An interview with Linda Tillery
“I would like to be able to see a night when I go on stage and see the audience filled with Black Lesbian and Gay faces. That would be the ultimate get-off in my life--to see a crowd of Black Lesbians and Black Gay men supporting me. Supporting ourselves! Because we do sometimes live between two countries.”
By Joseph Beam
In the psychedelic era of the late 1960's, Linda Tillery was the lead vocalist for a nine-piece Rhythm and Blues group called "The Loading Zone."
It was during that time that she shared the stage with such rock greats as Buddy Miles, Cream, Iron Butterfly, and Janis Joplin.
The San Francisco Herald Examiner, in a review of Joplin and Tillery, said: "Two girl singers almost lifted the Fillmore Auditorium off its foundation last night. Janis Joplin, responding to a "welcome home" cheer from the jammed rock concert hall, wailed and moaned and turned on the crowd. Linda Tillery, a big, bright, nineteen-year-old from San Francisco's Fillmore district, took over on the next set--along with "The Loading Zone Octet"--and practically blew out the fuses."
The Loading Zone disbanded in 1973 after suffering the perils of interacting with the big record companies. But, undaunted by her initial contact with the recording industry. Tillery recorded two albums with Coke Escovedo and then produced her own album, "Linda Tillery," in 1978 on Olivia Records.
Later that year Tillery, along with Mary Watkins, Vicki Randle, Pat Parker and Gwen Avery, toured the country in "The Varied Voices of Black Women." A celebration of Black women's lives employing music and poetry.
Joseph Beam: How was "The Varied Voices of Black Women" tour a turning point in your career?
Linda Tillery: You and I have talked a little about what it's like to be a Black performer within the women's movement. It's very difficult to get audiences to relate to or respond to Black cultural experience when it's presented in its original and true form.
I think the "Varied Voices" tour was the first time that a group of us were able to go and present ourselves as we truly are--four Black women, doing what we do, having people listen to it, and try to understand what that's about.
In other words, it wasn't dressed up or candy-coated. We weren't trying to "crossover." Pat Parker wasn't reciting Dylan Thomas or May Sarton; she was being Pat Parker, a Black woman poet.
At the New England Women's Musical Retreat, it was reported you said you were upset with Olivia Records, and called them racist for their almost exclusive promotion of [White artists] Meg Christian and Cris Williamson.
The format under which I believe that information came out of, was a workshop I gave titled, "Black Music and the Women's Community." First, I have to say that at no point during that workshop did I directly say that Olivia was racist, nor did I say they were creating a roster of stars.
What I said, and have felt for a real long time is, the women's community does not support non-White women's music: financially, emotionally, or in terms of concerts.
If you compare the record sales of "The Changer and the Changed," Cris Wiliiamson's best selling record to date, to the total of sales of my album, Mary Watkins', those of Sweet Honey in the Rock, and throw in Teresa Trull's, they would still not equal the sales of "Changer and the Changed."
But, that's not Olivia's fault! They are responding to a demand from an audience that they feel accountable and responsible to. That, to me, is business. I can't force the women's community to like Rhythm and Blues or non-folk oriented music. But, at the same time I want to know why they don't support it, when I get feedback that they love me and love my music.
Do you have any idea what's going on here?
Well, I just basically think that the women's community, the Gay men's community, or any subculture, we're all a microcosm of the world-at-large. And that's the way it goes out there in the real world. The super-rich White male rock guitarists make most of the money.
You move down the scale and there are a few Black stars who have been able to touch on that. And when you get into Jazz and Rhythm & Blues, we make a lot less money as a creative community and have smaller attendance.
I'm not angry with Meg, Cris, Holly [Near], or Margie for existing, nor am I questioning their validity as performers. All I'm saying is that I hope soon the women's community will open its ears. There are other kinds of music than a woman with a guitar and a woman at a piano.
Is singing a full-time job for you?
I support myself through my music and I've been singing professionally for sixteen years. There have been times when I had to do other things. Two and a half years ago I was washing dishes at a restaurant in Oakland. I didn't have enough money coming in from my music. That's not what I want to do; I'm a terrible dishwasher. I got fired from the job 'cause my heart wasn't in it. I was always dreaming about the next gig.
But survival is important, and I've learned that. I'm not going to annihilate myself when I get in those periods when I can't make enough money from my music. I still want to stay alive until the next time comes around.
But a lot of people have gone that way--Charlie Parker, for example--out of frustration, an ultimate, consummate genius. But Parker probably never made a third of the money Barry Manilow makes.