Daria Johnson, backed by, from left, Shaunna Hall, Kristin Strom and Pamela Rose, vocalizes in “Blues Is A Woman.” (Courtesy Jane Higgins)

Bold ladies sing the blues

Don’t know about Ma Rainey, Sippie Wallace, Ida Cox and Memphis Minnie?

You will after experiencing “Blues Is A Woman,” a thrilling, soulful show at Custom Made Theatre detailing the rise of 20th century American women blues artists.

Lovingly created by singer-composer Pamela Rose with dramaturg-director Jayne Wenger and showcasing a vivacious band — pianist Tammy Hall, drummer Daria Johnson, bassist Ruth Davies, saxophonist Kristen Strom and guitarist Shaunna Hall — the multimedia presentation is much more than a concert or revue.

The lively concert is bolstered by engaging conversational narration — with just the right informative yet entertaining tone — and a mesmerizing video presentation packed with historical images (photos, ads, posters) and film footage.

It’s a trip seeing Wallace, the 1920s star of Texas tent shows (whose teeth were so far apart she had to sip her food) called out of retirement in a film from the 1960s. (Rose and Johnson sing her tune “Up the Country Blues.”)

Other amazing videos reveal the force field that was Bessie Smith, whose “Backwater Blues” was a response to floods in the South in 1926-27; images from that disaster are evocatively juxtaposed with some from Hurricane Katrina.

Later, during a section with psychedelic and news images from the 1960s highlighting Janis Joplin and Nina Simone (there’s also excellent film of activist Simone performing “Backlash Blues”), Johnson deadpans, “Gee, that doesn’t sound like what’s going on today.”

The chronological show begins with mention of songs from West Africa, which carried through to slave days in New Orleans, and, around the turn of the century, to minstrel shows, where Ma Rainey became a popular live and recording act, singing personal, gritty songs.

A flash on the video screen shows the sheet music to Victoria Spivey’s “I Have Killed My Man.”

After Johnson passionately sings the mournful “Nobody Knows the Way I Feel This Morning,” Hall and Strom kick out the rousing “One Hour Mama” by Cox, another successful recording artist of the 1920s, and Johnson and Rose duet on a tune by the tough, tobacco-chewing Memphis Minnie (born Lizzie Douglas, who ran away from home as a teen to start her music career).

Although it was hampered by Jim Crow laws, the vibrant era of the blues queens ended, giving rise to strong boogie woogie, big band and gospel crossover artists such as Dorothy Donegan, Dinah Washington and Sister Rosetta Tharpe, also known as “the godmother of rock ‘n’ roll.” (A fascinating clip reveals her guitar style quite similar to Elvis Presley’s.)

Right after World War II, blues briefly fell off the pop charts, but came back in fashion with social statements from the likes of Malvina Reynolds, Ruth Brown and Etta James; a funny number begins with “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?” and segues into “Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” before the show moves on to 1960s spitfire Aretha Franklin, and later, Bonnie Raitt.

While not every important artist gets a song, or even a mention, in the show, the exhaustive video display provides fascinating accompaniment, flashing pictures of early pioneers, to mid-century favorites such as Tina Turner and Odetta, and 21st century stars Amy Winehouse, Janelle Monáe and Eykah Badu (although the great Billie Holiday is inexplicably missing).


Blues Is A Woman
Where: Custom Made Theatre, 533 Sutter St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays; closes Aug. 27
Tickets: $30 to $45
Contact: www.custommade.org/box-office

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