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POP MUSIC

A Legend Unsung

Mickey Champion's singing has scorched blues clubs for 50 years, but fame remains elusive.

July 19, 1998|Danny Feingold | Danny Feingold is a freelance writer in Los Angeles

Her audience had just rolled off a tour bus and into Babe's and Ricky's Inn, the Leimert Park blues club. But Mickey Champion didn't waste any time in getting to know them.

Decked out in an orange-beige top with gold-colored buttons and cowboy frills, pants cut above the knees and a Southern-belle straw hat, the short, amply-proportioned singer wriggled her shoulders suggestively and raised her left hand into the air while belting out the ribald lyrics to "Dr. Feelgood."

Moving through the room, she singled out two men and put her left leg on their table as they smiled guilty smiles. A few minutes later, she pierced the air with the opening lyrics to the ballad "Since I Fell for You," her powerful, throaty voice socking the crowd right in the gut.

For some 50 years, this vital link to L.A.'s rich musical history has been burning up nightclubs with a flammable brand of no-holds-barred blues vocals. In a career that has stretched from the heyday of L.A.'s fabled Central Avenue music scene to the current resurgence of roots music, she has shared the stage with Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington and Sarah Vaughan and influenced such figures as Linda Hopkins and Barbara Morrison. She is regarded by her peers as one of the supreme talents of her time, a performer whose ability and longevity have conferred upon her legendary status.

"She's one of the greatest singers out there," says saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, an R&B star who used to jam with Champion back in the '40s and '50s.

But Champion's is a legend that has remained mostly in the shadows. Her voice is not heard on the airwaves, nor does her name appear in books that chronicle the history of L.A.'s seminal black music scene of the '40s and '50s. It is only in the last two years that she has become known to local blues fans outside of South-Central.

Thanks to her endurance, the 70-ish Champion (who declines to give her age) is now attracting the attention of a wider audience. She has appeared at such twentysomething venues as Three of Clubs and Spaceland as well as tony establishments like Lunaria and Farfalla on La Brea. Her life is the subject of an upcoming documentary titled "Champion Blues," and a faithful core of supporters is working to gain her broader exposure.

All of which may, in Champion's eyes, be beside the point.

"I never stopped singing," she says. "And so I'm still singing. I just sing, and put it in the Lord's hands, whatever way he sees fit for it to happen. I'm different from a whole lot of people."

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Born in Lake Charles, La., the former Mildred Sallier was performing with a vocal trio in high school, and was already good enough to turn the head of renowned bandleader Louis Jordan.

"He was down there playing in Lake Charles," recalls Champion, who still speaks in the warm, sinewy inflections of her native state. "So I did a little song with him, and then they came by the house and they wanted to take me along with them. But honey, there was no way my auntie and uncle were going to let me go out there like that."

Despite her early exploits, Champion never intended to go into show business. But soon after moving out to L.A. with her new husband in the mid-'40s, she found herself singing in a club called Jack's Basket Room on Central Avenue.

The 17-year-old Champion had landed right in the heart of a musical hothouse the likes of which have not been seen before or since in L.A. Many of the world's greatest jazz, blues, and R&B figures were nurtured in the clubs of Central Avenue, which also attracted Duke Ellington, Count Basie and every other leading black artist from around the country.

For a young performer, it was like having the run of a musical candy store. "I'd just go up on Central and look at the other singers. Billie Holiday, Jimmy Witherspoon, T-Bone Walker--you name 'em, every last one of 'em, I would go up there and hear them."

Champion herself quickly gained a reputation as an exceptional live performer who could bring down the house--without the aid of amplification. "She was a hot ticket then," says Linda Hopkins, who first saw Champion in the Bay Area in the late '40s. "She was a great singer and a great entertainer. . . . I had never seen someone in a nightclub without a mike."

Champion toured widely, sharing the bill with everyone from Holiday in Detroit to Vaughan in Kansas City. She was the first vocalist to travel with Percy Mayfield after he recorded the hit "Please Send Me Someone to Love," and eventually joined Roy Milton, a top bandleader whose 1945 recording of "R.M. Blues" had helped usher in the R&B era. In the '50s, she recorded with several small labels, and in 1957 she sang four cuts on a Holiday album.

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