After hitchhiking through Minneapolis one winter night, Janiva Magness, underage at the time, huddled in a dark corner of a club listening to classic blues artist Otis Rush, trying to avoid getting carded.
That night she found the blues, she says, during a dinner-time interview before a recent nightclub show in Santa Rosa. "Otis played as if his life depended on it. Not one note was bullshit. There was a completely desperate, absolute intensity. I knew, whatever it was, I needed more of it."
The better part of a lifetime later, she's definitely gotten more of it. Magness returns to the area Sept. 13 as part of the Russian River Blues Festival, singing with Tommy Castro's Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue. "Blues is about a common person's experience," she says, grasping for words that have become more important than her salmon dinner growing cold. "It's about struggling, getting through, coming out on the other side, then celebrating that. It's the greatest joy, the deepest heartache, the deepest tragedy."Heartache and tragedy defined Magness' early life. As a teenager, she lost both her parents to suicide, spent time in 12 foster homes, traveled from city to city living on the streets and gave up a baby daughter to adoption.
But she did have music. She spent her youth "listening to whatever I could get tuned in on my little AM transistor radio," she says. Her father, also a singer, had a large music collection. Magness sang in a gospel choir. Later, she played small clubs, searching for a style that would work for her, "trying to find my way," she says. While interning in a recording studio, she recorded background vocals. In the 1980s, she moved to Phoenix, Ariz., and with the help of Bob Tate, formerly Sam Cooke's musical director, she formed her first band, Janiva Magness and the Mojomatics.
After 20 years of traveling in a small bus, doing 200 shows a year, Magness has reached blues stardom. She's won three Blues Music Awards for Contemporary Blues Female Artist of the Year, in 2006, 2007 and 2009. This year, she added to her mantle the B. B. King Entertainer of the Year award. She can now afford the luxury of airplane travel. "It's all been as glorious as you might imagine," she says, "and five times harder."
Onstage, Magness has a tender sensuality combined with the charm and wit of a dark-haired Marilyn Monroe. Her stage chatter is up-close and personal, and she's always moving, dancing and grinning, and she constantly seems to be having more fun than the enthusiastic audience.
"You better give people a show. Don't you dare waste their time and hard-earned money," Magness says. During some shows, she uses spoons to play a sheet metal washboard hanging from her neck with cups for her breasts, "for the novelty of it," she says. Officials confiscated it when she once boarded a plane in Casablanca. "They were afraid of it—they thought it was a bomb."
Magness joined the Bluesapalooza tour of Iraq in 2008, the first blues festival to go into an active war zone. Wearing a helmet and flak jacket onstage, she occasionally fled for shelter, bombs going off nearby and the ground shaking. "I was scared," she says, "but when those kids told me how it made them forget where they were for two hours, I knew it was the right thing to do. The U.S. military trains them as machines. I can't think of anyone in greater need of a break.
"My job is about human connection," Magness continues. She's involved in the Blues in Schools program, offering students unplugged performances where she discusses blues history, answers questions, and jams with the kids.
She's also a National Spokesperson for Casey Family Programs, promoting National Foster Care Month. Her latest album, What Love Will Do, is dedicated to children at risk—something she certainly knows about—and her message to them is "Don't give up, keep moving forward," she says. "We don't hear much about the success stories. Do I live in that place every day? Not anymore."
Far from that rainy night in Minneapolis with Otis Rush, Magness' home base has been Los Angeles since 1986, and she muses about her life, her eyes sparkling with passion. "If I drop dead tonight," she says, "it would all have been enough."
Janiva Magness appears with the Legendary Rhythm & Blues Revue, Dr. John, the Neville Brothers, Otis Taylor and others at the Russian River Blues Festival on Sunday, Sept. 13, at Johnson's Beach. First and Church St., Guerneville. 10am&–6pm. $45. 707.869.1595.