July 14, 2009 / 11:30 AM / 11 years ago

INTERVIEW - Sweet Georgia Brown: from streets to Montreux star

MONTREUX, Switzerland (Reuters Life!) - Blues singer Sweet Georgia Brown made her dream come true with an electrifying performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival six years after she was found sleeping rough on the streets of New York.

U.S. blues singer Sweet Georgia Brown performs during the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival in Montreux July 12, 2009. REUTERS/Valentin Flauraud

Brown, making her major international debut aged 62, won the night’s first standing ovation that most expected would be granted to bluesman and headliner BB King.

“I never thought in a million years I would be singing with BB King. This is a dream come true for me,” said Brown before joining a host of stars in a late-night jam session at the end of King’s crowd-pleasing performance.

Her break came when the Jazz Foundation of America showcased her in New York to producer Quincy Jones and Montreux Jazz festival organiser Claude Nobs.

“Man, we kicked so much ass that night and Claude played the harmonica with me. It was unbelievable,” Brown said in an interview after her set.

When the musicians’ charity first heard of Brown, she was sleeping in New York’s Penn Station after a fire had robbed her and her disabled granddaughter of their home.

“Georgia Brown has quite a story,” said Wendy Oxenhorn, executive director of the Jazz Foundation of America, which helps musicians in distress. “She had a very challenging life. She’s always struggled as all blues musicians do.”

“She’s well known in New York — she’s one of the last of the real Harlem diva blues queens,” Oxenhorn said of Brown, who has been singing and dancing since the age of three.

After winning amateur night at the Apollo aged 15, Brown gained little recognition outside the New York clubs where she has performed for most of a career spanning nearly six decades.

“You know music is a hard business. It’s not very fair,” said Brown’s guitarist Stew Cutler.

“You see people who are absolutely incredible and nothing ever happens for them, nobody ever hears of them, they have no work.”

The audience on Sunday in Montreux’s Stravinski Auditorium on the shore of Lake Geneva can vouch for Brown’s talent after a stunning performance that combined electric blues power with the showwomanship of old-style blues divas.

“I feel like I’m a new breed in blues,” said Brown, who draws inspiration from early female blues performers such as Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith. “I want to move it with more up-to-date stuff but keep it to blues.”

“Remember, I’m 62 years old and I started at three and god knows I prayed that something like this could happen,” shed said. “I finally got the band I love after all these years. I mean everything is working in place.

“If you love music and you really believe that this is your calling, then do it,” said Brown. “I had to quit jobs. Nine to five I’ve never kept a job, I always got fired, but do you know what? This is all worth it.”

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