Vala Cupp

Photograph of Vala Cupp by Josť Luis Villegas

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Vala Cupp

By John Orr

I recently had the distinct pleasure of talking again with Vala Cupp, after a couple of years of no communications. She sounds great and is still doing that blues thing -- still opening for John Lee Hooker at his few gigs ("I'm retired," he says, on his way to one benefit or another), and still gigging with the likes of blues keyboard master Danny Beconcini and other San Francisco Bay Area blues players. And, working on another album.

Vala Cupp is one of the greatest living blues singers, despite not having made an awful lot of money at it.

If you ever get a chance to see one of her gigs, do yourself a favor: Go see her.

The following was first published in July of 1992.

Vala Cupp's powerful voice is stunning, and you'd think natural laws would require that it be issued from a body larger than 5-foot-3 and 105 pounds. But on stage or CD, she's a giant.

John Lee Hooker thinks enough of Cupp and her tough, modern blues song-writing and singing that he hired her to open his shows and produced her first album, "One Thing On My Mind."

Cupp also sings with other Bay Area groups, including the Sam Andrew-Vala Cupp Band, and Rock Bottom.

Several women are bringin an intriguing, new approach to the blues -- Rory Block, Joanna Connor, Debbie Davies and Sue Foley among them -- but none has a voice even remotely as strong, as deep in the marrow, as Vala Cupp.


The following was first published in October of 1991.

RX for the angry blues: steal a can of green beans.

Well, it worked for Vala Cupp anyway, at the South Bay Blues Awards program last month.

There she was, singing in front of several hundred other blues musicians and their friends, when her last song was cut off early because someone flubbed, and she was left with a mouthful of verse and nowhere to sing it.

Too angry to even talk to the band, she stomped off stage and into the kitchen of the Cabaret. It came to her that she might feel better if she took a can of Del
Monte Fresh String Green Beans.

It did. "I feel a little better," she says later. "I feel like I got something out of it."

Cupp has been getting something out of the blues, and paying it back, for many years, though how many is closely held information. "I can't remember when I was born. I was too small at the time," she explains.

Born in San Luis Obispo, her stage debut was at age 5, in "The Seven-Year Itch," and she started singing in folk- rock bands when she was 14. She was 15 when she first heard a Bessie Smith recording, and the course of the next 15 (or 20?) years of her life was set.

''It really struck me big time," Cupp recalls. She became fascinated by "the most macabre tunes . . . 'Electric Chair Blues,' 'Blue Spirit Blues,' 'Evil-Hearted Me.' I never have been one for pretty songs.

''Well, maybe not necessarily macabre," she says, stopping to think. "But definitely striking or strong tunes. Not tunes that come from a vulnerable viewpoint. Those sappy victim songs make me ill. The strong ones are a kick in the butt to sing, and they're a strong emotional release. Such as 'Any Old Arms,' 'Man-Sized Job,' 'Don't Mess With My Man,' 'Someone Else Is Stepping In' -- those are all fun. They are more colorful lyrically, give you more to work with when evoking a feeling."

She is petite and slender, and people tend to be surprised by the power of her voice. It adds a lot of authority to what she sings, which, like Bessie Smith, are usually songs about women getting what they want.

Cupp's latest gig is tonight, at JJ's Fifth Annual Blues Festival at JJ's Downtown, where'll she'll be featured by the Michael Osborn Band, who will be joined by John Lee Hooker. Osborn and Cupp are known outside the Bay Area largely because of Hooker: Osborn has played lead guitar for Hooker's Coast-to- Coast Blues Band for 10 years, and Cupp has been the band's warm-up singer for four years. With Hooker they have performed at every major blues festival from New Orleans to Montreux.

Still, they've both been out on their own, between Hooker's increasingly less frequent live gigs, trying to make their own ways as musicians. (The Osborn band, in fact, was booked for the JJ's festival without Hooker. JJ's owner Max Stanley and Hooker cut their own deal, and Osborn was later informed that he would have a special and familiar guest.)

Cupp's busy schedule -- besides performing with Coast-to- Coast and the Osborn bands -- includes singing for Upside, a band formed with her day-job co-workers at Gelb Music in Redwood City, and rehearsing a couple of other bands.