By David McGee
On her startling 2019 album, Harvesting My Roots (ranked #27 on the Deep Roots Elite Half-Hundred of 2019), the rising Chicago blues star Ivy Ford (native of Waukegan, IL) observes “there is no precious time to waste.” These words animate her original slow blues, “Daddy of Mine,” in which, to the accompaniment of her own, spare, haunting piano and plaintive, open-hearted vocal, she forgives her father his shortcomings and embraces him anew. On the topic of no precious time to waste, her new album, Club 27, hammers that sentiment home in a way both personal and sociological: personal in the sense that having recently turned 27 herself, she’s keenly aware of the eerie benchmark age 27 has been in the music world, which takes us to the sociological in that Robert Johnson, Amy Winehouse, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison and Kurt Cobain are all united in the club of artists who perished in their 27th year. On Club 27, in crafting her version of the dense, turbid miasma in which Kurt Cobain set some of his most unsettling scenes, Ford seems to speak for all of these fallen icons in her song “Fine” when she howls sans mercy, “I may look like I’m alright/but I’m broken, I’m not fine/why don’t you look at me/how come you didn’t see…” Harvesting My Roots was in many ways Ms. Ford coming to grips with family and individual history; Club 27, sounding like the next chapter of her reclaiming her own time, asks us to see beyond the image into the human heart and not shy away when it cries out for help in song (“Help,” in fact, was written in by then-25-year-old John Lennon, who pleaded, “Help me get my feet back on the ground/won’t you please, please help me!” Given that the Beatles ruled the world at the time—1965—and their world must have been perfect, how many of us heard the song as anything more than an expression of fleeting discomfort? Words flow out like endless rain into a paper cup, you might say, and tumble blindly as they make their way across the universe.)
‘Fine,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
Ivy Ford says Club 27 “comes from a place of necessity.” She released it on her own 27th birthday, both to pay tribute to the timeless work created by gifted artists shadowed by impending tragedy in their youth, and to announce her own intention to decline membership in their exclusive domain. She doesn’t cover their songs; hers are all originals, some evoking the styles of the artists we lost too soon, some grooving to her own sense of style in mastering roots genres across the board. She plays a mean guitar, as she’s proven on two self-released studio albums (Harvesting My Roots and her debut, Time to Shine) and on a live album from 2018, Live at Mickey Finn’s Brewery, which also reveals her to be an engaging stage presence. She’s been playing professionally since age 13 and is skilled on multiple instruments in addition to her polka-dot “Buddy Guy” Stratocaster—piano, organ, alto sax, drums, bass—an autodidact all the way. She really began to make her move in 2014, when blues fans around Chicago, her new home base, took notice of Ivy Ford and The Cadillacs in the local clubs; in 2015 she opened for Buddy Guy at his Chicago club, then began sharing bookings with most of the Windy City blues stalwarts while building her own fan base. A colorful personality and a bit of a fashion diva with a sense of humor, she’s nevertheless about substance over style—you can’t fake the earthiness, the soulfulness, the veracity of her sturdy voice; the plainspoken eloquence of her lyrics; or the authority and inventiveness of her instrumental work. In short, Ivy Ford is the real deal, and Club 27 a major statement of an artist coming fully into her own. Most assuredly, attention must be paid.
‘Ready 2 Die,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
To be clear, Club 27 is not an album about dying. Quite the contrary, everything about its lyrics, about Ford’s authoritative, expressive voice (an assertive, even thundering instrument that will remind listeners of a certain age of Phoebe Snow, perhaps, even as it hearkens back to the earliest recorded progenitors of this style—Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Arizona Dranes, Memphis Minnie) coupled to her assured, deeply felt guitar commentary says Club 27 is about facing up to and facing down despair and resolving to live life full measure. The ominous, stark, percussive groove of “Ready 2 Die” frames what may be an homage to Jimbo Morrison (even though the song bears at least a passing resemblance to Delta Spirit’s anthemic “People C’mon” from that great band’s 2008 masterpiece, Ode to Sunshine) wherein she stares down the Grim Reaper with “There’s so many things I haven’t done/so many tunes left unsung…” before beseeching, “Don’t take me, please/I’m not ready to die.” Jimbo always seemed to be staring into the abyss, whereas Ivy Ford looks toward a new horizon, while advising, “I’m not a sinner, just a dark saint.”
‘Little Miss Little One,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
‘When I Met You,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
The dark saint, however, has a tender side, and it surfaces in touching fashion on the country-tinged ballad, “Little Miss Little One.” In unmistakable echoes of Janis Joplin’s enduring reading of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee,” an easygoing country ballad groove—accented by a lilting honky-tonk piano solo—frames thoughtful motherly advice from Ms. Ford to her infant daughter Vivian, advice born of experience, to wit: “When I grow up/what I wanna be/oh no, not famous/don’t need a whole lot of money/it doesn’t buy you everything/it won’t raise your falling sun/be kind to little Miss Little One.” Another verse warns of other pitfalls ahead, until Ms. Ford, as she does often on Club 27, turns the key sentiment inside out to render it in an affirming light: “Go ahead and smile/don’t give away your heart/I don’t know what you have heard/but it really ain’t that hard/yes, it can give you everything/and it can raise your falling sun/it sure is free to Miss Little One.” One of possibly three tunes inspired by Amy Winehouse, the simmering, jazzy ballad, “When I Met You,” with understated keyboard, electric guitar and drums in slow boil mode, is a conflicted love song finding the singer in a bit of pickle over her love interest’s confusing signals, even as the subtle cry in her voice tells us she’s staying the course even if—or perhaps because– “something changed when I met you.” Conflict abates, gloriously so, in the frisky shuffle “Love in This World,” wherein Ms. Ford, in a sultry mood, gooses the tune along with a sprightly, angular guitar solo, then injects a little extra sizzle into her choruses by stretching one-syllable words into two syllables and leaning on the extra syllable in a swooning fashion that adds suggestive pentimento to the topic at hand: “It may be scary sometimes/I’ve been through it/you’re not alone/go ahead, do it/trust me when I say/that it’s worth a shot/if you give nothing, then nothing’s what you’ve got.”
‘Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,’ Ivy Ford, from Club 27
‘Mama Didn’t Raise No Fools,’ Sugar Pie De Santo, the B side of her 1965 Checker single, backing ‘Jump In My Chest’
In addition to the driving “Black Sheep,” the Hendrix influence is most keenly felt on the no-nonsense, R&B groove of “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” with Ms. Ford punctuating the verses with swirling guitar riffs that recall more than a few moments from Are You Experienced (along with a discursive organ solo that takes the song into a whole different place for a few moments) as she recounts some valuable matriarchal life lessons she’s taken to heart over the years. In reading the riot act to a feckless suitor—“Just ‘cause I’m sitting here quiet/don’t mean that I don’t know/brace yourself, honey, I won’t stop once I go/don’t you hear every word coming crystal-clear/oh, honey, who do you think you’re talking to/mama didn’t raise no fool”—Ms. Ford aligns herself not with an artist gone too soon, but rather with one who is very much still with us: Sugar Pie De Santo, now 84 years old, a terrific R&B singer who was discovered by and toured with Johnny Otis (who christened her Sugar Pie—she was born Peylia Marsema Balinton in Brooklyn) in the mid-‘50s and with James Brown in ’59 and ’60 before launching a solo career when signed to Chess Records’ Checker subsidiary. In 1965 Sugar Pie cut a Gene Barge-penned kiss-off of an unfaithful lover, “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fools,” which featured one of Sugar Pie’s strongest, no-nonsense vocals backed by a kick-ass rhythm section, boisterous horns and gospel-rooted female backup singers in a tour de force putdown of the playboy type. Sugar Pie’s “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fools” was the B side of Checker single 13818, with the A side being “Jump in My Chest.” Ivy Ford’s song explores the same theme as Sugar Pie’s, but it’s not a cover. Coincidence, or a 2020 perspective on a timeless topic?
‘Keep On Blues,’ Ivy Ford (with Robert Johnson), from Club 27
It would not be inaccurate to say that from first note to last, Ivy Ford delivers a bravura performance that elevates her into the forefront of young blues artists in America. From concept to execution—in writing the songs, playing all the instruments, taking all the lead and backup vocals—she doesn’t slip up for a second. It’s all believable, honest and rather breathtaking in her assured grasp of idiomatic variations. Her audacity is impressive too, in that the very first notes we hear on Club 27 are not even hers. Instead, the album opening “Keep On Blues” begins with a few familiar bars of Robert Johnson’s 1936 recording of “Cross Road Blues” before a neat, seamless edit has us listening to Ford picking up where Robert leaves off, on acoustic guitar, and unleashing an angry fusillade fueled by a lover’s betrayal leaving her lonely and forlorn “until the day I die.” It’s a mind-bending moment, and don’t be surprised if you have to pause the disc and regroup before moving on to “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool.”
“For the blues are at once general, and particular, speaking for millions, but in a highly singular, individual voice.” So say the words inscribed on the back of Memphis Minnie’s tombstone, words that happen to summarize what the “dark saint” accomplished last year on Harvesting My Roots and even more profoundly on Club 27. Most assuredly, attention must be paid.
Postscript: Steve Jones, president of the Crossroads Blues Society of Northern Illinois in Byron/Rockford, which earned the 2013 Keepin’ The Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation in Memphis, penned a fine review of Club 27 in the indispensable Chicago Blues Guide, founded by Linda Cain. Jones let science, you might say, lead the way in dispelling the myth of the perils age 27 has supposedly posed for musical artists. Jones noted: “There is not any correlation to age 27 and dying as a musician. A few die earlier but most (thankfully) live to much riper old ages. Analysis shows that more musicians have actually died at age 28 than at age 27. The most common age for them to die is at 56. The notoriety of those that died gives the legend legs and popularity, but it’s not supported by statistics. At least here, it has made for a great new CD!”