Barbara Blue

The corner of Third and Beale is home for singer Barbara Blue. A Pittsburgh native who passed through Silky O’Sullivan’s on Beale Street seven years ago and was offered a full-time job, Blue has turned the popular watering hole and gathering spot into her personal pulpit five nights a week, presiding over an ever-changing congregation of tourists, conventioneers, and locals. On a typical Saturday afternoon last fall, Blue took the microphone before a sleepy crowd of about 20 souls who seemed more interested in the Florida-Arkansas college football game on television than what was happening on stage. With longtime accomplice Nat Kerr backing her on piano and providing her own percussion via tambourine and stomping feet, Blue proceeded to win over the crowd with a human jukebox act she calls “blues singer gone awry.” By the end of her set, the bar was full and patrons were lined up to buy CDs and talk to the artist. Estimating that she knows approximately 3,000 songs, Blue says, “Usually, if we’ve heard it we can play it, and we’ll try most anything once.” Onstage she mixes personal faves — Bonnie Raitt, Janis Joplin, Etta James, Lucinda Williams — with audience requests, and engages in a game she calls “musical prostitution”: $5 in the tip jar will immediately bring an end to any song, and $10 more will start it back up again. Asked if there’s anything she won’t sing, Blue says, “For $300, I’ll do about anything — Lynyrd Skynyrd, Jimmy Buffett, David Allen Coe, Britney Spears. Just so they don’t yell ‘Freebird,’ ” she adds, referring to the Lynyrd Skynyrd ditty that’s so overdone it’s become a standard joke. Blue is clearly a woman who loves to sing and is also adept at working a crowd. “I know what I’m doing up there,” Blue says. “I know how to pull the energy out of [people], and I love that. I can tell pretty quick who I want to talk to and who I don’t.” While audience interaction is important to Blue’s success, she has to know when to leave people alone — and how to curb those who become overly attentive. “I like to let everybody be who they are up to a point,” she says, “but if they start to cross the line, I’ll back off them.” As someone who spent plenty of time on the road before finding her way to Memphis, Blue appreciates what she’s got at Silky’s. “The food is good, the people are nice, and Beale is safe. It doesn’t take a lot of Memphis to support Beale,” she says, estimating that 80 percent of her audience consists of out-of-towners, while Sundays are the best night for locals. “The best thing about this corner is the diversity,” says Blue. “I can sleep in the same bed every night and it’s still like being on the road — I get to perform for a different audience every night.” Plus, she adds, “people still come [to Beale Street] for music, and they take it seriously.” Under Blue’s command, Silky’s becomes a musical oasis for travelers seeking a warm, friendly, festive evening — a situation she pays tribute to on her latest record, 3rd & Beale, recorded in Los Angeles last fall with members of Taj Mahal’s Phantom Blues Band. One song in particular, a Blue original, pretty much sums up the dynamic at work at Blue’s sets: “The Road Comes to Me.”

Chris Herrington