1943 - Jan 31, 2014
QMH November 2011
Gwen Avery Gallery
Voices of Black Women Tour
Above, I wish I had a better image of this flyer, as it is so historic
Above & Below, on the Varied Voices Tour, from the film "Radical Harmonies"
Below, Gwen Avery Gig Calendar Flyer, 1985
can't recommend more highly the documentary "Radical Harmonies"
Miscellaneous Photos of Gwen from the Net
Gregg Shapiro Interview with Gwen Avery, June 2001
Gwen Avery (1943-2014)
Gwen Avery's voice was like a roll of thunder. A long, low rumble that exploded into a body-shaking crackle. It unearthed all that was not exposed and anyone in the vicinity could not help but feel it. She was a force of nature.
Voices like hers are not nurtured on American Idol or The Voice. No. They spend years gestating in the uncomfortable beauty of real life, soaking in hard pains and simple joys. They are often overlooked, dismissed or ignored-but most of the time, they keep on singing for those who have ears to hear.
Gwen's voice started forming at a young age, growing up in her grandmother's juke joint in Verona, Pennsylvania. She saw it all at an early age: the fighting, the sex, the fellowship and the music. By the age of four, she was singing along with the jukebox on table top. The sounds of the blues, soul and gospel were whirling around and inside of her, helping her find her voice. Her grandmother, Miss Clara Benson, also sang and played guitar. Gwen told the San Francisco Gate in 2002, "When she opened her mouth, your hair stood on end. It was raw. I'm still searching for that within myself." Her grandfather loved and recited poetry, further expanding the art of storytelling that she was absorbing from the blues and gospel music that surrounded her.
came from a house where my grandma sold beer and whiskey to make a
living. That's how I was raised-in this house of ill repute. And gospel
music flowed in that house with whiskey and beer as frequently as
there were church services"
The first time we heard Gwen on wax was on a live album (with other featured artists) titled Any Woman's Blues, recorded live inside the Women's Jail at San Bruno, California on December 31, 1975. Her two songs were revival fire and gut bucket blues, black power and woman power all rolled into one line-blurring presentation. She took us back to what she felt in that juke joint and told the world who Gwen Avery was.
Olivia Records was at the forefront of the burgeoning women's music movement. Founded in 1973, the Olivia collective was producing music by women and for women. Their first release was a 45 of collective member Meg Christian on one side and Cris Williamson on the other. They made $12,000 with that 45 and used that money to release Meg Christian's debut album, and right after, the groundbreaking Changer & The Changed by Cris Williamson. Changer became the best -selling independent album of its time, going on to sell over 500,000 copies.
women's music had certainly been radical, it hadn't yet put the spotlight
on women of color. Linda Tillery was producing an album on BeBe K'Roche,
an Olivia-signed band. Simultaneously, Gwen was introduced to the
Olivia collective by visual artist Marianne Boers . Mary Watkins began
working with Olivia around the same time. Linda, Gwen and Mary were
featured on the landmark collection, Lesbian Concentrate: A Lesbianthology
of Songs & Poems in 1977.
"She was a tough, fragile woman..an open book in a way, with such tender passion for music and life. Vulnerable, flawed, capable of singing all that complex, powerful feeling. Not easy for her, and what she gave us was unique."-Rhiannon, jazz vocalist
In 1978, Olivia coordinated the Varied Voices of Black Women tour for Gwen, Linda Tillery, Mary Watkins and Pat Parker. In Songs in Black and Lavender: Race, Sexual Politics and Women's Music, Eileen M. Hayes writes: " The tour demonstrated that white lesbians were not the only ones creating a new women's culture. Though the concert [tour] was first and foremost a celebration of Black lesbian feminist identity and culture, it was also an attempt to broaden the white feminist community's understanding of feminist and lesbian identity."
"Gwen was an unstoppable powerhouse from the moment she hit the stage if you weren't prepared she just took you there anyway!--Jana Leal , Women's Music Producer
"A better way to explain [Avery's performance] is to borrow a word she used quite often: freedom. Free to shout to Avery during and between songs, Free to demonstrate one's own feelings without the slightest thought of what others are thinking. Free for Avery to strip parts of her suit and toss them into the screaming crowd."-Aztec Campus News, concert review
"I remember being a kid in DC and seeing her on a tour with Linda Tillery playing drums and Vicki Randle on percussion. She set fire to the piano, and her voice cut through everything. A 14 year old Toshi did not appreciate her hitting on my mama from the stage. Hahahahaha! It was a big deal to see and hear her and other Black Women singing about their lives."-Toshi Reagon
Gwen stood apart on the tour. She is quoted as saying: "I dressed differently. I would wear satin suits and platform shoes with an afro with neckties and beautiful silk shirts. They were wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans." She was set to release an album on Olivia in 1978, but that release never came to be. She told J.D. Doyle in a 2011 interview that she was "pitched out because I would move my hips, or lick my lips on stage and it was too much for the women's community. They thought that was too much. It's so insulting when I think of it, to defy my culture, that's what they wanted me to do, and I guess, sit there with my legs crossed and my arms folded."
"Gwen was a real CHARACTER," says feminist activist Toni Armstrong Jr., former publisher of HOT WIRE: The Journal of Women's Music and Culture. "Most of her official bios and obits will feature her musical and political contributions as a foremother of lesbian women's music - and rightly so. It shouldn't be lost that she also brought us joy, outrageousness, and a commitment to telling it like it is; she challenged us all. At a time when most musicians were still afraid to fully come out, Gwen busted through with an explicitly sexy song. Whether it was butch pride, race relations, or personal matters, she was often hilarious and dead-on in her observations. The world is a much less lively and less interesting place without Gwen Avery in it."
In an interview with the San Francisco Gate in 2002, she maintained that "the same issues of race and classism that confounded the early feminist and gay rights movements also infected the women's music scene. I've always felt like a warrior or soldier. I've learned to deal with separation, isolation in the crowd, rejection in the abandonment."
Gwen continued performing through the 80s and 90s, but struggled. A job was hard to hold down, gigs sporadic. June Millington recorded one of Gwen's performances at her Institute For The Musical Arts and it was released in cassette-only format in 1993. It wasn't until 2001, however, that things began to take a turn.
Gwen was reunited with Linda Tillery and Mary Watkins for an interview for Radical Harmonies, a documentary that told the story of the Women's Music movement. It was during that time that the seeds for Gwen's official solo debut took shape. Linda Tillery, now a Grammy nominated artist, took charge of production duties and Gwen's manager Emily Tincher launched a successful publicity campaign to make her audience aware of Gwen's debut album, appropriately titled Sugar Mama. It won the Out Music Award for Outstanding New Recording in 2001. She did a successful run of performances across the country in promotion of the work.
lack of internet presence via a website and social media hindered
the progression of this phase of Gwen's resurgence. Sugar Mama never
made it onto iTunes or any of the electronic music stores, making
it virtually impossible for the global audience that loved Gwen to
She spent the last decade of her life performing in the Bay Area's Russian River region, bridging the gap between the blues and gospel, continuing to thrill audiences with her distinct interpretation of the rich heritage of black music. She appeared at a local venue, Main Street Station, regularly and was beloved by the community there. Perhaps it became another version of her grandmother's juke joint-a safe place for her and others.
She bridged worlds and blurred lines-and sometimes that made people uncomfortable. That's what great artists do. She saw the importance of race, gender, culture and sexuality and transcended the boxes that we are trained to try to fit inside of-even in our different-ness. Her life is certainly quite a signpost for any of us who have ever felt 'different' even amongst the 'different'. May we continue to listen to the magic she made and try to catch up to the woman she was.
A very special thanks to everyone who contributed quotes to this article. An extra special thanks to Toni Armstrong Jr. and Jana Leal for their kindness, resources and connecting powers. Photos from the archives of Jana Leal.
Gwen Avery was an authentic blues and gospel singer. She was raised in a juke joint, where from an early age, she heard first hand, the sounds of Black Troubadours weaving tales of love, passion, frustration and pleas to God - any god, for release from Jim Crow, segregation and the horrible legacy of racism in America.
Lesbian yes, Black woman yes, real deal soulful singer, yes. Yet I wonder how many people really understood her gift? You would have had to listen to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey and Mahalia to recognize the "time stamp" that marked her unique style. She became the "Sugar Mama" of Women's Music, no longer a prisoner of love denied but a champion of love out in the open - raw and unashamed. That was her gift to us all.
sincerely hope and pray that Gwen Avery is at Peace and her soul is
rockin' in the bosom of
Linda Tillery, Grammy Award nominated singer/songwriter/producer
Gwen was a fireball. Truly unique, powerful, always amazing!! And, yes, she was fragile, vulnerable and pure.
was nothing false about her. Her song was her soul freely given, with-holding
Mary Watkins, composer, original Olivia Records artist
One of the truly great blues singers of our time.
In the tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith a strong fearless woman with a soulful/ sexy message.
How crazy to try and critique Gwen Avery. She was as real and as brilliant as truly great artists are.
will miss her.