Marcia Ball: Sunny Blues | Irresistible Southern Boogie from the New Orleans Pianist

Louisiana native Marcia Ball loves the blues, loves the people and places she sings about, and most of all loves to laugh. (PHOTO: Mary Keating Bruton)

Award-winning blues artist Marcia Ball began playing piano before she went to kindergarten. Her grandmother and aunt were both pianists and they encouraged her to learn the instrument.

“You could say they gave me permission to be a musician,” Ball said with a husky laugh. “Of course, back then in the ’50s, that was so I could become a well-rounded person of my generation and be a cultured mother and wife. Little did they know what would happen during the ’60s.”
For Ball, what happened was the Rolling Stones. “Their success was enormous. They inspired me and millions of garage bands to play rhythm and blues,” Ball said.

She grew up on the Texas-Louisiana border and regularly heard the music of such great New Orleans piano players as Little Richard and Fats Domino on the radio, but it did not occur to her that she too could perform in those styles until she heard an English band do it.

“I know people think that a Texan like Buddy Holly opened the doors for regular people to rock, but he was not an influence on me and many of my generation. It was those grungy guys from London playing the music of my childhood that made it seem possible,” Ball said. She started her first band, Gum, in the late ’60s and then went on to form Freda and the Firedogs, Marcia and the Misery Brothers, and finally the Marcia Ball Band by the mid-’70s. Her music combines boogie woogie piano with soul, R&B, rockabilly, and Cajun styles into a blues gumbo that’s distinctly her own.

Ball has released more than a dozen albums, several of which have been nominated for and won W.C. Handy Blues Awards in categories including Album of the Year and Best Contemporary Female Vocalist. She currently is at the peak of her powers as a performer and songwriter as many critics consider her most recent album, Roadside Attractions, her best one yet. Ball penned all 12 songs on the record.

Ball will perform at All Play in Des Moines on November 30 with her band. “That’s Mick and Keith, and . . . ,” Ball began to laugh. “No, it won’t be the Stones, it will be my regulars.” The band consists of Ball (piano, vocals), Don Bennett (bass, vocals), Mike Schermer (guitar, vocals), Damien Llanes (drums, vocals), and Thad Scott (saxophone). She bragged about playing all over the state of Iowa during her career.

“I can’t count all the times I’ve driven up Interstate 35 and headed out to your capitol city, college towns like Ames and Iowa City, burgs like Ottumwa, the Quad Cities, and many more places across the state. Many of the venues may not exist anymore, but Iowa has always been receptive to the blues,” she said.

Ball noted that the future of the blues is less than certain. “It’s always been niche music, except for maybe back in the ’20s and ’30s with singers like Bessie Smith selling a lot of records. Do the blues have a future? Well, that’s like saying does folk music have a future or does classical music have a future? There will always be people that love it, so that the music will never be completely calcified and commercialized, but yeah, I worry about the next generation as we start losing the older ones—like Honeyboy Edwards and Pinetop Perkins, who both died recently.”

“People still come out and see the old timers like B.B. King and Buddy Guy, but I do worry about younger blues artists finding audiences,” Ball said. One way that she keeps fresh is by playing with her heroes of the past, such as Irma Thomas, her contemporaries, like Tracy Nelson, and younger musicians like Calexico. She noted the importance of paying attention to one’s roots but also branching out and seeing what’s out there.

“Okay, I admit that I do not really want to collaborate with whatever is new or hip for the sake of it. I have no desire to jam with hip hop, electronica, or indie bands doing the latest thing. But I enjoy listening to lots of different music. I just don’t want to play it,” Ball said.

Her greatest thrill, of which she said there are many, was performing at the White House for President Bill Clinton. Ball said, “He came over after we were done playing and told my sax player that he wished they could change positions for the day. My sax player told me he was too shy to express it out loud but wanted to tell him, ‘Sure, I’ll be the leader of the free world and you can play sax with Marcia!’ ” Ball started to laugh again, and apologized.

“I am sorry for always laughing, but that’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? I mean, if you can’t laugh, you aren’t really living,” Ball said. Indeed, while her music might be classified as the blues, it is far from sad. She writes, sings, and plays about the people and places she loves with warm affection. A song might be about the negative consequences of growth and development on rural people, but she highlights the spirit and resilience of the people affected more than the loss of land and culture.

“My other great thrill,” Ball continued, “was playing with the Soul Queen of New Orleans, Irma Thomas, and becoming friends with her.” Thomas is known for her 1964 R&B version of “Time is On My Side,” which later became a big hit for the Rolling Stones.

“Yeah, it somehow shows the circles of life. I heard the music of Irma before the Stones, but it was the Stones that showed me that I too could be a musician like Irma,” Ball remarked. “Life is funny like that!”                                                          

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