Solitaire Miles has always loved singing Swing tunes. Her grandmother, a singer with a big band in the late 1930s, exposed her to the music as a child. Several members of her family were musicians and she grew up hearing Swing and Retro Country at Sunday afternoon family concerts. She performed as a teenager in the late 1980's with well known Jazz saxophonist Bruce Johnstone in the NW Pennsylvania area where she is originally from. Solitaire originally planned to be an opera singer, but while attending DePaul University in Chicago, she met the legendary Swing violinist Johnny Frigo who encouraged her to sing Swing. After college in the early 1990's she began working in Chicago with Sax Maestro Von Freeman, and pianist Willie Pickens, who also played on her self-titled release in 2006.
"I was lucky to have their guidance because they were playing with the greats in their day.” During the late 90's while living in New York City, she performed with the great trumpeter Doc Cheatham, learning lots more Swing tunes. From these venerable bandleaders, she learned more about phrasing. Since then, she has since been an important part of the Chicago music scene performing with pianist Willie Pickens and leading her own groups.
Susie Blue and the Lonesome Fellas may be regarded as a surprise by some of Solitaire Miles’ swing fans, but it is a logical step in her evolution. “Looking for ways to enhance my vocal agility, I took a job with a with local Retro Country & Western Swing group. I fell in love with the material and began researching the style to include into my regular repertoire. As a Swing singer, I found that it was closely related to what I have always done.” Western Swing was formed in the mid-1930s as a combination of early Country music and Swing, developing into its own style. Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies were among the first group in this idiom, with Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys setting the standard and becoming the most popular of all Western Swing bands. While their repertoire included Country ballads and old-time fiddle music, they also performed swing with an instrumentation that often included fiddles, steel guitar, mandolin and banjo along with a standard rhythm section, horn soloists and singers. It became a different way of playing Jazz, but often swinging just as hard as the Big Bands. Johnny Frigo played fiddle in the Western Swing band “The Chore Boys” in the mid 1950’s on the Chicago radio program “WLS Barn Dance” which was syndicated in radio stations over 20 prairie and Midwestern states. Chicago supported the full-time country western radio show on WLS from the late 1920’s through the early 60’s, so the city does have a legacy of Western Swing music. Miles, always inspired by her mentor Frigo, has followed in his footsteps with her new album.
For her first Western Swing recording, Solitaire used most of the musicians from her regular band. “They all did a great job of adapting to this music. Neal Alger, who wrote most of the arrangements, is one of my favorite guitarists in Chicago. He is a dynamic musician who can play many different styles, working with Patricia Barber during the past 20 years, as has our fine bassist Larry Kohut. And drummer Phil Gratteau is also a great accompanist for singers.” Three other musicians are new members to Solitaire’s recording group, pianist Tom Hope adds a perfect 1950s Country feel to the music, sometimes recalling Floyd Cramer. Slide guitarist TC Furlong, who in 1983 had a major Nashville hit in “The Curly Shuffle” with his Western Swing group “Jump ‘N The Saddle Band,” blended in well with the Jazz musicians. Also, the versatile fiddler Stuart Rosenberg who is known for performing Folk, Argentinian music, Klezmer and Swing, adds an authentic flavor to the group.
As for Solitaire Miles, her voice perfectly fits the light-hearted and fun Western Swing songs. “20 years ago Von Freeman suggested that I try singing Country music, now it makes perfect sense. I have always been a huge fan of Kay Starr who sang not only Jazz during her career but also Western Swing, Country and Pop.” Throughout this project Solitaire and her musicians are not content to merely recreate the past but are creative within the style, adding to the music's legacy. While Solitaire can name a long list of influences like Kay Starr or Mary Ford, she does not sound exactly like any of the singers who preceded her, nor do her sidemen sacrifice their own individuality while doing justice to the material. Instead, they all fully understand the music and are able to add their own voices to the songs while being themselves.
For the future, Solitaire Miles plans to continue singing standard swing in addition to Western Swing. “I love both, and I am looking forward to performing Western Swing in Chicago and many different regions of the US.” Wherever they appear Susie Blue and the Lonesome Fellas can be relied upon to provide lively music and a fun time. This delightful group not only proves that there is still plenty of life to be found in Western Swing tunes, but it features Solitaire Miles at her very best, taking her place as one of the top Swing singers around today.
- Scott Yanow, author of 11 books including Swing, The Jazz Singers and Jazz on Record 1917-76
Why did Solitiare change her name to "Susie" for this project? Solitaire was named after her great grandmother Solitaire who was born in Normandy, France and later moved to Hamilton, Ontario. Her parents thought that the name would be a loving tribute to her grandmother, but the other side of the family is Russian, and that great grandmother, not speaking much English, was not in favor of the french name, and so she started calling Solitaire "Susie" because it was easier to pronounce. The nickname caught on with that side of the family, and so she is used to being called both names, both Solitaire or Susie, but Susie Blue just seemed like a good named for a Retro Western Swing singer
Solitaire was also recently interviewed by Parisian journalist
Jean-Louis Abessolo at his blog"Taste of Blue Jean"
Susie Blue and the Lonesome Fellas are a western swing revival group, based in Chicago, Illinois. Their songs are an homage to the glorious days of American western and country music. Solitaire Miles, the lovely belle of the band, has cordially accepted to tell us more about her wonderful new album, and the secrets of her brilliant smile, incredible jazzy voice and her personal story as an american woman.
Your singing style is similar to Loretta Lynn, Patsy Cline, Hank Williams and Skeeter Davis. Have you always been passionate about retro country music - Honky Tonk, blues and gospel ?
Thank you, I am honored that you would compare me to such classic singers. I learned to sing many different styles in my life. As a child I spent several years singing gospel music in an African American church in my hometown of Erie, Pennsylvania. In college I studied classical music and opera but after I graduated I pursued a career in jazz in Chicago and New York City. About a year ago I started singing country music because it’s so much fun and the western swing genre is very close to regular swing. Singers like Patsy Cline, Cindy Walker and Kay Starr are my role models. Jazz can be very serious and structured, and the western swing music is more light hearted and fun to sing. I don’t want to be serious all of the time, so I sing a little jazz sometimes and then I sing western swing too. The two genres balance each other out.
The album is perfectly well-made, because even the lyrics were written in the typical retro style. How did you chose them?
The songs I chose were all classic western swing and retro country songs written by great bands like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Spade Cooley, Cindy Walker, Les Paul and Mary Ford, and many others, back in the 1940’s and 50’s, except for “The Blue Lonelies” which was written a year ago by Oscar nominated song writers Gwil Owen & David Olney. I tried to keep a retro vibe for the album, so that the listener would feel transported back in time. I recorded so much jazz and big band music in my earlier career so I am very comfortable with the music of the 1940’s and 50’s and these songs felt natural to me
What was your inspiration for the music video of Ghost Riders in the Sky ? Why have you chosen these images ?
Kay Starr is one of my all time favorite singers and she sang jazz, swing, pop and country during her career. She recorded “Ghost Riders” back in the 1950’s and I have always loved her arrangement, so I thought it would be great fun to do a version of my own as a tribute to her. I wanted to make a video with a retro feeling, to reflect the 1950’s because western music was very popular in America then, as were western movies. I wanted to make it feel very authentic for the viewer, so I chose clips of 1950’s cowboy movies to illustrate the lyrics of the song. The song has been recorded by so many male singers over the years, and hardly any women recorded it, except for Kay Starr and Peggy Lee, so I was very glad to record it and tell the story.
Would you say that american artists should take a look on their musical legacy, to give birth to more powerful music ?
As a jazz singer I have spent much of my life singing old songs. Not only because they are fun to sing but because they are ingeniously written with clever lyrics and wonderful chord changes. There is so much for modern musicians to learn from the songwriters of the past. American schools don’t teach much music history and theory anymore, and that is just a shame because we have a wonderful musical heritage that has been forgotten by mainstream America. Our government has reduced music education in public schools across the US and many children don’t learn anything about our music history or even learn to play instruments. It’s tragic.
When we listen to you we can hear your joy and your sadness. How did your personal life have an impact on the way you perform as an artist?
I studied opera in college and my voice teacher was very adamant about singers emoting lyrics. She would make me sing a song over and over again until she said she heard feelings and not just pretty notes. It was difficult because I did not understand all of the languages that I was singing. I learned to pronounce Italian and German, but I did not speak the languages fluently, so I had to rely on the music to give me emotional cues when I did not have the lyric translation. Also, attending an African-American Baptist church as a child and learning gospel music helped to make my singing more emotional. The choir director told us that singing is a form of prayer, and when you’re talking to the Almighty then you’d better feel it. I try to put as much of my heart and life experience into every song so that the listener can experience those feelings and relate to them. Every song is a story, and a singer has to tell it like they’ve been there, or it means nothing.
Your grandmother was french and you also have a russian lineage. How it was to grow up in a culturally diverse household ?
I was named after my French great grandmother Solitaire who was born in Normandy. Like many Americans I have more than one nationality in my heritage, and the other side was Russian. It was a wonderful experience growing up in a diverse household. I was nicknamed Susie because my Russian family did not speak much English and could not pronounce the name Solitaire. I was lucky to grow up with two names that I use to this day. In my jazz career I am known as Solitaire Miles and to my country fans I am known as Susie Blue.