While Barbara Morrison's 1973 arrival to the jazz and blues party was somewhat late, the singer has definitely lived it to the hilt. One of Los Angeles' top jazz vocalists, Morrison made her bones on the bandstand alongside the top names in music, performing with everyone from Johnny Otis to Ray Charles, Mel Torme and Dizzy Gillespie. But Morrison, who appears at Burbank's Joe's Great American Bar & Grill on May 26, remains an unassuming, modest and very down-to-earth character.
"I wasn't even into jazz until I moved to California," the 60-year-old Morrison said recently. "I'm from the Detroit area and grew up listening to a lot of Motown. And when I first got here, I was singing in a rock band called L.A. Smog Control. But I heard about an audition for a night club performer's job, at the Rubaiyat on Pico and Western. Everyone there was old enough to be my parents, but they were also playing the best music I'd heard in my life — and somehow I won the post."
The Rubaiyat was one of the most historic, and prestigious, jazz and R&B clubs in South Central Los Angeles with the popular Blue Mondays headlined by legendary saxophonist Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson and able cohorts the Blevins brothers. Here, Morrison's life was transformed.
"I was just drawn to it." she said. "Here I was, just a 21-year-old kid hanging out with these 70-year-olds, all of them were stars from the old days. At the time, I didn't even know who they were, but they'd start drinking and telling these great stories about Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington, all the people who came before me. And it was rich, a very rich experience."
Morrison's vocals, as heard on her superb new CD, "A Sunday Kind of Love" (Savant), mix coolly communicative passion with artful, luxurious phrasing and plenty of steam-heated soul. It's a winning combination that's taken her from local cocktail lounges to Carnegie Hall, major European Jazz festivals and onstage at her own Barbara Morrison Performing Arts Center, a thriving cultural hub in Leimart Park that is just about to celebrate its fifth anniversary. There, Morrison regularly performs her acclaimed theatrical show, "I Wanna Be Loved: Stories of Dinah Washington, Queen of the Blues," and hosts the nationally recognized children's music education program, the Harmony Project, along with jam sessions and a variety of live jazz events.
But at her artistic core, Morrison is an old-school blues and jazz diehard, one versed in the oft-harrowing ins and outs of the trade by an extraordinary series of mentors, first with Vinson and onward into a 20-year affiliation with the star-studded Johnny Otis Orchestra.
"I got to know so many wonderful artists, people like Cleanhead, Bullmoose Jackson, Etta James, Big Joe Turner — they all had an influence on my life and it was a real learning process. I learned everything from them: how to conduct myself with the bands and in my personal life, and they told me things I should and shouldn't do just to stay in the game. Because it's a rough game and I saw a lot of people fall by the wayside due to drugs and drinking."
Morrison is a survivor herself: She recently lost a leg due to diabetes but continues to perform with a prosthetic replacement, and not just locally, but all over the world.
"I'll be going to Detroit in August and in July, to England and Austria," she said. "We do that annually, and down to Australia, too. They're much larger crowds over there, of course. I was out in France once and there was 110,000 people in the crowd — then you come home to Lucy's 51 and there's only 10 people. It's a roller-coaster ride, but I wouldn't trade it for anything."
What: Barbara Morrison, plus Bernie Pearl
Where: Joe's Great American Bar & Grill, 4311 W. Magnolia Blvd., Burbank
When: May 26, 8:30 p.m. No cover, two drink minimum.
More info: (818) 729-0805, joesgreatbar.com
JONNY WHITESIDE is a veteran music journalist based in Burbank and author of "Ramblin' Rose: the Life & Career of Rose Maddox" and "Cry: the Johnnie Ray Story."