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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the November 6, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Deb Callahan’s Blues Sound
Philadelphia’s roots-rock and blues chanteuse Deb Callahan
says she likes the raw emotional intensity of the blues. Callahan,
a singer and songwriter who has her master’s degree in social work
from the University of Pennsylvania, was raised in suburban Boston
and graduated from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine. As a songwriter,
she has explored new lyrical territory in the blues, and that’s part
of the reason her debut album, "If The Blues Had Wings" has
been so well received by critics and on radio.
"I’m a bit of an intellectualized person," says Callahan,
who appears Friday, November 8, at Triumph Brewing on Nassau Street.
She admires the songs of Joni Mitchell and John Prine a great deal,
she relates, "and I could have ended up like a sensitive Joni
Mitchell type singer-songwriter, but what appealed to me about the
blues was I wanted to get away from my head and get to my emotional
side, as opposed to my rational and intellectual side."
Callahan, who works part-time at a women’s crisis center in Philadelphia,
agrees with the notion that singing blues is therapy for her. "It
provides a release and a sense of freedom. I love the feeling of singing
with and playing with a band. I take in people’s emotions at my job
and probably channel some of them out."
Asked about her first inklings of wanting to become a singer, Callahan,
37, says she was raised in Beverly, Massachusetts, outside of Boston
and always loved singing as a child. Her mother, a psychotherapist,
is a piano player. A young Callahan took piano lessons as a child,
but gave it up after a few months. Her father worked in paper sales
and ran his own travel agency for a time.
"As a kid, I would listen to the radio and try to imitate the
singer," she says. "My mom listened to a lot of gospel and
soulful music and my dad listened to a mixture of stuff," she
recalls. After her parents adopted two African-American orphans, she
explains, "they sent me to the Elma Lewis School for Black Cultural
Arts in Roxbury, and that exposed me to some different ideas about
But it wasn’t until she was in college that her appreciation
for blues took a real hold on her. At Bowdoin, she majored in political
science and art, and began singing in various blues bands as well
as seeing the music performed live in nearby Portland, Maine, which
has a very healthy blues society.
On the album "If the Blues Had Wings," Callahan’s fresh approach
as a songwriter comes through on songs like the sexual double entendre
of "Coffee Grind," as well as "Broken Down Man," her
own version of John Prine’s "Angel From Montgomery."
Her backing band on the CD includes Hopewell-raised guitarist, and
songwriter "Sir Bill" Baltera, but Baltera is an in-demand
studio and touring musician. So her band for the last several years
has included former June Rich guitarist Allen James, a well-known
guitarist on the Philadelphia club scene; bassist Robbertto Rickards
and drummer Doug Masters.
At MarketFair’s Big Fish Bistro on a recent Friday night, the Deb
Callahan Band played a first set that was mostly original compositions,
and a second set that included lots of crowd-pleasing covers like
Kris Kristoffersen’s "Me and Bobby McGee," "Shaky Ground,"
a tune popularized by New Jersey’s own Phoebe Snow, and Aretha Franklin’s
"Chain of Fools" that segued into "Papa Was A Rolling
Stone." She and her band also injected new life into other old
familiar classic R&B chestnuts like "At Last," and Al Green’s
"Take Me To The River."
Callahan hasn’t thought much about who has inspired her songwriting,
but the way she typically works is to sing something into her tape
deck and then take it to the band in rehearsal. "I usually get
some kind of chorus-like lyric in my head and then I’ll start expanding
it into some sort of theme, and sometimes the melody will come with
it," she explains.
"I’m not an amazing guitar player by any means so what I’ll do
is sing it into my tape recorder and then sing it to the band. Sometimes
I’ll have an idea as to what the rhythm should be too."
"As a singer, I was inspired by a lot of the soul singers,"
she says. "Otis Redding, Al Green, Aretha Franklin, and Tina Turner
were influences for me, but at the same time I really liked John Lee
Hooker and Muddy Waters. And I always loved Buddy Guy’s voice, I love
the way he shivers when he sings."
After graduating with her MSW from Penn in 1992, Callahan worked full-time
at a rape crisis center for seven years before scaling back her work
schedule to concentrate more of her efforts on securing more bookings
for the band.
Already, the band has played festivals and clubs around the Northeast,
everywhere from Madam’s Organ in the Adams-Morgan neighborhood of
Washington, D.C., to Diamond State Blues Society events in New Castle,
Delaware, Bucks County Blues Society events in Bucks County, and well-known
New Jersey nightclubs like Red, Hot & Blue in Cherry Hill and Cabanas
in Cape May.
Callahan has received airplay for "If The Blues Had Wings"
on WXPN in Philadelphia and public and college radio stations around
Delaware, New Jersey, Maryland and Washington, D.C.
"I started writing songs for this album with Walter Runge, who
was my keyboard player, and we worked on them over a period of a couple
of years," she explains. The album was recorded in two different
studios in Philadelphia within a year.
Callahan says she’s always enjoyed writing poetry and short stories;
so writing songs presented a similar yet different kind of challenge.
Not surprisingly, she has several dozen unrecorded songs and plenty
of new material for a new album of material, but often times the recording
and financing of a CD is done in stages.
"Given my background as a social worker, I’m interested in people
and what makes people do what they do, so I tend to write songs about
what I see," she says. A small label in Boston is interested in
releasing the Deb Callahan Band’s second CD, and that may or may not
come to fruition, she cautions. In the meantime, she continues working
her part-time job and finding inspiration for new songs at her day
job and on the road.
"I like the rawness and the intensity and power of the blues,"
she says, "and I think it’s a very sexual music and you can express
a lot of emotions. It’s a very present medium. And sometimes, lyrically,
I’ll think of something a brassy blues guy might say, like Muddy Waters."
For the near future, Callahan says, "I want to keep writing new
songs and be playing places where we can primarily do our original
material, places where people are appreciative of that. I’d like to
have an audience that comes to hear the music."
— Richard J. Skelly
609-924-7855. Blues vocals. Friday, November 8, 10:30 p.m.
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