Living Blues — Living Blues #243
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Toni Lynn Washington
Margo Cooper

Music Is My Passion. Music Is My Life

Toni Lynn Washington is a beloved member of the Boston blues community. From the time she was a child, Washington reveled in the hymns she heard her step-grandmother sing at home and the gospel music she heard at church. Music has been a constant thread in her life, and Washington’s extensive repertoire, from blues to R&B and jazz, reflects her love for music and the longevity of her remarkable career.

A few months ago I ran into Gordon “Sax” Beadle when he sat in with Luther “Guitar Junior” Johnson at Johnny D’s in Somerville, Massachusetts. During a break Gordon urged me to write Toni Lynn’s story for Living Blues. Washington’s latest CD, I Wanna Dance, had recently been released. Gordon remarked, “It’s always been in my mind that Toni is one of our greatest treasures here and everywhere. I always look forward to doing something with Toni. She is one of our greatest singers.

“Toni has a deep and soulful voice, really classy. Toni reaches down within herself, and out comes this voice, way of singing, phrasing, this feeling that’s really beautiful, graceful and true. All the blues is there at the same time with everything she sings and the way she sings. Whatever Toni sings, she gives it all this wonderful feeling that touches people in a direct way.”

The first time keyboard player Bruce Bears heard Washington sing he “knew she was the real thing. Everything she sang sounded great.” By 1991 Bruce brought several musicians together to form the Toni Lynn Washington Band. “We stayed together about ten years, and I still get gigs for Toni today. Toni Lynn is one of those people when it comes to singing blues and rhythm and blues she’s amazing. She should have received more fame than she has. Toni Lynn sings with a lot of soul and is the most versatile blues singer I’ve ever met.”

Distinguished songwriter, musician and producer Clarence McDonald worked with Washington when he produced the band she was a member of, Sound 70. Clarence declared, “Toni Lynn is truly a great, talented lady and one of my favorites. Toni Lynn loves what she does. She learns her parts and sings them exquisitely. Natural creativity makes working with Toni very easy. Toni may not have gotten the accolades she deserves, but she is as good as anyone I ever met in the music industry.”

Al Johnson, one of the three male vocalists with Sound 70, recalled, “We needed a lead female vocalist. We auditioned several women and Toni fit the bill. Toni was very good at organizing harmonies and background vocals. When Toni sang, she captivated the audience and drew them to her. Toni was magical on stage!”

This story is excerpted from conversations with Toni Lynn Washington during the winter and spring of 2016.

“I was born on December 6, 1936, in Southern Pines, North Carolina, a quaint little village located in the midst of a lot of hotels and major golf courses. My mother’s name was Mae Virginia Leak. She moved around a lot doing hotel work for different families while we were growing up. Her parents’ names were George and Bertha Leak. Bertha died when my mother was six years old. My grandfather remarried a woman named Lena. Along with my two younger brothers, George and Butch, we mostly lived with them until I was about thirteen years old. My younger sister Barbara Jean was raised with her paternal grandparents. I never met my father, Thomas Brisbon.

“We lived in a house that was three rooms. The grandchildren lived in the middle room. My grandfather and grandmother, their bedroom was in the front room. The back room was the kitchen. We didn’t have a living room, indoor water or plumbing. We would bring drinking water inside the house. We’d have it in a big bucket. And we had a dipper. My grandparents cooked on a wood and coal stove. They were amazing cooks.

“I was told that my grandfather was a police officer in the town before I was born. Of course the town was segregated. He was a police officer over on the West Side. That’s where most of the black community was concentrated. He was very loving to his grandkids. We called him Papa. He didn’t share a lot about his past.

“My grandfather had the most beautiful garden in town. He had a green thumb and grew everything from A to Z. Most of our food came from the garden. We had a plum tree, a pear tree and a peach tree. My grandfather planted cabbage, collards, corn, potatoes, sweet potatoes, string beans, tomatoes, blackberries, strawberries and white grapes. In the summertime we would harvest the food. Lena did a lot of canning at that time.

“We had chickens. Some of the neighbors had animals: cows, pigs and/or goats. Our Afro-American community shared their food. We would pick string beans; we’d bring them over to this person’s house. That person would bring us butter if they had a cow. If someone was going to have a hog killing people would go to their house in the evening. They would serve food and drinks. It would be a big deal, a celebration.

“We stayed and played within our own community. I didn’t see signs of racism. We knew segregation existed but we never experienced prejudice. Families sheltered their children and raised one another’s children. Everybody looked out for one another. We never locked our doors. As a matter of fact sometimes we’d sleep with the door open to get some fresh air at night. I don’t remember Anyone playing guitar or harmonica in the community.

“Lena used to work in the white people’s homes doing their housework and laundry. The white people and the nuns and priests from the Catholic church would also bring their laundry to her. I would help. We had a nice little system. We had an outdoor spigot in the back yard. That’s where we’d get our water. Before we got a washing machine we used to set up three huge tubs of water. One tub was for the wash; we used a scrub board to clean the clothes. Then we had another tub set up beside that one for the first rinse. Then we had a third tub of water for the second rinse, and she’d put a little of what we call bluing in that water which would make the whites come out sparkling white.

“We’d hang the clothes on the lines. My grandfather would install the lines with the wires from tree to tree all along the backyard. That’s where we’d hang the sheets and clothes. Then we’d iron and fold the clothes and get them ready for people to pick up. I delivered the clean clothes back to the church.

“Lena would sing all the time, and I’d enjoy singing with her. Lena and I would sing hymns while we were working together, doing laundry and chores around the house. I remember a few of the hymns we sang: I Shall Not Be Moved; Jesus Loves Me; Glory, Glory Hallelujah; Go Tell It on the Mountain; He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands.

“We had many churches in the area. My grandfather did not go to church. That was not his thing. My grandmother loved going to church. We were members of the Free Will Baptist Church in town. There was a choir in the church; it was mostly adults. They sang from the hymnbook. I went to Sunday school from the time I was a little child. On September 11, 1949, a bunch of us was baptized in a nearby pond. I remember that. I don’t swim today. That dunk did it for me!

“Lena took me and my brothers to gospel shows at different church venues. Some gospel groups were quartets and some were huge choirs. I looked forward to those times. I liked everything about it: the sound, the spirit, the clapping, the happiness and the positivity. People would get overcome with joy and start shouting. Some days I think back on those times and how wonderful it was.

“I walked to school. It was just a couple of blocks from where we lived. The school had a kindergarten, elementary and high school, all in one building. The schools were segregated back then. Our school was 100% Afro-American.

“I kept busy. I looked after my brothers. I did my chores—raking the yard, washing the dishes and cleaning up after supper. The neighborhood kids all played together. We didn’t have paved streets. We had a lot of sand. Sometimes we’d get out and build sand castles. When it got late we’d play hide and seek. Sometimes we’d play dodge ball or hopscotch. We found a lot to do.

“My mother and stepfather, Alexander Washington, moved to Boston. My mom got a job at the Sheraton Hotel, and my stepfather found work at Domino Sugar. When they got established they came back to North Carolina and got us. It was around 1950 when we took the train from Southern Pines to Boston. We got off in Back Bay. We had to take the elevator to the street level. I had never seen an elevator. When we got to the street level and the door opened, there were all these taxi cars. It was a whole new world. It scared the daylights out of me. I backed up and said ‘no.’ My mother grabbed me by the hand and said, ‘Come on. It’s all right.’

“My mother—there’s not enough words to describe her. She was beautiful, upbeat, Cheerful but stern, hard working and very loving. Everybody loved her. The list goes on and on about her. My mom did not talk much about her childhood.

“Once I moved to Boston I didn’t want to live anywhere else. My mother and stepfather were living in the South End of Boston. A lot of different ethnic groups lived in the neighborhood. Everybody got along. The elementary school and high school I attended were integrated. People took a liking to me, and I blended in pretty well.

“My mother would listen to the radio and records on her record player. She would listen to big bands and the performers she liked: Duke Ellington, Nat King Cole, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Doris Day.

“I listened to rhythm and blues and jazz. A local radio station had one hour reserved for rhythm and blues music. I’d hear Ruth Brown, Big Maybelle, B.B. King and Joe Williams. Then another hour show came on. Symphony Sid played jazz. Those two hours a day I would listen to the radio. I learned a lot and liked all the music. This was also the time of doo-wop. I would hear groups like the Clovers and the Orioles on the radio.

“I loved all the music. We’d listen to the radio at home and dance to the music: my mom, my stepdad and our friends. My friends and I would go to the South End House. It was a recreational center for young people. Some evenings they had a band and we would dance. All the kids from the neighborhood would be there. We would have a really good time.

“My mother would take me to the Hi- Hat on Columbus Avenue. It was one of the higher-class venues. They had valet parking and the men would wear tall, black hats. It was a wonderful place. The stars would perform jazz and rhythm and blues. That’s where I first saw Ruth Brown. She was young, beautiful and talented. I was totally in awe and star struck. I was just one of many young girls that sung her songs and was captivated and inspired by her. I said to myself, I want to be an entertainer like her someday.

“My birth name was Dorothy Helen Leak. There was a young lady, Toni Harper, who recorded a song called Candy Store Blues [in 1946]. I liked that name and decided to call myself Toni. My mother had changed our last name to Washington. So when I started singing in Boston I went by the name Toni Washington.

“One night I went out with my mom to Estelle’s, a club on Tremont Street in the South End. There was a dance hall upstairs and a big swing band playing. I was excited. I was listening to the music and liked what I was hearing. I went up to the stage. I asked the bandleader, Wilbur Lucar, if I could sing a song. He said, ‘Little girl can you sing?’ I said, ‘Yah, I can sing.’ They helped me up on the stage. My mom didn’t know anything about it. She was out there having a good time, dancing.

“They asked me what song did I want to sing? I told them, Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean. That song was one of Ruth Brown’s greatest hits. I liked the tune and the way she sung it. I never practiced the song. I didn’t have to. When you listen to songs on the radio you just learn them by heart.

“They knew the song very well. I belted the song out and got a great response. People began to make their way to the stage to hear me. They were clapping. My mom’s friend said, ‘Virginia, is that Dorothy up there singing?’ My mom said, ‘Oh my God.’ She was so proud of me.

“That moment was the start of everything. I was in high school, just a teenager. My mom took me to talent shows around downtown Boston. I’d get up and sing rhythm and blues songs with the house band. I would win most of the talent shows. For first place I’d earn $25. That was a lot of money back then.

“I was going around from club to club with my friends. We’d walk everywhere, and I’d get up and sing with whatever band was performing. There was music seven nights a week in Boston. On Saturdays and Sundays there was a matinee performance in addition to the entertainment at night. Musicians used to work hard back in those days, every night of the week.

“I was an unwed mother of two children, still a teenager. I went out on my own seeking opportunities to perform. I started out as a vocalist with the Hopeton Johnson Jazz Quartet at Louie’s Lounge in Roxbury. Hopeton played piano and had a four-piece rhythm section. I sang rhythm and blues and jazz standards.

“Louie’s Lounge had booths and a long bar in the front. Hopeton and the band played on a small stage in the corner. The back area was renovated, at least twice that I recall. It was plush and had an intimate nightclub.

“Higher-class local artists like Mae Arnette performed there. She was very popular, seductive and beautiful with a soft, whispery voice. Everybody loved Mae. You could hear a pin drop in the room when she was performing. We were nearly the same age but she took me under her wing. I learned a lot about show business from her: stage presence, how to dress and deliver a song.

“At times I’d just get up and sing with saxophonist Bunny Campbell and his band. I’d sit in with him at Handy’s on Tremont Street in Boston where he performed nightly. The band played rhythm and blues and boogie-woogie. The musicians were all great. I’d cover songs I heard on the radio, for example, tunes by Ruth Brown and LaVern Baker. Like Ruth Brown, LaVern Baker was very popular in those days.

“Handy’s was considered a dive but it was always packed. It didn’t have a very good reputation because sometimes fistfights would break out in there. Fights would empty the club out. But then after everything was over, everybody would come back in and resume having a good time. The club was very popular and had a dance floor. Swing was the in dance. There might be a couple that would really be dancing. Then people would stop dancing and form a crowd around them. It was a fun time.

“I was about 20 when I met my husband. He was in the navy. His ship was in dry dock in Charlestown for a few months. When it was time for him to leave, he asked me to marry him. So we got married in Boston before he shipped out.

“I was pregnant and stayed in Boston with my mother and my children, Gary and Cheryl. I met bandleader and singer Weepin’ Willie [Robinson] at Louie’s Lounge. Willie had a fantastic band, including a rhythm section. He took Boston by storm. Everybody liked Willie, and he drew a big crowd every time he performed. Willie hired me periodically to do shows around New England with the band.

“After my son Blue was born I decided to join my husband down South. My mom suggested my kids stay with her in Boston rather than moving them around. I agreed this situation offered the kids more stability. Wherever my husband was stationed during our marriage, that’s where I went.

“I took the train to Pensacola, Florida, only to discover my husband was still out to sea. From there I traveled to Gretna, Louisiana, and stayed with my husband’s family for a short time. I ventured out to the nightclubs in New Orleans looking for work. Every night the Dew Drop Inn was crowded with famous musicians and singers from the area. I met many entertainers there: Johnny Adams, Irma Thomas, Joe Williams, Big Joe Turner, King Curtis and many more. Sometimes I would sit in with the local band.

“Pianist Edward Frank recognized my talent and introduced me to Lionel Worthy, owner of the Kon-Ti recording studio and label [distributed by Atlantic Records]. Edward Frank produced a tune I wrote for the label, Dear Diary. It made the Billboard charts and was frequently played on the radio in New Orleans. When I performed the song at the Dew Drop Inn, people in the audience would sing the lyrics along with me. The record company set up promotional performances for me when Jackie Wilson and Sam and Dave performed in New Orleans and Mobile, Alabama. I’d open up their shows and sing Dear Diary. I recorded and performed under the name Toni Washington.

“When my husband returned to the base in Pensacola, Florida, I joined him. We lived in Pensacola for seven years and I worked in the base laundry. At night I sang in local clubs with different bands when I could to make a few extra dollars. I performed the same material I had been singing all along, including covers of Ruth Brown and Etta James songs. My youngest daughter Barbara Lynn was born there. That’s when I decided to add Lynn to my name. Having two names, Toni Lynn, sounded jazzy.

“I joined a gospel choir in Pensacola. But when they found out I was a blues singer, I was asked to leave the choir.

“My husband was transferred to Norfolk, Virginia, for three years, and I sang here and there, mostly rhythm and blues. There was a private club in town called Queens. They had a band that performed there nightly. I’d sit in with the band when I could, mostly on the weekends.

“I also sang with the Fleet Band, a 35-piece string band with horns on the base.The band performed standards. I’d [sing] songs like Somewhere Over the Rainbow. We also performed at weddings and concerts in the park.

“From 11:00 p.m. to midnight I was a DJ for a radio station in Portsmouth, Virginia, a city very close to Norfolk. The name of the program was Toni Bud (because Budweiser was the sponsor) and All That Jazz. I played everything from jazz to soul, artists like Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin and George Benson. I recorded the shows for the troops that were going overseas. The Djs on the ships would play the tapes for the sailors.

“Our last move was to Los Angeles. I was looking for work and went to the Frankie Laine Talent Agency. He referred me to Clarence McDonald, a well-known keyboard player. Clarence played with everyone under the sun: Earth, Wind & Fire, Ray Charles, the 5TH Dimension and Aretha Franklin, to name a few. He was managing three male singers and needed a girl singer for a group. I auditioned with him and got the job.

“It was the 1970s, and they were going to call us the Sound of the Seventies, but that name was a bit long. So they cut it short to Sound 70. The group included three tall, very handsome and talented men: Tyrone Black, Al Johnson and Leon Smith. We did a lot of rehearsing for months and months. We covered Top 40 songs, songs of groups like Gladys Knight & the Pips and the O’Jays. We recorded three songs for Capitol Records. I was the lead vocalist on the song My Destination. Earth, Wind & Fire provided the music tracks. However, nothing ever became of those recordings.

“I was all into the music as a career: hands, feet, mind, everything. I was living and breathing music. Clarence’s brother and business partner, Harold McDonald, took us to Tokyo, Japan. We performed for six weeks. When we came back to the United States, we performed on the Steve Allen [TV] show. Then we auditioned for Bob Hope’s USO shows. We were accepted and separated from Clarence and Harold.

“We entertained the troops in Vietnam, Okinawa and Thailand throughout southeast Asia. We made many tours during the war; I was away for months at a time. We performed on army bases, naval ships, anywhere our troops were located. We performed two shows a day even if it was midnight, two or three o’clock in the morning. We always had an audience.

“The troops loved us and treated us like royalty. They gave us the best that they had over there. We were the last USO show out of Vietnam. We had to leave everything behind because the enemy was taking over Saigon rapidly.

“When the war ended, we returned to Los Angeles. We found a booking agent and toured all over the United States and Canada for many years. We hired a band to travel with us. We covered whatever was current, a lot of soul, Motown hits. We came up with our own dance routines and choreography. A seamstress traveled with us and made our costumes. We wore fancy, glittery uniforms. We stayed out on the road more than we stayed at home.

“The last time I came home I just didn’t want to go back out on tour. I was tired. After I rested up I joined an all girls group, the Sisters Love. They were previously Raelettes, back-up singers for Ray Charles based in Los Angeles. We sang Top 40 hits and performed in Los Angeles and Las Vegas. After a short time with the group, my marriage sadly broke up.

“I fell on hard times. I was alone and afraid. I made the decision to relocate to Boston. A moving company packed up all my stuff, but when I got to Boston I didn’t have money to get my belongings out. Everything was gone: clothes, old photos and memorabilia. I lost everything but the sewing machine and clothes I brought with me. I had to start over from scratch.

“It was a very depressing time. I went through some dark days. I have my mother to thank. When I returned to Boston I lived with my mother and my children. My mom did everything she could to help me. I went out and got a day job, building PCB boards and worked for some temp agencies. Eventually I landed a full-time job as a front desk receptionist at Unisys Corporation.

“I became a member of the Saint John’s Missionary Gospel Chorus in Roxbury. Sometimes we’d go from church to church to sing. Different Baptist churches would organize shows and invite several gospel groups to perform for the congregation. Sometimes we’d go out of town, as far as Washington, D.C., to perform. Those were happy times.

“Then I got lucky. I ran into Hopeton Johnson. He said his singer had just passed away. Hopeton asked if I wanted to sing with him. I did. We got a few jobs and performed at senior citizen organizations. Along the way Eula Lawrence recommended me for a job at the Bay Tower Room, a private and elegant club in Boston.

“At the Bay Tower Room I performed jazz standards and was backed by a house trio. I really enjoyed that job. It got me back into show business. One night Henley Douglas played saxophone in the trio. He told me a really popular band was looking for a singer. He recommended that I audition for the job. It turned out they weren’t looking for a singer. But they liked me and hired me right away. The band was called Boston Baked Blues. They had a big band sound and played blues covers. I added my own material to the bands playlist.

“Bruce Bears played keyboard with the band. I wasn’t out front; I was just a member of the band. Eventually Bruce thought I should be recognized for my talent. In the early ’90s Bruce started the Toni Lynn Washington Band, and the rest is history.

“Bruce already had gigs booked for the band so we came out of the gate running. Bruce initiated a whole new musical journey for me: tours across the United States, Canada and Europe and performances at festivals around the world and recordings. I played at weddings, for private parties and on cruises. The opportunities seemed endless.

“We recorded three Cds on the Tone- Cool label: Blues at Midnight in 1995, It’s My Turn Now in 1998 and Good Things in 2000. Each CD was nominated for a Handy Award. One of my songs from the Blues at Midnight CD, Knock Once, was used in the movie Still Breathing.

“Hardship fell on the band when 9/11 happened. We were touring around the country and many of the venues we were booked to perform in were empty or closed. Gas prices tripled. Under those circumstances Bruce had to end the tour. The band had to dismantle. Band members had to seek other opportunities and move on with their lives.

“Bruce joined the Duke Robillard Band. Duke is a well-known, popular guitarist and bandleader. His band is in big demand around the world. Bruce still helped me get bookings and recruited musicians for me when needed. In 2003, Duke produced my next CD, Been So Long, on NorthernBlues records. Duke played guitar and Bruce played keyboards on this CD. Many members of my band and many friends also played on this CD. We had a big horn section: Gordon “Sax” Beadle, Scott Aruda and Doug James made a big contribution to the CD.

“I covered a variety of artists on this CD including Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith and Nina Simone. When I pick my covers I go back in time. In my lifetime I have been through a lot of musical eras. Back in the day I used to sing songs that are now considered standards, but they were pop tunes in those days. I pick tunes from earlier artists and bring them up to this time. I go back and forth between blues, jazz and rhythm and blues. Been So Long put me on the map again and got me gigs.

“Bruce produced my next recording, Favorite Flower—Toni Lynn Washington Live in 2007. Most of the tunes were recorded at the Winthrop Blues Festival in Washington.

“Susan Tedeschi became a good friend to me when she lived in Boston. Years later she referred me to movie producer Peter McGennis. As a result, I sang a few songs and got a small speaking part in his film Queen City [released in 2013].

“One day I told my friend Bill Smith I wanted to put some tunes down. Bill is a radio announcer for WRKO and a big supporter for blues artists. He’s always helped me, and Bill donated his time and studio for this recording. Bill said, ‘Come on down. Bring the guys.’

“I Wanna Dance is an original tune that I wrote while on tour in Amsterdam. It’s an up-tempo, backbeat rock ’n’ roll song. I wrote another original for the recording, a slow blues ballad called I Can’t Get Over Losing You. Musicians that worked with me over the years, Bruce Bears, Jesse Williams, Michael Williams and Mark Teixeira gave their time and talent to the recording. Gordon Beadle and Amadee Castenell put their horns down. We recorded my originals and some old tunes that I gave new treatment to. Everyone made a contribution to this CD as a labor of love. I appreciate what everyone did to help me.

“I sat on the recording for a couple of years. I didn’t know what to do with it, how to get it out on the market. Because I wasn’t actively touring, several record companies pushed it aside. I was left in limbo.

“Last year Diane Blue asked me to do some vocals for her CD, Blues in My Soul. I mentioned that I had a disc. Diane said, “We’ll put it on the market.” Diane did a GoFundMe page, and with the help of friends and fans we raised enough money to turn the recording into a CD. Diane released I Wanna Dance on her new label, Regina Royale Records.

“I’m very happy with the CD. I’m getting a lot of recognition for it. I’ve been nominated for some awards. It woke up a lot of people and reminded them that Toni Lynn Washington is still here!

“I just want to keep working. I don’t have a consistent band. When I get jobs I have people I can call on. Bands have invited me to come perform with them. Gordon Beadle played on some of my Cds. He is a super talented, well-known artist all around the world. He is in big demand and is always on the move performing. For two weeks this summer I will be touring with Gordon and the Luca Giordano Band in Italy. I can’t wait!

“Anthony Geraci just released his new CD, 50 Shades of Blue. The CD is getting lots of play and recognition throughout the United States and around the world. I sang on one tune, Diamonds and Pearls, and received praise for my vocals. I am looking forward to some upcoming shows with Anthony and his band this summer.

“Over the years I received many nominations for best blues female artist from the Blues Music Awards in Memphis, previously known as the W.C. Handy Awards. This year I was nominated for another award. In 1999 I received the Blues Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in Boston. I received another Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jersey Shore [Jazz and] Blues Foundation in 2006. That same year [and again in 2013] I also received The Blues Audience Readers Poll award for outstanding singer. I feel very fortunate for all the nominations and awards I’ve received over the years.

“Singing makes me happy. I’m happy when I’m on stage. I’m nowhere else but on that stage in my heart. I want to give my all to the business, to the music I sing. I’m there to sing to the audience, connect with them. I feed off what I give to the audience and how they respond. Everybody treats me so nice and with respect. In Boston they named me Boston’s queen of the blues. I was so touched by that decision.

“Music is my passion. Music is my life. It gives me my drive. Music is a part of me; it’s me. I don’t connect music with hard times. I connect music with getting gigs, getting dressed, going to the club and doing my job. When I get up on stage I’m living my life; I’m living Toni Lynn Washington. Life is fabulous when I’m on stage.”