"Born For The Stage, Schooled In The Blues"
Dec. 2015-Jan.2016, Vol. 21, No. 6
By Roger & Margaret White
Geneva Red has been a belle on the blues scene for almost two decades leading her band, The Roadsters as well as her duo, The Original Delta Fireballs. She's grown up on stage singing and acting with her parents' small theater troupe. After experiencing blues firsthand as a young age her interest shifted from the legit stage to smoky clubs and juke joints, taking up blues harp and the moniker Geneva Red. That harp has taken her far and wide, she's featured in “The Encyclopedia of the Harmonica,” is endorsed by Hohner Harmonica. The Roadsters has included renowned blues guitarists Floyd Murphy (Jr. Parker, Big Mama Thornton, Bobby “Blue” Bland) and Jimmy Johnson who still plays with her today. She's performed with Matt “Guitar” Murphy, Bob Margolin, Sam Carr, Phil Guy, John Primer, “Little” Smokey Smothers, Billy Branch, Paul deLay, Studebaker John and R.J. Mischo. With all she's received from the blues community Red has also given back with her Blues In The Schools programs, “The Muddy Mississippi” performance or “Geneva Red's Hohner Harmonica Workshop” and artistic residency. We caught up with Ms Red while she was digging out from the first winter storm of the season.
-What got you started in Blues
My guitarist, Jack Wolworth (or Jackie 5&Dime) was working for my family's theater company. He took me to Chicago Fest, back before it was called The Chicago Blues Fest. I was young and wish I'd known who all those incredible artists I was seeing were but I didn't. But I was totally blown away by the music. After that Jackie started loaning me blues albums and after I told Jackie if I were going to play any instrument it would be harmonica, he gave me one. The key of A.
-Who were your biggest influences or mentors?
Billy Boy Arnold, he was kind enough to take time with me, I'd call him and he'd spend hours on the phone talking about music and different players. He wrote the liner notes for my latest CD and when Jr. Wells died Billy invited me and my band to play the memorial at Rosa's. That was the first time I experienced the blues scene in Chicago. He's been very helpful in all aspects of my career. I've been very fortunate that so many great blues artists have taken me under their wing and been so supportive. My background was in theater and I've been onstage since I was very young singing and dancing; it's second nature to me. Some of my first performances were in Chicago, and I've toured with my band nationally and with John Primer to Canada and Mexico.
-You've certainly had some great musicians playing with you. Who's playing with you now?
I have the former rhythm section of the Son Seals band, bassist Snapper Mitchum and drummer David “Tu Sweet” Anderson. My guitarist is Jackie 5&Dime who also writes a lot of our music, and Jimmy Johnson, who was on our “Gettin' Cocky” CD and still plays with us. Floyd Murphy who is Matt “Guitar” Murphy's brother was in my band from 1998 til he had his stroke in 2002. He played on hits with Little Jr. Parker at Sun Studio, doing the guitar parts on “Mystery Train” and “Feelin' Good.” Living Blues award winner Sam Carr played drums on my second album CD “In The Red” and Earl Powell who played for Magic Slim was my drummer.
-What is your favorite nightclub to perform in?
Blind Willies in Atlanta. The house band The Shadows are great to work with.
-Do you have a favorite place to see a performance?
The Sunflower River Blues Festival in Clarksdale, Mississippi.
-Do you have a favorite blues artist?
Sonny Boy Williamson II, the songs he wrote were very clever and I think it's fascinating that the vibrato he sing s with is the same as the vibrato he plays with on the harp. His voice and harp emulate one another.
-Do you have a favorite state for blues?
I'm a Chicago girl, I'm currently living outside Rockford, Ill, about halfway between Madison and Chicago.
-Do you have a favorite record or artist you'd like to turn somebody on to?
Billy Bizor, he's Lightin' Hopkins cousin, he's on an obscure label but it's some of the most amazing harp playing I've ever heard.
-Do you have favorite record producer?
I've been working with, Michael Freeman, he worked with Mike Vernon on some of those great British blues recordings. He's originally from England but living in America now.
-Favorite blues food?
Miss Doris Carr's pork chops; she made them before our shows with Sam Carr, who's passed away.
-Any artist you'd like to work with?
I might get some shit for this but, Eric Clapton, he really can play the blues.
-If you could bring back one deceased artist for a one time show who would it be?
BB King, I really wished I could have played with him, but then again who wouldn't?
-What are you working on now?
I want to get into the studio with my duo, The Original Delta Fireballs; we've done a live recording but I'd like to take it to another level.
-You're sponsored by Hohner Harmonica.
I've had an endorsement contract with Hohner since '98 and in conjunction with them I've been doing workshops in schools as an “artist in residence.” Each kid gets a Geneva Red Hohner harmonica and we teach them how to play and at the end of the week they put on a concert for the parents and community. I'll be hosting one in the Lima Ohio schools this January. We also offer a program as part of our festival package doing anywhere from a one day workshop to a full week of classes.
-Any final thoughts?
I think it's important to acknowledge the folks at Big City Rhythm & Blues. We cross paths with them at every festival we're at and I'd like to say that they're doing an awesome job promoting the music for all these years. While all other print media has died out Big City Rhythm & Blues is a great magazine and I hope people will support it.