recall...
Where did you go on the USO tours?
We went to Vietnam and traveled a lot in the South East Asia area, Hong Kong, Okinawa... The music was widely accepted. We did a short tour with an English R&B group called UFO.
Did you do any "chitliní circuit" touring?
(pauses and then laughs) Iím not sure. I have heard that expression before , but you know, I have not the foggiest idea what it means...(laughing) We didn't do one-nighters, if that is what it means. The clubs we did would hire us for two or three weeks performing nightly. It was like a circuit. Like the Ramada Inn circuit, the Holiday Inn circuit and so on. There was a club called "The Place Across the Street", and then there was a club called "The Nutcracker". So, we did those type of things. Not too many one-nighters.
When did you move back to Boston?
I moved back to Boston in the early 80's.
When did you make the decision to say "OK, now I am going to sing the blues."?
Well, I don't know. I consider myself a singer because I can do a little bit of everything. Right now I am concentrating on the blues because that seems to be my calling right now. There are a lot of blues clubs out there and the music just seems to be flourishing. It is a lot of work. My background comes from jazz. I have never done country-western before, but I am sure I could do that too (laughs). But right now, I am a singer concentrating on the blues.
Blues seems to be experiencing resurgence in popularity. Why do you think that is occurring?
Yeah, it is! I am not sure why it is happening though. The blues has taken on a groove to it that seems to be attracting a younger generation. That is what I want to do. I want to take the old blues and bring it to the 90ís. That is what a lot of blues singers are doing today. You donít have to have "the blues" to sing the blues. Blues can be happy things too.
There is this controversy that will never go away: Some people believe that only African-Americans can sing the blues. What are your feelings?
There are so many different styles in the blues field. So many styles. But it is all blues. The blues has changed since my generation. Our parents had it as a "comfort zone." The blues is for everyone.
Do you find your audience to be a racially diverse?
My audience is 98% white.
What do you attribute that too?
I think that judging from the feedback I get from my own family, they have the idea that blues is "outdated" and a "downer" and that people that sing the blues have low self-esteem. But we know itís not like that. But they donít want to seem to get in there and find out what it is all about.
How can we help to change those attitudes?
We have to start with the young people. Like going to the schools and doing presentations. We have been doing some of that. Young kids catch onto it. They first give you a look like they don't understand. Then by the show end of the show, we have them laughing and on their feet. The little kids love the beat.
You perform with some fantastic musicians. When did you organize the Toni Lynn Washington Band?
Actually, we are a spin-off from another band. When I first came back to the Boston scene, I was doings some jazz appearances at some of the "A-class" rooms. After doing a number of gigs, I met a saxophone player who told me that there is this blues band looking for a singer and that I would be just right for them. So I went and auditioned with this band called the "Boston Baked Blues." It was a huge band. When I got in it, it got even bigger because he hired more musicians. We had a ball together! Then some of the guys like my keyboard player Bruce Bears, and my bass player were thinking that we should build the Toni Lynn Washington name. So we talked about it in the band and the bandleader didnít want to do it that way, so we formed our own band. But we started out working a lot. We got hired right away.
With the release of "Blues at Midnight" in 1995, is that when you started to enjoy some national success?
Yeah, as a matter-of-fact. I couldn't believe how things took off for us.
Isnít it amazing how people will refer to you as an "overnight success" when in actuality you have been in the business for over 40 years?
Well, I sure donít feel like an "overnight success" (laughs). But I guess to them [the public], because they never heard of me, it just seems like that.
You have been nominated for a few Handy Awards...
Yes, this is our third year. I just can't believe it. The first year I was very happy about it. The second year too. I was really surprised about the third year. I am just very excited about it.
Whatís the title of your latest CD?
"Itís My Turn".
Where did that title come from?
It was one of the tunes that Bruce Bears wrote. He wrote the tune and I modified the lyrics to suit me, you know from the woman's perspective, so he was generous enough to put my name on it as a co-author.
Speaking of women. How do you feel women contribute to today's blues music?
I donít really know how to respond to that. I think, judging from how I feel, men seem to have such interesting stories to sing about. We seem to not have so much to pick and choose from. Usually women sing about they have a "no-good man" or a "real good man." We are trying to take subjects that have nothing to do with heartbreak or love affairs or anything like that. Just situations. My band is doing stuff that doesnít have anything to do with just love problems.
Who were your musical influences?
I have a lot of influences. Starting with the greatest blues singer of all time, Ruth Brown. She has influenced a lot of women of all races.
When all is said and done, the shows are over, and there are no more songs to be sung, how do you want to be remembered?
I want to be remembered as someone who loved everybody. You know? Someone who cared.