Belting out lyrics with pleasing raspiness and punctuating them with kicks, Peaches Staten sings with the conviction and sass of a seasoned blues singer. She prowls the stage like she’s scraped her way through swamps and gutbucket bars to snag recognition. Except she hasn’t. Her perfect pitch and explosive stage presence come from years of singing for her family in Doddsville, Mississippi. Her snappy moves and rhythm were formed by her work as the choreographer for the Chicago Fire Cheerleaders. Staten was born to be a blues diva, it only took her most of her adult life to realize it.
Appearing: 8/5 at Blue Chicago (536 N. State)
“It wasn’t a given that I’d be a performer; I didn’t start singing professionally until 1994,” she explains. “I just happened into it.” Just “happening” into a career that she was inadvertently groomed for might sound trite, but it’s this humility that’s part of the singer’s charm. Growing up in a small town on the Mississippi Delta, Staten was surrounded by music. Her mother was a singer and her dad a drummer. They traveled around Mississippi performing in juke joints and small clubs. Her entire family – save for three unlucky siblings – plays instruments or sings. Two of her sisters are professional gospel singers, but it never occurred to Staten that she could make a living singing, too.
“I watched my mom and dad pick cotton in the hot sun,” she says. “We moved to Chicago so that they could make a better living. It was about survival. They stopped performing – my mom said that there was no time to play music.” It was the ’60s and, in Chicago, a pivotal time for the blues. A revival was unfolding all around her on the South Side, but 6-year-old Peaches had no idea what was happening.
“My mom had a beautiful voice, she sang around the house. She sang a lot of Patsy Cline songs. We also played a lot of blues around the house and sang to the records. I sang during family dinners and they’d say, ‘That baby sho’ sound good,’” she says. But singing wasn’t what the family had moved north to do. So Staten went to school for recreational therapy, and eventually would work as the activity director for a senior facility. But it was while she was at Truman College that the turning point for her blues career arrived.
“Tony [Mangiullo] from Rosa’s worked at a pizza joint across the street from Truman,” says Staten. “He was handing out fliers for the opening of Rosa’s, and I was looking for a part time job so I worked as a waitress [there].” Soaking up live blues performances, Staten worked at Rosa’s through the early ’90s, until the day Buddy Scott pulled her up on stage.
“It was a jam, and I volunteered to sing a song because it was my birthday,” she says. “I sang [Billie Holiday's] ‘Good Morning Heartache,’ and Buddy Scott took me downstairs and said I sang well but I had to sing it in the right key. He worked on the notes with me until I had it. The next thing I knew, Guy Lawrence invited me to join the band he put together with Lurrie Bell: Chideco Zydeco.”
Presenting an innovative blend of Chicago blues and zydeco – which is the folk music of Louisiana’s French-speaking blacks – Chideco Zydeco opened new doors for Chicago blues and Staten. She was the first female blues performer in town to play the washboard, which has grown into a popular portion of her performance.
“Guy Lawrence gave the washboard to me, and told me to try it,” says Staten. “I said O.K. and started playing – it was like a pair of drums for me. It came so easy for me to play zydeco. Guy took me down every September for the Arcadia Festival, which celebrates zydeco music. It was fascinating; I learned all of the history.”
Wielding her frottoir, which is the name for the washboard designed specifically for zydeco by the King Of Zydeco, Clifton Chenier, Staten creates an exciting blend of blues dipped in the spicy genre. It’s her versatility that really separates Staten’s sound from other blues artists, as her most recent CD, Live At Legends (Swississippi), demonstrates. Although the album is steeped in classic blues like a flavorful cover of B.B. King’s “I Know You Love Me” and a show-stopping interpretation of Etta James’ “Rather Go Blind,” the real highlights are when she adds dashes of soul, gospel, funk, and zydeco to the mix. She coaxes lovely gospel undertones from the Chico Banks tune written for Mavis Staples, “Must Be Love,” throws a rockin’ zydeco party on “Gotta Find My Man,” and stirs up a soulful storm on “Don’t Rush Me.” There’s even a bluesy rendition of Robert Palmer’s rock classic “Bad Case Of Loving You” thrown in for good measure.
After touring with Chideco Zydeco for a year, Staten decided to quit her job as an activity director and work as an artist full time in 1994. “I was doing so many shows and I was so excited that I was in this musical stuff,” she says. Shortly after, she added samba to her musical repertoire. She was invited to join Samba De Maluco based on her skill with the frottoir, and toured with the fusion group all over the world.
Staten brings this eclectic musical mix to all of her shows, which include frequent world tours. “I never even thought about being a blues singer,” she says. “I never thought I’d be traveling the world to Japan, China, Czech Republic, France, Italy. I was saving my money so that I could travel, and here I am now. It’s a good feeling.” It didn’t come without hard work, however. She may have happened into it but “you have to pay your dues in the blues,” she says. She credits Karen Carroll, Bonnie Lee, and Shirley Johnson with grounding her and teaching her the ropes. With every performance, she likes to give as much energy and excitement as possible. “I try to represent for the women, to let them know that we can break it down just like a man.”
– Rosalind Cummings-Yeates
About the Author: