If the Queen of the Blues has an heir apparent, it's probably Sandra Hall. Should Koko Taylor ever decide to call it quits, the unofficial title she has held for many years should be in good hands with the roly-poly lady from Atlanta.
Hall has been drawing comparisons to Taylor ever since last year's release of One Drop Will Do You, her second album. Hall, like Taylor, has that wrecking ball of a voice that turns otherwise rational people into dancing, foot-stomping fools. Subtlety is something she has never been accused of having.
And Hall is not one of those artists who will tell you it matters not whether she's performing to one person or 1,000, she'll always give it her all. She freely admits a packed room or a jammed festival can bring out more than what can be elicited in a studio.
"Well, yeah, there's nothing like being live," Hall says. "My audience is out there, and they make me come alive. They give me the strength to do more for them. I love doing the festivals best, because the fans have more room to move. I like to see them go crazy."
Just like Koko Taylor? To an extent, Hall says.
"It makes me feel good knowing those people who love Koko also like me, because she's my idol. But when I did One Drop Will Do You, I tried to be me and not Koko Taylor. When I perform live I don't try to be Koko Taylor, either. I thought I could make them see me more than someone else."
If we get technical, Hall, 50, actually has been singing for a living a little longer than Taylor has. Hall and her sister, Barbara, graduated from gospel singing in the local church to a 33-week engagement at Atlanta's Club 400. Sandra was twelve years old at the time, and Barbara was thirteen. "Our grandmother was the chaperone at the club," Hall says. "And she was very strict. There was liquor served at the club, so grandmother would not let us sit in the audience. We could use the dressing room and the stage. We had to be escorted to the restroom, even.
"We couldn't sing on Sundays, and we couldn't bring home a C on our report cards. If we didn't get at least all B's, we couldn't sing. There were a lot of rules, but we loved to sing, so we didn't mind them."
Sandra and Barbara, who called themselves the Soul Sisters, didn't get thrown cold into performing in clubs. The two had been singing for years at Grandma's Saturday fish fries, which were allegedly a legend in Atlanta in the '50s. People came from all over the city to watch the girls cover songs by Ruth Brown, Etta James, and Laverne Baker. "We were the catch of the day at those fish fries," Hall says.
The Soul Sisters graduated to Carr's Lounge, on Peachtree Street in downtown Atlanta, after their 33 weeks at Club 400. Carr's had a mostly white clientele. "It was a step up, sure," Hall says. "Downtown meant the big time, and Carr's was a big-time place."
Hall joined an all-female blues group called the Exotics in '65. The Exotics opened shows for artists like Otis Redding, Joe Tex, Jackie Wilson, B.B. King, and Joe Simon. In 1976 she went solo, and in 1994 her first album, Showin' Off, was issued. It wasn't the disc that she truly wanted, Hall says.
"That first album is more rhythm and blues. I didn't complain, because it was my first album. I did write a few songs on the album--which are blues--and I covered Big Mama Thornton's 'Ball and Chain.' That got my foot in the blues door."
The doors came tumbling down with One Drop Will Do You. Hall forged gritty, aggressive material in the tradition of the classic blues singers. For a woman who was never allowed to miss church service as a girl, she's recorded such self-penned naughty anthems as "Pump Up Your Love" and "My Henhouse," plus Dinah Washington's "Blow Top Blues" and the double-entendre-laden "Big Long Slidin' Thing." Also included are two Eddy Clearwater songs, "Party at My House" and "Find You a Job," and a slow blues number, "Ease the Pain," written by Hall's harmonica player, Chicago Bob Nelson. Hall's own "Use What You Got" usually closes her shows in riotous fashion.
Hall's band, the Excellos, has been named Best Blues Band in Atlanta by Creative Loafing newspaper for the last two years. The group is, in addition to harp blower Nelson, guitarist Mike Lorenz (formerly with Francine Reed), bassist Roger Dukes, keyboardist Henry Parilla (Jimmy Dawkins), and drummer Tom Staley (NRBQ).
Hall's February 14 appearance at the Savannah Bar & Grille is her second in the club's year-old Sunday night concert series, following a November show that left fans begging for a return visit.
Sandra Hall. 8 p.m., Sunday, February 14, Savannah Bar & Grille, 30676 Detroit Rd., Westlake, 440-892-2266, $5 ($7 day of show).