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VALLEY WEEKEND | SOUNDS

Master Put Her on the Straight and Narrow

Renowned blues man Eddie 'Cleanhead' Vinson said, 'Get hip, get wise.' Barbara Morrison did both and more.

May 09, 1996|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Barbara Morrison's primary education in singing--and other related aspects of show business--came from the Eddie "Cleanhead" Vinson School of Tough Love.

Vinson, a renowned jazz and blues saxophonist, singer and composer known for such tunes as "Cherry Red" and "Four," laid down the law when Morrison appeared with him in the mid-'70s at the Rubiyat--a midtown Los Angeles joint that Morrison laughingly calls "the Bucket of Blood, because there were always fights."

"For three years, he pushed me around," Morrison says with obvious affection. "He'd tell me, 'Get hip, get wise. Don't be drinking that alcohol. You ain't that cute, those guys just want to go to bed with you. Stop trying to copy off everybody. Go learn your own style. Go listen to some horn players. What you're singing, that ain't nothin'. You don't know nothin' about the blues 'cause you ain't lived long enough.' "

But it's clear that she did know something. After all, Vinson had picked Morrison--then in her early 20s--over 20 other singers at an audition. Her trump card was a slow version of "Teach Me Tonight" that, she says, "put my finger in his eye." "I'd start to sing it, and he'd get off his stool and he'd hold my hand and he'd sing it with me," she recalls fondly. "I knew I had him then."

Morrison has had a similar convivial effect on several top-flight bandleaders, among them: Johnny Otis, with whom she worked for 20 years, and Ray Charles, for whom she will open in Europe this summer, as she did last year. Tuesday, she appears with drummer Frank Capp and his Juggernaut big band at the Moonlight Tango Cafe in Sherman Oaks.

*

The singer used her guile to land a spot with the Juggernaut. In 1987, hoping she might be able to sit in, she produced a show with the band, then co-led by the late Nat Pierce, at Cafe Lido in Newport Beach.

She had colleague Bill Liston write an arrangement of a blues song, "Never Make Your Move Too Soon." Then she got in Capp's good graces by paying the band before the job started. He let her sing. "We screamed that song and they hired me that night," she says, laughing. "My plan worked like a charm."

*

At the Moonlight, the Romulus, Mich., native will probably do "Make Your Move," along with "Old Black Magic," "Tenderly," "Use Me" and, of course, some blues. It's always a thrill to work with the Juggernaut, she says, because "Frank has chops for real. He's a great drummer." She also relishes the band's regular tenor players, Rickey Woodard and Pete Christlieb.

Ultimately, Morrison, whose latest album is "I Know How to Do It" on Blue Lady Records, calls singing good therapy. She tells of a "rough year," 1983, when her mother, father and grandmother died.

"Guess what? I never missed a day of work," she says. "If I hadn't had singing, I would have lost my mind. It's just a lifesaver. I found something I like, that I never get tired of."

* Barbara Morrison sings with Frank Capp's Juggernaut at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Moonlight Tango Cafe, 13730 Ventura Blvd., Sherman Oaks. $13 cover for the 7:30 p.m. show, $9 cover for the 9:30 show, $9.95 food or drink minimum. Call (818) 788-2000.

Piano in the Background: Everybody who plays jazz loves to solo, because improvising is at the heart of the music. "That's the ultimate expression of your voice," says fine modern mainstream pianist Dave Ferris.

But Ferris, who leads his acoustic quartet tonight at Jax, also has a yen for comping, offering the chords and melodies that back up soloists and spur them on. "Comping is one of the forgotten arts of jazz," says Ferris, whose debut release is "The Quiet One" on Nine Winds Records. "I try to complement the soloist, try and push him or her, give ideas for new directions to go in, lift the music to a higher energy level, make it more open."

At Jax, Ferris will work with a solid crew of Rob Lockart (tenor sax), Darek Oles (bass) and Kendell Kay (drums). The band will play a mixture of originals and classic standards.

* Dave Ferris appears 9 p.m.-1:30 a.m. tonight at Jax, 339 N. Brand Blvd., Glendale. No cover, no minimum. Call (818) 500-1604.

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