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Sunday, July 14, 2024


Feb. 26, 2002 – Some say you can't sing the blues 'til you've paid your dues. Deborah Coleman has, and she does, but she doesn't sing all that much about how tough life is. On one cut of her next-to-current CD, "Soft Place to Fall," she sings about something that Virgin Islanders have long known: "What goes around comes around."
That, in fact, is the title of the song, one of three on the album that she wrote. The gently self-deprecating lyrics include the line "I lost the cake, and the cookies, too, when everything crumbled away." When's the last time you came up against an image like that this side of "MacArthur Park"?
In the blues world these days, though, Deborah Coleman has her cake and her cookies and then some. She's just been nominated — for the sixth straight year — for a W.C. Handy Award, the "Grammy" of blues music. "I'm beginning to feel like the Erica Kane of the blues," she says with a chuckle, referring to Susan Lucci's 19 Emmy nominations before she finally won the Best Actress award for her role on "All My Children."
But Coleman quickly adds, "I won the Orville Gibson Award." That one, last year, presented by the Gibson Guitar people, was for Best Blues Guitarist, Female.
Which brings up an important point: Don't call Deborah Coleman "a blues singer." The lady plays a mean guitar, and that's in no small part what got her where she is today. She does sing lead vocals in her band, the Thrillseekers — but it's something she never did until she went into the studio to record her first demo CD. Her voice, mostly low in register, ranges from gritty growl to husky smile to a sweetness that's both smoked and honey-cured.
Her third personna is that of blues songwriter — and she's making "a conscious effort" to write more and more of her own material. "I'd like to do an album that's all my own songs," she says.
On her most recent CD, last year's "Livin' on Love," six of the 11 cuts are her own.
There's "You're With Me," a little ballad with a beat and the line "If I knew a way to be in two places at once, I would stay right by your side." And "Crazy," an upbeat assessment of two people in love who can't agree on anything but "maybe" — but since it's love, that's enough. And "Torn in Two," with the refrain "I guess Cupid's met Stupid, 'cause my heart feels torn in two." "Deserted Highway," the album's final track, with its images of sundown, darkness, gathering clouds and rain is enough to make anybody "feel like cryin'." The song, she says, "reflected trying times" in her own life. But, she adds, "I've recovered."
Coleman doesn't see her songs, tender or tough, as having a particularly female point of view. "I try to be non-gender-specific," she says. But then she blows that conceit, saying they reflect her personal feelings "pretty much totally. Most are true-life experiences. I'm a hopeless romantic — well I used to be."
In her title song of the 2000 album, she sings, "I'm caught up in a whirlwind life … I hang on, and when I'm feelin' off the wall, I find a soft place to fall." Her other original song on the CD, "Another Hoping Fool," is quintessential Lady Sings the Bluez.
Born in Virginia (where she now lives once again), Coleman grew up in a military family full of musicians and started playing guitar at the age of 8. Her dad played piano and her two brothers and sister took up the guitar, too. Her family moved around a lot, and while they lived in Waukegan, Illinois, she would "hop on the train and sneak to concerts at the Chicago Amphitheater, like Santana, Grand Funk Railroad and Billy Preston."
At 15, she started playing with rhythm 'n' blues and rock bands, initially on bass, then, inspired by Jimi Hendrix, switching to lead guitar. It was attending a concert featuring Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker all on the same bill when she was 21 that "started me on a path to my roots," she recalls.
There were some detours. At 25 she got married and then put her career on hold to concentrate on motherhood. She pursued daytime careers as a nurse and a licensed electrician and, from the time her daughter, Misao, was 7, took on the responsibilities of single mom. Then, in 1993, after reading about the Charleston Blues Festival's National Amateur Talent Search, she enlisted her brother and a pal — a couple of heavy metal musicians — to form a band.
"We rehearsed for a week, and I taught them tunes," she says. Not only did she win the competition, "Coleman ruled, delivering a bone-rattling set to a capacity audience that almost shut down the contest with their demand that she perform repeated encores," the festival artistic director later recalled.
And, she did her daughter proud. Misao, than 14 or 15, "would say to me, 'Mom, why are you home? You should be out there plucking those strings.'" she relates.
One of her prizes was free studio time, and she used it to pull a real band together and record the demo that led to a record deal with a North Carolina label that released her first CD, "Takin' a Stand." Next came her first nationally released album, "I Can't Lose," which climbed to No. 3 on the Living Blues radio charts and prompted one reviewer to write that her "fire-on-the-fretboard flamboyance reflects an artistic maturity that would be notable in a seasoned veteran."
Coleman has become a favorite at blues festivals and, as Billboard magazine put it, "very effectively stole the scene" at the W.C. Handy Awards show and the Handy Blues Festival in 1999. She made waves again the next year in the "Tribute to Muddy Waters" at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
She has traveled to the Virgin Islands twice before to perform — at the St. Croix Blues Festivals in 1998 and 1999 and on St. Thomas at The Old Mill during the same 1999 visit.
For this tour, she will be performing with her band, the Thrillseekers, whose membership also includes Billy Crawford on second guitar, Debra "Nardi" Salyer on bass and background vocals, and Jason Paul on drums. She's been playing with Crawford for four years and with Salyer for two; both recorded with her on "Livin' on Love," and Crawford also was featured on several cuts of "Soft Place to Fall." Paul, who is 21, is making his third tour with the band. "He's my nephew," Coleman confesses, "but he's also a wonderful drummer."
Concert information
Deborah Coleman and the Thrillseekers will perform at 8 p.m. Thursday in the Marketplace third-floor theater in Cruz Bay, presented by the St. John School of the Arts. Tickets are $25 for general admission and $20 for students. They're being sold at Connections and will be available at the door. Reservations are not taken by phone. For details, call 779-4322 or 776-6777.
There also will be performances Friday on St. Thomas at Tillett Gardens and Saturday in Christiansted. For details, see the "Things to Do" sections of St. Thomas Source and St. Croix Source.

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