So Long, Saffire; Hello, Gaye

After a few decades in the jazz business, Gaye Adegbalola of Saffire sheds her group for a solo gig. She tells Advocate.com: "I've known I was a lesbian longer than I knew that I was black."

BY Michele Kort

June 17 2009 11:00 PM ET

Think blues: Think bawdy, zaftig, shake-that-thang women who sing about sex with unabashed hunger in thinly disguised double entendres. Think Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Alberta Hunter, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James. And think Saffire: The Uppity Blues Women, modern purveyors of classic blues who are calling it quits after 25 years of shouting and growling about everything from good loving to silver beavers (yep) to big butts to bitches with bad attitudes.

But they're not leaving without a final 12-bar hurrah -- a last album showing off their great chops and eclectic blues tastes, Havin' the Last Word (Alligator). It's hardly the last word, however, for the three members of Saffire -- Gaye Adegbalola, Andra Faye, and Ann Rabson, all talented singers and multi-instrumentalists, who each have solo careers as well. As for the one lesbian in the bunch, Adegbalola -- a strikingly handsome, tatted, silver-haired African-American woman -- her last solo album indicated the fling-open-the-closet direction she'll be going without her longtime sidekicks: It was titled Gaye Without Shame , all entendres well-intended.

Advocate.com chatted on the phone with Adegbalola recently; she was home in Fredricksburg, Va., before setting off on a final tour with the band.

How did you get the name Saffire? A sapphire is a blue gem, it's semiprecious, it's multifaceted. And Kingfish's wife [on the famous '40s/'50s radio and TV show Amos and Andy ] was Sapphire -- a strong, mouthy woman. But we spelled it differently, long before the rappers did things like that, so that it had fire in it. We had to append The Uppity Blues Women to it because we were contacted by a lawyer for a singer named Sa-fire.

You were already in your 40s when the band started -- this was a second career after having been a science teacher. How did people react to a blues band composed of midlife women? When we started out, the people who wrote about us would say, "They're all women." Then they would say, "They're all old women." Then, "They're old bawdy women." Then, [considering Adegbalola is black and her cohorts white] "They're old, culturally diverse, bawdy women…"

What is it about the blues that draws you -- and listeners -- to it? I like to think of the blues as the poor woman's psychiatrist. It's a music of liberation. There's something about a flatted third that just takes you somewhere else.

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