Hi Wendy! We have chatted off and on, and here and there. It is great to sit down and talk with you. Tell us where Wendy got started.
I was born in San Francisco, but grew up in that hot bed of the blues, Sonoma County, just north of the San Francisco Bay Area. A lot of fine players headed there after the hey day of the San Francisco Music scene, including Nick Gravenites.
Did you get the opportunity to meet Nick Gravenites?
Yes, on a couple of occasions. I've opened for him, and some friends play
with him. We've never talked a whole lot though. I want to hear his story
about running the Chicago club backed by gangsters...
Did you come from a musical family? If so, how did they influence you.
Please share your earliest musical experience.
My Dad played banjo and wrote. We sang on family outings all the time. My brother and I used to build tinker toy guitars and banjos and be the Kingston Trio. Rod and I had several albums memorized.
I got introduced to the blues through the benevolance of a guy I had a crush on. He gave me his record collection when he realized he'd never be able to really play well. His band buddies were leaving him in the dust and it got too frustrating for him. Paul Butterfield, James Cotton, and several great compilations of Chicago blues were part of this pile. My first album that I bought was a two record set of Memphis Slim. Didn't even know who he was when I bought it, but it looked serious.
My introduction to boogie woogie came earlier, from a friend of my dad's who used to come over and play my piano. He was having such a good time, I pestered him until he showed me some stuff. Brought a book too, called "Here's Boogie Woogie". I was about 10.
Ten years old? You started early! Who have been your musical influences?
Everything I've ever listened to! Favorites at the moment are Lonnie Johnson, Sunnyland Slim, Big Maceo, Little Brother, Memphis Minnie and Otis Spann…
I love Otis Spann…he was THE blues….
Every time I go to a show where the music is deep, or play with some folks who are just sending tingles up my spine, that's a huge influence too to play more, dig more, hear more, and in general love the music. I'm into playing even deeper. Every moving experience is a renewal of commitment to play as deeply as I can, to never short change the music.
You know Wendy, there are not many women out there playing boogie-woogie, what influenced you to move in that direction?
I was hooked at an early age. You do what you love. Your heart doesn't ask you particulars about who else may or may not be doing it and then stamp your passport. One advantage is that you can give a good challenge to your average guy (don’t try this with a plumber) in left handed arm wrestling.
I have heard that you have done some great recordings! How many CDs do you have? What was the recording experience like?
There are three out, with one on the way. Originally, the band was called "Wendy DeWitt and Blue Saloon", but now it's just "Wendy DeWitt". The first three are under the old name.
Recording is work. The whole process. I love the writing, and the acutal playing, the rest is discipline. Oh boy, send in the interns. I'm very hands on and do as much as I can myself. For the first three I used the studio I owned in Sausalito, California and recorded onto 1" or 2" tape. By the time I got to the third album, I was directing the packaging too. You can order everything yourself, and have it drop shipped to the CD pressing plant for assembly. By doing this you have much more freedom in every direction, including sleeve. I opted for a mini trifold album, like in the old days, cardboard! All recycled materials and soy based inks. This worked out great. Due to weighing less and not cracking when shipped or dropped, costs were lowered. The savings in damage and postage made up for the difference in price.
That’s actually great advice…
Now the studio is all digital, and I'm taking it to record on location with a good piano. Again, I'll do all the packaging. Resources for how to do this are in the back of Mix Magazine, and on the internet. A lot of companies are what's called "jobbers", who don't do the work themselves, and only organize it all for you, essentially. You save hassle, time, and money if you take over this and "job" your own project. In lieu of being on someone else's label, this is the way to go.
I have heard some real horror stories from independent artist and their recording experiences…
Stories? Well, there was the company that had to eat the initial printing costs because they redid art work with out asking, and made really horrendous typos in the process. There was the time the tape machine spit out flames just as we were wrapping up the last mix. And the project that was finished the day before the engineer left for a six week tour of Europe. The flood, the divorce, oh gee. This could go on. Shall we have a beer?
Yikes! I think we need one. Make mine an iced tea…;-)
Do you tour regularly? Any good "on the road stories"?
Trips with Hank Ballard and the Midnighters take me to some interesting places, and every year I play in the Virgin Islands. Other things come and go. Chicago with Steve Freund, Cincinatti earlier this month for the Arches Piano Stage at the Queen City Blues Fest, France next month. Sue Palmer and I are hooking up for "Queen of Boogie Woogie" shows and so far we've done one here at Berkeley's Freight and Salvage with Big Joe Duskin as our special guest, and Beverly Stovall as the third "Queen".
What a great concept!
We do another one in August in San Diego with Del Ray. Every year more travel happens and it makes me very happy that things are working out that way. The best part is meeting other folks. Then there's all the cultural experiences.
I'll never forget traveling with Hank Ballard and the guys on his bus from L.A. to LA. That's the band, the horn section, and the Midnighters. Quite a gang. You really have a ball with a group like that. Best parts? Most exciting? Well, we met Shirley of Shirley and Lee in the parking lot of a Napa Auto Parts store in New Orleans. Her nephew was helping her with something on her gold Cadillac. We were getting the bus' air conditioning working. Oh, and while we were driving there the guitarist at the wheel got sun stroke through the huge bus windshield, and almost rear ended a sub-compact at 75 miles per hour. He was dazed, we were yelling. That was close.
Who are some other folks you have worked with? Have they influenced
Big time. Tommy Thompson, family friend from childhood. Grooves deep on the guitar and is in the western swing Hall of Fame. He's the one who taught me boogie woogie piano. Didn't see him for almost 20 years and now we gig together occasionally.
Steve Freund has helped me tremendously, just by knowing so much, always being on the money, and playing so well. He's encouraged, taught, and given me opportunities.
Big Joe Duskin from Ohio is teaching me a lot too.
Everyone I've ever played with has left a mark. I really wish I could have met a lot of folks that are gone now. Hear that ya'll? If you dig someone's playing, you've got to get out and hear them NOW.
Some of the musicians you learn the most from might not even be in your genre. If they've got that thing that communicates, and they take the time to be with you, it could change your life.
That is so true. I have learned so much from listening to Patsy Cline and I LOVE a singer from Cape Verde named Cesaria Evora…amazing stuff…
What other women pianists do you admire?
Living - Marian McPartland, Ann Rabson, just heard about Virginia Tichner, a rag time player right here in my area! can't wait to check her out. Marcia Ball was an early inspiration. A couple of gospel pianists, including the one that backed Mahalia Jackson on so much work. Her name is Mildred Falls. Great player.
She was amazing! My musical partner, Eric Byrd (who is an amazing pianist himself) and I count Mildred Falls amongst the best.
Transcribed a Homespun Video for Elizabeth Caffey-Austin, and she's just deep. I love the way Beverly Stovall eases into a blues, and Ms. RedTutu1 [Lady Bianca! Oone of our other featured artist!] was the first woman I heard playing the piano when I moved to the city in 1984. She wails. Okay, I'm rambling. All the good stuff gets soaked in and there are so many talented people...
Is being a woman musician an asset or liability?I am there girlfriend – let’s take it on the road!
What can I compare it with? It's the only perspective I've ever had. There are times when I've wondered if someone wouldn't be trying to get over on me so much if I was a guy, but how can you know that for sure? I envision asking someone someday "would you be acting like such a jerk if I was a guy?" They'd lie anyway.
I'm actively seeking out other women who do similar music as I and play the piano, just because it's fun to know each other and good for helping each other. Almost every player I know is a guy. I go to a benefit where we're all sitting in to help out for a cause, and it's all guys playing. Go to a jam at a party, it's all guys playing. It's always fun, and very rare, when there's another woman on an instrument, and even though it's not important to me what sex a player is, there's just something about meeting and playing with other gals. There are so few of us that it gives me an extra kick of energy. I'm talking about the blues and boogie world here.
What is your dream gig? Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
Hmm, dream gig. Okay, let's be over the top on all fronts: grand piano, big stage, large crowd, great sound, excellent production, and standing and screaming response. I'd love to make 25,000 people happy out of their minds. This could take place in say, Japan. Haven't been there yet.
In ten years, I hope to have accomplished a lot of the work I'm in the middle of, that will make me a very accomplished blues and boogie piano player with a huge repertoire of material, original and otherwise. I want to be singing so that I communicate effectively with audiences and touch that place inside that takes people out of the moment and transports you to a place with no time, no present, no moment. You know the feeling. The song ends, or the show ends, and you take a moment to get back inside yourself, and you feel oh-so-good.
I'll know you, and lots of other wonderfully talented people all around the world, and we'll see each other at our best doing the thing we love the most.
It'll be interesting to see how the independent thing continues. If I was on a label, it would be easier to have management, thus easier to get gigs. How far can you go as an independent? Technology has changed the rules of access and productivity and allows us to be far more effective in our work.
I ask everyone this one - how do you want to be remembered?
Kindly. As having contributed to the quality of life on this planet. As having done my best and as having had a whole lot of fun bringing about positive moments.
By the way, one of my favorite things is to play behind serious singers...