Marcia Ball Looks Back On Her Blues Legacy: 'I'm Perfectly Suited For The Job'

Apr 28, 2018

When Marcia Ball sits down at the piano, the barrelhouse blues that jump out is enough to frighten any set of nearby keyboards. The 69-year-old has been playing Texas boogie and New Orleans blues for 50 years. Her latest album Shine Bright, available now, carries on the tune.

Over the years, the Louisiana-born performer's skills have been compared to Professor Longhair, Memphis Slim or Fats Domino. By growing up near New Orleans, she got to experience the music firsthand. Ball says her vocal style is partially inspired by soul superstar Irma Thomas and that she is still amazed by Thomas' performance ability today.

"I saw her last week and she opens her mouth just barely, she smiles and sings and that magnificent voice still comes out as it has since I was 13 and she was maybe 20," Ball tells NPR's Scott Simon. Her 12-track album, produced by Steve Berlin, pulls from that effortless influence.

"Everything about this record is light and bright," Ball explains. She even insisted on wrapping up a piano in aluminum foil for the album cover art after being inspired by a similar piece of art from a preacher from Elloree, S.C.

"I'm perfectly suited for the job," Ball says when describing her longevity in music — from the traveling to the engagement with her fans. And after 50 years of being in show business, Ball is candid when it comes to her favorite part about life on the road.

"Keith Ferguson — the bass player for The Fabulous Thunderbirds when they were first started out — when he went out on the road and people asked him what it was like, he said, 'Different tacos,' " laughs Ball. "I think maybe as much as anything we just like to eat in different places."

Listen to the entire interview at the audio link.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

When Marcia Ball sits down at the piano, the barrelhouse blues that jump out are enough to frighten any set of nearby keyboards.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SIMON: Marcia Ball has been playing Texas boogie and New Orleans blues for 50 years. Her latest album, "Shine Bright." She joins us now from member station KUT in Austin. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARCIA BALL: Thank you.

SIMON: Talk about your piano style. Can you? I mean, a lot of people might think of Professor Longhair or Memphis Slim or Fats Domino.

BALL: Well, I would say they were right on. You know, I grew up in Louisiana on the Gulf Coast at a time when the biggest stars in music were piano players. It was Jerry Lee and Little Richard, Ray Charles, Fats Domino. And then, spending a lot of time in New Orleans, where my grandmother lived, I got to hear all that music that was popular in the '50s and in the '60s.

SIMON: So I'm sure you've been asked this over the years. Do your fingers ever hurt?

BALL: You know, I'm going to knock on wood if I can find some.

SIMON: Don't hurt your hand.

BALL: (Laughter) Ouch. No, I really have managed to get through this without any chronic problems, and, for the most part, nothing acute, even.

SIMON: The album is called "Shine Bright," and in the liner notes, you're posing like the Statue of Liberty.

BALL: (Laughter) Yes. And, in fact, everything about this record is light and bright. And, in fact, you know, on this one - on "Shine Bright," we covered an entire piano with aluminum foil.

SIMON: Just to make it shine?

BALL: Inspired by a piece of art in the National Gallery in Washington. The preacher in Elloree, S.C., who built an entire chapel in his garage, I believe. And then they moved it to the museum. And it's all aluminum foil. And I love that piece, and I just thought, I want something like that.

SIMON: Let's listen to a little of the title track of "Shine Bright."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE BRIGHT")

BALL: (Singing) As we go around the sun, holding on when the corners come, putting ourselves out on the line, never heed the warning signs. Walk into the world ahead. Learn everything that's ever been said. See everything you can find. Open up your mind. Shine bright. Go on and take a bite of whiskey. Shine bright.

SIMON: Let me also ask about your vocal stuff. I have read you were 13 when you saw the great Irma Thomas perform in New Orleans.

BALL: Yes.

SIMON: And I think I can hear a little of that.

BALL: If I only could. If I only could. Now I saw her last week, and she opens her mouth just barely. She smiles and sings, and that magnificent voice still comes out as it has since I was 13 and she was maybe 20.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHINE BRIGHT")

BALL: (Singing) Step into the light. Shine bright.

SIMON: You've been in the music business for 50 years.

BALL: Can you believe that?

SIMON: No, I can't.

BALL: (Laughter).

SIMON: But tell us the secret.

BALL: Well, I'm perfectly suited for the job. I like to travel. I like to meet people. I've had many lucky breaks - not even choices I've made, just opportunities I've had at every turn - to continue to do what I do.

You know, there have been times when I thought about, you know, I could do something else. And about that time, someone will come up after a gig, and I make a point of being out at the merch table after the gig. And so I hear a story. I can sit for an hour and only sell 30 CDs because everybody's got two minutes worth of conversation, at least, and a great story. And people often will say, you know, I was having a hard time, your music helped me through it, or, you know, this song means so much to me. And that's what I get back.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD FULL OF LOVE")

BALL: (Singing) When times are hard and we're so far apart and lost in confusion, we can take this to heart.

SIMON: What do you like, after 50 years, about being on the road?

BALL: You know, Keith Ferguson, who was the bass player for the Thunderbirds when they first started out, when he first went on the road and somebody asked him what it was like, he said, different tacos.

SIMON: (Laughter).

BALL: And I think, maybe, as much as anything, we just like to eat in different places. But...

SIMON: (Laughter) I think that - I think that's probably the most candid answer I've ever received from a musician about what they like about the road.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD FULL OF LOVE")

BALL: (Singing) When we all come together we can make a new start.

SIMON: Marcia Ball's new album on Alligator Records, "Shine Bright." Thanks so much for being with us.

BALL: You are so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORLD FULL OF LOVE")

BALL: (Singing) This world full of love, no matter who's right, no matter who's wrong. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.