For Amy Black, Better Late Than Never

by Chrissie Dickinson

Chicago Tribune (TNS)

20 June 2017

Amy Black is an inspiration for artistic late bloomers.
Photo: Stacie Huckeba (TNS) 

Amy Black is an inspiration for artistic late bloomers. The blues and soul singer-songwriter was 35 and working in marketing when she decided to take the plunge and pursue a music career. Today at 45, she’s releasing her fourth solo album and touring nationally. She’s never been happier.

“I found my voice,” Black says, calling from her home in Nashville, Tenn. “It took me a little time to figure out what I do best. But now I feel I’m there. I’m really enjoying myself as a singer.”

Black’s new record is “Memphis,” a soulful and swinging collection of seven originals plus three covers of songs by legendary artists Otis Clay, Bobby “Blue” Bland and Ruby Johnson. Released on her own label Reuben Records, the aptly titled album shines a light on Black’s love for the iconic city that has been home to some of the greatest blues, soul, country and rock ‘n’ roll ever produced.

Black’s first recordings found the singer in rootsy Americana mode. Her musical interests expanded with 2015’s well-received “The Muscle Shoals Sessions,” a release that featured the revered songwriter and session musician Spooner Oldham.

The smoldering blues and soul of “Memphis” represent a striking step in her musical evolution. The release was produced by Scott Bomar of the soul band the Bo-Keys. Black was backed in the studio by a number of venerable musicians including Charles Hodges on piano and Hammond B3 organ and Stax guitarist Bobby Manuel.

She displays the full impressive range of her sultry, full-throated voice across these artfully arranged tracks. “Let the Light In” is a slow-burning gospel-ish cry of the heart.

“I haven’t had a bad life at all,” Black observes. “It’s a good life when you line it all up. But I can feel the weight of the world on my shoulders at times. The concept of darkness and light is so real to me as I go through my days. ‘Let the Light In’ kind of sounds like a dirge, but the message is about how I have the choice to let the light in. Whatever hard times are going on around me, that’s something I tell myself — let the light in, because there’s always light to be found.”

Black co-wrote the song “What Makes a Man?” with her friend Karen Leipziger. Both of the women were inspired by their husbands when writing the lyrics.

“I’ve been married for about 20 years,” Black says. “My husband is a great, rock-solid guy. He’s one of those people in life who is unchanging, while I’m the one who fluctuates. Karen’s husband, Dennis Taylor, was also that type of guy. He was a sax player for Delbert McClinton’s band. Dennis passed away about five years ago. Karen has had a five-year road of dealing with that. Her reflections on her husband are wonderful. That’s where we got together. I had the title ‘What Makes a Man?’ and we just started talking about that idea. What does make a man? What are we asking for? Honesty. Transparency. Someone to believe in us. The song came from that conversation.”

Black was born in Missouri, the daughter of a minister. She first began singing a cappella in her church and her family sang hymns around the house. She listened to pop music on the radio — Guns N’ Roses, Def Leppard and Pat Benatar. That all changed at 16 when she heard Bonnie Raitt for the first time and experienced a musical epiphany.

“Bonnie had just won a Grammy for ‘Nick of Time,’” Black recalls. “That was her big (commercial breakthrough). I had never heard slide guitar before. I was watching the Grammys and it all just grabbed me. I went out and bought that album and became a lifelong Bonnie Raitt fan. She is a huge influence.”

Black moved with her family to Alabama, where a new church brought an introduction to full-on gospel music. She was hooked. She sang in a church band and tried her hand at a bit of songwriting.

In college she majored in communications and began singing jazz standards by Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald. But after graduation she put her musical dreams aside.

“I just didn’t think of it as something realistic to pursue as a career,” she says. Instead, Black went into nonprofit work, followed by a marketing stint in the corporate world.

The idea to finally get serious about singing first came to her one day during a quiet moment at home.

“I was 35,” she recalls. “My husband and I were living in the suburbs of Boston with our dog. We both had good jobs. Life was as it should be, quote unquote. I distinctly remember sitting at my kitchen table thinking, ‘You have a really good voice and you’ve never really tried to do anything with it. Now is the time, because you’re not getting any younger.’”

Black immediately jumped on Craigslist to research opportunities. She found ads for lots of ‘70s classic rock bands looking for singers, but that wasn’t up her alley. She decided to pursue jazz. After one disappointing audition, she took control of her own career and figured out a plan.

“I got a guitar player and started performing at open mics, singing songs I could feel good about,” she says. “From there it started turning into something. I did that a few times and got a great response. I put a band together. Sixty people came out for my first show. I did three hours of material and lots of banter. I realized I was good at performing. There was so much energy and I had so much fun. From that point forward I put everything I had into it and started building something.”

Today, Black has established a solid reputation and a loyal grass-roots fan base. With her new release “Memphis,” she feels her career is right on schedule.

“I feel really good about my past,” Black observes. “I don’t have any regrets that I didn’t start sooner. I feel at peace. I love singing. It’s all good.”

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