Wednesday, Nov 07 2012 12:17 PM

Blues singer learned in school of hard knocks

BY PAT EVANS Contributing writer

Friday night we have a chance to see and hear an amazing artist whose talent and passion enabled her to carve life, hope and joy out of a childhood steeped in incredible tragedy.

Janiva Magness was born in Detroit and fondly remembers the early years listening to her father's blues and country albums, and the Motown soul of her hometown. Then when Janiva was 14, her mother took her own life. Two years later Janiva's father also ended his life. Along with steady use of drugs and alcohol, Janiva spent the next two years living on the street among 12 different foster home placements. At 17 she had a baby girl and put her up for adoption.

Janiva's last foster mom was into music and encouraged Janiva to sing along with the radio. One night Janiva sneaked into a club to see blues great Otis Rush perform.

"He just blew my mind. He made me feel things I didn't know what to do with. The music spoke to parts of me that had never been addressed. It opened up some other place in me, like letting oxygen into a sealed crypt for the first time."

She continued to go to as many blues and soul concerts as she could and took an intern position at a recording studio in St. Paul, Minn.

"One night I was tracking demos for an R&B project. It was 2 or 3 in the morning, and I had my head down on the desk when they buzzed me: 'We need some background vocals.' It was a terrifying proposition to me, but I went back there and sang. Somebody else heard me and said, 'That was great!' and I started to think, I can do this."

Janiva spent many years as a background vocalist and eventually struck out with her own band in the early '80s.

Gradually, critical praise began to mount. After a series of awards and accolades, Janiva Magness, in 2009, became the only woman other than the great Koko Taylor to receive the most coveted blues award, BB King Entertainer of the Year.

"For me the blues has been about redemption, about healing," she said. "This kind of music requires that you don't hold back any pain, and you don't hold back any joy. You have to put it all out there. And it has saved me. To me, blues is like a balm for the wounded."

Janiva Magness tours in support of her 10th and latest release, "Stronger for It."

What an appropriate title.

Pat Evans, owner of World Records, is founder of the No Stinkin' Service Charge Blues Series.

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