In 1972 you signed to Blue Note and were the first woman to sign to the label. How did that come about?
I was staying in Charlotte, North Carolina. I had a dear friend there, Loonis McGlohon. Loonis really wrote some beautiful, beautiful songs. The person he liked to work with best was Alec Wilder. He wrote ‘Blackberry Winter,’ which was another wonderful song. Loonis had gotten me a job as the first black person to sing for this white society situation in Charlotte. This was a function that they would put on every year and they would have their favourite artists perform. As it turned out I was selected because Loonis told them to use me. Well, while I was down there I met George Butler’s mother (George Butler was head of A&R at Blue Note at the time). After I finished the concert I remained onstage while they presented me with flowers. I said “I really appreciate working with your organisation and I understand that I’m the first black woman to do so. I really commend you on that but I would just love to know that I am not the first and the last.” Applause broke out and I heard these footsteps coming down the aisle, and it was George Butler’s mother. She said: “oh my darling, I loved that and I loved what you said. I’m going to call my son.” Of course, George Butler was working with Blue Note. So that was my introduction to him, through his mama (laughs).
It’s interesting how these things happen.
Isn’t it something? It’s amazing because I was supposed to have been with the Basie band at Montreux, but since I had already signed to do this little job in Charlotte I couldn’t go. So I missed that opportunity to work in Europe. But look at what an opportunity I had with Blue Note. I got to go to Montreux to record an album and that was my first opportunity to work internationally.
That was a great little album as well.
Wasn’t it something? I’m telling you, it was a fun album to do.
On your final Blue Note album, ‘Just A Matter Of Time,’ you began working with producers Bert DeCoteaux and Tony Silvester. What were those two guys like to work with?
I mostly worked with Bert. I know that they were partners but I really don’t remember Tony being there much. Bert was just a peach of a guy. He said: “you can’t help your jazz inflections – that’s just your natural thing but I want to see if we can do some songs that put you closer to the street.” I’ll never forget that expression. He also said: “I want to be able to walk down the street and hear your music coming out of the speakers,” because that was what they used to do in certain neighbourhoods. When they were selling records out of the One Stops, they’d have their speakers on and they’d be playing the records inside so the whole neighbourhood could hear it.
Bert produced your signature song, ‘Go Away Little Boy,’ on your first Columbia album, 1977’s ‘Sweet Beginnings.’ How did that come about?
I was working at a little club in New York City and Bert came in and heard me sing ‘Go Away Little Boy.’ He said: “oh man, that is too ridiculous. You’re going to have two record that.” Then I wrote a monologue for it.
You recorded it first on one of your Chess albums, didn’t you?
Yes, but they would let me do a monologue that I’d written. That was their short-sightedness. Neither would they let me record with the Basie band.
Your monologues became a key part of your stage act. How did they start?
Once when I was up on stage one of the guys that was supposed to be playing for me, he was playing organ, had put the music in the organ seat. So there I was standing before an audience. Nobody’s doing anything, and he’s scrambling through the seat trying to find the music. So I started talking and people started laughing and one thing led to another and another fool was born (laughs).
Did it ever cross your mind that you could be a comedienne perhaps?
I never really did because at that time I understood what it meant to work. I went to church and to school with Richard Roundtree (the black actor who played the detective Shaft in the movie of the same name). I know that if it wasn’t for ‘Shaft,’ let’s face it, he probably wouldn’t have gotten so far. You have to have that one piece of work or business that makes people recognise you. Even Richard wanted me to act. He came to see me at Vine Street and said: “My God, you’re an actress, you’re a comic! You’re a good singer but nobody understands that you’ve got a whole lot of other stuff going on.” And (comedian) Flip Wilson was another one that said to me: “just put down the music for one minute and go out and see how long you could do before you have to sing a song.” I said: “Oh Flip, come on!” I didn’t want to be out of work in two jobs.
It was a wise decision perhaps looking at your long career now – who knows where you might have gone if you’d taken another turning.
I’m telling you. And with five kids – if you’re going to leave your children for ten days or so you can’t just come back and say well don’t worry, the movie is coming out and then I’ll get paid. Oh no.