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[whitespace] Gwen Avery
Vocal Verve: Gwen Avery hits all the right notes.

Sugar and Soul

Singer Gwen Avery learned her style in the unlikely blues hotbed of Pennsylvania

By Andrew Gilbert

VOCALIST GWEN AVERY released her first album last year at the age of 58, but the seeds of her blues-drenched music were planted long ago, in the rough-and-tumble jukejoint run by her grandmother. Raised in Verona, Penn., a small town outside Pittsburgh in the Allegheny River Valley, Avery soaked up the sounds of jazz and R&B pouring from the club's jukebox and kept a close eye on the itinerant musicians who stopped by to take part in impromptu jam sessions.

While the setting was earthy as could be, sanctified sounds also resounded through the club, as gospel music "flowed in that house of ill repute with the whiskey and beer," Avery recalls. "It was a little town, with only about 100 blacks, and every year my grandmother counted them. But there was so much music, all the time."

The Berkeley-based singer has come a long way since then, but no matter what kind of material she tackles, she sings it like she was holding forth at the juke joint, with a spine-tingling immediacy that cuts to the quick.

Her debut CD, Sugar Mama, is a wonderfully diverse session held together by the soulful power of Avery's voice and the sleek, uncluttered production, which was overseen by Linda Tillery, the singer and musicologist who has devoted her career to preserving and nurturing African American music. (The album is available at Avery's website, www.gwenavery.com.)

Tillery first experienced Avery's sheer vocal prowess some three decades ago, shortly after Avery had moved to the Bay Area and was performing in small North Beach joints. "I heard that thing which seems to be missing from so many young black singers and black wannabes," Tillery wrote in an email exchange, "a real relationship to blues and gospel phrasing. She's so solidly rooted--never given to flights of excess. For that, she earned my undying respect. Gwen also possesses an extraordinary rhythmic sense."

Like so many other young people, Avery was drawn to the Bay Area in the mid-'60s, and she eventually found work singing in Full Moon, a popular hard-rock band led by Gregg Young.

"He wanted me to sound like Led Zeppelin," Avery says. "My voice was so powerful, and I had so much energy, but I wasn't used to singing that loud that long. I ended up going to the same doctor that Janis Joplin did when I developed nodes on my vocal cords, which were really common among rock singers then."

Full Moon never recorded an album, and after a few years, Avery left the band and started looking for new musical situations. She reinvented herself when she was invited to perform at the first women's music festival in Santa Cruz in the early '70s. She began writing her own songs, and toured widely on the women's music circuit with other singers recording for Olivia Records. She never got the chance to make her own album though and remained something of a cult figure for decades.

But with the release of Sugar Mama and her increasingly busy touring schedule, the awareness of Avery's thrilling voice is spreading like the good word at an old-fashioned tent revival meeting.

Gwen Avery performs with Rose Street on the Road, Friday (May 25) at 8pm at Kuumbwa Jazz Center, 320-2 Cedar St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $8 adv/$11 dr. (426.7828)

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From the May 23-20, 2001 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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