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I've had men that weren't this good," declares Erica Brown, rubbing her hands together and raising an eyebrow. She's two forkfuls into a heaping slab of cherry cheesecake.
Adorned in reading glasses and a simple T-shirt and jeans, the singer, who is so elegant on stage, looks more like a librarian than a showstopping diva. But a few minutes later, when Brown starts humming along with Sam Cooke's "You Send Me," her vocal prowess is unmistakable.
Sharing the booth is Scotty Rivera, Brown's partner in crime and the drummer for the blues-inflected act that bears her name. As Brown scoops up another morsel, Rivera glances at her and chuckles. "If you think I'm missing even one drop of this," she responds, "you have lost your mind."
Brown learned to savor life's simple pleasures early on. Although she was raised in the opulent environs of Sikeston, Missouri -- a place she remembers as having more millionaires per square mile than any other city in the country -- her family was anything but affluent. Still, she was often treated to unexpected luxuries: Her mother and aunts were domestics who worked for many of the town's wealthy families. "We had as much chance of having foie gras for New Year's Eve as we did turkey," Brown remembers. "Me and my sisters laugh about that now. We were some of the richest poor kids in town."
They were also some of the most dapper. One of Brown's aunts worked for a woman who went on shopping sprees several times a year; when she returned, she'd pass on her "old" clothes to the girls. "I will never forget that. When I was twelve years old, I had a pair of snakeskin pumps -- they were the bomb," Brown recalls with a laugh. "The woman had, I'm sure, a separate room with nothing but clothes, and the stuff she would send to us was virtually unworn. We would turn up for holidays in silks and satins. It was a very interesting existence."
Brown's parents lived in different towns, thirty miles from each other. "My father and mother were two volatile individuals who weren't about to let either one of them tell the other what to do," she explains. During the school year, she'd see her father on weekends, when he'd stop by and visit her in Sikeston. During the summer, she'd spend time with him in Cape Girardeau. "He was a farmer," she says, "so there wasn't a lot of music going on at his house." Still, his first ranch -- financed with gambling money he won during a stint in the military -- was dubbed Melody Lane.
In Sikeston, Brown was surrounded by music. Encouraged by her mother, she sang in various choirs and played the flute. But it would be years before she decided to make music her career. As a teen, she felt a higher calling. "I was a very shy kid, very shy, painfully shy," she admits. "I was also a very religious kid. That was my deal. I wore long skirts down to the knees. We weren't Pentecostal; we were Baptists. But I might as well have been Pentecostal, because that was my thing. So I was seriously considering becoming a nun -- I had already sent away to St. Louis for the papers."
But then Brown got sidetracked by a crazy little thing called love. She got married at sixteen and bounced between Cape Girardeau and Milwaukee before finally landing in Denver in the mid-'70s. When she and her husband split up three years later, she decided to stay here. Soon after the divorce, she started going to Basin's Up (now Luckystar) in Larimer Square to catch live music. While watching Coco Brown perform with her band, Split Decision, she came to a decision of her own. "They had a big old band, like eight or nine people," she recalls. "I sat in the front row and watched her, and I remember thinking that was the coolest damn thing I'd ever seen in my life. And if I could do that, I'd be happy."
Brown's first gig was with Ron Ivory's outfit, the Ivory Summers band. A year later, she was on the road with a keyboard player named Steve Wilson in the band Hot Flash. "It's kind of funny," she says. "'Cause I'm 46 now, and hot flash means something altogether different to me."
Her time with Hot Flash not only helped Brown hone her skills as a performer, but also helped her overcome her pronounced stage fright. The breaking point came one night at a VFW hall in the middle of South Dakota. "I was thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've got to be the only black person within 500 miles.' I was terrified," Brown remembers. "The place was packed, and it was a big place. So we got through the first set, and I did fine -- because I always did fine. But Steve could sense that something was going on with me, and he didn't like it. So he walks up to me and says, 'Would you do what the fuck I hired you for, or get back on the bus and go home?'
"Now, you know I wasn't having that," she continues. "I was so mad I could not see. I said, 'Fine, if this is the way it's going to be, then fine. I'm getting back up on this stage.' So I got up and gave the best performance I'd ever given in my life. And in that instant, I was cured."
After that, Brown's resumé filled in rather nicely. When Mark Brooks asked her to join Foreskin 500, Brown didn't hesitate -- even though the band's music, a funk-drenched hybrid of disco and rock, differed drastically from anything she'd done before. She signed on in time to be part of the group's 1996 effort, Starbent but Superfreaked, which received rave reviews across the country. (One of the songs, "Deliver Me," ended up on the soundtrack of The Fan, a movie starring Robert De Niro and Wesley Snipes.) And Brooks and company got a little more than they bargained for with Brown, especially on the road.
"We were driving from Los Angeles to San Francisco -- and that is an entire story in itself, believe me," she says, "and all of a sudden Dave Kerr pipes up from the back, 'You know how I can tell there's a lady in the van?' Mark was driving, and he turns around and says, 'How?' Kerr says, 'The farting has decreased considerably.' I just rolled. I said, 'Fellas, I'm so sorry. I've been ripping 'em off up here. I thought it was like that.'"
The exhilarating ride came to an end when Brooks and frontman Diggie Diamond found themselves going in different musical directions and opted to part ways. Foreskin bassist Dave Moore quickly signed up Brown for the Cherry Bomb Club, a short-lived project that also featured Dan Wanush (aka King Scratchie from the Warlock Pinchers and Rey Legendario Jr. from the Wild Canadians). But after sitting in with such luminaries as Hazel Miller, Sugar Bear, Chris Daniels and Sammy Mayfield, Brown realized her heart lay elsewhere. This lady was ready to sing the blues.
"It was like, 'Oh, this is it. This is the deal. This is what I want to do. This is what I ought to be doing,'" she remembers. "When it's right, you just know it."
Adding to the rightness was Rivera, a Detroit-bred drummer who'd been pounding the skins since his legs were long enough to reach the pedals. After moving to Colorado in the early '80s, Rivera had spent several years with a wildly popular combo called Black Irish, which included Billy Ryan and keyboardist Jim Ayers. When that stint ended in 1987, Rivera took some time off. Seven years later, Ayers was working with Sammy Mayfield and asked Rivera if he'd like to audition for the renowned blues guitarist. Rivera packed up his gear and headed over to Mayfield's house for the tryout. After twenty minutes of running through various beats with the guitarist, Rivera became the newest member of Sammy Mayfield's Blues Review.
"That is one of the finest things that ever happened to me," Rivera says. "[Mayfield] is like the ultimate professional on stage. To this day, he's almost like my own personal hero, even though I got to play with him. He's just one of those guys: The minute that he picks up a guitar and starts playing, everybody around him becomes better."
But Mayfield was also Solomon Burke's arranger, a job that kept him on the road for months at a time. Upon returning to Denver, he'd phone the rest of the Blues Review and set up a rehearsal, and they'd practice just a couple of hours before the next gig. The band was about as tight as a muumuu.
To keep their chops when Mayfield was gone, the bandmembers -- Rivera on drums, Ayers on keys, guitarist Tommy Butters (now deceased), bassist Dan Shore and trombonist-singer JD Kelly -- formed a side project called JD and Friends. Before long, JD and Friends was so popular that its dates started conflicting with the Blues Review, and the band became a full-time gig. Rechristened JD and the Love Bandits, the outfit played together for four years before frontman Kelly left to join Chris Daniels's band.
The Love Bandits didn't have to look too far to find his replacement. "I followed them around like a groupie," says Brown, who'd already played a New Year's Eve show with the act. So in May 1998, when the fellas asked Brown if she wanted to join, they didn't have to ask twice. What they did have to do, though, was find a new name.
"We were just the Love Bandits," explains Rivera. "We had dropped the 'JD' from it. But that wasn't going to work, because that was kind of JD's thing. We felt that he kind of owned that. So we were sitting around at Tommy's house one night trying to figure out what the hell we were going to call this thing. And then one of us said, 'Shit, why don't we just call it Erica Brown?'
"And then somebody else had to have the word 'band' at the end of it," he adds, looking at Brown. "For whatever reason."
"That would be moi," Brown admits. "'Cause we're a band. It's not just me. The only way I would get more attention is if I stood on the stage naked -- and that's a horrifying sight."
"But the view from the drum set is rather nice upon occasion," Rivera offers.
"If you would just quit trying to sell that seat for twenty bucks a pop, we'd be all right," Brown jabs back. "If you got twenty dollars, you can get to see what Daddy gets to see every night."
It's obvious that Brown and Rivera share a certain chemistry, and it carries over into their music. In 2000, after losing two guitarists -- Butters and his successor, Black Irish's Ryan -- to fatal heart attacks, the act released its debut effort, Body Work, which offers glimpses of that magic. Steve Avedis's production is top-notch, and the players -- Brown, Rivera, Ayers, bassist Rich Sallee and guitarist Bob Pellegrino -- are equally adept. But there's a reason this record wasn't called Body of Work: Only two of the songs were originals; the rest are covers. The band was still trying to find its identity at the time, Rivera and Brown explain, and was more focused on getting out a product than writing songs.
Three years later, the band put out its sophomore release. Rough Cut Stone shows off a fully developed, absolute powerhouse that's anything but rough. Bob Yeazel handled guitar duties on Stone, as well as contributing to four of the album's tracks; while his guitar work on "I Spent a Month There One Night," "Cajun Moon" and the title track is blistering, he only augments an already impeccable ensemble that's developed an undeniable synergy. From beginning to end, on cuts like the spartan ballad "Everyman Hears Different Music," to the more traditional blues of "Bring Back the Quarters," to Brown's excellent take on Robbie Robertson's "Shape I'm In," Stone is captivating.
With a third album in the works -- this time with guitarist Marc Larson, a monster player in his own right, at the helm -- the Erica Brown Band is in great shape. And as she approaches the half-century mark, Brown's best work still lies ahead. Next month, the group will be warming the stage for the king of kings, B.B. King.
You can have your cake and eat it, too -- if you're living life by the drop.