Singer, songwriter, guitarist
The word "Grammy" appears in just about everything written about blueswoman Susan Tedeschi. Although she trained at Boston's prestigious Berklee College of Music, worked the club circuit for years, honing a straightforward singing style reminiscent of Bonnie Raitt, she didn't truly become famous until 2000. That year, thanks to her debut album Just Won't Burn, Tedeschi earned a Best New Artist nomination—along with pop heavyweights Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Kid Rock, and Macy Gray.
Aguilera won, and Tedeschi's four competitors, of course, went on to mega-stardom. But the bluesy singer-songwriter, while selling a respectable 600,000 copies, went in the opposite direction. "I just kinda lost my mind for a minute. During the Grammys, actually," she revealed in a 2002 interview for Newsday. She elaborated to Entertainment Weekly a few months later: "Being nominated for a Grammy kind of stressed me out, to be honest. I was in the process of making another record, but I didn't feel it was really right. I ended up going out on tour for a while just to get away. I was in the midst of switching bands. I felt a lot of pressure to do something big, to make a statement, like 'This is who I am.' There was a lot going on."
Tedeschi's big statement was artistic, not commercial. Her follow-up to Just Won't Burn was Wait for Me, an album her husband, Derek Trucks of the Allman Brothers, characterized as a bold step forward. Actually, the album is more of the same, with Tedeschi applying her clear, deep voice to original rockers like "Wrapped in the Arms of Another" and "'Til I Found You" and covers of Paul Pena's "Gonna Move" and Bob Dylan's "Don't Think Twice, It's All Right." Characteristically, though, Tedeschi refused to make a video for the album, telling Entertainment Weekly she disagreed with the entire idea of videos. So she settled for sales of 200,000 instead of (potentially) millions.
Born in Boston, Tedeschi grew up in nearby Norwell, absorbing her father's Lightnin' Hopkins and Mississippi John Hurt records. She sang in theatrical productions and at church when she was only five, and joined her first band eight years later. She formed her own group, the Smokin' Section, when she was 18, which played original material and gigged around Scituate, Massachusetts, until she went to college.
Unlike most Berklee graduates, who wind up in classical orchestras, Tedeschi went back to the same club—Johnny D's in Somerville, where she first started to build her Boston base—after graduating in 1991. Her first key musical partner was Adrienne Hayes, another guitarist on the Boston club scene. Together, they won a Boston Battle of the Blues Bands in 1994, which led to greater exposure and accolades from Boston magazine. In 1995, after forming the Susan Tedeschi Band with Hayes, she borrowed $10,000 to make her first record. Just Won't Burn, which included a cover of John Prine's "Angel of Montgomery"—a song, perhaps not coincidentally, associated with Bonnie Raitt—led to a contract with the small-but-influential blues label Tone-Cool Records.
The 1998 release instantaneously turned Tedeschi into a rising national blues star, something the genre desperately needed given the recent deaths of club-level stars Luther Allison, Junior Wells, and Johnny "Clyde" Copeland. Tedeschi's 2000 Grammy nomination ratcheted up her star power still further, leading to major magazine and newspaper profiles. She refused to play the celebrity game, however, and turned away from the music business completely rather than build on her Grammy momentum.
During this period Tedeschi made a record that she pejoratively described to Newsday as "pop-rock-blues." Disappointed in the result, she shelved the recording because she couldn't envision herself playing those songs on a nightly basis. "It wasn't bad music," she said. "I felt like I was kinda locking myself into this little thing where I was doing stuff like whatever everyone was telling me to do instead of following my heart."
Before she could make her next move, though, she fell in love with guitarist Derek Trucks, then touring with the Allman Brothers. The two met at a 1999 concert in which Tedeschi opened for the Allmans. By June of 2001 she was pregnant. Although she toured through September and started a new record, the pregnancy delayed everything. "I couldn't get enough air to sing," she said in Newsday. "Your diaphragm and all your organs get pushed around by the baby."
That December, Tedeschi and Trucks were married on Amelia Island near their Jacksonville, Florida, home. In March of 2002 their son Charles Kahlil Trucks was born, named for the big-band guitarist Charlie Christian and the spiritual poet Kahlil Gibran. Charles's birth further delayed what might have been Tedeschi's meteoric rise; rather than putting out an album, touring heavily and cranking up the publicity machine, she essentially vanished from public view—but the time off wound up working in her favor.
After her son's birth, Tedeschi went out on the road, opening for major blues artists such as B.B. King. She took her son with her, taking care of him full time except when she was on stage—at which point she left Charles with a trusted stylist. "He's a really good baby so it's not too tough to take care of him," she said at the time. "He's been a little fussy, but he's a tough kid—grunts a lot."
In early 2003, Tedeschi released Wait for Me, which included husband Trucks on guitar. (Tedeschi also sings on Trucks's solo albums.) The album was a bit more diverse than Just Won't Burn, with touches of gospel and folk in addition to hard-charging blues. And it sold well—more than 210,000 copies as of late 2003, an extraordinary number in a genre whose major artists are lucky to hit 5,000. One wonders, though, how big a star Tedeschi could be if she played "the game."
"I'd like to think she could follow in Norah's footsteps," Dave Bartlett, Tone-Cool's president, told Entertainment Weekly, referring to jazzy singer-songwriter Norah Jones' path to blockbuster sales. "We don't want to force [Tedeschi] to do anything she doesn't want to do in a video—like put her in a bikini on a beach. But getting MTV and VH1 behind the album wouldn't hurt the cause."
For the Record . . .
Born on November 9, 1970, in Boston, MA; married Derek Trucks (a musician), 2001; children: Charles Kahlil. Education: Graduated from Berklee College of Music, Boston, MA, 1991.
Acted in theatrical productions, mid-to-late-1970s; member of the Smokin' Section, late 1980s; leader, singer and guitarist for the Susan Tedeschi Band, 1993–; signed with Tone-Cool Records, 1998; released debut, Just Won't Burn, 1998; released Wait for Me, 2003.
Awards: Boston Battle of the Bands winner (with Adrienne Hayes), 1994; Boston magazine's Best R&B Act, 1995; Boston Music Awards, Single of the Year, Outstanding Vocalist, and Outstanding Blues Act, 1999, Outstanding Blues Act and Outstanding Blues Album, 2003; W.C. Handy Awards, Contemporary Female Artist of the Year, 1999 and 2000, Best New Artist of the Year, 1999.
Addresses: Record company— Tone-Cool Records, P.O. Box 81034, Wellesley Hills, MA 02481, website: http://www.tonecool.com. Website— Susan Tedeschi Official Website: http://www.susantedeschi.com.
Responded Tedeschi, in the same publication: "They asked me to make a video a couple of years ago, and I was like, 'Nope, I'm not gonna do it.' Now they've asked me again. I never really wanted to give in to that, just because so much pop is based on the visual, instead of the musical. It's kind of disturbing to me. I told them I'd get back to them."
Just Won't Burn, Tone-Cool, 1998.
Wait for Me, Tone-Cool, 2003.
Boston Globe, July 27, 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, February 18, 2000; January 17, 2003.
Los Angeles Times, February 21, 2000.
Newsday, September 6, 2002.
Rolling Stone, March 2, 2000.
"Susan Tedeschi," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (September 29, 2003).
Susan Tedeschi Official Website, http://www.susantedeschi.com (September 29, 2003).