Featured Musician - October 2007
Name: Retta Christie
Instrument: Vocal, guitar and drums.
Early Years/Education: Grew up on a farm outside of Astoria , Oregon . The Olney Grange Hall was just up the road and every other Saturday night there was a dance. The community got together and my family was always there. We'd dance to Western Swing bands or listen to old 78 recordings of Western Swing and we'd square dance.
My family played and sang together but those dances were an early influence. There were five kids in my family and four out of the five of us went on to play professionally. My parents both sing and love music. They hired a piano teacher to come to the house and we'd all get a lesson.
Growing up, cowboys were a passion of mine so I became obsessed with their music. I play a 1948 hollow -bodied, arch-top, Paramount guitar my brother, Pierce, picked up years ago at a pawn shop in California . He owed me $400 once and in payment he gave me this guitar. I went to Skidmore College in New York and have a degree in Art. I presently work in Art conservation. When I graduated from college, I came home.
Radio: When I returned to Astoria after college in 1983, I began playing professionally and had a “country and western” radio show on the newly formed community radio station KMUN-FM. When I moved to Portland in 1985, I was on KBOO-FM and did a radio show mixing older jazz and Western music. From 1989 to '95, I went back to the Astoria area and got back on the air at KMUN-FM and co-hosted a show featuring early jazz with cornetist Jim Goodwin.
Now that I'm back in Portland , I'm back on KBOO-FM doing a noontime jamboree-Western Swing show. Early jazz and Western Swing is essentially the same thing, swing music is swing music. Bing Crosby did Floyd Tillman tunes; Willie Nelson sings standards, etc. The Western bands and the jazz bands were all listening to each other on the radio. They'd play whatever hit was popular that week.
They all played the same tunes but the Western players would use rural instrumentation like a steel guitar and fiddle. Just like the jazz bands, the Western bands would swing like crazy! For example, the tune “I'll String Along with You,” which will be on my new CD, was sung by Derwood Brown (Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies) and sounds very much like Jack Teagarden. Oddly enough, Teagarden and Brown were both from the same Oklahoma-Texas area. Also, the father of country music, Jimmy Rodgers, recorded with Louis Armstrong around 1930 with Louis on cornet and Lil Armstrong on piano.
Bands: After college my first professional band was “Retta and the Smart Fellas.” We'd play the Elks and the Legion halls up and down the coast around 1982. I then joined a group called “Meloddity,” a five-piece based out of Cannon Beach . Turtle Vandemar and Spud Siegel were in the band and we were quite popular touring the region around 1983.
After that I was in the “Modern Age Drifters” by Fritz Richmond, another five-piece group. Then I had the “Christie Girls,” which included my niece, Heather Christie and now the “Retta Christie Trio.” My trio has included Chris Tyle and Jim Goodwin at first; then, with David Evans and Jim Goodwin. Currently, it's with David Evans on clarinet and saxophone and Dave Frishberg on piano. I mostly sing and drum with the trio. I've Velcroed a snare drum skin to the back of my guitar. I'm really enjoying drumming and singing at the moment.
Musical Influences: Patsy Cline, Maxine Sullivan, Vera Lynn, Kay Starr, Mildred Bailey, Jack Teagarden, Merle Haggard, Maria Callas, Rosemary Clooney (especially her late recordings), Milton Brown and His Musical Brownies, Bill Boyd and his Cowboy Ramblers, Joe Venuti and Eddie Lange, the Farr Brothers with the Sons of the Pioneers and Jim Goodwin.
Most Satisfying Experience: Last summer at the Skamania Fairgrounds and again at the Norse Hall on Puget Island , my Trio got to play a dance that seemed just like the country dances I attended growing up…you could hear the music so well and see the people dancing. Everyone was enjoying the music and enjoying themselves!
Discography: With Retta and the Smart Fellas, “Rural Jazz” came out in 2001 and was nominated by the Academy of Western Artists , in Gene Autry, Oklahoma for “Western Swing Band of the Year” and “Female Vocalist of the Year.” In 2003 ,we did “They Took The Stars Out Of Heaven.” This CD was also nominated by the AWA in the same categories. My other recordings are Retta and the Smart Fellas, Meloddity, Modern Age Drifters and Christie Girls. I also have some unreleased material of the Retta Christie Trio from 2005 and 2006. These can be purchased from Hyperlink: “mailto: ARChristie@aol.com ”
Favorite Recordings: The music I like is just what I consider to be good music, nice melodies and lyrics. Rosemary Clooney — “Sings the Music of Cole Porter,” 1982. I love all the later recordings she did where you hear the strain of her life in her voice. Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies — a five-CD box set that I listen to cuts from all the time. This is a great band playing great songs —1932-37. Eddie Condon's “Eddie Condon in Japan , 1964.” Jimmy Rushing is on the vocals with Condon, Buck Clayton and Pee Wee Russell,. Maxine Sullivan —“I Love Maxine.” I love her early work too, with the John Kirby Orchestra. The Comedian Harmonists, a cassette tape that Dan Barrett gave me years ago. It has “Night and Day” on it and “Whistle While You Work; ” Merle Haggard — I am a huge Merle fan. His CD- “If I Could Only Fly,” from 2000, is fabulous. He and George Jones put out a CD last year, “Two Icons Collide, ” and the last cut on the CD they sing a duet, “Don't Get Around Much Anymore, ” the Ellington tune. Floyd Tillman's “I Love You So Much It Hurts.” I perform several of his songs. I'm hoping to record his song, “This Cold War with You,” on our next CD. The Title cut “They Took The Stars Out of Heaven” from my second Western CD is a Floyd Tillman tune. Patsy Cline — I bought her Greatest Hits LP-1973, and that started an obsession with her for awhile. She has been a big influence. I love the song “Try Again” that she performed on the Arthur Godfrey Show; it is on a live CD that came out awhile back. Other favorites are Vera Lynn on “We'll Meet Again” and Bill Boyd and His Cowboy Ramblers.
Gigs: All these gigs are with the new Retta Christie Trio of David Evans on clarinet/saxophone, and Dave Frishberg on piano with me drumming, singing and doing a little rhythm guitar: Friday, October 12, O'Connor's Vault, 7850 SW Capitol Hwy, in the heart of Multnomah Village, Portland, 8 - 11 pm. Saturday, October 20, Heathman Hotel, 1001 SW Broadway, Portland , 8 pm– Midnight. Friday, November 2, O'Connor's Vault, 8 - 11 pm. Saturday, December 22, Heathman Hotel, 8pm– midnight. Retta Christie as part of an All-Star show (including David Evans) at the Shriners Hall in Wilsonville, Wednesday, November 7.
Future Plans: Getting the new Trio CD out. What I really hope for in the future is good jobs …fun, meaningful jobs and jobs that pay a decent wage right here in the Northwest.
Other Comments: Currently, I'm really enjoying working with Dave Frishberg and Dave Evans. I believe we all enjoy each others company, so this current venture is both musical and fun.
Quotes: Dave Frishberg : “I grew up listening to this kind of music when I was a kid, so Retta's band hits me square in the memory department, where it counts. They're authentic Western swing players and they can swing you into bad health. I love hearing them in person, and their onstage charisma comes across.”
Rebecca Kilgore : "I love what Retta does. I share her love of old songs and she sings them with purity and unpretentiousness."
-- Interviewed by Rita Rega