Born on March 20, 1949, in Orange, TX; father was a composer; married Gordon Fowler (a restaurateur and painter); children: Luke. Education: Attended Louisiana State University, 1967. Addresses: Record company--Alligator, P.O. Box 60234, Chicago, Il 60660, phone: (312) 973-7736, website: http://www.alligator.com. Booking--The Rosebud Agency, P.O. Box 170429, San Francisco, CA 94117, website: http://www.rosebudus.com, phone: (415) 386-3456, fax: (415) 386-0599. Website--Marcia Ball Official Website: http://www.marciaball.com.
A well-established presence on the Austin, Texas, music scene, pianist-singer Marcia Ball performs a jubilant, heartfelt brand of Louisiana-Texas rhythm and blues, supper club soul, and old-time rock 'n' roll. Part James Booker and part Professor Longhair, with the sultry, bluesy vocal delivery of T-Bone Walker tossed in for good measure, her rollicking style has won the six-foot Ball notice on the thriving New Orleans R&B circuit. She is particularly impressive during live concerts, when the audience can witness her scream, shout, and wring every drop of emotion out of song, all while playing piano in her trademarked, cross-legged style.
Born in Orange, Texas, and raised in Vinton, Louisiana, which was just across the Sabine River and the Texas border, Ball comes from a long line of instrumentalists: her grandmother was a pianist, her father was a composer, and her aunt was a pianist. Ball's family was her first and strongest musical influence, but local Cajun sounds and the soul music she heard on local radio stations also played roles in developing her musical tastes.
Ball began taking piano lessons at the age of five and would continue taking them until she was 14. She was a cheerleader and church choir member in Vinton, enthralled during the rare times when her father would take her to the Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans. At the age of 13, she saw soul crooner Irma Thomas in concert in New Orleans, and the then-pregnant but amazingly energetic Thomas left a lasting impression on Ball and furthered her interest in performing.
Small state-border clubs with names like the Texas Pelican Club, Lou Ann's, and the Showboat Club lined the roads on the outskirts of Vinton, beckoning to the young Ball to try her hand at performing. She took voice lessons at age 18 and, while studying English literature and journalism at Louisiana State University in the late 1960s, was the lead singer of a band called Gum. In 1970 she moved to Austin, Texas.
Since country music was in high demand at the time, the only jobs Ball could find in Austin were country gigs in what she termed "living room bands." She infused her country songs with as much blues and soul sounds as she could while still maintaining the country music veneer. Austin audiences appreciated her eclectic mix of musical sounds and styles, and by 1972 Ball was playing in a popular local progressive country band called Freda and the Firedogs.
Established Reputation at Rounder Records
Ball was established as a musician in Austin under her alias in the band, Freda. When Freda and the Firedogs broke up in 1974, she founded her own band the following year: Marcia and the Misery Brothers. She felt more comfortable using her own name and would later change the group's name to the Marcia Ball Band. Marcia and the Misery Brothers were just as popular on the local scene as Ball's previous band had been. The same year the group was formed, Ball released her first recording, a cover of Patsy Montana's "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," which was punctuated with heartfelt yodels.
In 1978 Ball had her first appearance at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. She then released Circuit Queen on Capital Records, a hybrid album of country music and rhythm and blues. Circuit Queen was not well accepted, and Ball would not record again until 1983, when she released Soulful Dress on Rounder Records. Soulful Dress contains signature tunes such as the title track, which features the legendary Stevie Ray Vaughan, as well as Laverne Baker's ballad "Soul on Fire" and Chuck Berry's Louisiana love song "Eugene." The LP received warm praise and was followed in 1985 by Hot Tamale Baby.
Hot Tamale Baby was a mix of traditional blues and rhythm and blues with no discernible country influence. The album's sound is akin to what you might hear at a bawdy Texas-Louisiana house party, complete with accordionist Clifton Chenier favorites. Ball's early high water mark was achieved with 1989's Gatorhythms, which features original ballads written by Ball and some tasty old school rock 'n' roll. In 1990 she released Dreams Come True on the Antone label, a collaboration with singers Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli. Dreams Come True was produced by pianist Dr. John, one of Ball's musical mentors in New Orleans. The album was recorded to unite the three women, who had spent years perfecting their music on stage at Antone's, a blues club and landmark in Austin.
After a few years of touring in the United States and Europe with her own band, and touring with Barton and Strehli to promote Dreams Come True, Ball released Blue House on Rounder Records in 1994. The album underscored a new direction for Ball: she composed most of the songs on the album and utilized the acoustic guitar and mandolin, both played by Rich Brotherton, for the first time in her recordings. Blue House features a haunting gospel melody and rousing piano anthem and also highlights Ball's greatest influences. Shades of Irma Thomas, singer Bobby "Blue" Bland, and pianists Professor Longhair, Jelly Roll Morton, and Dr. John may be detected when listening to Ball's surprisingly eclectic Blue House.
Allowed the type of creative freedom she could never enjoy at a larger label, Ball's Rounder work--largely co-produced by Scott Billington--made her a respected industry name. However, despite the praise heaped upon such projects as the delightfully funky 1997 album Let Me Play With Your Poodle, the singer-songwriter's works were not as vigorously promoted as those by Rounder's bluegrass wunderkind Alison Krause and she remained primarily a cult performer.
Her final Rounder release saw her being teamed with two of her chief vocal influences, Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas, for the 1998 release Sing It!. Boiling over with bluesy sass, the disc alternated solo spots by the proto-feminist divas with extremely appealing trio collaborations. "I really think this album brought out the best in all of us," Ball told Keri Leigh for Blues Revue. "And each one of us got to relax a little bit in the process, and not worry about the whole album being on our shoulders. Especially Tracy and I, who are kind of control freaks about making our own records."
Found Acclaim at Alligator
Although Ball made several guest appearances on albums by the likes of the Austin Lounge Lizards, Cindy Cashdollar, the Hackberry Ramblers, Candye Kane, and Irma Thomas, she didn't settle on a new label until 2001 when she signed with Alligator. The Chicago-based blues label, while not as powerful as Rounder, provided Ball with credibility as a blues artist. Indeed, the success of her tough R&B-oriented debut for the label, Presumed Innocent, resulted in her first W.C. Handy Blues Awards for Best Contemporary Female Vocalist and Album of the Year. She earned more Handy Award nominations in 2003 with the zydeco-drenched So Many Rivers, which featured a guest appearance by Lousiana's popular accordianist Wayne Toups.
With her son and step-children all grown up and her husband relieved of his responsibilities as a restauranteur, Ball now tackles approximately 150 live dates a year in venues where her name is synonymous with New Orleans-style piano playing and rhythm and blues. She told New Country magazine, "It really boils down to the Gulf Coast for me. So much music has emanated from this area that encompasses everything from the Mexican border up to the other side of Mobile [Alabama]. That's everything I love to play, listen to and eat."
by B. Kimberly Taylor and Ken Burke
Marcia Ball's Career
Member of band Freda and the Firedogs, Austin, TX, 1972-74; formed band Marcia and the Misery Brothers (later called the Marcia Ball Band), 1975; released first solo recording, "I Want to Be a Cowboy's Sweetheart," 1975; appeared on Austin City Limits, 1975; made first appearance at New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, 1978; released debut album, Circuit Queen, Capitol, 1978, Freda and the Firedogs reunion album released by Big Wheel, 1980; recorded for Rounder Records, 1983-1998; recorded the critically acclaimed Dreams Come True, with Lou Ann Barton and Angela Strehli for the Antone's label, 1991; sang with the influential Tracy Nelson and Irma Thomas on the Rounder album Sing It!, 1998; signed with Alligator Records and released Presumed Innocent, 2001; recorded the W.C. Handy Award-nominated So Many Rivers, for Alligator, 2003.
Marcia Ball's Awards
W.C. Handy Blues Award for Contemporary Female Vocalist of the Year, 1998; W.C. Handy Blues Award for Blues Album of the Year for Presumed Innocent, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Circuit Queen Capitol, 1978.
- Freda and the Firedogs: Live Big Wheel, 1980.
- Soulful Dress Rounder, 1983.
- Hot Tamale Baby Rounder, 1986.
- Gatorhythms Rounder, 1989.
- (With Angela Strehli and Lou Ann Barton) Dreams Come True Antone, 1991.
- Blue House Rounder, 1994.
- Let Me Play With Your Poodle Rounder, 1997.
- (With Tracey Nelson and Irma Thomas) Sing It! Rounder, 1998.
- Presumed Innocent Alligator, 2001.
- So Many Rivers Alligator, 2003.
- Austin American Statesman, October 18, 1990; August 18, 1994.
- Billboard, December 1, 1990.
- Chicago Tribune, November 22, 1990.
- Intelligencer Journal, September 9, 1994.
- Los Angeles Times, April 7, 1991.
- Metro Times (Detroit, MI), September 28, 1994.
- New Country, October 1994.
- Philadelphia Inquirer, November 11, 1990.
- Rolling Stone, February 7, 1991; February 2, 1995.
- Washington Post, July 19, 1991.
- The Rosebud Agency, http://www.rosebudUS.com (July 14, 2004).
- Additional information for this profile was obtained from an interview with Ball on March 10, 1995, and from Alligator Records publicity material.