Linda Tillery: “I have always believed that if you use the phrase African-American, the African part needs to be fully represented”

Let us now praise soulful women. Linda Tillery and Faye Carol aren’t merely charismatic singers with an encyclopedic command of African American musical idioms. They’re activists who have devoted their lives to tending the roots so that rising generations can draw spiritual sustenance from that same gloriously rich culture.

On Tuesday, a glittering cast gathers at Freight & Salvage to raise funds for Tillery, who’s facing medical bills and down-time after knee replacement surgery. The program features Tuck and Patti, trombone wizard Wayne Wallace’s Quintet, pianist/composer Rebeca Mauleon, body music innovator Keith Terry, guitarist Ray Obiedo and Caribe (which features members of Santana), and vocalists Molly Holm and Faye Carol.

“I think Linda is a warrior princess,” says Carol, a longtime Berkeleyan who is also presenting a concert at the underutilized Black Repertory Group Theatre on Sunday to raise awareness and funds for her afterschool program Music In the Community (MITC), which she’s operated on shoestring for the past decade.

A San Francisco native, Tillery first gained attention as a teenager in 1967 when she joined the Loading Zone, a rock ‘n’ rhythm combo that landed some plumb gigs as a regular part of Bill Graham’s retinue, like opening for The Who at the Fillmore on the band’s first American tour.
The repertoire consisted mostly of R&B covers, but the group mixed it up with some distortion, psychedelia and jazz. Tillery joined the group after the band’s founder, organist/vocalist Paul Fauerso, put an ad in the San Francisco Chronicle seeking a new lead vocalist. At least half a dozen singers came by the band’s West Oakland Victorian to audition, but Tillery got the job almost before singing a note. She had called up beforehand and made sure she fit the bill.

“She said, I’m kind of big, like a Big Mama Thornton, and I play harmonica,” Fauerso recalled in an interview before a 2008 reunion (sans Tillery). “She walked through the door in a post office uniform, with little white cat-eyes glasses, and I said, that’s our girl. She just looked right. We evolved as a dance band with a fusion of R&B and rock, and we ended up as a psychedelic soul band once we added Linda. She was singing for us by the time we opened for Cream at Winterland. Her mother made her a floor-length ruffled red leather cape. It was very dramatic.”

A leading figure in the women’s music movement in the 70s, Tillery played on and produced numerous albums for Olivia Records. And as a studio musician, she sang on more than 50 recordings, including albums by Santana, Boz Scaggs, Sheila E, John Santos, and the Turtle Island String Quartet. But in recent decades her main creative outlet has been the Cultural Heritage Choir, an a cappella ensemble she founded in 1992 after seeing a PBS documentary featuring Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing Negro spirituals.

Tillery was so struck by the music’s power and the memories the songs summoned that she decided to start an annual spirituals concert in Oakland, which evolved into the CHC. A self-taught musicologist, Tillery had been researching African-American music for years, and the choir gave her a vehicle with which to bring all the various threads together. Field shouts, work songs and blues, spirituals, R&B and jazz all ended up in the mix.

Besides its vast, historically informed repertoire, what sets the CHC apart from other vocal groups is that each member is also a skilled percussionist. Playing shakers and chekeres, tambourine and hand drums, the singers create syncopated textures as intricate as their five part vocal arrangements.

“Since my background is also as a percussionist, I wanted to weave that aspect into the group sound because I recognized early on that the group had an incredible capacity for grooving,” Tillery said. “I have always believed that if you use the phrase African-American, the African part needs to be fully represented.”

Faye Carol: “I think I’m the female Ray Charles"

Faye Carol brings similar depth to her music. Over the decades, she’s seen musical styles come and go, and she’s never been above taking from the best and incorporating new songs and grooves into her repertoire. But the extravagantly gifted vocalist is rooted so deeply in the bedrock of African-American music that there’s never any doubt about where she’s coming from.

Borrowing a line from the late, lamented Betty Carter, she’s billing her Sunday concert as Jazz Ain’t Nothing But Soul, presenting a program tailored for father’s day featuring songs associated with Sam Cooke, Etta James, Johnny Taylor, Sarah Vaughan, Stevie Wonder, and many other luminaries. She’s joined by a stellar band including Berkeley-raised saxophonist Howard Wiley, bassist Marcus Shelby, drummer Geechi Taylor, and pianist Marco Casasola.

“I think I’m the female Ray Charles,” Carol says with a laugh. “All the different facets fascinate me. I never just sing happy-go-lucky songs. It’s always the breadth of life, the happy, the sad, the sarcastic and the sensual. I think the Black Rep is a lovely theatre and I want people to start to know more about Music In the Community, my afterschool program. We’re so under funded, this is partially a benefit to keep it going.”

Sometimes it seems like Carol has mentored half the young (and not so young) players on the scene. She first started teaching in the late 1980s at Jazz Camp West, but in recent years she’s focused on MITC. While the California Arts Council initially funded the program, for the past five years or so she’s kept the program going through her own sweat and determination. With arts education but a memory in many East Bay schools, Carol provides a desperately needed service. As she sees it, her mission is to help introduce youngsters to their own culture.

“Just for them to have pride,” she says. “They don’t know anything about their culture. You can’t feel the pride if you don’t know about it. The disconnect is mainly because they’ve never exposed. The media has taught them that you shouldn’t listen to older people. We know about the fatherless situation. We know about the how the funding is for the public schools. But I can’t worry about what the state is doing. Somebody has to step up and say, these are our kids.”

Weaned on gospel in the Deep South, Carol came of age musically in the mid-60s performing on the thriving East Bay blues scene. As effective interpreting standards associated with Billie Holiday and Mabel Mercer as she is belting the blues of Bessie Smith and B.B. King, Carol infuses whatever she sings with the consoling, celebratory air that pervades the blues, music created to make hard times bearable.

Born in Meridian, Miss., Carol moved to the East Bay town of Pittsburg as a child and her love of singing was unleashed in the youth choir of Solomon Temple Missionary Baptist Church. By the time she graduated high school she was established on the Black Diamond mainstem, Pittsburg’s hopping strip of blues and jazz clubs catering to Camp Stoneman-stationed soldiers looking to party.

“I don’t have no story to cry about”

“I grew up in an ideal kind of situation,” Carol says. “I don’t have no story to cry about. Nobody abused me. My mother was as close to Betty Crocker as anyone could be. My sister and I had a very good upbringing. We had birthday parties. I went to church and had good friends. I was just taking everything for granted. I’ve been singing all my life.”

A talent contest victory at the Oakland Auditorium led to steady work with veteran East Bay bluesmen like Johnny Talbot, Eddie Foster, and Johnny Hartsman, who took her out on the Bay Area blues circuit. When musical tastes started changing in the mid 1970s with the rise of disco Carol was well prepared to move into San Francisco’s vibrant cabaret scene, where she won an avid following in gay circles.

“They knew all the show tunes, and I didn’t have struggle to convince people the songs were great,” Carol says. “I gained a lot of friends in that community. Singing in black clubs I was often going against the grain. R&B was king, and that’s all the music they would hear. I worked in cabarets for nearly 10 years, pre-AIDS, and right when AIDS started striking, that whole scene fell apart. It took all my great friends.”

While she grew up listening to the soul and R&B hits of the day, Carol came to appreciate the great jazz singers and instrumentalists of earlier eras through her future husband, the late educator Jim Gamble, and pianist Martha Young, a niece of the legendary tenor saxophonist Lester Young. Young lived around the corner from the Carol family in Pittsburg, and the teenage Faye “used to go to her house daily to sing,” Carol said, recalling that Young introduced her to Billie Holiday’s music.

“She played me Lady Day and told me about her uncle, who was Lester Young,” Carol says. “And at first I couldn’t hear Lady, because I was so into Aretha and Mahalia, Sam and Dave, and Ray Charles. You just like what you like. I heard Barbra Streisand and I always loved her. I really wasn’t hip to anything else other than Patti LaBelle, James Brown and Otis Redding. My ears wasn’t so accustomed to Billie’s sound, because she wasn’t loud. Your ear had to go to it, and if you didn’t have the patience to sit and listen you might miss out. Well, I had the patience to sit and listen, even though I didn’t hear it right away.”

Teaming up with her daughter

With the decline of the R&B scene, Carol started taking more jazz and cabaret gigs, forming The Dynamic Miss Faye Carol and Her Trio, a band that showcased her vast range. In the 90s she teamed up with her daughter, the gifted pianist Kito Gamble, a collaboration documented on the 1997 album “The Flow” (World Stage Records) featuring Marcus Shelby and drum master Billy Higgins.

Shelby was so deeply impressed by Carol’s sound and presence that years later, when he started to compose the music for his epic double album “Harriet Tubman,” he drew on her voice for inspiration, featuring her on the 2007 album and last year’s “Soul of the Movement” (Porto Franco). Since recording “Tubman,” Shelby has worked extensively with Carol, including accompanying her on a tour of Italy.

“She’s probably one of the most underrated and underappreciated talents,” Shelby says. “I’ve never seen anybody work as hard as her. Her rehearsals are more intense than most gigs I play on. It’s changed my whole approach to this process. She’s got this wonderful understanding of the history of the music, and she’s always looking to share it. She surrounds herself with young, hungry musicians, like Betty Carter and Art Blakey and Billy Higgins did. She’s a continuation of that spirit.”

Watch Faye Carol singing “Throw it Away”.

Watch Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir sing “Willy and the Hand Jive”.

Andrew Gilbert, whose Berkeleyside music column appears every Thursday, also covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley. 

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Freelancer Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. Andy, who was born and raised in Los Angeles, covers a wide range of musical cultures, from Brazil and Mali to India and Ireland....