(This interview was conducted in advance of a Marcia Ball show scheduled for July 7, 2013, at the Old Rock House in St. Louis. Alas, the show was cancelled by the venue.)
By Barry Gilbert
Over almost four decades, a lot of amazing, funny and just plain weird stuff has floated by the windows of Marcia Ball’s tour vehicles. And the Texas-born and Lousiana-reared roadhouse R&B singer and pianist has stopped and gawked at most of them.
Among them, as chronicled in her song “Roadside Attractions,” are a concrete dinosaur, Jesus in a screen door, a blue ox, chimney rocks, two-headed livestock, “Alligator Jumparoo,” the corn palace, the fair in Dallas, redwood trees, a giant strawberry, a 2-ton ball of string, snake farms, longhorns and rock star millionaires.
And, Ball says, a telephone booth.
A telephone booth?
“In Abilene, Texas, there’s kind of like a two-fer, side by side,” Ball said recently by phone from the road between shows in Columbus, Ohio, and Charleston, West Virginia. “There is a big cut-out of a bison, and you can climb up on it and have your picture made. Which I did of course, my bass player and I took turns climbing up and taking each other’s pictures on that. And right next to it is a telephone booth. And that’s so rare these days as to be a roadside attraction. Look, Mommy, what’s that? Well, honey that’s a telephone booth.”
Ball laughs a rich, smoky laugh as she talks about the song, the title cut of her most recent CD. It was inspired by a roadside attraction she saw years ago called Gator Jumperoo, one of the two main shows (the other, of course, is Gator Wrestlin’) at the still-operating Gatorland near Orlando, Fla.
“And I always wanted to write a song called ‘Alligator Jumperoo,’” she says. “It would be like a hop-and-dance tune. But, ultimately, I just worked it into this song. Weirdest roadside attraction I’ve personally witnessed. I’ve seen most of the things I mentioned, except maybe for the Taj Mahal.”
Another treasured American attraction is soul singer Irma Thomas, whom Ball has gotten to know and work with over the years. Ball first saw Thomas perform in 1962, when Ball was 13 and went with her teenage cousin to a “package show” in New Orleans that starred Thomas, who was about 21 at the time.
Ball’s memory is vague about who else was on the show – “probably Lee Dorsey and Ernie K. Doe” – but she does remember that the Soul Queen of New Orleans was pregnant.
“I think she was pregnant with her fourth child, she’s got four, and I think that was her final pregnancy,” Ball says. “I think she finally figured out, and I’m not joking, what caused that. It took her a while, she told me, to connect the cause and effect. So there was that. And then of course, beyond that, it was her voice, her songs, some of which I still do.”
The two singers met years later, became friends and recorded the album “Sing It” together with fellow blues belter Tracy Nelson.
For Ball, Thomas and many other ambassadors of Lousiana music, Hurricane Katrina was an obvious blow but, in a way, a career help. For a while after Katrina, Ball says, there was a spike in interest in all things New Orelans.
Ball says that heightened interest in New Orleans music has helped lift a new generation of musicians, including Eric Lindell and trumpet legend Kermit Ruffins, who has been featured many times on the HBO TV series “Treme.”
“A lot of cool things are coming out of New Orleans right now, like the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars with Tab Benoit and Cyril Neville, who has a new band, Royal Southern Brotherhood, with Devon Allman (and Mike Zito),” she says.
“Irma said that Katrina was a good booking agent. For all the bad, it did draw attention to the New Orleans musicians, who returned as fast as they could, in greater numbers, proportionately, and faster than the average citizens. They felt it was their duty to re-create and support what made New Orleans unique and special.”
Ball’s piano style is also unique and special: She sits behind her keyboard, legs crossed, top leg swinging, as the Professor Longhair-inspired rhythms roll from her fingers. She is asked whether anybody – perhaps a piano teacher? – ever tried to break her of that expressive posture.
“Well, I never started doing that till I got in bands,” she says. “I was a conventional 10-year -old piano student with a poor, long-suffering teacher who tried very hard to teach a generation of brats in a small town how to play piano.”
Ball says her stage manner evolved over time, influenced by the “physical constraints of a piano onstage. First of all, I used to for years carry a spinet piano, a real small piano, and hauled it onstage. And I turned it sideways, the way I do, because I needed to face the crowd the best I could and have some energy and some rhythm going.
“And at some point, I started wearing skirts and dresses, so I couldn’t sit like Fats Domino or Jerry Lee (Lewis) straddling the mike stand, so it just came to be. And now I’m a sidesaddle piano player.”