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 "I've known I was a lesbian longer than I knew that I was black."




How did you get involved in music and in the blues? My father had a band -- he played the drums, mainly -- and they were weekend warriors. And my mom ran the youth canteen and would bring old records home. The thing that turned me onto the blues was that every summer we'd go to this amphitheater and hear Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald. Belafonte had Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee on the bill. I played flute in high school.

But then you learned guitar in the 1970s from your Saffire-mate-to-be Ann Rabson, formed Saffire, and decided to take a year off teaching. I was a good teacher, so I wasn't worried about getting another job. Science teachers are at a premium. Lo and behold, our first year out there a song I wrote ["Middle-Aged Blues Boogie," which took blues song of the year honors] paid my son's way through college.

Saffire will be ending as a group in November -- why now? We've been working our kind of blues together for 25 years, and all of us individually do other stuff. As one ages -- and I just got my Medicare card! -- you want to pick and choose where you put your energy. So it's good and bad [to be ending].

You married and had a son -- when did you figure out you were gay? I've known I was a lesbian longer than I knew that I was black. I know, that's deep. I'm told I would not go to sleep until the girl next door would come and talk to me. And the girl who lived next door looked like a black Liz Taylor. I knew it when I married, but it wasn't something I could act upon then.

Lesbianism has snuck its way into the blues for decades, hasn't it? Yes, down through the ages, starting back with Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith and Alberta Hunter, most of the women blues singers were bisexual if not flat-out lesbians. All I knew was that their music resonated with me -- even if it was totally about men. Ma Rainey in 1926 recorded "Prove It on Me" [I went out last night with a crowd of my friends / It must've been women, 'cause I don't like no men..."], but even then she didn't come out. And a woman named Lucille Bogan sang a song in the mid 1930s, "B.D. [bull dagger] Woman's Blues" -- "They've got a head like a sweet angel, but they walk just like a natural man." So I'm just continuing their tradition.

Tags: Music