Music City has lost one of its R&B mainstays with the death of singer, songwriter and philanthropist Marion James. Known as “Nashville’s Queen of the Blues,” James died on Thursday, Dec. 31, at age 81 following a stroke.
Marion Agness James was a Nashville native who was born into a musical family. Her mother was a church pianist, her sister sang with gospel’s Clara Ward Singers, an uncle was a guitarist and several of her cousins became professional musicians.
As a girl, she sang in church and learned blues music by listening to her mother’s record collection. She also attended African-American vaudeville shows. James married horn arranger and trumpeter James “Buzzard” Stuart, who worked on her recordings as well as with such blues stars as Junior Parker and Bobby Blue Bland.
She began performing in Nashville nightclubs in the early 1960s. Among James’s early band members were guitarist Jimi Hendrix and bass player Billy Cox, both of whom later rose to rock stardom in the Band of Gypsies.
In the 1960s, the city’s Jefferson Street area boasted a plethora of R&B nightspots, including Club Baron, New Era, Brown’s Dinner Club, Sugar Hill, Club Del Morocco, Club Stealaway and Maceo’s. Printer’s Alley also hosted African-American acts at its Jolly Roger club. Her fiery performances at venues such as these brought her first nickname/billing: “House Rockin’ James.”
Marion James began her recording career with the 1966 single “That’s My Man”/”Give Me Your Love.” This was on the Nashville R&B label Excello Records. Armed with her debut hit, she continued to perform throughout the 1970s.
She temporarily retired in the 1980s, but staged a comeback with the 1994 CD Marion James & The Hypnotics. She appeared at the 1997 Nashville Music Awards at the Ryman Auditorium, singing “Every Night of the Week” with Tracy Nelson and co-presenting the R&B awards with Ted Jarrett.
She launched an annual event called The Musicians Reunion Benefit. This evolved into the Marion James Musicians Aid Society, a charity to help down-and-out performers.
Essence was issued as her second CD in 2003. It featured such stellar sidemen as Jack Pearson, Bob Babbitt, Reese Wynans, Beegie Adair, Denis Solee and George Tidwell. She celebrated the album’s release with a Music City Roots broadcast from The Factory in Franklin.
In 2004, she was featured at Franklin’s Jazz, Blues & Heritage Festival. A year later, “That’s My Man” was reissued on Night Train to Nashville Volume Two. The CD’s jacket photo was a shot of James on stage with her band at a 1971 show. Also in 2005, James began a long string of appearances at the Bourbon Street Blues & Boogie Bar in Printer’s Alley.
The Tennessee Jazz & Blues Society presented her in concert at Belle Meade Plantation in 2007. She starred at the Nashville Blues Awards in 2009, and this event was a benefit for the Marion James Musicians Aid Society. She also headlined Nashville’s Spring Blues Festival that year.
Northside Soul became her next CD in 2012. It hit the Top 10 on Living Blues magazine’s chart. In 2013, she released the song “Back in the Day” in homage to the golden era of Jefferson Street. In recent years, she was devoted to preserving the legacy of the neighborhood, including campaigning for statues of Hendrix and former Jefferson Street habitué Little Richard.
Details for a memorial service for Marion James have not been announced. A fundraiser has been created to help cover the costs of her funeral at www.gofundme.com/marionjames.
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