Of all the second careers available to “women of a certain age” experiencing the “empty nest” syndrome, the position of blues musician has to rank among the most unlikely. How quantum is the leap from baking dinner casseroles to singing for supper? Or from soothing the fears of the little ones to belting out the gut-bucket blues?
For Ann Rabson, Gaye Adegbalola and Andra Faye–the three gracefully aging divas who comprise Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women–the transition from white-collar professionals to bluesy mamas has been relatively smooth and enormously successful.
Their self-titled debut album, released in 1990 and featuring the W.C Handy Award-winning “Middle-Aged Blues Boogie,” is one of the top-selling records in the history of Alligator Records. Gigs with blues legends like Koko Taylor, B.B. King, Ray Charles and Willie Dixon followed, and the rest, as they say, is history. More than a decade later, Saffire has released their seventh album, Ain’t Gonna Hush!, and are in the midst of a monster tour.
While Saffire’s brand of acoustic blues probably won’t appeal to diehard fans of the fuzz-soaked fury of blues greats like Hendrix, Clapton, or Howlin’ Wolf, there is no denying the musical acumen of this trio, who blend guitar, piano, bass, mandolin, fiddle and harmonica around revolving turns at lead vocals. The fact that many of the songs in their repertoire are self-penned only adds to their legitimacy as an artistic entity, and with titles like “Two In The Bush Is Better Than One In The Hand,” “There’s Lightning In These Thunder Thighs,” and “Bitch With A Bad Attitude,” you can rest assured that these middle-aged gals don’t spend much time talking about knitting or Rotary Clubs.
Still, Saffire co-founder Ann Rabson says that the band has had problems being regarded more as a novelty act than a serious musical venture. Before starting Saffire in the mid-’80s, Rabson moonlighted as a blues guitarist since the age of 18. “I was kind of shocked when the ‘novelty’ term was used to describe us,” says Rabson. “I guess in a way it was good for us because it got us a lot of press. But I had already been in the business for 20 years, and although I had problems as a woman getting listened to at all, I had never had trouble being taken seriously as a musician until we started getting a little famous.”
Rabson views the band as the inheritor of a long tradition in blues, but feels that their impact on traditional blues audiences overrides any labels the band might attract. “We’re following in a long tradition of women who were viewed as novelty acts, like Memphis Minnie, Bessie Smith and Ma Rainey” she says. “I think that just by virtue of us being women, we’re viewed that way. Especially women who play instruments–that’s sort of like pigs on roller skates as far as a lot of people are concerned. But ‘novelty’ means something unexpected, which I think helps bring women to our shows. Our crowds are definitely mixed, with a lot more women than you’d expect at a blues show. I think we’re giving people a voice they might not have had before.”
One of the more audacious songs in the Saffire book is “Silver Beaver,” a tribute to, well, a mature sexuality that plays upon the longstanding use of animals as sexual double-entendres in the blues tradition. “Well, it’s Gaye’s song, but I think part of her motivation was to add another animal into the blues hierarchy,” says Rabson. “I think she wanted to give people a take on what older women bring to beauty, you know, people have their own beauty and age is not necessarily a negative thing. It’s just another creature in this risqué zoo.”
As to the group’s moniker, Rabson says there are several elements at work. “It’s a different spelling of the gem, but it’s more complicated than that. The gem is deep blue, it’s multi-faceted, it’s precious,” she says. “Then there’s the Sapphire character from the old Amos ‘N’ Andy TV show–she was a very strong woman–and there’s also the Greek connection with Sappho [an ancient Greek poetess born in Lesbos]. It means all of those things, and we also changed the spelling to connote heat.”
Though they’re an unconventional band in every sense of the word, Saffire does experience healthy doses of conventional, famous-musician dynamics, such as groupies. “Sure, we do have men, and women, hitting on us,” Rabson says, a bit coyly. “But we’re old enough to know how to handle that. We’re all in committed relationships, so it’s pretty easy to say ‘No, thank you.’ But we are all flirts. What can I say?”