Born To Be Blues

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

For the past 30 years, critics have raved about the music of Marcia Ball.  No less a publication than Rolling Stone said of her “Rollicking, playful, good-time blues and intimate, reflective balladry… Her songs ring with emotional depth.”  She is currently on tour to promote her latest CD, “So Many Rivers,” a Grammy nominee and winner of two 2004 W.C. Handy Blues Awards.  You can catch her show at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz on Thursday.

Ball’s career seems to have been set from an early age – in her family, all of the female members played piano.  She was born in Orange, TX, and grew up just across the Louisiana border, in Vinton.  She began studying piano at age 5, and was introduced to a variety of musical styles by her aunt and grandmother.  At age 13, however, she saw a performance by Irma Thomas and discovered the blues.  “She just blew me away, she caught me totally unaware,” said Ball.  Thomas’ performance was the most soulful and spirited that she had ever seen.

Ball attended Louisiana State University, where she played with her blues-rock band Gum.  On graduating, she decided to move to San Francisco, but on the way her car broke down in Austin, TX.  She liked the city of Austin so much she decided to stay, and had soon formed a band called Freda and the Firedogs, playing at the local clubs.

Freda and the Firedogs broke up in 1974, and Ball signed to Capitol Records, where she released her solo debut, “Circuit Queen,” in 1978.  This was followed by six critically acclaimed releases for the Rounder record label during the course of the 1980s and 1990s.  These included 1998’s “It!” which was nominated for both the Grammy and W.C. Handy awards.  The album was a collaboration between Ball, Tracy Nelson and Ball’s original inspiration to take up a career in music, Irma Thomas.  Ball rounded off the 1990s with a televised performance at the White House alongside Della Reese and B.B. King. 

In 2001, Ball moved to Alligator Records, where she released “Presumed Innocent.”  This album was a huge success, leading to feature stories in several major newspapers and magazines.  She was invited to play on NPR Radio’s “Prairie Home Companion” and was featured on CNN in 2002.  The following year, she was featured in “Piano Blues,” a short film directed by Clint Eastwood and included in Martin Scorsese’s hit PBS television series “The Blues.”

“So Many Rivers,” Ball’s latest album, features 14 songs, six of which are original compositions.  It was recorded at The Hit Shack in Austin, and was produced by Stephen Bruton, who has worked with artists as diverse as Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan and Barbra Streisand.

First published in "411", The Salinas Californian, February 17, 2005

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