Blues enriches my life. I think that one of the things the blues does that’s kinda unexplainable if you’re a person who has not experienced whatever the situation is in life is that the blues kind of gets you prepped so that you can hear it a little better when it comes. Or at least you have an inkling of what it might feel like. Nobody can tell you until you’ve experienced something yourself, but the blues kinda gets you prepped.
Diunna Greenleaf – You Can Have My Husband
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, 2018
In 2005, Greenleaf ‘burst’ onto the scene with her band The Blue Mercy which won “Best Band” in the International Blues Challenge, but she had already been working with many well-known Blues musicians prior to her win. Her early collaborators include: Big Bill Morganfield, Keb Mo, Hubert Sumlin, and the Muddy Waters Legendary Band which brought together musicians such as: Bob Margolin (guitar), Calvin “Fuzz” Jones (bass), Willie “Big Eyes” Smith (drums), Carey Bell (harp), James Cotton (harp), and Willie “Pinetop” Perkins (keyboard) who Greenleaf became especially close with.
From the beginning, Greenleaf’s life was filled with music. Chores were accompanied by her mother’s singing. Her father was a trained singer and gospel vocal coach who worked with Cecil Shaw, Johnny Taylor, and Sam Cooke. Her uncle owned a local juke joint that featured performances by Albert Collins and Lightnin’ Hopkins. The family home was often opened to artists, Mahalia Jackson and Sister Rosetta Tharpe to name but a few, who were traveling through the region and were not allowed in the local hotels as a result of segregation.
Hindsight is 20-20, and we didn’t realize that we were poor ’cause we never felt that. We were rich in family, friends, love
Rhythm & Roots Concert Series, 2012
Despite obvious talent and her family’s encouragement, Greenleaf was hesitant to pursue music.
You are the one child of mine who can sing anything you want to sing, any style, and you don’t want to
Ben Greenleaf, Diunna Greenleaf’s father
I love the blues. I was afraid of doing it as a profession, so I got my undergraduate degree at Prairie View A&M, and went on to get my Master’s degree in Education and Counselling
She was even reluctant despite the encouragement of good friend Katie Webster, a phenomenal singer in her own right.
Miss Katie, this sounds great for someone who is interested in this, but I have no intentions of running up and down the road singing. I’m not the one. I love this music, and it’s great, but this is not my experience, and I don’t have this ability
Diunna Greenleaf – John Lee Hooker Tribute
Blues BBQ Festival, NYC Pier, 2009
As an undergraduate Diunna was asked to chair a committee responsible for booking entertainment at the university. The experience taught her a lot about the business side of the industry, helping her understand how to be a savvy band leader, though perhaps one can never be truly prepared.
If anybody had told me about some of the things that I would have had to encounter being a female leader of a blues band, I probably wouldn’t have done it
Greenleaf did not become a professional musician until she was 44, though she did support her graduate studies in educational counselling by singing at weddings. In the interim, she spent 21 years as an army officer and worked as a counsellor.
I currently am a school counsellor and one of the things I do is go to the different schools teaching about the blues and black heritage. I guess it was the children that prompted me more than anything
The only regret that I have is that I never pursued singing professionally until my grandmother and both my parents had passed away. I still have a recording that I recently had made into a CD of my grandmother singing to me…she was 105 years old at the time, and has been one of my inspirations for the blues
Diunna Greenleaf – Black Cat Bone
Ottawa Bluesfest, 2009
Greenleaf is a Texan native and a big proponent of Texas Blues. She was the first woman to be selected as President of the Houston Blues Society where, during her 3 year residency, she organized the Willie Mae ‘Big Momma’ Thornton Blues Festival and started the annual Houston Blues Society Founders Day. Her style incorporates notes of jazz, gospel, and soul. Her main influences include Koko Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Sister Rosetta Thorpe, Sam Cooke, Charles Brown and her parents, Ben & Mary Ella Greenleaf.
Diunna Greenleaf – Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
Kitchener Blues Festival, 2014
Gospel and blues are like fingers on the same hand, and my sister who was a minister played only gospel but did not have a problem with me singing blues. She also knew I sang everything else I wanted to, but she also knew what I was trying to do as keeping a light on the historical values, this art form and also keeping a light on the contribution of women who sang this music
While Greenleaf’s father always encouraged her musical talent, more importantly, Greenleaf believes he was the one to also foster her strength of character.
He always told us, as far as people riding your back or teasing you – as long as you bend over like a horse, they’re going to ride. But if you stand up like a real man or a real woman, they’re going to have to slide the hell off. And eventually, I’ll write a song and put that line in it, too.
Having served in the military, Greenleaf was often asked to write a song to honour the U.S. troops. It all came together at the funeral of her older brother:
My sisters are 20 and 25 years older than me and my brother was older than them. I asked him one time what would possess a person to go into the army at a time when black men and women were not treated like human beings in the real world. And he told me it was a way to show that we, as a people, were also making contributions that make this country great. And I remembered my brother’s words. My brother was a non-commissioned officer, so he was very proud of the fact that I was an officer and was in charge of a non-segregated company
Diunna Greenleaf – Cause I’m A Soldier, 2011
Greenleaf’s 2011 album “Trying to Hold On” is both a reflection of her personal development and a statement on the idea of resilience when things get tough. The album topped several charts in the US, UK, Australia, and France, as well as XM/Sirius Radio’s Bluesville. Many artists sought to record the originals Greenleaf was planning to release on this album, but Greenleaf felt it was important that she record her own songs before releasing them to other’s interpretations. A compromise was eventually proposed that led to many of her friends joining her on this record:
Diunna Greenleaf – Trying to Hold On
Kitchener Blues Festival, 2014
Since so many of us want your songs, why don’t you make them duets, or something like that, with us?
So the songs on here are songs that I wrote and that my friends play and sing on
In fact, the song “Taking Chances”, recorded with Smokin’ Joe Kubek, was written for Kubek and his wife to support their ‘leap into marriage’ as well as a broader exploration:
It kind of reflects on the things that we’re willing to take chances on and the things we’re afraid to take chances on
Diunna Greenleaf – Taking Chances
Frederikshavn Blues Festival, 2014
In addition to being a powerful vocalist and talented songwriter, Greenleaf works to spread a love of the Blues to new generations and to use music to support local communities.
We still do Blues in the School programs, even out of my own pocket. And I do three-day artist in residency programs for universities. I do seminars on women in blues and on Texas blues, with a special emphasis on Houston
Diunna Greenleaf, 2011
Diunna Greenleaf – Queen Bee
Frederikshavn Blues Festival, 2015
No matter if it’s Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Lithuania, or Monaco at Casino Royale, everyone loves the blues. It’s the music of the people. Everyone around the world at some time or another has ‘the pitch’ put on them, you know, hard times, so to speak. And in Europe, they call me ‘The People’s Queen.’ When it comes to the blues, you can say some things that you cannot otherwise say, perhaps due to social etiquette or some other situation. I don’t mean cussing. Sometimes people want to express what they’ve suffered and what they’ve gone through. Blues can make us happy or get us through the sadness. You know, I have a Master’s Degree in Social Counselling and I find that blues music helps in the counselling of people. It’s really good counsel. The blues has gone around the world several times and helped people in despair and different situations.
Author’s note: Hopefully by now we’ve convinced you that you *absolutely, positively* cannot miss the opportunity to see Ms. Greenleaf live if she’s making an appearance anywhere even remotely in your vicinity. But just in case you’re still in doubt, or if she won’t be appearing near you anytime soon, here’s her full set from earlier this year at the Festival International de Jazz de Montréal.
Diunna Greenleaf – Full Set
Festival International de Jazz de Montréal, 2018
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Mullins, Terry. 2011. “Featured Interview – Diunna Greenleaf”. Bluesblastmagazine.Com. http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-diunna-greenleaf/
Wilcock, Don. 2018. “Featured Interview – Diunna Greenleaf”. Bluesblastmagazine.Com. http://www.bluesblastmagazine.com/featured-interview-diunna-greenleaf-2/
Wolfle, Paul. 2014. “Diunna Greenleaf: Electrifying, Essential And Thoroughly The Blues”. Music Interview Magazine®. https://musicinterviewmagazine.com/2014/07/24/diunna-greenleaf-electrifying-essential-and-thoroughly-the-blues/