Getting happy with music from the '20s and '30s
By Paul Freeman
For The Daily News
Posted: 04/15/2015 05:43:14 PM PDT
Bay Area vocalist Roberta Donnay has always been fascinated by the history of jazz. Delving into the songs of the 1920s resulted in her acclaimed "A Little Sugar" album. Her follow-up, the fantastic "Bathtub Gin," focuses more on the 1930s.
"Hearing the music of the '20s and '30s, a euphoria came over me," Donnay says. "Every time I would sing to this jazz, I just felt like I was swooning. I was completely in love and I could lose myself completely. And that, to me, is what it's all about."
Donnay and co-producer, co-arranger and bassist Sam Bevan explored the era online and uncovered loads of rare gems. Already knowledgable about Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith, Donnay worked her way back and learned about such artists as Ma Rainey, Ethel Waters, Sippy Wallace and Ida Cox.
"The idea of paying homage to those women was the start of it. I was drawn by what these women were singing about and talking about. How come women were so free in the '20s? What happened between the '20s and the '50s? How come everybody went backward? Young women were starting to express themselves and they were liberated.
"In the songs, they're standing up to men, not being afraid, being really ballsy, being outspoken women. It's women really telling men off," Donnay says, laughing. "Like, 'You've been a good old wagon, but you done broke down.' It's all about men messing up and women saying, 'I've had it with you.' Being a towering, strong woman is an aspiration of mine."
Donnay uncovered many rarely heard gems, such as Elizabeth Cotten's "Shake Sugaree." Even when she's doing well-known Prohibition-era numbers like "Bye Bye Blackbird," Donnay puts her own spin on them. Her voice is captivating.
Donnay co-wrote four of the album's songs, including "Happy Feet," fashioning them to mesh with the style of that bygone era. She incorporated as many of the time's slang expressions as possible. The album contains bluesy numbers, fun ditties, love songs and uptempo danceable tunes.
She says of the era's music, "I think it's in everybody's DNA. Our grandparents listened to that music and somehow it filtered down inside of us."
Growing up in Washington, D.C., Donnay heard her parents' jazz records -- George Gershwin, Ella Fitzgerald. On the radio, soul and R&B enraptured her.
"I wasn't really a rock 'n' roll kid. All my friends went to hear heavy metal bands. Somehow, I was just more blown away by older, acoustic sounds. I was always drawn in by melody first. And then lyrics next. I wrote a book of poetry when I was 8 years old. At age 5, I had already been on stage, singing. I would tell everybody, [in little girl voice] 'I'm a singer! I'm going to be like Billie Holiday!'"
She began playing guitar at 16, then started writing songs. She ran away from home at that age. "My family was really messed up," Donnay says.
At 17, Donnay hitchhiked through Europe with a friend and borrowed a guitar in each town, so she could perform.
She eventually entered the world of journalism, but it wasn't for her. Music was her passion and it kept calling to her.
Moving to the Bay Area, she sat in at different clubs. Donnay performed with Dick Oxtot's Golden Age Jazz Band and Tom Keats and His Tom Kats. "Some of those musicians took me under their wing and taught me a lot about music I hadn't really been that familiar with, like Dixieland, jug band."
She also joined blues bands and played electric slide guitar. Donnay has been a singer and percussionist with Dan Hicks and The Hot Licks for 10 years.
Donnay, who practices Buddhism and lives with her significant other, Eddy Bee, in Mill Valley, plans to do a Christmas album of songs in the vein of the '20s and '30s. In the meantime, Donnay is performing songs from "Bathtub Gin" live. She and her Prohibition Mob Band play Angelica's in Redwood City on April 30.
She and the band, and even some audience members, dress in period clothes. Occasionally, Donnay's new alter ego, Velma Parrish, pops in. She's a gun moll with a New York accent, who time-travels from a speakeasy to whatever venue Donnay and company are playing. Velma stars in Donnay's terrific new video, "What's A Girl To Do." You'll find it on YouTube.
Donnay hopes her performances of vintage songs will spark interest in the genre. "I would like to preserve this music and educate. This music is music for people who have never listened to jazz before. Maybe this will lead them toward artists who came later.
"That's because the music is so entertaining. The word 'entertainment,' to me, is a very big word. In my career, I've learned that to be an entertainer is just as important as it is to be a good musician. Very few people in the audience sit and listen with their eyes closed. People need entertainment. They need to be encouraged. They need to feel joy. And that's how I felt about that music of the '20s and '30s. It makes me happy."
Email Paul Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Roberta Donnay and
The Prohibition Mob Band
Where: Angelica's, Bell Stage, Main Dining Room, 863 Main St., Redwood City
When: 7:30 p.m. April 30
Tickets: $18-$24 (plus $17 food/bar minimum); http://angelicasllc.com, 650-679-8184
Artist website: robertadonnay.com
Mercury News: Getting Happy With Music from the '20s and '30s