The people in the speakeasy in Verona, PA. used to flip young Gwen Avery nickels to play records on the jukebox.
“It would be B5 or S6 or whatever,” said Avery, now 59 and living in Berkeley. “So that’s how I learned the songs, not by the name of the artist, but by the number.”
Avery is herself a kind of mix-and-match jukebox, capable of low-down trouble blues, harmonic doo-wop and nimble scats – while accompanying herself on the electric piano. “If you threw in Bessie Smith, Etta James, Satchmo, Ma Rainey, Nina Simone, Esther Phillips, and Mahalia Jackson in a big pot and mixed it up, you’d get me,” she said.
And there’s no denying that Avery has a special gift when she breaks out into the spiritual “How Long” in middle of her living room with a voice as wide and deep as the Mississippi River.
“I’ve got a good memory of my roots,” said Avery. “It comes out whenever I open my mouth.”
For Avery, music is in the bones. She was born into a musical family and sang with her parents until she was 4 years old, when they split. After that, she was raised in her grandmother’s speakeasy , with a crowd that was always drinking, dancing and talking too loud.
“Naturally I became an entertainer growing up with all those grown-ups,” she said. “They expected me to be something cute.”
It is this rollicking juke-joint that Avery hopes to recreate when she plays at a benefit concert for Mayoral Candidate Wilson Riles at Humanist Hall in Oakland tonight and when she jams with her Blues Band Sistah’s at the Jon Sims Center for the Arts in San Francisco on Saturday.
Not only does she want to bring back the dance-out-of-your-seat good times, Avery said, but also the camaraderie that was special in her segregated hometown.
“It was the only place in town where everybody could mingle,” said Avery. “People of all races would get a beer, listen to music, and talk about their homelands. It was a little tiny melting pot.”
A search for more of this combination of diversity and intimacy led her to the Bay Area. “The looseness was astonishing,” she said. “The way people would ride public transportation and huddle together!”
Before she decided to stay in San Francisco, she stopped off in several cities, including Chicago, where she made up her mind to take up singing as a profession. At first Avery and the hippie friends were just taking it all in, astounded that $2 could get them into bars to see the likes of Carol King and Miriam Makeba.
But then her friends heard her sing and told her she should seriously consider making singing her life.
“I said, ‘Me?’”
It didn’t take long before record labels like Decca and Arista started paying attention. “But I wasn’t ready for that regimentation,” said Avery. “I was too much of a free spirit.”
Lack of a stable finances did mean she had to employ “other skills” to survive in the early days, she said with a chuckle. “I cut hair. I knew how to play pool very well, so I could always hustle. My grandma was a bootlegger so I learned a lot. I knew what I had to do to survive.”
These days she still cuts albums on an independent record label, practices in her house and loads all of her own musical equipment in the back of her new truck. Avery and Emily Tincher, her manager and partner, may run a small-scale operation that relies on word-of-mouth publicity, but Avery's popularity doesn’t suffer.
Her schedule is full of gigs at battered women’s shelters, prisons, or black history month celebrations at local colleges. Last year, Outmusic, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered musicians’ organization, named Avery’s “Sugar Mama” New Album of the Year.
“It’s a slow crank, but I like it that way,” said Avery. “I never craved the big excitement like--what's her name? ... Britney.”