Lee Hildebrand, Special to The Chronicle
Monday, September 1, 2008
"It's been an endurance test," Linda Tillery says of her 40 years of
ups and downs in the Bay Area music business.
Born in San Francisco 60 years ago Tuesday, Tillery was once a queen
of the San Francisco rock scene. As lead singer of the Loading Zone,
a psychedelic soul-rock band from the East Bay, she recorded an album
for RCA Victor and frequently appeared at the Fillmore Auditorium on
bills with the likes of Cream, the Grateful Dead, Albert King, B.B.
King and the Who. She was one of four big-voiced women fronting bands
on the local rock circuit, the others being Tracy Nelson with Mother
Earth, Lydia Pense with Cold Blood and Janis Joplin with Big Brother
and the Holding Company.
Joplin and Tillery knew each other. "We were not friends," says the
singer, who has lost 65 pounds since being diagnosed with diabetes
last year, over a lunch of Chinese food in Oakland's Rockridge district.
She recalls one of the Loading Zone's first gigs at the Fillmore,
opening for Big Brother and the Holding Company in early 1968.
"We had a nine-piece band, with three horns and a big presentation,"
she says. "From what I was told by people who were backstage, Janis
was not real pleased that there was another female around who was
strong. We stole their thunder that night."
Raised less than a mile away from the auditorium, Tillery led what
she calls a "pretty sheltered life" as a child and teenager. Some of
her friends were going to the Blackhawk, a club in the Tenderloin
where kids could listen to such jazz greats as Miles Davis and John
Coltrane from behind chicken wire that separated minors from the
adults, but Tillery's mother wouldn't allow her to go.
There was plenty of blues, R&B and jazz in her parents' record
collection, however. Count Basie's version of "April in Paris" was
her favorite. And, she says, " 'B.B. King Live at the Regal' was a
mainstay in our house. That could cause some screaming. It was like
going to church."
After graduating from Lowell High School, she spent a year at San
Francisco State University before dropping out and landing a job at
the post office, which she quickly came to hate. Then she saw a
classified ad in The Chronicle that began, "Wanted: One Soul Singer."
She was immediately impressed, because the Loading Zone had lifted
the title of what happened to be one of her favorite albums, by soul
and blues singer Johnnie Taylor.
'Sweet Linda Divine'
After two years at the helm of the Loading Zone, Tillery surrendered
to offers to go solo. "I was in a hurry," she says. As "Sweet Linda
Divine," she recorded an album for Columbia produced by Al Kooper.
"RCA did not want to lose me as an artist," Tillery recalls. "They
offered me huge sums of money, which I should have taken. Columbia
offered very little money, but my manager figured that Columbia's
distribution and promotion was the strongest, and they had Clive
(Davis). In retrospective, the best thing would have been to take a
big advance and buy a house for myself so I'd have some security."
The album was a flop and is now a rare collector's item. Her band
broke up after a couple of years, and it was two decades before
Tillery would find what she considers her true calling with the
still-active Cultural Heritage Choir, earning her living in a variety
of contexts. Those included performing jazz standards and blues at
often-low-paying wedding receptions and private parties, singing
oldies with the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra, even working for a
period at a travel agency.
More satisfying were the 60 or so women's music albums by such
singers as Holly Near, Cris Williamson, Margie Adam and Teresa Trull
on which she sang backup vocals, played trap drums or hand percussion
and sometimes produced. Tillery also spent seven years as a member of
Bobby McFerrin's Voicestra. Although Voicestra's engagements were
infrequent, the experience gave her a new appreciation for a cappella
Moment of inspiration
In the early '90s, a PBS television program of Kathleen Battle and
Jessye Norman singing spirituals became a life-changing moment.
"I had a visceral response to this stuff," she recalls. "I could feel
it physically. I was sitting at home, just me and the cat, and I was
talking to the cat out loud 'cause there was nobody else there. I
said, 'This is what you're mother's gonna do now. This is it!' I
really did know a lot about this music. I'd just been stuffing it
because it wasn't popular."
With five other women, Tillery formed the Cultural Heritage Choir in
1992. Rather than perform spirituals in the European classical
manner, as Battle and Norman had, the choir delved into rougher
versions on field recordings made decades earlier in the rural South
for the Library of Congress. "They just made your hair stand on your
head," Tillery says.
The Cultural Heritage Choir, which frequently tours Canada and
Europe, recorded three CDs of spirituals and folk songs between 1995
and 2001. A fourth, which will include political R&B songs from the
'70s by Curtis Mayfield and others, is three-quarters finished. The
choir, now comprising four women and two men, will celebrate
Tillery's birthday with two shows Sunday at La Peña Cultural Center
in Berkeley. Also on the bill is Rajaton, a vocal sextet from Finland.
"You're gonna have Oakland and Helsinki in the same room, but it's
all gonna be good," says Tillery, a longtime Oakland resident.
A series of serious health problems has caused Tillery to put the
choir on hold for months at a time over the past 11 years. Four blood
clots were found in her legs in 1997. She suffered a stroke while on
tour in Austria the following year and had a malignant tumor removed
from her abdomen in 2004. She's had her right knee replaced and
bilateral carpal tunnel surgery, and besides diabetes, she suffers
from heart arrhythmia and spinal stenosis.
"I just keep going, even if I don't feel OK," says Tillery, who now
walks with a cane. "Right now I feel good."
"I've gotta do music so that part of me that's wild and crazy can be
served," she adds. "I used to love to party, but I don't drink
anymore, I don't smoke anymore, I don't eat sugar. What's left? I've
got to have some fun in life.
"I never stopped wanting to be involved in music. I continue to be
drawn to percussion music from different cultures. I'm grateful to be
able to have the opportunity at the age of 60 to be a drummer.
Sitting on stage playing the gembre (a West African drum) makes me smile."
Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir: 6:30 and 8:30 p.m.
Sun. Tickets: $22-$25. La Peña Cultural Center, 3105 Shattuck Ave.,
Berkeley. (510) 849-2568, www.lapena.org.
E-mail Lee Hildebrand at email@example.com.