It’s been a few years since Roberta Donnay and the Prohibition Mob Band played Vallejo.
Yes, she’s still a redhead. And, according to her website description, still petite.
“I have the same hair color,” Donnay said. “And I haven’t shrunk yet.”
She also hasn’t had to revert back to any of those former jobs, a list that includes house painter and singing telegrams in a gorilla outfit. A pink gorilla outfit at that, driving around with the suit in her trunk.
“I had a hat, a belt, a cane, and an English accent,” Donnay said. “People thought I was a guy in the outfit.”
Donnay loved to stroll into an elevator and proclaim, “It’s a jungle out there.”
That hairy gig ended when the boss didn’t pay her.
“So I quit and kept the gorilla suit,” Donnay said. “I held it hostage. I wish I still had the outfit. I could be getting zoo gigs.”
Actually, Donnay’s doing quite well, fronting the Prohibition Mob Band — set to perform at the Empress Theatre in Vallejo on Sunday, Aug. 7, on behalf of the Vallejo Jazz Society.
It doesn’t take much imagination for Donnay to go back in time to the 1920s and ’30s, with the sounds of Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith.
“As a kid, I imagined being in that era,” Donnay said. “I loved the music and was constantly listening to it. I thought I was from a different time. I still feel the same.”
In high school, Donnay was a musical outcast.
“A lot of my friends listened to really heavy metal,” she said. “I listened to much more R&B, blues and jazz. I was not interested in the bands that would come out screaming. When I’d go to events with friends, I’d either leave or sit in the back. My ears would hurt. I tended to like really more intimate music.”
That would be acoustic guitar, which Donnay eventually played.
“The music I would listen to was very acoustic and very much jazz,” she said. “I loved Brazilian jazz and still do.”
Donnay also knew from the start she wanted to write songs, having attended workshops, looking at the “experts” on stage and thinking, “I want to be up there. I can help other artists.”
Donnay always had business savvy, becoming one of the first Bay Area artists with her own website.
“And I think I was one of the first musicians on Facebook,” she said.
Much of Donnay’s contemporary influence came from the late Dan Hicks, “who shared an incredible love of jazz.”
“He was very encouraging,” Donnay said.
The Prohibition Era music always grabbed her heart, she said.
“There’s something about that particular era of music that made me feel happy,” she said. “Studying audiences, people love the history of the era and the artists. They recognize the music even if they never heard it before.”
Born in Washington, D.C., Donnay was raised on the East Coast, having run away from home at 15.
“At 16, I left for good and was already playing guitar in a band,” she said.
Donnay was drawn to “the African-American roots of the music. It became much more significant to me as a musician.”
Though the actual Prohibition ran 1920-1933, the Mob Band includes music up to 1939, said Donnay.
“That was our cut-off point for the music we were doing,” she said.
As much as the music is the thing, period dress is not only vital, “it’s optional,” giggled Donnay.
“I’m kidding. It’s very important,” she said. “The guys absolutely dress like ’30s mobsters.”
Though most of the Prohibition Mob Band’s gigs are in the Bay Area, Donnay said she welcomes a tour.
“I always liked being on the road,” she said. “I love to travel. I like to wake up in the morning in a strange town.”
Roberta Donnay and the Prohibition Mob Band play the Empress Theatre, 330 Virginia St., Vallejo., on Sunday, Aug. 7, 5 p.m. Admission $15 or $10 for Vallejo Jazz Society members. For information, visit empresstheatre.org. or robertadonay.com.
July 22, 2016 Vallejo Times Herald - No prohibiting fun for Mob Band at the Empress