Not many female blues musicians have written about their lives, but Fredericksburg native Gaye Adegbalola may give it a try.
“I've faced oppression as a black person in the segregated South, as a poor person, as a single mom, as a lesbian,” she says. “I know some of the heartbreak that inspires my songs.”
The 65-year-old is singer and guitarist for sassy, post-feminist Virginia blues trio, Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women. The acclaimed acoustic group has earned blues awards and fans worldwide throughout its more than two-decade history. But with the release of its final album, the aptly titled “Having the Last Word” (Alligator), the band is calling it quits to pursue individual projects.
“We wanted to go out on top of our game,” says the husky voiced singer with the diamond spike of silver hair. Adegbalola will continue performing, but could just as easily pitch her own life story as a book. Oprah's eyes would pop.
After sit-ins in Virginia in the 1960s, she got a degree in biology from Boston University and then moved to New York. There, she became an organizer in the black power movement, marrying the manager for the Last Poets, arguably the first rap group ever.
“I stopped straightening my hair in 1968,” she says. “What the Last Poets did for me was allow me to be proud of my blackness. They held a mirror for me the same way that today I can hold a mirror up for bald-headed cancer victims, or for queer issues.”
Returning to Fredericksburg in the early '70s after her son Juno was born, she became an acclaimed science teacher, winning Virginia teacher of the year honors in 1982. Having worked with her father's experimental theater group for years, she also began performing her own music. Her first public performance was in Richmond, at a black arts festival in Church Hill. (“I'm looking at a photo of it right now on my wall,” she says. “That's a really precious memory.”)
When she hooked up with Ann Rabson and Earlene Smith in 1987, Saffire —the Uppity Blues Women was born and quickly carved a niche with bold, unflinchingly honest and humorous songs paired with vintage string blues and rollicking piano (Smith was replaced in 1992 by Andra Faye). The group has graced Richmond stages from June Jubilee and the Flood Zone to the Science Museum, with memorable New Year's gigs at former Shockoe Bottom restaurant the Frog and the Redneck.
The group's also toured South Africa, Brazil, New Zealand and 47 of the 50 states. She fondly recalls one Chicago Blues Festival appearance. “We were doing ‘Wang Dang Doodle,’ and Willie Dixon [author of the song] joined us onstage. Perhaps the greatest blues writer ever,” she says. “And we were just starting out.”
With the group's final record, Adegbolola is turning heads again with a defiantly upbeat tune, “Bald Headed Blues” (“I didn't battle cancer / you know it battled me”) based on her own experience as a cancer survivor. She says it was one of the hardest songs she ever wrote, taking five years.
“That song is trying to take away the stigma of a bald head. We've taken away the stigma of big butts, old age, being queer,” she says. “Blues in general is about finding some humor in the pain and it's about freeing yourself from heartache. As John Lee Hooker would say, the blues is a healer.”
Adegbalola could use some healing herself right now. She recently had hand surgeries for carpal tunnel syndrome, broke up with her partner of 18 years and placed her 96-year-old mother in a nursing home. “She'll be glad I'm coming off the road,” she says of her mother. “She just got into singing and dancing late in life. Now every time I see her, she'll do a little two-step with her walker. Absolutely delightful!”
After this final tour, Adegbalola will continue performing and delivering motivational speeches about gay-identity issues. “If my music or speeches can do anything to say, ‘I’m good, this is who I am, I'm not ashamed.' … That's been my message with my music and my life,” she says.
She's also looking forward to having a social life again. “Gaye just needs to rest and start dating again!” she says, laughing. S
Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women give their farewell performance on Saturday, Oct. 24, at the Gay Community Center of Richmond, 1407 Sherwood Ave., at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20 advance, $25 day of show. 622-4646 and www.gayrichmond.com.