Twenty years ago, Harlem nightclub singer Sandra ReAves-Phillips decided to put together a one-weekend show to honor her musical heroes. Two decades later, she's still serving as the one-woman cast of a tribute to America's best blue-note singers, The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz. "It's a labor of love. It's still going strong, right into the year 2000," says ReAves-Phillips, who, speaking from her home in New York, floods the phone line with joy when discussing her creation. "My plan was to make this my farewell tour and retire myself out of it, but we're still having a good time with it, re-creating the music. These ladies had such lives."
As she runs down the list of female vocalists in her show, ReAves-Phillips focuses on the positives in their lives. "Ma Rainey, from Columbus, Georgia--she was the most earthy of all of them," she says of America's "Mother of the Blues" and first black diva. "She was a good businesswoman, took good care of her musicians and her family. A big spirit, with big talent. Bessie Smith, she was the 'Empress of the Blues,' from Chattanooga, Tennessee. Bodacious, prideful, sometimes adamant about it. The highest-paid colored singer on the circuit--bought her own train car 'cause she was not putting up with the nonsense of not being able to sleep in a hotel or have decent food. Bessie was a lady you didn't fool around with, who said what was on her mind."
Ethel "Sweet Mama Stringbean" Waters is also on the Ladies roster. Waters got her start with W. C. Handy, became an early Broadway star, and later traded the theater circuit for tours with the Reverend Billy Graham. "A child born out of a rape, from Pennsylvania, she was one of the first women to cross over into black and white audiences and also film, television and theater," she says of the singer, who had hits with "Stormy Weather" and "Am I Blue." ReAves-Phillips also impersonates Dinah Washington, whose amazing career spanned four decades and included stints with Lionel Hampton, numerous screen appearances, and unforgettably giddy duets with crooner Brooke Benton. "Dinah was very versatile as an artist but didn't feel good about her own image and didn't think she was pretty enough." But, says ReAves-Phillips, she was still "one of the most prolific singers of our time."
The show concludes with portrayals of jazz wonder Billie Holiday and gospel giant Mahalia Jackson. "Billie--her vices were her downfall," ReAves-Phillips notes, "but Billie is an icon, recognized all over this world because of the frustration that her music was born out of. She lived such a hard lifestyle as a child, brutally abused sexually. Her grandmother died with her arms around Billie, and they had to unlock her arms. She was put in a children's home, had all of this trauma, even saw a man lynched. But Lady left this music that is haunting. Haunting.
"And then there's Mahalia Jackson," she beams. "Known throughout the land, one of God's personal angels. Committed to her life as a gospel singer, she would not waver from it no matter how big the offers. She would not sing [other] music. She felt that gospel left you full of hope, whereas the blues generally left you with a sense of frustration, born out of frustration. Oh, yeah!"
The show ends with Jackson's segment, which makes for an uplifting finale. According to ReAves-Phillips, this sense of overcoming the odds has helped make her show successful and relevant to all audiences. "People can identify with hardships, no matter what gender, what color," she says. "These women all had a no-nonsense attitude. They put their music out there and said, 'What you see is what you get and who I am. And you won't be the changer of me. I will be the changer of myself. I am the master of my fate.'"
The life of ReAves-Phillips has some similar parallels. Now in her fifties, she was born in South Carolina to a teen mother who left the South for the Northeast, abandoning ReAves-Phillips to be raised by her grandmother. In her preteen years, she moved to New York to reunite with her mom. "I hated it," she recalls. "I worked in a migrant farm, in fruit orchards, picking beans, clipping onions and digging potatoes." The family moved to Brooklyn a few years later, and in high school ReAves-Phillips began singing in school choirs. She graduated to Big Apple clubs and was signed to Epic Records in the early Sixties, recording a trio of modest soul hits for the label. One of them, "A World Without Sunshine," became a cult classic in England.
When her recording career ended, she took acting classes. Since then she has appeared in a long line of Broadway and off-Broadway productions. Her film credits include Round Midnight and Lean on Me, and her voice is most recognizable to today's audiences as that of the scat singer on a long-running Entenmann's television ad.
But there was a price for these successes. "I've cheated my children out of time being with their friends," she reveals. "I've drug them up and down the road with me when they were small, teaching them in backstages, cooking in dressing rooms for years and years, when they would have rather been in school. And sometimes I've felt like walking away, but I can't. I've dedicated too much to this, sacrificed too much. I can't quit, even when I think, 'Damn, I want out of here.' There's too much riding on this. See, I'm very proud to be a part of the tradition, to make people aware of the contributions that some of these great people have made. Maybe in some way, I can help keep this music from going away."
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And while ReAves-Phillips's role in this production is as writer and actress, the I-can-overcome-anything attitude of her characters flows in her veins as well. "In life, you just gotta keep rolling," she enthuses. "That's what it's all about, putting one foot in front of the other and knowing that life gives you what you put into it. And it's not all in dollars and cents but in the satisfaction of knowing you did something good for somebody else."
Sandra Reaves-Phillips in The Late Great Ladies of Blues and Jazz, children's shows 10 a.m. and noon, Friday, March 26, $4; regular shows 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 27, and 2 p.m. Sunday, March 28; at the Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, $24, 303-431-3080.