MOUNT VERNON — One song. That’s all blues singer Shirley King had time to perform at Sips Coffee House downtown Friday night as a warm-up to her gig a block away at Flappers. But it was enough.
In one song, the singer, who is the daughter of blues legend B.B. King, turned a warm but reserved crowd into a singing, shouting, clapping mob. When she finished, it took her five minutes to make it from one end of the café to the other as she paused for autographs, pictures and chats with the appreciative crowd, which was gathered to enjoy After Hours, Jim Frady’s jazz band, which was featuring guest vocalists.
King was a special guest brought in Paul Vineyard of Newark. Vineyard first met King at a blues festival in Marietta eight or nine years ago. They hit it off, and have often worked together since then. Friday’s visit was a lucky fluke for Mount Vernon, coming about because of the rescheduling of another gig, which suddenly left King with an open Friday night. Calls were made Monday and confirmed Wednesday for the Friday appearance.
But the vagaries of life on the road are nothing new for King.
“Two years old, I was sitting on the stage, dangling my legs, waiting on my dad to finish and say ‘hi’ in back,” King said with a laugh, “and I’m now 59 years old, still sitting on the stage, dangling my legs, waiting to say ‘hi’ in back. Nothing has changed for 57 years.”
Her laughter is infectious.
Asked if she was ever jealous of her father’s famous guitar, “Lucille,” King said absolutely not.
“Actually, I loved Lucille just as much as anyone, because she paid all the bills,” King said, with a comic timing similar to the acute sense of rhythm that makes her sway and move whenever she hears music. But for all the power of music, the singer’s live shows and recordings show the explosive power of an all-round entertainer, something which comes from her years as a “stage baby.” King said she watched a lot of people on stage with her father, such as James Brown, Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke. From all of them, she learned that there’s more to being an entertainer than just being a singer or musician.
When King grew up, she studied acting and dancing as well as singing, giving her the skills to be a crowd-working comedian in between musical numbers, and a dynamic, physical singer during each song. Although she danced professionally for over 20 years, she eventually took up singing professionally, developing gifts first nourished by singing gospel music at church in her childhood. She now sits at the intersection of various styles: Blues, R&B, soul, funk and more, allowing a wide range of people to find something to love in her irrepressible style.
King is working on a new album called “Perfect Opportunity,” which will expand her range further to include elements of hip hop and country and western. She feels she needs to make those attempts to reach out to other styles in order to catch the ears of young listeners who don’t even get a chance to hear the blues. At Sips, she pulled two youngsters — 10-year-old Megan and 7-year-old Leslie Bell — out of the crowd to be her backup singers, giving them quick lessons on how to be “The Supremes.”
“A lot of young people never get to hear the blues or even know who my dad is,” King said. “Our music isn’t even played on the radio or exposed to the young people.”
With the ensuing performance of “Wang Dang Doodle,” King made sure the children got an unforgettably vibrant dose of the style that is the foundation of modern American popular music. To bring that music to students all across the country, King donates her time, visiting schools and performing at assemblies.
After all, all it takes is one song.