“I’ve got the fans going full blast,” laughs Teresa James, speaking by phone from the coolest room in the hottest house in Santa Clarita on this midsummer afternoon.
Then again, what else is new? Isn’t wherever Teresa James performs both the coolest and the hottest place in town, with her fans — the human kind, that is — going “full blast” in appreciation?
On Sept. 22 she’ll bring her special brand of “roots music” — a scintillating blend of blues, country, gospel, jazz, anything that strikes her powerful vocal chords — to the Ojai Bowlful of Blues.
“I just love to sing,” she says. “And I’ve done all kinds of music over the years, but I love blues because it is so heartfelt, and one of the only genres that gives you so much freedom of expression to perform — soulfully, with attitude.”
On the other hand, “A night of nothing but straight-ahead, 12-bar blues is not that attractive to me. I’m a roots music fan, and I’m fascinated by how different forms of music influenced and fed off of each other over the years. Growing up, I was a huge Beatles fan, and they were certainly impacted by all kinds of musical styles. And so was I.”
That was in Houston, where “My family was really into music. Dad played guitar, and he and Mom hosted jam sessions with friends at their house, singing old songs. They had so much fun, and that’s where the joy of music really started for me.”
After taking piano lessons, James and her junior-high girlfriends formed a folk group. By high school she was playing a variety of music (“rock, country, blues, you name it”) with other bands in the area.
Then in the early 1980s, Terry Wilson and Tony Braunagel, leaders of the original Rhythm Tramps, were passing through Houston on their way to California from London, where they’d been performing for several years.
“I was invited to play with them,” James recalls, “and Terry and I just hit it off right away. Pretty soon, I was coming out to L.A. regularly, and finally I married him and moved there for good.”
James worked regularly as a concert performer, nightclub piano player and session singer, as well as for commercials, TV and movie soundtracks.
“I did a lot of demo recordings, maybe four or five a week for about 10 years,” she recalls, adding with a smile, “When I went from singing in garages to singing in homes and studios with gold records on the walls, I figured I was doing well.”
Over the years she’s played and sung not only with the Rhythm Tramps, but with the likes of Eric Burdon, Marcia Ball, Tommy Castro, Randy Newman and Bill Medley.
“I’ve always considered myself a blue-collar musician,” she says. “I just love to sing, to try new things, to always be in the moment. That comes with age, I think — I have no fear anymore. I’ll go for any note, or a double-time phrase, because what am I saving up for? I know what I can do, so go for it. . . . And sometimes, you do things that afterward you wonder, ‘How did I do that?’ Because you let go and let the music take over. That’s the soul connection that people respond to.”
The Band’s Levon Helm calls James “a true original. When she sings, you can feel it in your bones.”
James is “original” in other ways as well. She and Wilson long ago made a conscious decision to be full-time parents as well as musicians, and have raised a son and daughter now making their way as professional performers. (Son Jesse is a musician, daughter Lucy a dancer.)
“Our kids are fabulous,” she says proudly. “And we got to be there for them when they were growing up — as soccer parents, on PTA committees, teaching songs in the classroom. I feel so totally blessed that we’ve been able to do the music we love and have a real life.”
The Bowlful of Blues fits nicely with James’ schedule and musical leanings. Also set to perform are contemporary bluesman Selwyn Birchwood, harpmeisters James Harman and Rod Piazza, Carl “Sonny” Leyland, the Kwan Telifaro Project, MC Gill Sotu and local favorite Hot Roux. It should be a soulful, emotional, unforgettable evening.
“Unlike some genres that are getting younger and younger, blues doesn’t care how old or young you are,” she says. “I like a lyric where I can bring the meaning and heart out of a song; that helps form a connection between singer and audience. And I’m really lucky because Terry is a prolific and excellent songwriter, and his songs are stronger than ever. I just dress them up.”
Their latest CD, Here in Babylon, has received strong reviews since its release in March, and it fuels James’ desire to continue to play as long as she can maintain both her love of music and her connection with her fans — neither of which is set to anything but “full blast.”
The 25th anniversary of the Bowlful of Blues takes place on Saturday, Sept. 22, 4-9 p.m. at Libbey Bowl, 210 S. Signal St., Ojai. Ticket prices vary. For information, call 805-836-4665 or visit bowlfulofblues.org.