Living Blues — Living Blues #246
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Amy van Singel

Living Blues magazine co-founding editor Amy van Singel died in Ellsworth, Maine, September 19, 2016. She was born in Chicago on Oct. 11, 1949 and lived in the suburb of Hinsdale growing up. Amy told WERU radio in 2013: “Back in 1964-65 I devoured a very thorough bio about the Rolling Stones that mentioned their idols: Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, etc. I just had to find the records, which weren’t available at my local mom & pop record store in Hinsdale, Illinois. A friend in high school who was a bit older with a driver’s license got lost in Chicago one day and discovered the Jazz Record Mart. So I rode the Burlington commuter railroad into Chicago and met Bob Koester, the store owner, who also ran Delmark Records. . . . I started hanging out in the store as often as I could . . . Koester was my mentor.”

Amy enrolled at Endicott College in Beverly, Massachusetts, in 1967, and attended blues shows in the area at the Club 47 and other spots. She transferred to Northwestern University in 1968 and began broadcasting on WNUR. In her junior year she was the youngest member of the staff that founded Living Blues.1

I first “met” Amy van Singel, then Amy O’Neal, sometime in the mid-1970s. She and Jim were married and living in Chicago, editing Living Blues together; I had just begun writing an irregular column on the blues scene in Los Angeles, plus the occasional obituary, for the magazine. I use the word “met” in quotation marks because we lived so far apart in those long-ago days before e-mail that all of our contact was via letters and phone calls.

At that time I was hosting a blues radio show in Los Angeles and beginning to write liner notes and produce reissues. But I was never part of the “boys club” that was blues scholarship. The record collectors who traded 78s in smoke-filled apartments, the record producers, the learned scholars and the liner note writers were all men. The few blues radio shows that existed were hosted by men. No women were publicly acknowledged, except for Amy. In later years I would come to know of and respect Cilla Huggins in the UK and her seminal work as part of the Blues Unlimited magazine team, but in the mid-’70s I wasn’t yet aware of her. The only woman whose name I ever saw on a masthead was Amy O’Neal. Credited as an editor, a photographer, a blues radio show host and so much more, she was one of the trailblazers. Seeing Amy’s name on that masthead every issue meant that there was, somewhere, a place other than the stage for women who wanted to do something to support the blues tradition. It told me that the days of “boys clubs” were slowly passing, and knowing that there was another woman’s voice on the blues airwaves, albeit 2,500 miles away, gave me a much needed boost in self confidence.

I met Jim in real life several times, as his travels for research projects occasionally brought him to Southern California. But while he was on the road, Amy stayed in Chicago, answering the phone, pasting up the magazine, calling potential advertisers, sorting through and choosing photos (often her own), fielding phone calls from broke and stranded blues musicians and keeping the roof from falling in on the magazine. Her organizational skills and ability to balance what little budget Living Blues ever had were reasons that it didn’t collapse. We talked on the phone now and then, but in those days before unlimited minutes on cell phones, she was always the one to remind me how long we had been talking, and that the Living Blues phone bill was a thing of her nightmares.

After the magazine was transferred to the stewardship of the University of Mississippi and Jim and Amy divorced, Amy and I lost touch for a while. After trying her hand at running a record store in Oxford, she moved to Memphis, and then to Alaska, and our letters were fewer and farther between. But once e-mail arrived in our lives, those wonderful little electrons made it seem as though no time had passed. And our friendship finally resulted in meeting in real life, as she came out to Los Angeles and stayed with me for a week. In her “Atomic Mama” persona she guest-hosted my radio show, and we both enjoyed it immensely. I took her to the Magic Castle, a place she had long dreamed of visiting, and whose formal dress code was the subject of some hilarious advance planning emails. (“I have to wear a DRESS? Hmmm. Well, I THINK I have a dress. Somewhere.”) And there were other, later meetings; she flew to Memphis to attend the Folk Alliance conference one year when I was on a panel there, and that was when I finally got to meet her husband Chuck Cameron, with whom she was blissfully happy in her new life in Maine. Another time I e-mailed her my plans to visit New Orleans with my friend Tony Russell, and she spontaneously flew down to join us there. It was no hardship at all, she said, to leave Maine in the dead of winter for New Orleans’ sunnier climes.

And then, just two days after our last contact, an e-mail from Scott Barretta told me that she was gone. The inspiration she gave me, and I’m sure many younger women who came along after us, remains a great gift, and I will treasure it, and the memory of our friendship.

—Mary Katherine Aldin

Sometime in the mid-1970s, Amy invited me in to Living Blues’ inner sanctum to typeset the magazine in a part-time capacity. Of course the job paid lousy—the magazine was always in dire straits—but I was nuts about blues and eager to help, and Amy liked the fact that I was a “real” typesetter (I was also working a full-time job in the trade). The production offices of Living Blues circa 1976 were in the dank basement of Jim and Amy’s home on Wilton Avenue in the then lowrent area of Lincoln Park. Their equipment consisted of two basic phototypesetting machines, an ExecuWriter and a Linocomp (used machines that were researched, purchased and painfully maintained by Amy), set up on tables with mismatched chairs and in the presence of any number of freely roaming cats and visitors. The phones seemed to be always ringing, as was the doorbell— deliveries during the day and musicians and fans dropping by in the evening.

One particular day comes to mind. After Amy had returned to the mainstream workforce to help pay the bills, we were crossing paths as I came in for my shift and she was getting ready to go out to hers. She was quite unhappy that she had to go out to the corporate side when there was so much real work to be done at the magazine. She went briefly to the kitchen, returned with a can of beer, popped it open and slung herself over the arm of a chair to quickly spell out my duties for the day before she chugged the beer and left for work. Impressive, I thought.

Setting type was quite complicated on those early phototypesetting machines. You had to code in the typeface, type size, leading and column width, choosing from a limited selection (all meticulously documented by Amy). These tabletop typesetting machines had no video screens—only a little window, like a miniature Times Square newsfeed, in which you could see the last 25 characters or so that you had typed moving past like the latest news bulletin. The bulletin might tell you that, oops, three words back you spelled a word wrong! When you got near the end of each line, a light would come on to let you know that you had a few characters within which to decide where to justify the line before moving down to the next line. You might guess wrong. And if you did nothing, the machine, which, let’s face it, was not too bright, would decide for you and might end in the middle of a word, pausing to photographically cast that line on the photosensitive paper coiled inside the machine (you would have to reset those line(s) later with the other corrections—there would be lots of those). There was no going back and editing anything—these machines had no “memory” of any kind or any way to save or capture keystrokes. What you set was what you got.

When finished typesetting, you would push a button to advance the paper into a removable canister which you would then take to the “darkroom” under the stairs (watch out for your head—and don’t step in that litter box!) And feed the paper roll through the two chemical baths and fixative before using a clothespin to hang up the final typeset paper strip to dry on a wire strung up in the dark.

And even if you did everything right, when you brought your galleys into the light you might find that the glossy paper was too dark, or the type was too faint to reproduce because the chemistry was going bad (they had a short life and could also get contaminated by other chemicals). If bad, the chemicals had to be dumped and a new batch mixed—and all the type would have to be reset.

Other dangers included having the fragile paper tear, or drop to the floor where it might pick up any number of things, or be peed on by a cat. You might also spill coffee, food or beer on it. Or even completely rip it to shreds, swearing loudly that there must be a better way of (pick one) making a living; producing a printed document; preserving blues history.

In the meantime, the phone would ring: someone from Germany wanted to talk about blues—in German; an organization was putting on a benefit and needed Amy or Jim to recommend blues musicians who would play—for free; the Chicago Surrealists were calling to ask if Amy could typeset another issue of their magazine; somebody was in town and wanted a club tour; Good Rockin’ Charles was looking for a place to crash.

Jim was always a model of restraint and calmness. But Amy carried the true face of their endlessly maddening, nearly completely frustrating task and the marvelous absurdity of their lives documenting the blues. It is a wonder that the magazine came out at all, but of course it did—thanks to Amy and Jim’s evolving knowledge and skills, tireless energy and an almost naïve perseverance.

I am very grateful for our friendship and to have been along for part of the ride. Both were very kind to me, but especially Amy, who encouraged me as a young writer (and as an older one). I was fortunate to have maintained a connection with her, and to return the favor of encouragement in recent years. I will miss her dearly.

—Justin O’Brien

At the time I met Amy I was very impressed with her as a sharp entrepreneur. She was just building up her name in the blues world. I was very lucky to have Amy and Jim O’Neal coproduce my first LP for Rooster Blues Records, which turned out to be The Chief. Amy gave her opinions on my songs and on the instruments used and was very explicit with her ideas, which I adhered to. In my estimation it still is one of the best albums I made. When Amy was a DJ for WNIB radio, I agreed to be on her show to have a good time. Little did I know, but the elevator was out that day. Oh well, what could I do but trudge up 26 flights of stairs. Amy was worth every step . . . But 26 floors? I am still thinking about that.

I pray that Amy finds peace and contentment in blues heaven and hooks up with my mother-in-law for a jovial heavenly time. What a superb human being. RIP Amy.

With love from one friend to another,

—Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater

In 1978, we were two very excited Brits in Chicago for the first time. High on our list was to visit Jim and Amy O’Neal at their home on North Wilton Avenue where they had been publishing Living Blues for several years. We were greeted by a smiling Amy who gave us a tour of their abode. The front door led straight into the living room, with stairs leading down to the “engine room”—their basement. The walls were lined with shelves full of records, books, paperwork and photos, even a vintage Magnecord wire recorder. To the side was the “inner sanctum,” which was the LB production department. Amy, an accomplished typographer, explained with pride how she used her “glorified typewriter” (an early phototypesetter) to produce the artwork for the magazine. She used a wax roller system to hold the copy in place—how she managed to keep everything squared up for the printer we’ll never know as there wasn’t a drawing board in sight. She also introduced us to her several feline friends and a collection of exotic plants growing in bell jars. North Wilton Avenue was a busy household for socializing, too; barely had we been there a couple of hours and we had encountered veteran bluesman Floyd Jones, slide guitar ace Johnny Littlejohn, Wolf’s last drummer Chico Chism and Billy Boy Arnold, who had all stopped by for a chat. Amazing!

In later years we were kindly invited to stay at the house while in Chicago on blues matters. Amy did manage a couple of trips to the UK—once helping to chaperone a Chicago blues tour (with Jim) and again on vacation (with her sister). She proved knowlegeable on historic sites and had an informed interest in Staffordshire pottery and English gardens, especially rose gardens.

On our second trip to Chicago in 1979 we hatched plans to start a record label, Rooster Blues Records: Mick & Cilla and Jim & Amy. Our first project was the wonderful LP The Chief by Eddy Clearwater, his first full studio album. By early 1980 we had made arrangements to get the first acetates processed at PYE’s basement studio in London. During the session, the engineer casually mentioned he was expecting his next client. Imagine our astonishment when Paul McCartney walked through the door! Paul asked what was being cut, so in explaining the Rooster adventure, Amy’s name was mentioned. He gave us a huge smile, and said when he was in Chicago he always tuned in to Amy as “Atomic Mama” on the radio, and loved her voice and her show. Praise indeed!

Amy had a genuine sweetness and plenty of quiet charm but was a very tough cookie with her opinions when it came to defending real blues and the true heritage of the genre; her interviews, photos and archive material will remain a true witness to the living blues and its culture.

Amy remained our friend, and we would get the odd chatty message from her, keeping us up to date with her post-Chicago exploits. Our sincerest sympathies and condolences to all who knew and loved her. We are so sad.

—Cilla & Mick Huggins Juke Blues

Amy loved small things that took time and that offered a window or glimpse into the dream of the perfect. She loved orchids and raised them, curated and cultivated them, in a makeshift greenhouse out one of the upper story windows in the house she shared with Jim in Chicago. When one bloomed, especially if it had been recalcitrant, she was ebullient, giggly, shining.

I think Living Blues was one of those things, at least something that started in that category. Perfection meant getting it right, the authentic stuff, the connection to a vibrant, living scene without pretense or false nostalgia or big-hipped caricatures. And although the photo record will show her on site with blues luminaries, and the magazine and book texts will highlight her skill as an interviewer and passion as a documentarian, a lot of what she did for the magazine was set the type for each issue. I will go out on a limb and say a big part of her personal work identity was as a typesetter and layout artist. She was a lover of fonts, a conservator of space, who basked in ratio and proportion when she could find or create it on a page. Amy loved the challenge of “making it perfect” and when a page and an issue came together it pleased her deep sensibility for these things, even if (almost) no one would notice. This paints her as a bit geeky, especially for someone with a throw-down handle like “Atomic Mama,” but she hewed true to herself and I’m sure her interview subjects sensed and responded to that. She never affected a blues persona, whatever that is—she was her own marvelously observant, wry, particular self even when the scene got outside the lines.

I think, for Amy, that Chicago window-box greenhouse was a little stage, the orchids like dolls on it, tiny mirror-selves. She was a gardener in a dollhouse then, always loving, always coaxing some small, perfect thing to find life in itself and bloom. It wasn’t always easy but she never flagged, never lost her enthusiasm for the work, her work in the blues, her work on herself. She was, too, a warm and generous mentor. She will be deeply missed.

—Billy Cochran

It was a big jolt, hearing about the death of Living Blues co-founder Amy van Singel. She was one of our oldest friends, so Beth and I began reminiscing the great times with Amy (and Jim):

In the late 1970s, Beth and I moved into the apartment above Amy and Jim, and that was the beginning of many memorable times.

When we were on our honeymoon, Amy and Jim gave us a wedding gift, our first cat, Dealer. They took a picture of him playing on a newspaper, but the camera was focused on the newspaper’s date, our wedding day, June 25. At the time Amy and Jim had a cat named Frankie.

We had a photo of Amy trying to hold our two new orange kittens, Wendell and Wellman, one in another that shows Amy with Cilla Huggins (Juke Blues) sitting with a bunch of us on the front steps of the Living Blues house.

I’ve been active in the Surrealist movement in the United States for decades. Beginning in the late 1960s, we used to take copy to various typesetters. Amy had been typesetting for Living Blues for quite a while before one of us on the Surrealist side realized that we might make a great team. The Surrealists began bringing copy for Amy to typeset, and the idea of having a special surrealist issue of Living Blues was soon born. This was the occasion of greater contact for all of us, making everyone more intimate, creating a more lasting connection between blues and Surrealism.

Jim, Amy and Living Blues moved to the South, but not in that order. They had separated and we were pretty much out of contact, but then came their co-edited book, The Voice of the Blues. Amy and Jim were both at Chicago’s annual Printers Row Book Fair in 2002 to participate in a Living Blues panel. We all wanted to get our books inscribed by both Amy and Jim, and pretty soon Amy was cracking up because she and Jim were standing there, side by side, just like old times, signing autographs and laughing.

Since 2003, Living Blues and the Center for the Study of Southern Culture have presented a highly respected symposium on the blues on the campus of the University of Mississippi in Oxford. Amy and I happened to be invited to participate in the symposium the same year. I think it was 2004, as it was the year Patti Schroeder’s Robert Johnson book came out. It’s easy to feel alone and isolated when you are attending these affairs, so Patti and I made it a point to hang with Amy the entire time . . . Except once. It happened like this: the highlight of the conference was a live performance by B.B. King and surprise emcee Morgan Freeman. Amy and I sat together during the concert, and when we left, we found ourselves in an empty parking lot. There was not a trace of the bus that had brought us to the concert hall, and we had no idea where we were. We both were pretty freaked, but we soon heard an engine start up as a car that we hadn’t noticed began to leave the lot. We ran to the lot entrance and managed to flag them down. It was an older couple (like us) and when we explained our predicament, they said they would give us a ride to the hotel. On the journey—farther than I had realized—we told them who we were, and they acted thrilled to meet actual founders of Living Blues.

The last time I saw Amy was several years ago at a Blues and the Spirit Conference at Dominican University in River Forest, a Chicago suburb. Beth talked to Amy on the telephone at that time, and Amy told her about her new home in Maine and plans she had for the future. I got a chance to meet Amy’s husband, Chuck, and I remember thinking, “Great, now all of our cups are finally filled.”

It was hard waking up this morning with an empty cup once again.

—Paul Garon

As soon as Amy van Singel took to the airwaves as Atomic Mama on WERU Community Radio, we knew we had a treasure on our hands. Her program, called Blue Hill Blues after our city of license, aired for three years and provided a level of quality and depth that was extraordinary and unsurpassed. Atomic Mama shared fascinating stories and information about blues greats, both the famous and the barely known, and played tremendous music from the blues canon and well beyond. Amy was also a very warm person with a wry, self-deprecating sense of humor, wrapped up in an understated manner. She was fun to joke with and learn from, and will be greatly missed by her listeners and friends here in Maine.

—Matt Murphy WERU – Maine

I met Amy van Singel (then O’Neal) more than 25 years ago in Oxford, Mississippi, at the Living Blues office in the Center for the Study of Southern Culture. She had a small record store in town. We hit it off and stayed friends. We’d talk on the phone. She was a fountain of information about music, but of the blues in particular. What impressed me more was her personal relationship with so many originators of the blues, and their respect for her. The last time I saw her was in Alaska. It was maybe 2008–9. She was living there and seemed kind of cut off from things. We talked, I bought her some food and drinks, we exchanged info and we’d always talk for quite a while about all things music, blues in particular. I’d heard she’d moved and I think I might have been going in one direction, and she another and we did not connect again. She should have written a book about her experiences! Her involvement with the blues, mainly blues people who weren’t household names, was so important. I hope Amy is in Blues Heaven having “Champagne & Reefer” with Muddy!

—Joe Louis Walker

Through her radio broadcasts and longtime presence in the pages of Living Blues, Amy van Singel touched more lives than she probably ever imagined, as tributes to her have poured in from around the world. When we met in 1968 as students at Northwestern University, she helped me learn about blues when I knew next to nothing. A mutual friend at NU, Elizabeth Riley, who is now an artist in New York City, set us up on a date when she learned we both liked blues— although I think the connection she made was the Moody Blues, at a time we were all into the British bands as well. Amy opened the window for me to a whole new world of blues at Bob Koester’s Jazz Record Mart, where she had once worked, and together we began exploring the South and West Side blues taverns like Pepper’s, Theresa’s and Big Duke’s. We embarked on a mission to bring recognition to the blues originators and the living African American blues tradition, first with some interviews we sent to Blues Unlimited and then by joining with Bruce Iglauer, Paul Garon, Diane Allmen, Tim Zorn and Andre Souffront to start Living Blues. Without our knowledge, Bruce wrote a short wedding announcement for us in the second issue of LB. In the years to come, many envious blues aficionados told me how lucky I was—I didn’t have to hide my record-buying habit from my wife. We shared in that pursuit and just about everything else, loving the blues and our life together. We decided not to have children, but poured our energy into birthing and parenting Living Blues.

We both learned all the magazine production tasks, from editing and interviewing to typesetting, design, fulfilling subscriptions and mailing. We handed our camera back and forth at gigs and interviews, so much that we often couldn’t remember who had taken which photos. LB also served as a training ground for outside work we took on as editors, writers and typesetters; when we were finally able to hire a shipping clerk, Felix Wohrstein, he learned the job so well that he found a full-time job at the post office. We—mostly Amy, with help from Justin O’Brien—also typeset liner notes for Delmark, Alligator and other labels, as well as the first issues of Vegetarian Times and various surrealist publications.

We also stayed busy connecting musicians with festival promoters, television crews and record companies, acting as tour guides, procuring passports for bluesmen, finding a spare bed for Sam Myers or Houston Stackhouse when they were in town, running a mail order record business, starting a record label with Mick and Cilla Huggins, compiling and mailing out ballots for the W.C. Handy Blues Awards, serving on the first Chicago Blues Festival committee, traveling with musicians or on our own research trips, collecting material that we would one day donate to form a core element of the University of Mississippi Blues Archive and producing Amy’s radio show on WNIB and WXFM, “Atomic Mama’s Wang-Dang-Doodle Blues Show.” (On the Northwestern University station, WNUR, it had been “Big Mama’s Blues Show.”)

Amy became “Atomic Mama” in 1972 after we became friends with the Harrington family—Houston Harrington, who ran the Atomic-H record label, his sons Joe and Vernon (the Atomic Souls) and Eddy “Clearwater” Harrington, who made his first record for Atomic-H and later recorded for Rooster Blues at sessions that he, Amy and I co-produced. Carey Bell Harrington, who became another Rooster Blues artist, was our furniture mover when we moved to a third floor apartment in Logan Square.

Amy loved being on the radio and loved designing the magazine. I always felt her artistic talents were hindered by our decision to cram as many words into LB as possible at the expense of photos and graphics she could have used to enhance the visuals. But our mission was to get the word out, and the word took priority. We took thousands of photos that we never used in LB. Now that the negatives are archived at the University of Mississippi Blues Archive, the world may get to enjoy them at last.

As Billy Cochran notes in his remembrance, Amy could be a perfectionist. So could I. We even used John Coltrane’s mantra, “May there be peace and love and perfection,” in our wedding vows. But striving for perfection amidst the many pressures we faced—constant deadlines, more and more work, scraping to pay the bills, searching for resolution—took its toll. We thought turning publishing duties for the magazine over to the University of Mississippi in 1983 would ease the burden; it did in some ways, but Amy lost her position as designer in the transition and she was never happy with the new arrangement. We finally parted ways in Oxford in 1987, coinciding with my resignation as editor of LB.

Amy had more than her share of struggles in the years that followed. She never found another job that was as fulfilling as her work with LB although she continued to host radio shows on stations in Holly Springs, Oxford and Memphis, and later in Alaska—where she moved to get as far from her troubles in Memphis as she could—and Maine. I was glad when she found peace and happiness with her new husband, Chuck Cameron.

Amy deserves all the credit that people have given her and much more. Dick Shurman, who was always on hand to contribute to LB and share in many an adventure with us, is working with a committee in Chicago to honor her memory with a dedication at the 2017 Chicago Blues Festival.

—Jim O’Neal