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If I had to describe Nora Jean Wallace in one word, that would be an easy task: Nora Jean is all about love. When asked why she sings the blues, she used the word love three times … in two sentences! “I love to share the love God put in me … I love to express my story in [the] songs of my life.” And when asked why she recorded Good Blues, her new CD, there was that word again: “I put in my songs what is inside of me: love.”
And while Nora Jean made it easy for me to sum her up in one word, I’m grateful that I get to use a few more of them here to share her fascinating life story with you. Once you walk the path she’s traveled in this world, you’ll know exactly where her blues come from, not to mention all that love.
You could say that Nora Jean Wallace was born to sing the blues. The seventh child of a Mississippi sharecropper, she grew up in the Delta with her 15 brothers and sisters on the 11,000-acre Equen Plantation, located halfway between Clarksdale and Greenwood, the town where she was born.
Working the merciless cotton fields during the week with her family, Nora Jean looked forward to Friday and Saturday nights, when a different kind of picking prevailed. Her grandmother owned the local juke joint, and her father, Bobby Lee Wallace, and her uncle, Henry “Son” Wallace, both accomplished blues performers, would gather their families there for some much needed, soul-stirring music therapy every weekend. Once the kids were put to bed for the night, how the good times would roll! And while the adults in the family were thus enjoying their well-earned down time, Nora and her siblings were secretly doing the same, sneaking out of bed to peek through the keyhole and eavesdrop on the grownups and the night’s entertainment. “Down to Miss Mae’s Juke Joint,” written and recorded for her second CD, Going Back to Mississippi, is Nora’s loving tribute to that special place and time in her life.
In addition to the blues classics of Howlin’ Wolf that she overheard through that keyhole, Nora Jean was also exposed to the best of gospel music as her mother, Ida Lee Wallace, serenaded the family with the songs of Mahalia Jackson, The Staples Singers, The Dixie Hummingbirds, Albertina Walker, Shirley Caesar, and The Mighty Clouds of Joy.
With so much music in her life, it was almost inevitable that Nora Jean would find her own voice in the family. She says that the first song she ever sang was “Howlin’ for My Darling”; she was four or five years old at the time. A fast learner, she turned professional at the age of six! It seems that one of her eleven brothers bragged to two of his friends that his sister could really sing. To prove his point, he brought them into her room for an impromptu jam. Nora tore it up with some Howlin’ Wolf she had heard during her father’s performances down at Miss Mae’s, and each of the boys gave her a nickel. Voila! Her first paying gig!
Despite that early success, it wasn’t until Nora Jean won a local high school talent competition that she really began to believe in the possibility of a professional singing career. By this time, her early education in the classic blues of Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Big Mama Thornton, John Lee Hooker, and Robert Johnson was being supplemented by the soul artists she was hearing on the radio: James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Gladys Knight, and Ray Charles all contributed new flavors to Nora Jean’s simmering musical gumbo.
But like so many other blues musicians before her, Nora did not actually get her professional start in music until she left the deep South and headed to the West Side of Chicago, the blues capital of the world. There, one fateful night in 1976, after her Aunt Rose had heard her singing at home and brought her along to several clubs she was promoting at the time, Nora Jean sat in with Scottie and the Oasis at the Majestic. And just like that, her dream of a professional singing career became reality. She was invited to join the band and spent several years with them until Scottie’s unfortunate passing. During this time many local Chicago musicians, most notably Mary Lane and Joe Barr, encouraged Nora and taught her the fine points of her craft.
Nora's big break came in 1985, when Jimmy Dawkins saw her performing at a local Chicago club and hired her on the spot. For the next seven years, she toured the world and recorded with Jimmy and his band. During this period she appeared on two of Jimmy's CDs, Feel the Blues and Can't Shake These Blues, released her own self-penned single, "Untrue Lover," and worked on developing her budding songwriting skills.
While touring Europe, Canada, and the United States, Nora also refined her performing skills and acquired an international fan base. She appeared at many major festivals, including the King Biscuit Blues Festival in Helena, Arkansas, and was featured on the front page of the Chicago Tribune following her 1989 performance at the Chicago Blues Festival. In addition to her appearances with Jimmy Dawkins, Nora also sang occasionally with other major blues acts and remembers with special fondness her shows with Willie Kent and his band.
By 1991 Nora felt that the demands of life on the road were taking a toll on her family life, and she courageously walked away from her promising professional career to devote herself to raising her two sons. No longer singing the blues, Nora found musical release in her other early musical passion: a devout Christian, she sang gospel in church every week, praising God for the love He had put in her heart and thanking Him for the friendships that continued to bless her life.
Among those friendships were many of those she had made in the blues community. By the late 90s, through the support of these loyal friends, Nora was persuaded to make a limited return to performing, taking on local gigs to fulfill her undeniable love of the blues. She sang occasionally with Johnny Drummer at Lee’s Unleaded Blues and then formed her own band, Nora Jean and the Fellas. For the next few years they performed in local Chicago clubs, but Nora remained conflicted about returning full time to life in the fast lane of the blues highway. More than once she retreated from the music scene in frustration at having to begin her career again.
In 2001 a phone call from close friend Billy Flynn precipitated a series of events that would put an end to all doubts and bring Nora back to the blues for good. Billy asked Nora to sing lead and background vocals on four tracks for his new CD, Blues and Love. So moving was the experience of being in the studio and recording again that Nora realized once and for all that this was her gift, her passion, her destiny. And she committed to embracing that destiny: come fame or obscurity, wealth or poverty, she was born to be a blues singer, and sing the blues she would.
In 2002, reflecting her determination to start anew, Nora moved to La Porte, Indiana, where she found that the town’s most famous resident was none other than legendary blues piano player Pinetop Perkins, a member of the great Muddy Waters Band. (In 2008, recording under her married name at the time, Nora Jean Bruso, she would join Eric Clapton, B.B. King, and a host of other luminaries in the blues world for the recording of Pinetop’s penultimate recording, Pinetop Perkins and Friends. And a proud friend she was, indeed. Pinetop regularly joined Nora for her local shows at Buck’s Workingman’s Pub. La Porte will never see the likes of those shows again! RIP, Pinetop.)
Having relocated and recommitted to her career, Nora called on friend and mentor Jimmy Dawkins for advice. Jimmy’s response was to invite her to perform with him at the 2002 Chicago Blues Festival. Although she sang only two songs during that appearance, the Chicago Sun-Times called the songs “show-stopping” and proclaimed Nora “up-and-coming” in the blues world. That same year, the Black History Association in Chicago presented her a “Keeping the Blues Alive” citation for her comeback. After eleven years out of the spotlight, Nora Jean was once again taking her rightful place center stage.
In October of 2002, Nora entered the recording studio of her old friend Jerry Soto with the same band that had backed her just four months earlier at the Chicago Blues Festival. Only three lineup changes were made: Nora added an old friend, the legendary Willie Kent, on bass; a regular member of her own band, Brian Lupo, on guitar; and (in the absence of Jimmy Dawkins, who had undergone emergency arm surgery) James Wheeler, also on guitar. Released in 2003, the resulting CD, Nora Jean Bruso Sings the Blues, was awarded a rare and coveted five-star rating from Big City Blues and received critical acclaim from radio programmers throughout North America, appearing on the Living Blues charts and XM Radio play lists for many months.
2003 proved to be a breakthrough year for Nora. On the strength of her debut CD, she made a triumphal return to the stage at the Chicago Blues Festival and did a summer tour of Europe. By the end of the year, she had the pleasure of seeing her CD on everyone’s list of top blues CDs of the year.
In 2004 her industry peers endorsed her success by nominating Nora for two W. C. Handy Awards: one for Best New Artist and one for Best Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year. And the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry named her one of the ten great women in Chicago blues, saying, “There is talk of Nora Jean as the next Queen of the Blues.”
The accolades and warm reception of her first CD were particularly gratifying to Nora Jean, who had poured her heart and soul into the recording, intending it as a loving tribute to her musical influences. The four Howlin’ Wolf songs on it were the first songs she ever heard her father sing and were recorded as a gesture of love and respect for him and for her mother. “Can’t Shake These Blues” was a nod to Jimmy Dawkins, and the Magic Sam numbers represented the raw West Side of Chicago sound that was as integral to her music as were her Mississippi roots. “Doin’ the Shout” acknowledged the influence of the one and only Boogie Man, Mr. John Lee Hooker; and the Etta James classic “I’d Rather Go Blind,” so powerfully covered by the magnificent Koko Taylor, afforded Nora the perfect opportunity to express her respect and gratitude to the great ladies of the blues who had paved the path she walks to this day. Nora rounded out the offering with several numbers she knew were fan favorites from her earlier performing days, as well as a reworked version of “Untrue Lover,” the first song she had ever written herself.
Nora had previously recorded “Untrue Lover” during her time in the 80s with Jimmy Dawkins. Revealing just how much her songwriting skills had progressed since those days, she was already sitting on fourteen new tunes for an anticipated follow-up to her brilliant debut CD. But the rigors of maintaining a hectic performance schedule while trying to produce and distribute a record proved overwhelming, so it came as great news that Maryland-based roots label Severn Records wanted to sign her to a multi-record deal.
Nora spent several months of 2004 in the Severn studios, recording Going Back to Mississippi, a gritty chronicle of her life growing up on the Equen Plantation; every lyric on the CD came straight from her heart. The “baby” she longed to return to in the title cut was the blues, and “What I Been Through” told you everything you needed to know and more about the woman’s spirit and determination.
Nora debuted several cuts from the album with her band on the main stage at the Chicago Blues Festival in June and at the Pocono Blues Festival in July. Upon its release in September, Going Back to Mississippi came out strong, debuting at number five on the Living Blues radio charts, and went all the way to number one on XM Radio.
In support of her sophomore effort, Nora spent most of 2005 on the festival circuit, relentlessly touring the U.S. and Canada; highlights included the Cape May Jazz and Pocono Blues festivals.
By 2006 circumstances in Nora Jean’s personal life once again threatened to derail her phenomenal comeback, but the blues would not be denied. Armed with unshakeable faith, she defiantly stared down the devil, never blinking once. Working two jobs while raising a grandchild and performing whenever and wherever she could, there were definitely times when she was not just singing the blues … she was living them. Yet every year between 2005 and 2009 Nora Jean was nominated for a Blues Music Award in the Traditional Blues Female Artist of the Year category. Praised by the likes of Koko Taylor, Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin and Debbie Davies and heralded as the next “Queen of the Blues” by Pocono Blues Director Michael Cloeren and Blues in Britain magazine, Nora Jean Wallace has earned her place in the blues world. Speaking of her first love, she says:
There’s that word again … in the world of Nora Jean Wallace, love and the blues go hand in hand. Get yourself out to see her soon, and you’ll see – and hear and feel – exactly what I’m talking about.