Webster, Katie 1936–1999
Katie Webster 1936–1999
Blues singer, pianist
atie Webster came by the nickname “Swamp Boogie Queen” honestly. Against her parents wishes, she made her mark as a pianist and singer in southern Louisiana’s boogiewoogie blues tradition. From her start as a studio musician when she was a teenager, and years spent touring with mentor Otis Redding, Webster’s piano-pounding wowed audiences. Known for her lively spirit, and for often being crude or sly on-stage, Webster was a blues powerhouse. Rolling Stone called her “one saucy pianist-vocalist who knows how to dish it out.”
Born Kathryn Jewel Thorne on January 11, 1936, in Houston, Texas, Webster first learned piano as a child. Although she would later become known for her electric New Orleans blues, her parents limited her repertoire to gospel and classical music. Deeply religious, Webster’s parents did everything they could to keep their daughter from playing what they called, according to Black Women in America, “the devil’s music.” They even went so far as to keep the piano locked so she could only play while being supervised by her mother. Late at night, Webster listened to the blues, rock and R&B she loved on an old Philco radio. Hidden under the covers of her bed, she listened to the sounds of Fats Domino, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Sam Cooke. Every chance she got, she played the secular music that moved her. Webster’s parents and nine siblings relocated to Oakland, California, and left the young girl with relatives. The split was a good one for Webster—the more easygoing relatives she lived with allowed her to play whatever music she liked.
Out from under the strict watch of her parents, Webster didn’t waste time starting her professional career. Her ability to read music got her a job with a jazz group. With them she was playing in clubs and touring east Texas and southern Louisiana at age 13. It was about this time that Webster’s piano work first appeared on sound recordings. One of southern Louisiana’s most prominent rhythm and blues musicians, Ashton Savoy, heard the girl play and featured her on several of his cuts.
Webster’s popularity as a studio musician spread around southern Louisiana and, by the time she was 15, she was one of the most requested studio musicians in the region. She appeared on hundreds of recordings in the 1950s and 1960s produced by Jay Miller of Excello Records and Eddie Shuler of Goldband Records. Webster’s piano was heard on singles, also known as “sides,” with Guitar Junior (Lonnie Brooks),
Born Kathryn Jewel Thome on January 11,1936, in Houston, TX; died September 5, 1999, in League City, TX; married Earl Webster c. 1951 (divorced).
Career: Blues singer, pianist. Debut single, “Baby Baby” released, 1958; appeared on releases by Guitar Junior (Lonnie Brooks), Clarence Garlow, Jimmy Wilson, Lazy Lester, and Phil Phillips; band leader of the Uptighters; touring musician for Otis Redding, c. 1965; European tour, 1982; albums: I Know That’s Right, 1987; Swamp Boogie Queen, 1988; Two-Fisted Mama, 1990; Katie Webster, 1991; No Foolin’! 1991.
Awards: Performer of the Year award, Bay Area Women in Music, 1986; W.C. Handy award for Best Instrumentalist.
Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim, and Clifton Chenier. When she was 15, she married pianist Earl Webster. The marriage ended but, professionally, she kept her married name.
In Louisiana, Webster, as the leader of the band the Uptighters, was a regular at Lake Charles’s hottest venue, The Bamboo Club. She invented her own dance number, called “The Katie Lee.” It was at The Bamboo Club that, in town for a one-night show at the club in 1964, a young Otis Redding caught Webster’s set. The crowd cheered for Webster to join Redding, her idol, on-stage. Redding was so impressed with Webster’s talent that he asked her to join his touring band the very next day. She continued to tour with Redding, her mentor until his death in 1967, and can be heard on his Live at the Whisky A-Go-Go recording. Webster’s plinking can be heard on the legendary New Orleans’ singles “Raining in My Heart” and “Sea of Love.”
Webster remained with Redding and the two, both the children of minister fathers, became very close friends. While on tour in 1967, Redding was killed in a plane crash. Two theories have been given for why Webster was not on the plane that killed Redding. It is unclear whether, because she was eight months pregnant, she wasn’t on the tour at all, or she missed the flight because she overslept. Regardless of the circumstances, Webster was devastated. After Redding’s death, she remained out of the public eye until the early 1980s. During this time, she also cared for her ailing parents in Oakland, California.
In 1982 Webster bounced back into the spotlight for her first of many European tours. European audiences liked her so much she was invited back more than 30 times. Also in 1982, she made her first performance at the San Francisco Blues Festival since Redding’s death. Webster began to win over American audiences at a number of other big festivals, including the Chicago Blues Festival, New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Boulder Blues Festival, and Newport Folk Festival, among others.
Webster also got back into the recording studio, releasing I Know That’s Right in 1987 to lukewarm reviews. She started picking up wholeheartedly positive reviews again with her first release on the Alligator record label, 1988’s Swamp Boogie Queen. The record featured cameo appearances from singer and guitarist Bonnie Raitt, guitarist Robert Cray, and Kim Wilson of the Fabulous Thunderbirds. A Rolling Stone critic called Webster a woman “who knows how to let her fingers do the talking,” and wrote that her “deep, lived-in voice” turned “road-worn numbers…into pure sonic dynamite.” Stereo Review called the release “splendid.”
1990’s Two-Fisted Mama also garnered good reviews. Stereo Review said Webster “can rock the house at both ends of the keyboard—pounding out delirious patterns with her left hand while producing a shower of notes with her right.” The critic also called Webster a “blues shouter” who could make listeners “jump for joy.” She released two more records, Katie Webster and No Foolin’!, both in 1991.
While touring in Greece in 1993, Webster suffered the stroke that would lead to her death six years later. Although she lost almost all of her eyesight and some of the use of her left hand, Webster persevered. She continued to sing the blues and play her piano with her right hand. Her health prevented her from touring extensively, but she did appear at select festivals. At these appearances, Webster was said to have been filled with the same drive and spirit for the blues that earned her the title “Swamp Boogie Queen.”
I Know That’s Right, Arhoolie, 1987.
Swamp Boogie Queen, Alligator, 1988.
Two-Fisted Mama, Alligator, 1990.
Katie Webster, Paula, 1991.
No Foolin’!, Alligator, 1991.
Rolling Stone, January 26, 1989.
Stereo Review, April 1990, p. 88.
All Music Guide to the Blues, Miller Freeman Books, 1999.
Black Women in America, Carlson Publishing, 1993.
The Alligator Records website, http://www.alligator-.com
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