“I wasn’t a singer,” says Jeannie Cheatham after I tell her how much I have enjoyed her singing over the years. “I was always a piano player,” she says, “that played for other vocalists.” Maybe so, but I’m not the only person that ever heard her belt out a Kansas City–style rag or two. “Jeannie Cheatham,” a critic once wrote, “sings the blues with remarkable energy and in another era would have been regarded as one of the greats.” Twice nominated for W.C. Handy Awards (the blues equivalent of the Grammy), Cheatham toured the club circuit back East in the ’50s, ’60s, and ’70s and backed acts like Big Mama Thornton and Jimmy Rushing and Larry Darnell. “I was an accompanist,” Cheatham says, “all the way till I got to San Diego.” That would have been 1978, the year she came here with her trombone-playing husband, Jimmy.
The Cheathams started a weekly jam at the Bahia. Jimmy took a job as music professor at UCSD. Eventually the Cheathams launched the Sweet Baby Blues Band, a good-timing New Orleans–influenced big band that took off. They were featured guests at all of the major blues and jazz festivals across the country. “We are the last and the only band playing this type of music in the world,” says Jeannie. The group was scheduled to play the Kennedy Center this year, a promise that Mrs. Cheatham kept even though Jimmy died in January. Jeannie recently published her autobiography — at her UCSD gig she will read selections from the book and perform songs that illustrate the era from which her memoir was taken.
I ask her if the band is finished, and she says, “No,” with this caveat: “My mother told me — she’s 99 — she says, ‘Now listen, Jeannie. Remember: You’re 80 goin’ towards 90, not 80 goin’ towards 40.” Cheatham laughs. “I said, ‘Thanks a lot, Mom.’ ”
JEANNIE CHEATHAM, Geisel Library, UCSD, Sunday, January 6, 4 p.m. 858-534-8074. No cover.