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Webster: A Career Revitalized

March 07, 1986|DON SNOWDEN

In 1964, the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles, La., booked soul great Otis Redding.

The crowd at one of the shows, recognizing a potential good thing, clamored for the club's resident singer-pianist Katie Webster to sit in with Redding's backing musicians.

"The band kicked the song off in the wrong key and I told them that unless they could play it right, they could put their instruments down and I'd play by myself," said Webster, 47.

"They finally got the right key and I sang two songs. Otis came out of the dressing room in his underwear in this jam-packed club and screamed, 'Do not let that woman get off the stage! I must talk to her tonight!' "

Webster spent most of the next three years on the road with Redding's band, leaving just before the plane crash that killed the singer and his musicians in 1967.

It was one highlight of a lively and circuitous career that began when she was 13 and that has recently been revitalized. She appears at McCabe's tonight.

Besides her stint with Redding, Webster is perhaps best known for her session work in the '50s and '60s on records by Louisiana swamp bluesmen like Slim Harpo and Lightning Slim. Her biggest hit as a studio musician was Harpo's 1966 single "Baby, Scratch My Back."

Just a few years ago, Webster began winning public acclaim with solo performances featuring healthy shots of boogie-woogie piano.

"My audiences love to hear boogie-woogie and when you're playing with a band, it covers that up," she said during a recent phone interview from her home in Oakland. "Playing solo is not really a challenge to me because I played gospel music in church without a drummer when I was a very young girl."

Webster began playing piano at 7, but her minister father and missionary mother forbade her to play anything but gospel and classical music at home in eastern Texas.

She sneaked off to friends' houses to experiment with other styles, and exposure to the boogie-woogie trinity of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons and Meade Lux Lewis had a lasting impact.

"I was more interested in Fats Domino, Little Richard and Sam Cooke until I started listening to radio station WLAC in Nashville," Webster said.

"They used to play 'Swanee River Boogie' by Albert Ammons all the time. I liked the left hand and the movement in the music so I started adding boogie-woogie into my repertoire."

Webster already was working professionally at 13 when bandleader Ashton Savoy worked out an arrangement with Webster's family that allowed her to play around the Lake Charles, La., area while she completed high school. There she caught the eye of Eddie Shuler of Goldband Records. By the time she was 18, she said, she had played on 500 records.

She worked steadily in clubs in the Lake Charles area through the early '60s and also began doing sessions for producer J. D. Miller's Excello label. She moved to Oakland to care for her ailing parents in 1974.

Webster's recording career was resurrected in the late '70s when Shuler issued two albums on Goldband. She now has released seven albums on small European and American labels.

European audiences particularly have been taken by her pumping boogie-woogie piano and songs that often feature sharp-tongued monologues about everyday life. Webster first performed in Europe in 1982 and returns next month for her 16th tour there.

But recognition is growing at home, too. Webster just won the Performer of the Year Award from the Bay Area Women in Music group, and played on recent albums by guitarist Mason Ruffner and San Diego's Paladins.

Webster has discovered another avenue for spreading her boogie-woogie message: She has conducted a number of seminars and workshops at colleges and secondary schools in Europe and the Pacific Northwest.

"I went into some of the elementary schools where they had the little children in the second, third, and fourth grades," she said. "When I'd say I was going to play some boogie-woogie, they'd just laugh and clap their little hands, but some of them would come up to the piano and want to know how I played it. It made me feel real good because they were so interested."

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