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2010 Blues Fest -- Right Place, Right Time: Kim Massie (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Tent Stage) PDF Print E-mail
Music - Mississippi Valley Blues Festival
Written by Karen McFarland   
Wednesday, 23 June 2010 05:53

Kim Massie

"You know the saying that you got to be in the right place at the right time?" singer Kim Massie asked in a recent phone interview. "It wasn't until I came to St. Louis where it was like, 'This is the place I'm supposed to be!' Everything started to happen. One thing led to another."

Kim Massie is not a household name, even in the context of the blues. She has become an institution in the great blues and jazz city of St. Louis over the past 10 years, twice winning the Riverfront Times' female-vocalist-of-the-year award, and she's the featured artist twice a week at the blues club Beale on Broadway. Yet she rarely performs outside of her hometown -- trips to Hungary, Seattle, San Francisco, Kansas City, and Washington, D.C., but no tours. St. Louis is a place like Chicago or New Orleans where blues musicians can find enough work that they don't have to leave.

Mike and Nanci Livermore of the Mississippi Valley Blues Society's Entertainment Committee "discovered" Massie in St. Louis and were so impressed with her show that they suggested the committee get her for the 2010 festival. The committee loved her powerful, soulful singing, which STLBlues.net described as "the voice of God with growling nuances of Etta James."

Although Kim lived in the St. Louis area until she was nine, she spent the next three decades in Lorain, Ohio, a town west of Cleveland. In both places she participated in gospel and school choirs. "I've been singing since I was two years old, and always loved music," she recalled. "I started singing in church like a lot of black entertainers. But I had such a passion for the music it went farther than just gospel music."

She was a single mother of three in the '80s and hit the karaoke circuit, winning a state and a national competition by the mid-'90s. But she was never able to make a living from her music. "Cleveland had its own things going on," she said, "but I don't think that was the right place for me. Lorain is 25 minutes west of Cleveland. I lived there for 33 years, and nothing ever seemed to actually work out there. When I moved back here to St. Louis [in 1999] -- when I moved back to this area to live with my mom -- that's when things really started happening for me musically speaking."

A friend heard Kim singing karaoke and suggested she go to a certain club, and the people there told her to go to BB's Jazz, Blues, & Soups, a club near the Soulard district famous for its blues. That's where Kim met Oliver Sain, the Mississippi-born saxophonist and bandleader who came to St. Louis in 1959 and never left.

"Oliver Sain asked me to sit in and sing a song or two with his band, and I met all the musicians. It just kinda snowballed, where someone told me go sit in with this band or go sing over there. And I was just amazed at how close-knit the whole family was in St. Louis to let me come in and be a part of this. In St. Louis people come into town on business, and of course they want to hear some blues. Even the hotel people and the food-service people were telling them to come see me!"

One of the people who heard Kim singing with Oliver Sain in 1999 was Bud Jostes. He opened Beale on Broadway in 2000 at the same intersection as BB's and asked Massie to play there one night a week. Now she performs twice a week, finally making a living from her singing. "He's very supportive of me, very protective of me, treats me very well," Kim said of Jostes. "I don't stay anyplace that I'm not treated well. And he has enabled me to do whatever I want to musically speaking." While her specialties are blues, gospel, and R&B, Kim also sings some pop, rock, and country tunes, depending on her audience.

Kim has a regular backup band that gives her the freedom to switch gears musically. They're called the Solid Senders, named by Jostes. "I never have a song list on stage -- you will never see that," Kim said. "I have a song list like a reference list, because we've done so many songs I can hardly keep up with it. During the course of an evening I will be asked to do the whole gamut of different genres of music. So over the years I've gone through my share of musicians to where the group I have now is absolutely perfect for what I do. I have keyboard, bass, drums, guitar, and saxophone. We know enough music to keep our audience happy."

Make no mistake, most of the genres Massie plays are blues-related. In 2003, Kim was one of seven lead singers in a St. Louis production of the musical showcase It Ain't Nothin' but the Blues -- giving the history of the blues through song -- and the next year she joined the Kansas City cast. The experience gave Massie a new appreciation for the blues: "It was so exciting to be a part of telling the story of where blues came from. That's something that the young folks need to learn about.

"The executive director ... , he heard me at the Beale in 2002. A production was coming through and he needed one more singer; I was the one he contacted. ... We did songs from Ray Charles and Howlin' Wolf, and the list goes on and on." There are actually more than 40 songs in the production., from field hollers and spirituals to the electrified blues of the postwar era.

Yet one of Kim's fondest memories is of a different stripe: singing with Cyndi Lauper. "In 2007 on the Fourth of July I opened for her," Massie said. "Well, she heard me singing and asked me if I would sing with her. We had a quick rehearsal, and I sang some of her number-one songs like 'Girls Just Want to Have Fun.' We did 'Time After Time' and we actually sang 'At Last' -- we did that together. It was a lotta fun!"

Of course, "At Last" is a song made famous by Etta James. But Kim is particularly fond of the Queen of Soul. "My favorites are Aretha Franklin's 'Drown in My Own Tears' -- that's a song I found out was originally done by Ray Charles, but I first heard Aretha sing it -- as well as 'Chain of Fools.'" Kim has a live CD that's a tribute to Aretha, in addition to a live jazz album, her latest (A Lady by Choice) that features blues-related fare, and an upcoming gospel CD titled Inspired.

But despite citing Aretha and Ray Charles -- soul artists coming from a gospel tradition -- as her major influences, the blues played a key role in Massie's development. "I remember as a young child my father playing Bobby 'Blue' Bland records and B.B. King," Kim said. "I've heard those songs over the years and they always stuck with me. I've sung those songs for so many years, and now as an adult I get to honor those people that have enabled me to make a living singing. It's just awesome!"

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