Vala Cupp
Sarah Orr photograph

January 30, 1954 -- October 31, 2005

By John Orr
November 2005

When Laura Osborn, a longtime friend, heard the news that blues singer Vala Cupp had died, she said, "Well, at least now she's with John Lee (Hooker). That's when Vala was the happiest, when she was with John Lee.''

Cupp, a brilliant but not widely known blues singer who toured for nearly 15 years with Hooker, and sometimes lived in a room in his home, died Oct. 31, 2005, in her Austin, Texas, home. She was 51.

During the time Ms. Cupp toured with Hooker she would open his sets by singing a song or two with his Coast-to-Coast Blues Band, which was led by guitarist Michael Osborn (Laura's husband). Then, at some point during Hooker's own performance, he would bring the petite and beautiful Ms. Cupp out on stage again to perform a duet of his old hit, "Crawlin' King Snake,'' which was always a hit with the crowd, especially when he sang "I'm gonna wrap myself around your pretty little body, baby!''

Hooker's homes in the Bay Area (he owned houses in the Los Altos hills, in Oakland and in Vallejo) were always open to his family and to musician friends. There are stories, for instance, of Hooker's bandmates opening the door of a house he once had on the Peninsula to find Gregg Allman sleeping on the porch.

When Ms. Cupp had a room in that same house, she made a point of helping Hooker with his prescribed medicines, which he often forgot to take when on his own. He was very frail in the last decade before his death in 2001. I remember seeing Hooker at the San Francisco Blues Festival in the early '90s, when he dropped in to sing with some friends, and he looked terrible. Sick, frail, grizzled. Ms. Cupp had not been at his house recently to take care of him.

When Hooker retired from touring, and the blues scene in the Bay Area was fading, Ms. Cupp, who had never known cross-over success as a musician, though admired among blues fans, moved to Austin, Texas, in hopes of improving her career. She found the Austin music scene a tough nut to crack, although she did continue to play some gigs with various bands. Financial success eluded her, and she worked a series of day jobs.

Ms. Cupp had suffered for years from bipolar disorder and depression. Although surrounded by a circle of close friends in Austin and in frequent touch by email and phone with many friends around the nation, she had become increasingly withdrawn.

Amy Skoczen, one of her Austin friends, and partner in the band Chicken Plate, said that Ms. Cupp had gone through periods when she would not answer the phone or knocks on her door. "More than once I called the police to get her door open,'' said Skoczen.

Skoczen found Ms. Cupp's body on Nov. 4.

A preliminary report from the Travis County Forensic Center lists cause of death as asphyxia by hanging. The death has been determined by the medical examiner and Austin police detectives to be a suicide.

Mike Kappus, owner of the Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, met Ms. Cupp when he was managing Hooker, and remained friends thereafter.

"We stayed in touch on a regular basis and had exchanged e-mails shortly before she died,'' Kappus said. "The latest exchanges were more about her work with animal rights, but she mentioned that she was going to send me some demos and joked about being a late bloomer. That gives me the impression that she had hopes and intentions and that her last action was the result of some shorter term upset.''

In her last email to Kappus, Ms. Cupp wrote: "I feel very much alone, but the up side of that is that I can kiss my dogs on the lips (eeeww) and look 'em in the eye. The cat is another story, I think she wants me dead.''

In her non-isolated times, Ms. Cupp was an active supporter of animal rights. She signed her emails "Vala, Booger, Fooey & Sybil.''

Booger and Fooey were her dogs, Sybil her cat. Ms. Cupp's friends were surprised that she had not made provision for her pets at the time of her death. (The pets are now in new homes.)

Born in San Luis Obispo, Ms. Cupp's 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 rest of her life was set.

"It really struck me big time,'' she said in a 1991 interview with me. She said she'd 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 said, "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.''

Ms. Cupp was petite, but had an enormous, powerful voice that made her seem a giant on stage. She performed with Hooker on major stages all around the world, and with other bands in many San Francisco Bay Area blues and rock clubs in the 1980s and '90s.

Vala Cupp
Greg Toland -- Studio West

Osborn, who worked with Cupp on several recordings and in several bands, said "Vala was a warm, witty, charming, outgoing, extremely talented and loyal friend. I was always in awe of the way she could belt out a blues tune. She was a close friend to John Lee Hooker and I know that he had much respect for her talent and appreciated her friendship. I and countless other folks will not only miss her talent on this earth, but I know all of us who knew her have lost a dear friend. I will miss her for as long as I live.''

On her 1990 album, "One Thing on My Mind,'' Ms. Cupp sang a duet with Hooker of his song "Crawlin' King Snake'' which is probably the best version of that song ever recorded.

She appeared on several other albums as a guest, and was at work on a John Lee Hooker tribute album at the time of her death.

Ms. Cupp is survived by her mother, Violet Cupp, 73, of San Luis Obispo; and her sister, Nina McLaren, 52, of Perth, Western Australia. Services are pending.

A personal word

Vala Cupp was a very dear friend of mine. I had not seen her in person since her move to Austin, but we stayed in touch by e-mail and phone calls. There were times when she didn't answer the phone when I called, too. She would apologize later.

One of my own favorite memories of her was at JJ's Downtown, which used to occupy a nice space on Second Street in San Jose.

In an impish mood, she jumped off the high stage and on to my shoulders to ride piggy back around the dance floor, laughing.

She was as light as a feather.