Ken Leighton 12:30 p.m., Feb. 21
RIYL: Etta James, Aretha Franklin, Janis Joplin, Nancy Wilson, Dusty Springfield, Helen Humes, Bessie Smith, Irma Thomas, Amy Winehouse
- "Whitney Shay's deeper rhythm and blues cuts" · Sept. 13, 2018
- "Whitney's Away Game" · May 24, 2017
- "Whitney Shay's Soul Tonic Album Release Party Sept. 24" · Sept. 10, 2012
- "Young as You Want: Whitney Shay" · July 20, 2012
Influences: Etta James, Bessie Smith, Big Mama Thornton, Big Maybelle, Helen Humes, Irma Thomas, Billie Holiday, Jackie Wilson, Elmore James, Sam Cooke, B.B. King
Whitney Shay grew up near Alpine, on a ranch with Clydesdales. “My mom says they’re the gentlest of horses. She says you can ride with the reigns in one hand and a beer in the other.”
But Shay’s singing is another thing entirely. It is informed by mean and thin realities that she could only have heard coming through vinyl portrayals.
“I started listening to blues, and soul, and R&B maybe three years ago. I started digging it. I started going out to hear live music more. It was, like, asking for me.” She says doing the blues is sort of like doing a monologue. “It gives you a story to grab onto.”
In high school, when Shay’s family moved to the Japatul Valley near Jamul, she began performing in a USO-type show in high school. “It was all, like, ‘40s music. We were doing all this Andrews Sisters music. That was the precursor.”
Her single biggest influence as a performer? “Etta James. Hands down. She can sing so many styles.” Shay sometimes has a rasp in her delivery that sounds like her pipes were basted in the same gin and juice and nicotine as James over years (they were not.) At other times, she glides about the blues scale slippery, free of gravity like a trombone.
But what rivets a listener’s shoes to the floor is the sheer sound of confidence. How does Shay engage the essence of her mentors in absentia?
“It’s not something I consciously think about. If I think too hard about it, it doesn’t work. I try to pull as much as the original attitude as I can from a recording but, at the same time, I don’t want to pull every single inflection from it.”
Shay fronts a 13-piece big band, the JazzKats Project, and has been playing with Billy Watson and Robin Henkel, as well as fronting the blues/R&B group Whitney Shay & The Shakedowns as well as the sultry blues-jazz leaning Whitney Shay Trio/Quartet.
Shay’s 2012 debut album Soul Tonic was mostly recorded at Archie Thompson’s home Stat Records studio and mastered by Alex McCollough at Yes Master, in Nashville. "Archie Thompson, who’s been around a long time, I hooked up with him, he does this church gig, and he really likes my voice so he wrote a song for me.” That led to the recording session.
“It’s all really old school R&B…my producer was, like, how does a girl from East County learn to sing like this? My mom didn’t listen to this music. But she says my grandmother used to sing, like, ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ when I was in the crib and stuff.”
Thompson adds, “I was intrigued by Whitney's voice after our ﬁrst telephone conversation. After hearing her sing live, I knew I had to get her into the studio. When she sings, you feel it. The girl
Tracks were mastered in Nashville by Alex McCollough at Yes Master. “He [Thompson] told them, I want a lot of low end. If you’re gonna pick a reference record, pick Etta James and ‘Tell Mama.’ I want big, and I want lots of horns.” The twelve tracks include a cover of “Your Good Thing (Is About To End)” by Isaac Hayes and David Porter and the Etta James classic “Can’t Shake It.” Guest players include jazz great Holly Hofmann on flute, trumpeter Mitch Manker (Ray Charles Orchestra), Mike Thompson (Rod Stewart, Eagles), and internationally renowned San Diego blues guitarist Nathan James.
"I'm flying back to Brazil to tour with Igor Prado and play a bunch of awesome festivals and gigs with some amazing Brazilian blues musicians," reported the busy vocalist in summer 2016.
Over the next couple of years, her music was heard in an HBO trailer for Here and Now, created by Alan Ball of HBO's True Blood and Cinemax's Banshee and concerning multi-ethnic family dealing with issues of a Trump-led America.