A conversation with Doña Oxford, Queen of Boogie-woogie and Goddess of Soul
Dona Oxford was excited. Oxford is known for being excited about her music, but this time she was excited because she had just introduced me to Ray Kurzweil at the NAMM 2016 Kurzweil electric keyboard booth where, the day before, Stevie Wonder had shown up, sat down at the keyboard Oxford had just vacated and started to play for the assembled crowd. But she was even more excited about the fact that later in evening she would be playing for Wonder at the Kurzweil Private party.
“He touched my sweat on the keys! Stevie Wonder touched my sweat on the keys,” she exclaimed, “and now I will be playing for him.”
But that is a common story for Oxford, known to her legions of fans as the Queen of Boogie-woogie and the Princess of Soul. Many, many greats have asked her to play for them on stage, in the recording studio and on tour. Her keyboard chops (she also plays drums), her energy, her voice and her songwriting have been recognized over and over as one of the best in the blues/R&B and boogie world. She is so much in demand that on one of her European tours Van Morrison tracked her down at a train station getting ready to head to her next gig in the South of England and demanded that she stay in London that night and record with his band (she did).
And the list goes on: Albert Lee, Roger Daltry, Elliot Randal of Steely Dan, Levon Helm, Shemekia Copeland, Jonnie Johnson and many others. Her credits include playing on movie soundtracks like “Norbit,” on albums by Dave Gross, Copeland, Arthur Neilson, Albert Lee, Larry Thurston, and Laurie Marvan. Her own recordings are just as hot. Her latest album Soul Quest and the earlier Doña Oxford deliver the goods and then some. Her live album, Raw, was so good that Johnnie Johnson said listening to it was like listening to himself.
It is her live shows that were the clincher for me. Whether it is a three-song gig at a NAMM booth, or full-scale Boogie-woogie concert for an SRO crowd in major hall, every show she performs is a blowout with the audience standing and whistling and demanding more. She brings a level of talent and energy to the stage you find in a Trombone Shorty or an E-Street Band.
The daughter of a trumpet-playing Episcopal priest and a cabaret singer, she was given a toy piano when she was not quite two years old, soon after her father died. Her mom exposed her to many types of music, taking her to everything from punk rock at CBGB’s to Tom Jones at Lincoln Center. By age seven, Doña was performing publicly and started formal classical training, which she continued until she was sixteen. About that time, Doña fell in love with musical theater and began singing and acting in regional and off-Broadway plays and studying drama at the Tisch School. But she also began to explore the styles of jazz and pop vocalists like Ella Fitzgerald, Mel Torme, Dinah Washington, and Judy Garland while simultaneously gravitating toward the primal rock ‘n roll of Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.
It was her friendship with Arthur Neilson, guitarist with Cyndi Lauper and Otis Rush, that led to forming a band and touring on her own and eventually recording. That attracted the attention of performers like Keith Richards, Buddy Guy, Levon Helm, Bob Weir, Lonnie Brooks, Shirley Dixon, Shemekia Copeland, Willie “Big Eyes” Smith, and her idol, former Chuck Berry sideman Jonnie Johnson. She was hired for performances by major bands as a sideman (sidewoman?) and session player, touring the US and Europe. Along the way she developed a following of her own and her — Boogie-woogie has an energy – it is vibrant, it’s down key: in tough times it makes people happy and makes them want to dance.” Dona says about her music, “and because it is challenging for a piano player to play, I think audiences realize how difficult it is and admire the artist for being able to learn it and do it.” Boogie-woogie is especially hard to learn, she reminds us, “because it is two hands doing very separate things — your mind is kind of split between the two and people admire that.”
People do admire it and they especially admire the way Oxford does it with a theatricality born of her days on stage. Not content with just playing and singing, she often finishes her act with a signature Boogie-woogie song in which she plays with her hands behind her back, then with one hand at a time, and with a final flourish picks up one end of the keyboard and plays it and finishes with her foot on the keys, pounding out the final note. All the while she is giving a tutorial on what Boogie-woogie is, sometimes talking to individual people she has picked out of the audience.
On the age-old question of electric keyboard vs. a real piano, she says: “for me it is either/or — I have learned to play on both. There are some players who refuse to play boogie on an electric keyboard because they say it is too lightweight. Because I have had to travel with a keyboard and few venues have a full real piano, so I have learned to adapt. But really, Boogie-woogie is best on a real piano – you have a wider range, better weight, better action bouncing under your fingers.”
Oxford sings about love and loss and betrayal – classic blues themes. And like every good blues player, she draws from her own hardship. About half of her songs come from her life, “I have definitely known heartbreak she says, but I also love Albert King and Gladys Knight – all the real soul singers of that era and I think those themes speak to everybody…but I do mine my own life for my songs.”
Oxford will be back on tour in the Spring, lighting up clubs and festivals in England, Germany, Switzerland and Scotland. But in the meantime, local fans will be able to see her live at Joe’s Great American Bar in Burbank on February 28. Get there early for a front row seat and catch a little of the trademark Doña Oxford Boogie-woogie Queen excitement.
Patrick O’Heffernan. Host, Music FridayLive!