A Q&A with Marcia Ball
By Geoff Gehman
Marcia Ball sings and plays piano with her legs crossed, the left one swinging freely and in time. The unusual alignment allows her to swivel easily between musicians, listeners and keys. It’s also a distinctive signature of a 70-year-old musician who swivels easily between swing, blues, boogie-woogie, zydeco rock and other gumbos cooked up in Louisiana and Texas, her home states.
A performing beacon for half a century, Ball has brought her slightly smoldering voice, dancing hands and passionate compassion to the Kennedy Center, the White House and “Austin City Limits,” which she helped christen in 1976, long before the show and the city were cultural bull’s-eyes. She helped put Austin on the map, a major reason why she’s a member of the prestigious program’s hall of fame. She helps run a charity she co-founded that helps Austin musicians economically and emotionally, a major reason why Texas made her the state’s 2018 musician of the year.
On Sept. 6 the Mauch Chunk Opera House will host Ball for the first time. Accompanied by four comrades, she’ll sample her latest album, “Shine Bright” (Alligator), which was produced by Steve Berlin, the Philadelphia-born saxophonist for Los Lobos. Covers include Jesse Winchester’s “Take a Little Louisiana,” which led her to record at a renowned studio in her native state. Originals include the title track, a rollicking salute to a hall of fame of heroes: Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Ken Kesey, Stephen Hawking and Jackie Robinson.
Below, in an email interview, Ball discusses her affection for the great soul singer Irma Thomas, a frequent collaborator and friend; the late journalist Molly Ivins, a hell-raising activist; aiding musicians in crisis, and posing with a piano wrapped in aluminum.
Q: Can you remember the first song you couldn’t forget, the one that tattooed your ears, heart and soul?
A: One of my first favorite songs was “Since I Fell for You” by Lenny Welch, which came out when I was in high school. I liked it more than all of my friends. They thought it was sappy. I loved his voice and that beautiful melody. I still do. I also really liked the Beatles when they came out. I was in the minority in this, too, in my little south Louisiana hometown [Vinton].
Q: What’s one of your favorite memories of or lessons from your piano-playing, ragtime-loving grandma?
A: My grandmother, who was my father’s mother, accompanied silent movies in Lafayette, Louisiana when she was a teenager. She had a lot of sheet music from her time, Tin Pan Alley stuff from the ’20s and ’30s. Her daughter, my Aunt Meredith, also played piano beautifully, songs from the ’40s and ’50s, American Songbook and show tunes.
Q: I’ve never seen a pianist play with legs crossed, even in a rehearsal studio or living room. How long have you been doing it and why do you do it?
A: I don’t remember when I started with the crossed legs. I have seen pictures of me in the late ’70s when I was doing that. It allows me to turn toward the audience and have some movement and not feel trapped behind the keyboard and too stationary.
Q: On the cover of “Shine Bright” you sit, cross-legged, on a piano wrapped in aluminum foil, an idea you borrowed from a South Carolina preacher. Do you know why he or she wanted a foil-covered keyboard?
A: The artist who inspired the “Shine Bright” cover is James Hampton, born in South Carolina and died in Washington, DC. He created an installation full of furniture and other pieces covered in foil called “The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nation’s Millennium General Assembly.” It is in the Smithsonian and I love it. I visit it whenever I can.
Q: Why did you and “Shine Bright” producer Steve Berlin decide to include Ernie K-Doe’s “I Got to Find Somebody”? How long has it been in your wheelhouse?
A: My friend, the music writer and drummer Ben Sandmel in New Orleans, posted that song on Facebook one day and from the first verse, I knew I wanted to cover it. It was one of the four songs we cut in Maurice, Louisiana at the famous Dockside Studio with a band of Lafayette musicians. Steve Berlin plays baritone sax on that cut.
Q: “Shine Bright” includes “Pots and Pans,” the title taken from a powerful message from Molly Ivins, the late journalist, activist, raconteur and hell-raiser who admired people who used kitchen items to bang out protests against rights reduced or removed in a country they rule. How did/does Molly inspire you to live more humanly and humanely?
A: Molly said, “Nothing is going to change until we get out in the streets and bang on pots and pans.” That inspired a series of protests in front of the state capitol in Austin in 2012. In getting ready to record “Shine Bright,” I knew I wanted to represent and honor Molly and express objections to the direction our country has taken. I so wish we still had her voice to help us deal with the idiocy and mayhem in government today. I knew Molly pretty well but never got over being awe-struck by her.
Q: What has Irma Thomas taught you about singing and living with diligence and vigilance?
A: Irma Thomas is gracious and dignified in every way. Her music and her presence impressed me when I first saw her when I was 13 years old. Getting to know her and finally to record and tour with her has been a dream come true for me.
Q: I’m always fascinated by the afterlife of songs, how they zag when you expect them to zig after you release them to the world. What song of yours has had the most unexpected journey, even into the world of weddings, funerals and fundraisers?
A: My most covered and still most requested song is probably “The Power of Love.” Many people got married to that song and some of them are still married. One surprise outcome from a song is that “Louella” is so often requested. I didn’t think it was that big a deal, but people always want to hear it. I always thought the city of Mobile, Alabama would want to do something with my song, “Mobile,” and they finally did, but it took years. I also think that “Big Shot” would be perfect for some basketball team to warm up to, but no one has bit on that.
Q: How many musicians have you helped with rent, utilities, food and other essentials as a founder of the Austin-based Housing Opportunities for Musicians and Entertainers? How has HOME benefitted Lavelle White, the first beneficiary, whose 90th birthday you celebrated this year at Antone’s? And what items have you donated to HOME’s six annual garage sales?
A: Lavelle White was our original client at HOME. We formed the non-profit in 2012 to help her with living expenses. The board and advisory are all women and we’re all involved in the music business in Austin. We have helped 15 other musicians so far with rent and utility assistance. Our HOME Sale has been one of our major fund-raising events. People donate amazing things for us to sell and my contribution, besides a lot of work setting up and selling, is that I end up buying quite a bit of cool stuff. We also raise money with special music events, three of which are taking place in September of this year. Our website is HOMEaustin.org. There’s a lot of information about what we’re doing there.
Q: How do you keep yourself even keel and sane on the road? Do you have any special rituals, talismans, magic potions or notions? And what’s the favorite, most essential item on your rider?
A: I am so even-keeled that I have no rituals or talismans, well, except for the peace sign necklace I have worn since March of 2013 [after the U.S. invaded Iraq]. What has sustained me throughout my career is that I’ve tried to have as few conditions as possible between me and doing my job, so we keep our rider simple and if we feel like we’re wasting stuff, we scratch that item.
Q: So, Marcia, what tops your Bucket List? Musicians have told me everything from traveling the world to world peace. Maybe continuing to perform “aggressive acts of good”?
A: What I wish for is sensible, no-nonsense gun control, equitable pay for men and women, an end to rapacious student loan debt, universal access to health care, serious environmental protection initiatives, attention to the climate change crisis, an end to racism, and realistic tax codes that don’t punish the middle class. You know, the stuff that used to be considered conservative and middle of the road and is now characterized by the radical right as socialist, lefty, extremism. You can print this if you like.
Marcia Ball: The Scoop
She settled in Austin after her car conked out on the way to San Francisco, her first destination.
She shared the 1998 album “Sing It!” (Rounder) with Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas.
She appeared in the TV series “Treme” and the Clint Eastwood-directed piano segment of the PBS blues series supervised by Martin Scorsese.
She received the 2015 and 2018 Blues Awards prize named for blues pianist Pinetop Perkins, the boogie-woogie legend.
During the 2008 Smithsonian Folklife Festival she demonstrated her recipe for Emergency Chicken Gumbo.
She has said that “sometimes songs just walk on the porch and say ‘Hi.’”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. He’s perfectly willing to try Marcia Ball’s recipe for Emergency Chicken Gumbo. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.