The name Nora Jean Wallace might not be familiar to a lot of music fans outside of Chicagoland, but she is the quintessential “Blueswoman.”
Wallace, 63, has made just three solo albums, and her 2020 release, “Blueswoman,” is the first using her maiden name. If Wallace’s fearless baritone delivery is reminiscent of Koko Taylor’s, it’s understandable. The “Queen of the Blues” even said so decades ago.
“Nora Jean sounds just like I did when I was her age,” Taylor said in a Sun-Times newspaper article that reported one of Wallace’s first appearances at the Chicago Blues Festival. But Wallace’s blues story began long before that. Metaphorically, she took the Great Migration’s last Pullman from Mississippi to Chicago.
The seventh of a sharecropper’s 16 children, Wallace has sung professionally since she was 6. Her brother’s friends each gave her a nickel after her informal debut. Father Bobby Lee Wallace was a working singer, uncle “Son” Wallace played guitar and grandmother Mary ran a juke joint. Howlin’ Wolf records were Nora Jean’s favorites.
Wallace moved to Chicago in 1976 (technically six years after the Great Migration era) and she gained notoriety sitting in at the West Side club Majestic M, which was Magic Sam’s regular gig when it was called L & A. She played several years with Scottie and the Oasis and then from 1985-92 with Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins.
Wallace left the bandstand for a decade to raise two sons. In the early 2000s, she made two solo albums under her married name, Nora Jean Bruso. She also appeared on Pinetop Perkins’ second-to-last record.
David Earl and Severn Studios employed its top players to make Wallace’s first album in 16 years. Fabulous Thunderbirds guitarist Jonny Moeller plays on nine of the 10 songs, and that band’s famed harmonica player, Kim Wilson, is featured on “Rag and Bucket,” a standout track on an album with no weak links.
“With their support, I’ve been able to once again share my voice with fans and the blues community that I’ve grown to love,” Wallace said in a press statement. “Big, big shout out to (keyboardist) Stanley Banks who put pen to paper to write some incredible songs for this project as well as share his talent.”
Wallace wrote four of the songs, but it was Banks who penned the definitive “I’m a Blues Woman.” The song honors Wallace’s influencers Howlin’ Wolf and Koko Tayor.
“I’m a blues woman from my wig down to my shoes. Just like a wolf was born to howl, I was born to sing the blues.”
The music behind the bold vocals is a hybrid arrangement of Koko Taylor’s hits “I’m a Woman” and “Wang Dang Doodle.” Wallace channels Taylor by singing that she first caught the blues when she was 3 in Taylor’s birthplace Memphis, Tennessee.
Homage also goes to Chicago heritage with a cover of “I Can’t Stop” from Syl Johnson’s 1994 record, “Back in the Game.” Johnson is credited with giving West Side legend Samuel Maghett the stage name Magic Sam.
There are many more nuances and nuggets to explore with this exceptional album by a rising blues singer. You can compare Nora Jean Wallace to Koko Taylor but don’t say she’s an overnight sensation. Her second comeback is monumental. Blues Music Awards, are you listening?
- Nora Jean Wallace
- Label: Severn Records
- Release: Oct. 30, 2020
- Favorite tracks: ‘Rag and Bucket,’ ‘I’m a Blues Woman’