Obituary: Katie Webster

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The Independent Culture
THE HYBERBOLES of popular music are there to be taken with tablespoons of salt, but in the case of Katie Webster, the Louisiana blues pianist, they were barely adequate to describe her powerful, driving style.

Expressions like "the Swamp Boogie Queen" and "Two-Fisted Mama" - slogans which were turned into titles of her two best albums for Alligator, in 1988 and 1989, respectively - convey something of her power, but nothing of her range, which would allow her to insert a snatch of Debussy's "Clair de Lune" followed by "Blue Monk" into a boogie-blues shuffle, without any feeling of incongruity.

In part, this may be due to her background. Both her parents were pianists, her father a popular local ragtime pianist, while her mother inclined more towards the light classics but by the time she was born Kathryn Jewel Thorne in 1936, in Houston, Texas, they had got religion, and turned their back on what they by then described as "the devil's music". Her father became a minister in the Sanctified Church of God in Christ, and in fact the family kept the piano locked when Katie was alone in the house, in case she played the wrong sort of tunes.

Later she told how she managed to persuade them to trust her one time when they left her at home, and posted a friend on guard to warn her of the parents' return. The friend's vigilance failed, and there were the inevitable ructions when her mother heard what she'd been playing as she walked in the door: Fats Domino's "Please Don't Leave Me". It wasn't exactly the last straw, but when her parents and five brothers moved from Texas to Oakland, California, Katie Webster decided to stay with more permissive relatives.

Before she was 13, Webster was touring the "crayfish circuit" through Texas and Louisiana as a professional musician, working in a small-time jazz combo, and caught the ear and eye of the South Louisiana R&B musician, Ashford Savoy, who featured her on his recording sessions. Subsequently, she appeared on more than 500 singles in the Fifties and Sixties, along with such artists as Guitar Junior (Lonnie Brooks), Clarence Garlow, Jimmy Wilson, Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Mad Dog Sheffield, Lightnin' Slim and Clifton Chenier. Chenier's son, C.J. Chenier, returned the compliment when he guested on her 1991 album, No Foolin', performing with her on "Zydeco Shoes And California Blues", a tribute to the South Louisiana Cajun sound.

But her most famous association was with the soul legend Otis Redding. Legend has it that they met when she was playing support when Redding appeared at the Bamboo Club in South Louisiana, and he emerged from his dressing room still in his undershorts when he heard her performing. "Don't let that woman get away!" he cried. "I must talk to her tonight!"

"Everybody that I have hired on my bandstand, they act like they scared to sing," he told her later. "But I want somebody that's going to make me work when I come out there. Would you consider working with my band? Would you consider leaving with my band tonight?" She replied, demurely: "I couldn't leave tonight, but I could leave quite early in the morning."

Legend to one side, she became a regular in Redding's band, performing on the famous "Try a Little Tenderness" track on his Otis Redding At The Whiskey A-Go-Go album, touring with him extensively. Spiritually, she had much in common with him, since they were both children of ministers, and they were known to swap Bible verses and gospel tunes when warming up for a performance. She was not on the tour which ended his life in an aeroplane crash however in 1967 , being eight months' pregnant.

His death hit her hard, and she retired from performing to look after her new baby for several years, and then again when she moved to California to look after her parents in the late Seventies. It was a 1982 tour of Europe which took her music off the back burner, and after the first of many triumphs - she toured Europe nearly 30 times - she was the hit of the San Francisco Blues Festival that year, the first time she had played in the area since a performance with Redding 17 years earlier.

It was the Swamp Boogie Queen Alligator album of 1988 which put her career into overdrive, and the presence of popular blues and rock luminaries like Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray didn't hurt. Both added their plaudits to those of the critics: Raitt called her "the voice of the century" and Cray protested that "I can't understand how someone like me can be famous when Katie Webster isn't".

Her piano playing was severely hampered by a stroke in 1993 which damaged her eyesight and cost her the use of her driving left hand, but she was still a popular festival guest up until months before her death.

Kathryn Jewel Thorne (Katie Webster), pianist: born Houston, Texas 11 January 1936; died League City, Texas 5 September 1999.