Harvest Profile: Diunna Greenleaf

Harvest Profile: Diunna Greenleaf
By Adam Bowie

She may not enjoy the same level of fame as Aretha Franklin, Etta James or Sister Rosetta Tharpe.

But Diunna Greenleaf has always been able to wow audiences. The 65-year-old Texan has travelled the globe to share her unique blend of blues, soul and gospel music with adoring audiences.

Greenleaf’s powerful vocal range is considered by many to be among the best in the business.

She’s always cared more about music than fame, focusing on making the kinds of albums that speak to, and preserve, the bluesy, spiritual sounds that she experienced as the child of Ben and Mary Ella Greenleaf – devout Christians who played and taught others gospel music. Back then, many artists, including Sam Cooke and B.B. King, came around the family home seeking guidance from her parents. Those encounters helped shape her artistic focus.

With her band, Blue Mercy, Greenleaf has been entertaining audiences since the late 1990s, sharing stages with some of the greatest bluesmen and blueswomen in history – a list that includes Willie “Pinetop” Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, James Cotton, Odetta, Keb Mo, Koko Taylor and many more.

When I spoke with the winner of the 2005 International Blues Challenge by phone recently, she was incredibly gracious with her time, chatting for more than an hour. In order to keep this profile focused, the interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It was an absolute pleasure to speak with her before she makes the trip to Fredericton for a special Harvest Music Festival performance on Sept. 16.

AB: What song are you currently obsessed with?
DG: [Editor’s note: Diunna had recently lost a loved one at the time of the interview] I think, with a lot of things going on, I’ve got a couple. One of them is, ‘If It Wasn’t 4 The Blues,’ by my friend, Big James Montgomery. He wanted me to record it. And I’m glad I got a chance to do that before he died earlier this year.

AB: What three things are always in your fridge?
DG: In my fridge you’ll always find an onion, cheese, and eggs. One more thing in mine would be hot sauce. I have a big variety of hot sauces because I always try hot sauces from other places. You’d find a red Louisiana hot sauce. Because I’m Texan I’d also have some jalapeno sauces, some habanero sauces. I have button pepper sauces – a really, really small little pepper that looks like a button. I make a pepper sauce with that and I pour it on greens and things like that. I have lots of different hot sauces and pepper sauces. You’d also find some pepper jelly.

AB: Name a book, or any other piece of writing, that’s important in your life.
DG: You mean besides the Bible? That is one of them. But there are other writings that are also very important to me that are not a book. My nieces, nephews have been telling me that these writings and things like that, that I remember, things that my mother and father and grandparents used to say to me [are important]. Some that are funny, some that are very solemn. When I think about them, I write them down. They’re telling me I should take all these and put ‘em in a book. That book is not written. I guess they’re loose writings of memories that they’ve bestowed upon me.

AB: When you think about the music you heard as a child, who was choosing the song or selecting the radio station, and what kinds of stuff were they picking?
DG: In our home, we were allowed to listen to anything, any kind of music. But, of course, we listened to a lot of gospel and church songs. My daddy was in a quartet. The name of his quartet was The Spiritual Gospel Singers of Houston, Texas. My daddy was a vocal coach for young men going into gospel music. So he had some pretty famous students who came to him for tutelage. A lot of people didn’t know these folks were gospel because they only knew them for their other types of music, their other works. For instance, Johnnie Taylor. They knew him for his R’n’B and pop. Most people didn’t know Johnnie Taylor for his gospel. Sam Cooke. There are actually many people who don’t know nothing about his gospel, but they knew about his secular music. Let me see, Joe Tex. People didn’t know about Joe Tex’s gospel music. Also, B.B. King. B.B. told me that daddy told him that he would probably do better singing some of the other types of music because he could not continue singing gospel if he was going to cry when he was going to sing every gospel song. He thought he’d ruin his voice. B.B. also told me that daddy knew that he didn’t have the money to pay for lessons, but he let him hang around anyway and listen as he talked to the other guys, and teach them things. And my mama always kept him fed. He did not go hungry when he lived with us. I was so grateful when he told me about it, and there were other people there who could hear it. They told this story more than I have because we were always taught not to be what my dad called ‘braggadocious.’

AB: What’s the most interesting or memorable place you’ve visited in your travels?
DG: Wow. I’ve been a lot of places, and I find something interesting about them all. We look it up and try to do different things. Even if we’re tired, I try to go out and see something. Like, when I’m in Paris, all the various museums. I’ll tell you one place that I went that was for me, heartbreaking, was when I went to the concentration camp in Belgium … Different places are memorable for different reasons. Now, when I go to Paris, I always go by to see the progress they’re making on Notre-Dame [cathedral]. Like I’m an engineer or something. (Laughs)

AB: What’s more important – talent or work ethic? Why?
DG: Work ethic is always important. I see a lot of people who don’t have the talent that someone else has, but they have such a work ethic. They may be mediocre in their talent, but their work ethic is such that it takes them further than their talent alone ever could. If they have a good work ethic, a reasonable amount of talent, and if they are kind – they know how to treat other people, in other words – that will really take them further.

AB: If you had to cook for someone, what are you making and will they be complimenting you afterwards?
DG: Well, yeah. (Laughs) I am a good cook. I was a female vocalist with the Muddy Waters Legends [Tribute Band, a collective that featured some of Muddy’s former bandmates] for 13 years. Sometimes, we’d go someplace. If we were in a [multi-date gig], we’d go out and play the show, and then we’d come back and stay in the same place every night. Well, we loved that. Sometimes Pinetop [Perkins] would say, ‘I sure wish I had some grits.’ If I could find it, I’d fix it for him. They loved that. He never complained about anything I fixed. He liked my spaghetti. My greens and cornbread. My black-eyed peas. Fried porkchops. Usually, I would smother him a porkchop or two, because that made it tender and soft. He liked if it was easy to bite. And Hubert [Sumlin] would like anything I cooked. They both had a little bit of a sweet tooth. They loved my peach cobbler. Pound cake and cookies.

AB: What’s a TV show or movie that you’ve watched a dozen times?
DG: I have not watched anything a dozen times. I have listened to ‘Baby Shark,’ probably a million times because I have been forced to. I babysit my little cousin and I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’ And what’s that other song, ‘Let It Go.’ I’m like, ‘Baby, please let it go.’ (Laughs) Let it go, turn it loose, get rid of it. There’s another one about a train. ‘I think I can, I think I can.’ … Maybe the first 20 times, it’s not so bad. But something happens on the 21st time. (Laughs)

AB: Is there an artist that you think deserves more recognition for the inspiring work that they do?
DG: Certainly, there are. There are several. I’ll say that many of them are women. There are songs, too, by some writers, including myself, that you hope would get more recognition – not for popularity’s sake. Me, I’m still an old teacher and I’m trying to teach a lesson – bring some awareness. I think I’ll leave it at that.

AB: If you could thank someone for a helping hand they offered or a piece of advice they delivered when you needed it, who would it be, and how did they help?
DG: There are several people. Of course, my own parents, first of all, come to mind. Sometimes, I just say ‘thank you’ out loud anyway. I still have hope that, in this universe, they know it. Even my brother-in-law, who we just laid to rest, he would always say it out loud too, ‘I’m so glad for whatever it is in life, and in the universe, that decided to bring me to your parents.’ He always felt that it was a higher spirit that actually led him to my parents. He used to say, ‘Getting to know your parents sealed the deal.’ (Laughs)

AB: Is there an example of what you’d consider a perfect song? For example, I might suggest George Jones’ “She Thinks I Still Care,” or Lauryn Hill’s “X-Factor” are perfect songs.
DG: No. But I think there are many songs that are perfect for a moment, perfect for a situation that you’re in right then. There’s no one song that’s perfect for every situation. But I do believe there are songs that are perfect for the moment that you’re in.

AB: What’s a goal that you have for yourself in this business? Maybe you want to make an album at a certain studio, or with a certain producer. Maybe you have a venue in mind that you’d like to sell out, or a festival you want to play. Maybe there’s an artist you want to work with. Anything like that?
DG: There are things that I would love to have happened. There are some people that I really want to play with. I have a list of people that I really, really want to play with. But that wouldn’t be possible – not in this lifetime, ‘cause I had to mark off several of them from my calendar because they’re deceased. I think if we had a few more months, one that had come to me at the very end [might have happened]. For me, it was unbelievable that I had contact with this person. And the whole time that he was talking to me, I felt like I was in some sort of dream. We met here in a restaurant in a very, very nice hotel in Houston. And then in the next few months, I wake up to hear he’s dead. That was Prince. He said he had a project that was coming up and a person who was in his rhythm section had played some of my music for him, and it was just what he was looking for. The rawness, the intent, the honesty, the sweetness. Every time he said something, I was trying to chill. But every time he said something, my smile got so big that I was going to burst. I really did have a case of the nerves. He was talking very mellow and soft. He was almost starting to laugh because I think he could see I was trying to hold it in, and I couldn’t do it. He was almost putting his head back and laughing. He could see my face. And the guy who was accompanying him was laughing too. He said, ‘Do you know when you smile that big, you can’t even see your eyes?’ (Laughs) … When I think about it, I think he was trying to take care of business. With people that he cared something about. Just in case. He was sporting a cane when I saw him. He had on some sharp tennis shoes. That’s one person I wish I could have worked with. When I heard [about his death], I just started crying.

Tickets for Diunna Greenleaf’s performance on Sept. 16 in the TD Mojo Tent are available here.