Born Kathryn Jewel Thorne, 11 January 1936, Houston, Texas
Katie Webster had a powerful voice, played a mean boogie woogie-styled piano and had a dynamic stage act. Despite her awesome talent for blues, R&B, swamp pop and rock & roll, she had little success as a solo artist for the first 25 years of her career. In the 1980s she finally grabbed a long- deserved share of national and international recognition.
Born in Houston as one of ten children, Kathryn Thorne first learned piano as a child. Her deeply religious parents warned her to play only gospel and classical music, but this did nothing to dampen her desire to play R&B and boogie woogie. When her parents were out, she would secretly listen to the devil’s music on the radio. Before Katie married Earl Webster, she went to live with an aunt in Beaumont, Texas. Removed from the strict home environment, she started wearing fancy dresses and makeup, going to parties and playing secular music in a high school band.
She played with several blues artists, including Smiley Lewis, before teaming up with local guitar player Ashton Savoy for her first release, “Baby Baby”. Released in 1958 on the Kry label, this song was later reissued (and re-recorded) as “No Bread No Meat”. Her second release, also in 1958, was “Hoo Wee Sweet Daddy” on Zynn (owned by Jay Miller), which would become a trademark of her live act. After a few singles for Rocko (another Jay Miller label), she was signed by a major label, Decca. But the company released only one single by Katie, a good cover of the Phil Phillips smash “Sea Of Love”. I’ve seen many sources claiming that Webster played on the Phillips original, but the pianist on that version was Ernest Jacobs of Cookie and the Cupcakes.
A few more singles followed in 1960-61, before Webster became a session pianist in Jay Miller’s studio band in Crowley, Louisiana, along with Al Foreman (guitar), Lionel Prevost (sax) and Warren Storm (drums). This team can be heard on hundreds of R&B and swamp pop recordings from the 1960s, by artists such as Guitar Junior, Clifton Chenier, Lazy Lester, Lightnin’ Slim, Lonesome Sundown, Slim Harpo, Bobby Jay and Tabby Thomas.
Webster would continue to do session work for Miller until 1966, but from 1964 onwards she also toured with the band of Otis Redding, often performing as his opening act. Unable to join Redding on tour in 1967 because she was eight months pregnant, Katie was not on the plane that took Otis’s life. Devastated by Redding's death and confronted with the need to care for her ailing parents in California, she kept a very low profile until the early 1980s. By 1979 she was back in Crowley, recording for Eddie Shuler’s Goldband label, but her tenure at Goldband (1979-82) is generally considered as the least interesting period of her recording career.
In 1982 she made her debut tour of Europe where the demand for American blues performers was exploding. European audiences couldn’t get enough of Webster and she returned at least thirty times to play for sold-out crowds. She recorded albums for the German label Ornament Records, including a live LP. Gradually Webster also began to win over her American audience at numerous high profile blues festivals, like the Chicago Blues Festival and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. In 1988 she was signed by Chicago’s top blues label, Alligator Records. Aided by guest appearances of stars like Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray, she recorded three well-received albums : “The Swamp Boogie Queen” (1988), “Two-Fisted Mama” (1989) and “No Foolin’” (1992). At last she was a star in her own country. Her 1958-61 recordings were reissued in Europe, first on vinyl, then on CD. Webster was now at the peak of her popularity, but she suffered a stroke while touring in Greece in 1993. She returned to performing the next year, but had to cut back on touring. There appeared one final new album in 1997, recorded in Germany.
Katie Webster died from heart failure in League City, Texas (near her native Houston), in September 1999, aged 63.
More info : http://www.alligator.com/artists/Katie-Webster/
Acknowledgements : John Broven, Bill Dahl, Stefan Wirz.
Dik, April 2017
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