“We were on tour in Germany and a girl said to me, ‘Can you teach me how to sing like you?’ I said, ‘Girl, you got to get butt naked’ and she said, ‘What!’ (laughs) I said, ‘You have to get butt naked to bare the soul.’” For Debbi Blackwell-Cook, once you hear her voice, you never forget it. It has power and range but never strays from it’s emotional center, never goes over-the-top or into a tailspin of ear-splitting notes. It’s always perfect. And that may be because of where a song comes from within Blackwell-Cook. Her heart is filled with a beautiful spirit that has endured high joys and tremendous pain, yet she knows just how to release those emotions without a thirst to make a soothing waterfall into Niagara Falls. “I love what I do and I find it a beautiful thing that I was chosen to be a singer.”
People seem to be only just now discovering Blackwell-Cook through Phil Collen’s side-project Delta Deep, but she has actually been singing for a long time. She has done vocals behind Luther Vandross and Michael Buble, acted on the theatre stage and in television programs, and fronted an R&B boogie group called The Jammers, whose song “Be Mine Tonight” made it onto the US Dance charts in the early 1980’s.
Def Leppard’s Collen already had a side-band called Manraze going when something started clicking between him and his wife Helen’s godmother. Strumming on his guitar one day led Blackwell-Cook to start humming along. That led to sing-a-longs to Motown tunes and then finally to a song of their own creation. “All of a sudden, we’ve got this sound and we started writing more,” Collen told me in an interview for Glide last year. “Debbi’s vocals sound like somewhere between Aretha Franklin and Tina Turner. So you’ve got all this stuff together and we’d slip off into James Brown grooves and it was like, shit, where is this coming from? (laughs). It was just amazing.” Their self-titled debut album appeared in the summer, receiving many starred reviews, including a stellar shout out from the respected Elmore Magazine: “If you’re into good old spiritual, emotional and thought provoking rock n roll, look no further than Delta Deep.”
In his memoir, Adrenalized, Collen wrote about the music they were creating: “All of a sudden these songs weren’t standard blues. They had fire, passion, a fuck-offness and an unholy groove I hadn’t heard anywhere before;” thanks especially to the “sultry” Blackwell-Cook’s vocals. “It’s amazing what happens when you’re inspired and have great chemistry with people,” continued Collen. Delta Deep was able to play some shows when time allowed and following a successful jaunt on the west coast they now have a new live record coming out in the summer, not to mention an east coast tour revving up to start next week, hitting Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington DC. They also just added the Riverbend Festival in Chattanooga to their schedule in mid-June.
So lots of fun things are happening for the band and Blackwell-Cook is excited for it all. “Life can be very difficult but it’s also very beautiful,” she told me last week during our interview. As it was coming upon the three year anniversary of her son’s death, her thoughts were deep, her words tinged with both sadness and hope, yet her faith was strong and her laughter contagious. “I’m a blessed mom, a blessed woman to have had such a beautiful spirit come through me, walk the Earth and call me Mama,” she said quietly about her son. And Blackwell-Cook’s spirit, as does her music, shines with an incredible vibrancy you won’t soon forget.
You have such an emotional voice. How do you control it and keep it from going over-the-top?
You know, I never really thought about that. I just sing from my heart and soul. I was trained but I had to unlearn some things because it’s a natural gift that God gave me from the crib. So when I went to try and make it better, my God, unlearning things is harder than learning them. But I had to unlearn because without the training I could hold a note forever. Once I got trained, I couldn’t hold a note. And I mean on key, the length of the note. So I had to unlearn a lot of things. But I just really sing from my heart and from my experiences in life.
Tell us about when you first started to sing.
Well, my mom said even before I was walking I’d be sitting in the crib just singing and playing like I was playing the piano. Just la-la-la-la and moving my fingers as if I was playing the piano. So I really believe it was a gift. As a little girl I went to church, of course, and I started off singing sitting in the audience in the pews and then I got into the choir and my godmother heard something in me. But I think I was afraid. Even at my first audition, I got three callbacks for Dreamgirls for Broadway and the director came out of the audience and he said, “I never come out at my auditions to speak to anybody but you have more talent in your pinky than most people have in their entire being.” Then he said, “What are you afraid of?” I was afraid. Even as a youngster my godmother would say, “Sing out, Deborah, sing out.” And I would try to sing out but this little timid voice would come out. But she didn’t give up on me and all of a sudden I was singing out. (laughs)
With gospel music being such a big part of your childhood, does it still influence the way you sing and write songs today?
Gospel music has changed so much. It’s so different and more secular. The gospel back in the day when you had Mahalia Jackson and Shirley Caesar and James Cleveland, that music touched your soul. Even as a kid, you would find yourself crying. The music today just makes you want to move, you know what I mean. It doesn’t touch that spot like the old music did. And it wasn’t just hymns. They told stories and it would make you think and it would make you cry and it would make you grateful, even as a kid. But today, this music, and I’m not saying it’s not good, it’s just very different. It doesn’t touch that spot.
But I write from my life experiences and I do believe that is a gift. Like this morning, I got up and for no reason I started writing but it wasn’t so much a song, I was writing about my feelings and my life. This is coming up on the third year my baby son was murdered in Baltimore. He was twenty-eight at the time and it was Easter Sunday morning. We happened to be at a Def Leppard concert in Vegas and I won’t go into the whole thing but Phil was the one that caught me. He’s my family and I’m not so much indebted to him but I am so grateful for him because at my lowest moment he literally caught me when I fell and then he picked me up and put me in front of a microphone and that’s how I began to heal. My son came to me in a dream and said, “Mommy, sing my life.” And Phil, he afforded me an opportunity to work through that pain doing the Delta Deep album. I just really, really thank God for him because I don’t know that I would have healed the way I’m healing had it not been for him. So sometimes it’s hard and I write about whatever is inside of me.
What triggered you to write your very first song?
You know, I used to write poetry when I was five. I remember writing something on a picture, “My dearest Mommy and Daddy.” But as far as I can remember, the very first song that really did something, I was thirteen years old and I was in the choir and there was a contest with about thirteen or more choirs and we had to submit two songs. So I wrote the songs and we won! The prize for winning was we got to go in the studio and record them. The choir just had a reunion, I think like two months ago or three months ago, and I couldn’t go, but they sang those songs that I wrote.
Did that help build your confidence, winning that contest?
You know I’m sure it did but I don’t know. To me, it was just a part of me. I don’t know that I was proud or happy or not happy or whatever. All I know is that I was glad we had won the contest. But it was just a natural thing.
When did you know you wanted to pursue singing professionally?
I knew it all my life. But see, in the church we wasn’t supposed to listen to rhythm & blues. The church people called everything Jazz, whether it was blues, rock, whatever, it was Jazz music, it was the devil’s music, and we weren’t supposed to listen to that devil’s music, that Jazz music. And I remember this record from Atlantic and I would listen to Aretha Franklin and I would get a hairbrush and put a towel on my head like I had long hair and stand in the mirror and be singing, “Ain’t no way.” (laughs) I would just stand in the mirror just singing in the hairbrush like it was a microphone. And now I’m singing into a real microphone! Yeah, I’ve always wanted to do it.
You know, I won my first contest as an adult with children. I would sneak out, and Leslie, I went to this talent show. I didn’t win, I came in second place, but the people that were there, one of the guys was how I met Luthor [Vandross], and they wanted me to do a demo for them. It was my first time so when I went to go do the demo, they had the guitars and drums, and I was like, “Oh my God, this is for me?” (laughs) That’s the most excited I remember ever being. I did a demo for these guys and then they started calling me down to do background singing for different people and that’s how I got with The Jammers. I was with a group called The Jammers and that was in the eighties and I was the lead singer for that group. You can go on YouTube and just type in The Jammers and my son just put up a new website for me [www.debbiblackwellcook.com] and you can go on that. But that’s how I got with The Jammers, because I won this contest and then I started being asked to do this and do that. I did a lot of background work for Colonel Abrams and a lot of demos working with him and we’re still friends today. A lot of the guys used to come here and jam in my basement. But it all happened because I snuck out.
Were you ever intimidated by the business early on?
I think I was too excited to be in it to be intimidated. It was just a blessing to always be on call. My son did sound for Michelle Obama when she spoke at Morgan State because he was the lighting designer and the sound person at Morgan State. And he did sound for Tyler Perry and I remember at one of those shows, Tyler Perry said, “You know who your real friends are when you make it.” And I didn’t understand that statement. I was like, I think everybody wants to be your friend once you make it. But now I kind of understand and I don’t know that I made it but I hope that I am being a blessing to people everywhere. I went on an audition recently for a television commercial and a couple of the girls that I would frequently see, when they saw me come in I thought they would be like, “Hey, how you doing, where you been?” But it was, “What are you doing here?” So intimidated? I’m too blessed to be cursed. It’s the gift that God trusted me with. So I don’t get intimidated, I don’t think, or nervous. I get happy to be a part of whatever is going on.
How did Delta Deep come together?
I had been around the house for a while but one day Phil was playing and I just started humming to what he was doing and he said, “Do that again.” I did it and then we started singing Motown stuff. Then he had the opportunity to do a benefit for cancer and he said, “Hey Deb, you want to go down and sing with me?” Why not. So we rehearsed a few songs and we did it. I’m not sure if we did a thing for the Grammys or the thing for the Gerson Institute first but those are the two things I remember we went and did. And at both places, people were like, “Where can we get this music?” And we were looking at each other like, are you serious? So Phil was like, “Well, we were just goofing around, da da da da da.” “Well, when you do the first album, we want it.”
So me, Phil and Helen went to their home in New Zealand and we were in the kitchen and we started writing this song, “Miss Me.” That was the first song that we wrote. We just sat in there and it just came together. Then as soon as we got back from New Zealand, we put it down. Then he was playing me something that he had done for, I think Lita Ford, if I’m not mistaken. But he had written a song for somebody and I just started singing it and that was “Down In The Delta.” And I think it was Helen that said, “I think Lita done lost that song.” (laughs) And it was just me and Phil. Then he happened to play the stuff for Forrest [Robinson] and Forrest was like, “I got to be the drummer on this.” Then somebody mentioned Robert [DeLeo], that he loved soul music, and Phil asked him and he did.
But originally, it was just me and Phil and that’s how it started. I heard the music he was playing and I just started humming and then I started singing and then we came together with the words and we put that down. Next thing we know we’re putting down “Burnt Sally.” Then we were putting down some other things that we had written. Most of “Burnt Sally” came from Helen but we all collaborated and it was just amazing how all the songs just started coming. I believe we got the second album, or the third album now, written. The second album is going to be a live album, West Coast Live.
How is the rapport between you and Phil onstage?
Oh I like to mess with him, “You was out there singing tonight, wasn’t you?” (laughs) The one thing about us, even when we were just sitting down singing, if we messed up, we messed up together. We are so connected that we messed up and nobody knew it but us but when we messed up we messed up together and we both laughed cause we were having a great time.
You were in a musical play about Bessie Smith. What was that like?
Well, the thing is, I’ve been on a lot of stages. But with Bessie Smith, strange things happened. Her music would come on the radio and it wasn’t even a Bessie Smith kind of channel. It was almost like she was with me. The name of the play was Bessie Speaks and it was a one-woman play and we had a piano player, Grenoldo Frazier, and my son Troy was the spirit of the play. He would dance through every now and then. But it was a whole book and directed by my husband Dwight Cook. Theresa Merritt – she did Best Little Whorehouse In Texas and That’s My Mama on television and The Wiz with Diana Ross – she was one of my mentors and she said to me, “Oh Girl, that’s too much work for one person. It’s too much work.” Cause I had to do the whole book, it was a two hour play and I had to sing. I wish we had taped it. We didn’t tape it but oh my God, I wish we had taped it because that was some of my best work.
What is something new that you would like to challenge yourself with musically?
I would love to sing to big audiences – 80,000 and 200,000 people. I would like to sing to stadiums of people and touch their hearts. I would love to see what it feels like to do it on a level of Michael Jackson, Beyonce, Def Leppard. I would love to see what that feels like, you know what I mean, and have it not overtake me but let me still be humble and in a position to just want to touch them and have somebody to forget their pain because I know what pain is. Have somebody just for a minute be so touched, not because I’m that good but because it’s coming from that God place in me, straight from Him to them. I would love to touch people, heal people, help people, inspire people.
What do you hope your grandchildren will remember the most about you?
That I loved them unconditionally and that I always asked them what would they do, and I asked my kids this too, what would you do even if you weren’t getting paid for it? And that’s your passion. I would hope they would remember that I had fun with them, us laughing, us dancing, us being silly, cause we are a silly bunch of people. I dance with them, I act silly with them, I put on a clown outfit for my granddaughter’s birthday. Everybody wanted to take a picture with the clown (laughs). Even the adults. I always love cooking for them. I always like to make them happy, always like to make them laugh, and to know that they were important.
When my grandmother was dying she said to me, “Debbi, live your life so you have no regrets.” And she always used to tell us, and all my kids too, “Don’t trade your common sense for book smart cause the same man that wrote that book could have been you.” My grandmother didn’t make it to high school. She might have made it to the third or fourth grade but she always told me, “Don’t trade your common sense for book sense.” So I want my kids and grandkids to remember to laugh, love, respect and to never trade their common sense for book smart. I wouldn’t tell them not to go to school but never trade it cause that’s powerful.
Delta Deep Tour Dates
March 28 Howard Theatre
March 29 Ortlieb’s Lounge
March 30 Wonder Bar
March 31 Iron Horse Music Hall Northampton, MA
April 3 BB Kings
April 5 Cavern Club at Hard Rock Café Boston, MA
April 6 Daryl’s House
April 8 YMCA Boulton Center Bay Shore, NY
June 18 Riverbend Festival Chattanooga, TN *
(Budlight Stage 8p-9:30p)