Bay Area African American Women in Music: Blues Piano Queen Katie Webster, From West Oakland to World Fame

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Blues pianist Katie Webster contributed to countless records by the likes of Slim Harpo, Lazy Lester and Lightnin’ Slim, and recorded some of her own featuring her robust contralto pipes.

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She was the busiest blues pianist in the bayou country around Lake Charles, Louisiana, from the late 1950s until the mid-‘70s. She played on “Sea of Love,” a major R&B and pop hit in 1959 by singer Phil Phillips, and made her own version of the song for Decca Records.

 

But, in 1976, the Houston-born musician put her career on hold and moved to West Oakland to take care of her ailing parents.

 

“My dad had gotten really bad arthritis in his knees and he had to use a walker, and then my mother had a stroke,” she told this writer in 1986. “I felt that they needed 24-hour care, someone to do for them.”

 

Her mom died in 1978, her dad the following year.

 

“After that,” she said, “I started working in Reno. I would go back to Lake Charles and work, and then go to Texas and work at different clubs that I knew of.”

 

By 1982, Webster was touring Europe at the behest of German promoter Norbert Hess.

 

Yet, few blues fans in the U.S. knew she was in Oakland until Santa Cruz disc jockey Ice Cube Slim booked her on a string of Northern California blues festivals in 1984. He hired Bay Area band Hot Links, led by guitarist Johnny Harper, to back her.

 

Webster and the band proved to be such an ideal match that they recorded an album, produced by Harper, in 1985 for Arhoolie Records in El Cerrito. It was Webster’s first American album.

 

The disc, titled “You Know That’s Right,” was so well received that it led to Webster and the band performing at major festivals and clubs throughout the country, as well as a contract with Alligator Records in Chicago.

 

At the 1984 North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, Webster sung “What a Difference a Day Makes” with Miles Davis’ band after Cicely Tyson persuaded her husband, Davis, to let her accompany the band. By the end of 1986, Webster had traveled 15 times overseas to perform in Europe.

 

Webster became good friends with rock star Cyndi Lauper after Lauper saw the musician in New York City on a 1985 show. The show also featured Louisiana pianists Allen Toussaint and Dr. John.

 

Some of her other notable fans included Robert Cray and Bonnie Raitt.

 

Webster suffered a stroke while touring Greece in 1993. She lost partial use of her left hand and almost all her eyesight. However, she continued appearing at selected festivals until her heart failed at her home in League City, Texas in 1999. She was 63.

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