Even before her rise to national fame began 11 years ago, Oakland soul singer Ledisi had formed a mutual admiration society of sorts with some of the best vocalists in the business.
They included Rachelle Ferrell, Lalah Hathaway and Rahsaan Patterson. Chaka Khan, Patti LaBelle and Prince would eventually become members of the unofficial Ledisi fan club, followed by Stevie Wonder – who invited her to sing a duet with him on the Louis Armstrong classic, “What a Wonderful World,” at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial dedication in Washington, D.C. on October 16, 2011.
“You ever talk to someone and you think you’re being natural and then all of a sudden you realize, ‘Oh my God, I’m talking to a person I idolized while I was growing up?’” she said to this writer two weeks following the performance.
“I step outside myself and go, ‘You’re talking to Patti or you’re talking to Stevie or Lalah.’ I remember hearing their records to get me through something, and here we are just discussing life – nothing deep, just anything, and not about music. It’s just being friends. I’m always blown away,” said Ledisi.
Among the singer’s non-musician fans are President Barack and First Lady Michelle Obama, for whom she has performed three times at the White House. She said she’s gotten to know the first couple “really well.”
“We’ve had conversations and dialogue that I don’t want to talk about in the press,” Ledisi stated. “They really love music, and they appreciate jazz a lot. For President Obama’s 50th, they had Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock and Stevie Wonder and me. It was great.”
Ledisi and her family came to the Bay Area when she was 11, and briefly lived in San Francisco before settling in “far, far East Oakland.” They previously lived in a New Orleans “shotgun” house, which she recalls as being “like a long closet.”
Her mother and stepfather, both professional musicians, slept in one bedroom, she and her two sisters in the other.
Ledisi – friends call her “Led” – first sang with Prince in 2008, joining a list of artists from Oakland and surrounding cities – Sheila E., Levi Caesar, Rosie Gaines and the last Bonnie Boyer, among them – who’ve worked over the years with the Minneapolis musician.
“We’re good,” she said when asked about Prince’s attraction to East Bay singers and instrumentalists. “We’re honest when we play, and we carry our feelings in our music a lot more. I think it has a lot to do with a lot of the people from the South moving there. And then it’s the funk and jazz elements that we have.”
She will perform on Thursday, June 11, 7 p.m., at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga. Tickets range from $39.50 to $99.50 and are available at www.montalvoarts.org.