WHEN A WOMAN TAKES THE STAGE AND BELTS out the blues, comparisons to Janis Joplin can be bandied about. But when Joplin's former band, Big Brother & The Holding Company, throws out the reference, it's something special.
Members of Big Brother once saw up-and-coming blues diva Susan Tedeschi in concert and after the show, they told her she was Joplin reincarnated. Tedeschi told POLLSTAR that members of Big Brother asked when she was born and upon hearing that her birthdate was November 9, 1970, they exclaimed, "That's right after she died! You are her.... You came back."
Tedeschi thinks the comparison comes from the emotional release she goes through while performing. "Sometimes I let the music totally take control and I'll just start preaching," she said. "That's the gospel coming out in me. And a lot of times, instead of it sounding like Irma Thomas or Etta James, it sounds like Janis, because it gets a little raspy or a little crazy."
She's incredibly flattered by the comparison, however. "It makes me feel like, wow, I must be doing something right if I'm touching people in this way."
Tedeschi said Big Brother member Sam Andrew suggested she play the role of Janis in an upcoming movie, but Susan said she doesn't want to be known as Joplin. She wants her own identity.
Tedeschi's identity wasn't tied to singing the blues at the beginning of her career. Rather, from age six, she was acting, singing and dancing in musical productions including "Oliver" and "The Sound of Music." "I did all that kind of stuff growing up," she said. "And then I outgrew it by the time I was 17."
She was supposed to go to a theatre school on a scholarship but turned it down. Instead, she opted for the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
At Berklee, Tedeschi studied jazz and rock history while expanding her musical horizons. "I played a little bit of piano and I played clarinet growing up, so I ended up doing a lot of arranging when I was at Berklee -- and also a lot of singing," she said.
Tedeschi didn't know exactly what type of singing she wanted to do, so she did it all. "I love singing so I did everything -- country, rock, gospel ... and R&B soul music," she said.
When she graduated from Berklee in 1991, at age 20, Tedeschi started to get into the blues. She would participate in blues jams in her home town of Boston. Then, she decided she wanted to play guitar and told herself, "I'm going to figure this out." She's been working at it every day since.
Tedeschi joined a few original bands but didn't front her own project until 1993. She toured clubs throughout the New England area, making $10 per band member a night.
Tedeschi and her band played that circuit four or five nights a week for quite a while and then things started to heat up. In 1995, she was named best R&B act by Boston Magazine and nominated as outstanding blues act at the Boston Music Awards in '95 and '96. She also came in second at the National Blues Competition in Memphis, losing first place due to a technicality -- she went over her 10-minute allotted time by 45 seconds.
November 9, 1998
By then, her touring circuit had expanded beyond the New England area. She gigged in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Florida. "That's when record companies started to get involved," she said.
With a firm grasp of the music business, Tedeschi knew she didn't want to sign a bad record deal. "I wanted to do something where I had a lot of control, make music that I wanted to make, have a nice support group -- and not owe tons of money."
Tedeschi signed with Tone-Cool Records "where I can maybe make a profit, even if it's a small one, instead of being in debt." She said it's been like clockwork since hooking up with Tone-Cool.
College had prepared Tedeschi for the business aspects of becoming a performer. At the time, she handled all the business responsibilities for the band, including booking. "It was almost impossible for me to give that up," she said. "It was hard because nobody could do a better job than I could. Nobody's going to sell you like you can sell yourself."
Soon, Tedeschi discovered Blue Sky Artist Management, which handles the careers of Jonny Lang, Bernard Allison and Syl Johnson. She tried to woo a relationship with Blue Sky's Miki Mulvehill for a couple of months before the two met.
Once Mulvehill took her on as a client, things started to change. With Mulvehill's help, she was signed by Ron Kaplan at Monterey International. Though she hated giving up the booking reins, Kaplan, Monterey and Mulvehill have not disappointed her. "My life has really taken off in a whole new perspective having them on board because now, I get on [great] tours," she said about her business team.
Tedeschi spent the summer on the Buddy Guy/Jonny Lang tour and then went out with B.B. King and Dr. John. Mercury Records has picked up distribution of her Tone-Cool release, Just Won't Burn, and this month, she's heading out West for her first headlining tour of the region.
When asked what it's like to finally have opportunities to play with blues greats like B.B. King or Buddy Guy, Tedeschi has only one comment: "I can die now."