By Jane Schneider
In 2017, Keith and Julie Schap, graciously welcome a steady stream of guests into their home as musicians set up amps and guitars in the middle of their living room. The Schaps, who renovated their East Memphis house to accommodate their popular house concerts, feature four jazz sessions a year. A concert pianist, Julie is the
artistic director for Concerts International, a chamber music series, and the couple’s living room reflects their passion.
Shadowboxes filled with autographed playbills and photographs of Leonard Bernstein, Dave Brubeck, and Frank Sinatra pepper the walls. The audience, an older East Memphis crowd, sips wine and visits as the band tunes up, many stopping to say hello to jazz pianist Michael Jefry Stevens, and hug tonight’s featured singer, the legendary Joyce Cobb.
The 71-year-old entertainer mixes among fans who clearly love and admire her. She greets some by name, laughing and trading quips. Dressed in a tunic of royal blue, the brilliant hue offsets her neatly cropped afro, now a snow-white halo that frames her familiar, radiant smile. She starts out playfully with Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose.” Her voice is bright and melodic, scatting against the piano line at times before turning husky and mournful, reflecting an honesty born of heartbreak and redemption.
“B.B. King heard me sing once at Bill’s Twilight Lounge and said, ‘You’re a people’s entertainer.’ I didn’t understand what he meant until now,” says Cobb. “People feel they know me. I remember their faces and their stories. They give me their attention and support and love — and I give them my music.”
Joyce Cobb has been giving Memphis her music for more than four decades now. Her persona is so much a part of the city’s musical fabric that we feel we know her. We listen to her on the radio, we watch her on stage, we
celebrate her talent with awards and accolades — and she doesn’t even sing the blues.
On this day Joyce is backed by bassist Sylvester Sample, a musician she played with early in her career, back when both were regulars at Bill’s Twilight Lounge on North Parkway. Cobb moved to Memphis from Nashville at a transitional time in the city’s history. In the mid-1970s, Beale Street sat boarded up, forlorn and forgotten; the handful of clubs that catered to the jazz crowd were fading as Lafayette’s in Overton Square declared itself the city’s new musical epicenter.
But what Cobb discovered in Memphis that differed from Nashville was its hot buttered soul — music heavily laced with blues and jazz and R&B influences, further spiced by a talented pool of players eager to explore the music she loved. The singer was home.
Though now known as a jazz singer,Cobb’s musical knowledge runs deep and wide. Born June 2, 1945, in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, Cobb was reared in Nashville, where country music from the Grand Ole Opry often wafted from her grandmother’s radio. Thanks to her father, Robert S. Cobb, a college professor at Tennessee State and an avid jazz collector, she grew to love Anita O’Day, Sarah Vaughan, and the Great American Songbook, a collection of pop and jazz standards from the early twentieth century. “Learn those songs and you’ll never be out of work,” her father advised. And so she did.
Florence Cobb, her mother, was a passionate dance teacher and college instructor, exposing her children to classical music, piano lessons, and theater training. “God blessed me with some great parents,” says Cobb.
She earned her B.A. from Central State University in Ohio and was working on a master’s degree in social work when an opportunity to play rock covers as part of a duo for the Ramada Hotel chain came up. She jumped at the chance. After a two-and-a-half-year tour, Cobb returned to Nashville, confident that music was her destiny. She started singing country, working in radio and TV and entertaining at Opryland where she fronted a Dixieland jazz band, earning a Best Vocalist award in 1974. But while country music is what brought her to Memphis, jazz remained her soul.
If blues is the raucous river that flows through Memphis, then jazz has long been a quieter eddy. Many ardent fans find that fact ironic given the many players who have come from Memphis. Such notable musicians as Charles Lloyd (saxophone), Phineas Newborn Jr. (piano), Jimmie Lunceford (piano), George Coleman (saxophone), Donald Brown (saxophone), Frank Strozier (saxophone), and Harold Mabern (piano) — all started here and went on to make a name for themselves nationally. Even keyboardist Charlie Wood, who kept jazz alive on Beale Street during the 1980s and 1990s with his Hammond organ trio at King’s Palace, eventually moved on to London.
Bassist Tim Goodwin, an associate professor of jazz studies and commercial music at the University of Memphis who has played internationally, says local jazz musicians frequently must leave if they want to chase their dream. “When you’re looking to rise to that top tier, you must be in that location, like New York, to be available to rehearse and perform with a broader pool of talent.”
Yet when Count Basie or Phineas Newborn came through Memphis to perform at Sunbeam Mitchell’s popular Club Paradise during the 1960s and 1970s, they often finished with a jam session at The Sharecropper. Here the finest local players could be heard. Other clubs like the Gay Hawk on Danny Thomas Boulevard and Bill’s Twilight convinced Cobb that the city’s rich musical heritage offered what she needed to pursue her own dream without ever leaving town.
Cobb came to Memphis to play country music for Stax. When her contract fell through (she was the last singer to be signed before the studio closed in 1976), she found her way to Shoe Productions, a commercial studio on Broad Avenue.
“I was playing at the Holiday Inn on Union and McLean with organ player Jerry Peters when Wayne Crook of Shoe Productions came in one night and said, ‘Come to my studio and start writing.” There she joined Al Bennett’s Cream Records. It was producer Andy Black who engineered as Cobb wrote and performed “Dig the Gold,” a record that reached #42 on Billboard’s Top 100 in 1980. Cobb then worked with Atlantic Records, releasing “Good to Me,” an LP hit that rose to #11 and spent 22 weeks on the charts.
“I fell in love with the studio,” says Cobb of the experience. “It was 18 hours or sometimes all night, writing songs. The marketing wasn’t huge but I was learning about the recording world.” She would go on to write for Hi Records, working with record producer Willie Mitchell.
It wasn’t long before Joyce added radio hosting to her credits in the mid-1980s, sharing her musical knowledge on WEVL-FM 89.9. Station manager Judy Dorsey remembers first encountering Cobb on stage at the Schlitz Music Festival. “When I first heard Joyce, her voice drew me to her. When I finally saw her, she had this incredible energy and a huge voice. I became a fan right there.”
When Cobb expressed interest, Dorsey was excited. “It was a big deal to have a star like Joyce working at this little 10-watt station.”
But Cobb considered it an extension of doing what she loves to do: Share her music and knowledge with a broader audience. Thirty years later, Cobb continues to volunteer, entertaining listeners with her shows Voices, Songs for My Father, and World Music Dance Party. She also shares her knowledge by educating students at the University of Memphis, where she’s taught jazz vocals as an adjunct instructor for 25 years.
As the 1980s continued, Cobb’s cache grew. She built a loyal local following and toured with Al Jarreau, Muddy Waters, and The Temptations. The 1990s, however, proved to be an emotional juggernaut filled with intense highs and lows.
She toured Europe with blues singer Otis Clay, received a coveted brass note on Beale Street’s Walk of Fame as the “Queen of Jazz,” and three times was named Best Female Singer by the Memphis chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. But the high-water mark of her career came April 1, 1992, with the opening of Joyce Cobb’s on Beale. The nightclub was the first to be named for a woman on the historic street and the prospect thrilled her.
“It was my job to run the music and I did a damn good job doing that. I remember packed nights, magical nights,” she recalls. “I remember Alan Balter [the former conductor of the Memphis Symphony] would play clarinet all night. He played a hell of a clarinet, too. He’d play with the Memphis Jazz Orchestra. … It was so wonderful. That was the most wonderful time of my life.”
Yet Cobb gradually learned what many in bar management know: It’s a tough business to survive. Johnny Robertson, the owner of Alfred’s, also owned Cobb’s club, located at 209 Beale. While the responsibility for managing entertainment and promotions fell to Cobb, she wasn’t privy to the club’s financials.
“It was music and it was selling liquor. That was my wake-up call, my kick in the head. It’s not about the music!” she says. “There were lots of nights I’d be crying, leaving defeated, not understanding how this game worked.”
Then, as inexplicably as the club had opened, it closed three years later. Distraught, Cobb felt she’d let everyone down: the city, her fans, even herself. “It killed me. It killed my spirit; it killed my health. It was a terrible thing to be on this dream and then to have it taken away from you. It takes five years minimum to get a club going and I was given three — and then it was gone.” She descended into a deep depression. “I no longer wanted to have anything to do with Beale Street,” she confides. “It broke my heart.”
Cobb’s eventual return to music was prompted by a phone call one day from an old friend, record producer Willie Mitchell, who implored her to return to Royal Studios and write again for him. “He saved me,” Cobb admits. “And songwriting became my salvation, because I felt myself going under.” The work provided healing and things began to look up.
Finding another regular place to play materialized in a Sunday job at Bosco’s in Overton Square in the fall of 2001. Joining Cobb was bass player Mike Adams and guitarist Jimmy Arnold, sidemen who’ve remained part of an ensemble that’s gradually expanded over the years. Arnold remembers “being scared out of my wits” the first time the three played together because Cobb’s musical repertoire was so vast.
“I never knew what she’d pull out of the air,” says Arnold. “We’d go from playing Fats Waller to Smashing Pumpkins to Coltrane to Dylan — it was crazy. I created a notebook and when she called a song, I’d make a chart so I’d know what I was doing.” The group’s musical variety kept their performance spontaneous and fresh, bringing customers back for more. “Joyce is real and her loyalty to the crowd is extremely strong,” says Bosco’s co-owner Jerry Feinstone. “Plus, she’s so versatile. She really fit the bill.”
As time passed, a community evolved between the band, the restaurant staff, and Sunday regulars. When Cobb was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2015, a fundraising effort was organized and many chipped in to help the singer through another difficult passage. Following several months of chemotherapy, Cobb says she is now cancer-free.
Today her performance schedule continues to be varied, playing on a riverboat as an ambassador for Memphis music one day, and a fund-raising gala or retirement home the next. She expanded her repertoire yet again in the mid-2000s, taking to the stage to portray blues singer Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday to rave reviews.
She also connects with musicians like her long-time pianist John Thomas (J.T.) Page, a collaboration that’s taken them to Europe. “It’s always an adventure playing with Joyce,” says Page. “She’s a free spirit. If she wants to go in another direction, you have to just hang onto her coattails for the ride.”
“She’s got what musicians call big ears,” adds Tim Goodwin. “When she hears another player doing something, she’ll make it a part of what she sings, and being sensitive to players enables her to have those musical conversations.”
When Cobb met Michael Jefry Stevens, another recording opportunity arose. An accomplished jazz pianist from New York, Stevens moved to Memphis in the mid-2000s and was taken with Cobb’s sultry voice. Ward Archer of Archer Records recorded the session in late 2009 and the CD, Joyce Cobb Trio, was the result. A collection of jazz standards, it showcases her scat vocals. “That was the best use of Joyce’s voice,” says Archer. “She can sing anything but she’s exceptionally good at that.”
The group then toured, sharing their jazz stylings with appreciative audiences in the Czech Republic, Austria, Germany, and Switzerland. “There’s nothing common about Joyce,” says Stevens. “She’s a lover of people — that’s one of her gifts — and it comes out in the music. Not only does she sing great, but she nurtures her audience. They loved her in Europe. It was unbelievable.”
Along with Cobb’s generosity as a musician, her magnetic personality as an entertainer has caused other musicians to gravitate to her. When Cobb received a Women of Achievement award in 2002, fellow performer Reba Russell, who sang with Cobb and Wendy Moten as part of the Beale Street Divas, told The Commercial Appeal, “Joyce has always been an encouragement to anybody young or new or just starting out and has been one of my main inspirations in Memphis. I can’t think of enough accolades to lay on her. . . . She’s the Queen.”
On a Friday night in March, Cobb arrives at a rather unlikely venue for a queen: the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library on Poplar. As part of their “5 Fridays of Jazz,” the Levitt Shell has organized a free concert series and it’s standing room only as a diverse mix of families, young adults, and senior citizens fill the dimly lit rotunda to listen to jazz.
The music’s future in Memphis is reflected in the Stax Jazz Ensemble and Rhodes College Jazz Band. As Cobb takes the stage, backed by the Rhodes College faculty players, she invites saxophonist Hope Clayburn and trumpeter Shayla Jones to accompany her. Cobb believes in encouraging young players, and the results are magical. At one point, Cobb takes a harmonica solo, much to the delight of the audience. People wave their arms and give her a standing ovation at the end of the number.
“Joyce is who I want to be when I grow up,” says Clayburn. “There’s never a time you go see her that you won’t have a good time or be amazed. She’s a big inspiration.”
Music has taken Joyce Cobb on a glorious ride. What the future holds is yet to be written, but one thing is certain, she says: “On my tombstone I’ll have, ‘So many songs, so little time.’ But I still believe in chasing dreams.”