Lynne Jordan isn’t your average blues diva. Yes, she can belt out a tune that leaps directly to your soul. Yes, her bawdy sense of humor flows through her performances. And, yes, her outrageous headdresses are as much a part of her show as her singing. But behind these expected hallmarks lies an entertainer influenced by a wide-range of performers, from legendary comedians like Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham to multi-faceted singers like Etta James.
“I don’t sing in a box; I sing how I want,” Jordan exclaims. “Comedic art influences how I perform. [Comedians] tell stories that are true.” Indeed, Jordan’s entire approach to music is all about storytelling. “I look at songs as stories to be told and characters to be performed,” she explains. But no story or character is quite as compelling as Jordan’s own.
Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Jordan was surrounded by nonstop singing, but was too shy to showcase her own talent. “Everybody in my family on my mother’s side have great voices,” she says. “My grandfather was a preacher who founded a church in Dayton so there were always choirs. I was too shy to sing solo. I knew I had a big voice but I kept it on the down-low.”
Young Jordan would run around her church basement performing entire concerts while it was empty of everyone except her mother, who was the church secretary. But these secret performances proved invaluable as they helped her overcome her shyness. In high school, she was cast as the lead in “Hello Dolly.” “I had been doing musicals by myself in the basement of my church for a decade,” she recalls. “It was so natural for me, and so many people in my family could do it that I didn’t think it was a special thing. I was raised to be humble and modest. You couldn’t say, ‘I want to be a star!'”
Despite her reluctance, Jordan headed toward stardom, even though it wasn’t a straight path. She performed in a few more musicals and even wrote about the great impact music had on her life in her college essay for Northwestern University. She promptly majored in journalism because, “I didn’t want to be poor.” She soon realized the profession was not her forte. “When I got hit with who, what, where, and why, I sat at the typewriter crying, ‘What am I doing here?'” She switched her major to theater and started singing at campus events. “I put my band together and started doing frat parties. Then we got requests to play bars,” she says. “I’ve always fronted my own band.”
Whether singing solo at Blue Chicago or playing at House of Blues with her 12-piece band, The Shivers, Jordan has grown into a Chicago institution. Her last self-produced album, A Bit Of Fun, illustrates her wide-ranging vocal skills and performance talent. From the raucous blues of “It Takes A Great Big Woman” to the soaring emotions of Etta James‘ “At Last,” Jordan covers all of the bases. The album also touches on country with a soulful take on Patsy Cline‘s “Crazy” and rock with a sinister cover of the Rolling Stones‘ “Sympathy For The Devil,” but the showstopper is her dramatic interpretation of Gloria Gaynor‘s disco classic, “I Will Survive.” Now her signature song, the hit represents more than just a party anthem to the singer – it transcends cultural and language barriers.
“I performed a concert in Kiev, Ukraine, in this huge square where they had the Orange Revolution,” she says. “There were at least a million people and nobody understood English. I figured that they’d relate to the blues, but no reaction. I did the Rolling Stones, no reaction. I went through all of these classics, but they didn’t respond. Finally, I did ‘I Will Survive’ as a sort of ‘f—you’ and they went crazy. I had them all clapping and dancing.”
Audience participation is an important factor for Jordan’s shows, whether they are intimate performances or rowdy club events. “I’m all about getting the audience involved,” she says. “A big crowd of people dancing is wonderful. I love the transformation of people in black-tie dress standing around and then watching them let loose and dance.” Jordan regularly experiences such scenes on the charity party circuit, but she is ready to break loose from “the golden handcuffs” and return to telling stories with her music. She’s working on a one-woman play that intersperses the stories of her life, including her issues with weight and the death of her parents, with songs that have played a role in her journey.
“I’ve been working on a one-woman play since college,” she explains. “Then I met these people in L.A. who make their living with one-woman shows. I thought, ‘I can do this.'” She’ll workshop the play in 2013.
In the meantime, Jordan is honing her skills with a tribute to Nina Simone at City Winery on Jan. 16. “I have not been this excited about a gig in a long time,” she says. “I feel such an affinity to her.”
Although accomplished at singing any genre, the blues comes most easily to Jordan. “Of all the things that I sing, the blues is the most natural. It just comes out of me,” she says. Despite opening for Buddy Guy and performing at Junior Wells‘ funeral, Jordan sometimes gets questioned about her right to be called a blues singer.
“I got a lot of pushback in the beginning because people thought I wasn’t a blues singer,” she says. “But my great-grandmother was a slave. I have her freedom papers; it lists all her belongings in the order of importance and her six children are listed last. My grandfather was chased away from Georgia by a lynch mob. He hid in a hallowed-out oak tree until he got a train to Dayton. It’s a very American story. Anybody that comes telling me I can’t sing the blues – excuse me?”
Lynne Jordan performs the music of Nina Simone at City Winery (1200 W. Randolph) Chicago on 1/16 at 8 p.m. and Janis Joplin at Davenport’s (1383 N. Milwaukee) Chicago on 1/25.
— Rosalind Cummings-Yeates