She was born in Memphis, a musically precocious kid who loved listening to WDIA, the legendary Black radio station where her dad was a DJ known as "Matt the Platter Cat." And while her family moved north to Flint, Michigan when Dee Dee Bridgewater was only three, those Soul City roots ran deep. Today, she's one of the world's greatest jazz vocalists--a Tony and multiple Grammy-winning artist whose gift for exploring and re-imagining musical genres is second to none. But through all the changes, she says, "the south has always remained buried in me." And now she's come home.
As Bridgewater kicks off a U.S. tour next week, she's celebrating the release of "Memphis...Yes, I'm Ready" (Sony Masterworks), an album packed with the glorious sounds of Soul City. Blending gospel, blues, soul and R&B with pop classics -- songs like "(Take My Hand) Precious Lord," "The Thrill is Gone," "Try a Little Tenderness," "Can't Get Next to You," "Hound Dog," "Don't Be Cruel," “B.A.B.Y.” and others -- she puts her own stamp on standards that millions love...but have never sounded quite like this.
The groundbreaking album, several years in the making, shows off yet another side of Bridgewater, who has previously illuminated the musical worlds of Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Kurt Weill, Horace Silver, New Orleans jazz, Malian music and French classics. But there's a distinct sense of homecoming in “Memphis,” a spirit of returning that sets it apart. "Coming back for this recording has brought me full circle in my life," she says.
A powerhouse singer whose rapport with audiences is electrifying and sensual, Bridgewater burst onto the musical scene in the 1970's as a member of the iconic Thad Jones/Mel Louis Big Band in New York, later performing with such jazz luminaries as Dizzy Gillespie, Sonny Rollins, Dexter Gordon and Max Roach. Following a foray into pop and disco, she moved to Paris and began releasing a series of critically-acclaimed, Grammy-winning albums, including "Dear Ella," a tribute to Fitzgerald; and a salute to Billie Holiday, "Eleanora Fagan (1915-1959): To Billie With Love From Dee Dee."
She's also a gifted actress: Bridgewater snared a 1975 Tony award for her performance in the original Broadway cast of "The Wiz," and she starred in "Lady Day," a dramatic portrayal of Holiday's twilight years, for which she earned an Olivier nomination. A headliner at jazz festivals around the world, she hosted National Public Radio's syndicated radio show, "Jazz Set with Dee Dee Bridgewater," for 23 years, and is a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization.
The early critical reaction to "Memphis...Yes, I'm Ready" has been highly favorable. AllMusic said Bridgewater and her accomplished band "deliver a superb set of soulful grooves, at once swampy and emphatic, with John Stoddart's electric piano, Jackie Clark's bass and James "Bishop" Sexton's drums generating just the right amount of funk...It's a treat that should please her fans, as well as anyone who digs southern soul." BroadwayWorld.com called the music “stunning” and said “this recording is an album that sounds like Memphis and feels like Memphis, but also sounds and feel as only a Dee Dee Bridgewater album can, imbued with her own fierce passion, originality and incredibly dynamic take on the tracks.”
Bridgewater begins her tour on November 21 at the Blue Note in New York City, followed by appearances in Allston, MA., Boston, Winston-Salem, NC., Aspen, CO., Appleton, WI., Honolulu and Chicago. She spoke with the Huffington Post about her new album:
JG: Why did you choose Memphis and these songs as the basis for your new album?
DB: I was born in Memphis, and decided after completing my research on my African ancestry--which culminated with my album “Red Earth”--that I would then research my birthplace, Memphis, Tennessee, to have a better idea of who I am, and also get a better idea of my father’s life during that period. The songs I selected each had some significance for me during my adolescence growing up in Flint, Michigan--except "Precious Lord," a gospel song that has been speaking to me for the last two years, as I began to see the physical decline of my mother, Marion Hudspeth, who passed March 1, 2017. I had begun singing the song occasionally at the end of concerts while still working with Theo Croker and his group Dvrk Funk. Singing this gospel song was my way of praying for God’s grace and strength to carry me through a dark period of my life.
JG: What did you bring to these classic works that's different? "The Thrill is Gone" sounds like a completely different song in your interpretation.
DB: All that I was trying to convey with the songs I selected, with the musicians who recorded them with me, alongside Kirk Whalum (co-producer) and John Stoddart (associate producer) was my love for the recording artists whose original recordings we were honoring--the recordings themselves, the Memphis sound. We tried to stay true to the original records for the most part, at the same time adding a modern touch. Kirk provided the arrangements for "Don't Be Cruel" and "The Thrill is Gone." The others were done in the studio after listening to the original versions.
JG: In the "Lady Day" project about Billie Holiday you not only channeled a great artist --you re-imagined her. Was the creative process for this album the same, or very different?
DB: These are two completely different mediums, theater and recording. I used a completely different technique to develop my interpretation of Billie Holiday, which required a great deal of research, studying her voice, her gesticulations, her history, finding similarities to draw from for emotional applications. With this new recording, I was trying to tap into my younger self, an inner me, to find the proper voice for the music. I didn’t want any jazz inferences on this album project. I tried to keep my voice as natural as possible. I did try to conjure up Big Mama Thornton on “Hound Dog”, and our version is closely related to hers. Check hers out.
JG: A press release says you were born at a hospital not far from where this album was recorded, and you've said the south is buried in you. Has that southern sensibility presented itself in other albums--or is this a new musical path you're traveling?
DB: I was not born in a hospital. To be clear, I was born in Collins Chapel. At the time of my birth (1950) and that of my sister (1952) up until the early 1960's, Black people weren't allowed in the hospitals in most of the South. The Black churches built annexes so that the Black doctors could practice. Some were birthing centers, others offered facilities for surgeries. I am who I am, there are many people in me, drawn from the various artistic loves I have. In music it's jazz, blues, soul, gospel (which I’d love to sing as I was raised Catholic), along with acting, writing--which I hope to eventually explore--and songwriting.
JG: Any other musical roots in your DNA?
DB: Well, I did love Country and Western music as a child, and I was a faithful watcher of the old television show “Grand Ole Opry.” I visited Nashville in 2014 after going to Memphis with the idea of working with songwriters to do a country music album. But I decided that was too far-fetched for my public to comprehend. So I think I may be done.
JG: What was it like when Carla Thomas walked into the studio after you recorded her iconic song, "B.A.B.Y."?
DB: Carla Thomas was the affirmation that I was doing the right thing, the immediate answer to a prayer I’d just finished asking God for -- a definitive sign that I was headed in the right direction.
JG: What was going through your head when you played her the mix?
DB: While she was listening to the mix, I was wondering if she would like my interpretation of her song, if she would like the mix Boo Mitchell and I had done, if she would think it was authentic.
JG: Explain the genesis of your very original take on "Hound Dog." How much of a cut like that is improvisation, and how much is design?
DB: My take on “Hound Dog” is an adaptation of Big Mama Thornton’s recording. There is improvisation based on what I was hearing from the musicians while recording, in particular guitarist Garry Goin. I want people to know that this song was written for Big Mama Thornton, and that hers was the ORIGINAL version BEFORE the version by Elvis Presley.
JG: Gospel threads its way through this album, culminating in “(Take My Hand) Precious Lord.” Could there be a gospel project for you in the future?
DB: Hmmm...good ears. That is part of the beauty of the music coming from Memphis, you can hear the gospel roots everywhere. Perhaps there will be a gospel album in the future, it’s certainly not outside the realm of possibilities.
JG: You're a renaissance woman of jazz, blues, disco, Broadway, R&B, African music, New Orleans, roots music and more. Are there any other genres you're eager to explore in the years ahead -- any upcoming projects you can share?
DB: There are no other ‘genre’ projects for the moment.
JG: You've said that, after the experience of recording "Memphis," you might eventually want to move back there. Did this come as a surprise to you, or do you feel an urge to "close the circle" and return, after being an Artist and Citizen of the World for so many years?
DB: I’m an impulsive person, so there’s always a possibility that I could move to Memphis. For now, I’m very happy residing in New Orleans. My heart is being pulled a bit though to return to France where I spent 24 years, not full time but, perhaps in a little ‘pied-a- terre’ for my European tours. We’ll see, as we never know what the future holds.
JG: How did European audiences react to these songs on the first leg of your tour, and how do you think American audiences might be similar or different in their response? Is there an electricity and chemistry in the live versions that sounds or feels different from the studio versions?
DB: I’m performing with a Memphis-based band and we call ourselves Memphis Soulphony. I wanted to have musicians who know this music and its history, who could provide the groove necessary to make the rhythm flow. The live performances have taken on a life of their own. Horn lines have been added here and there, backing vocals as well, and a little bit of choreography. We’ve created a show that corresponds to the music. European audiences aren’t nearly as familiar with the music, the history of Soulsville, so their reaction is more that of surprise and discovery. It's beautiful to see and experience. In the states it’s more of a walk down memory lane for many, but also a kind of rediscovery, and that’s nice to see from the stage. People sing along, embrace and hold hands. It’s wonderful to be the messenger of Memphis soul, sharing a bit of the history of Soulsville.
Dee Dee Bridgewater performs at the Blue Note in New York City from November 21-26