Finest barrelhouse pianist of a generation, Rabson dies at 67
Lake Tahoe Action
Ann Rabson gave clues she had terminal cancer in her last interview with Lake Tahoe Action.
Her band, Saffire — the Uppity Blue Women, was on a self-titled “Farewell Tour” and it had just released the album “Havin’ The Last Word.”
She was asked, “Is there a chance the Uppity Blues Women will reunite?”
“I can’t predict the future,” Rabson said. “But right now we are all headed in very different directions.”
A blues pianist, singer, songwriter and guitarist, Rabson died on Wednesday, Jan. 30 in Fredericksburg, Va. She was 67.
Rabson fell into the blues in 1949 when she heard a live radio performance by Big Bill Broonzy. She found her father’s Gibson guitar in his attic and taught herself how to play, inventing cords to accompany blues songs on a record player by finger-picking artists like Tampa Red and Brownie McGhee.
She recorded eight albums with Saffire and one solo CD for Alligator Records, and released three solo albums for other labels. Her most recent was 2012’s “Not Alone” on VizzTone Records. Rabson’s prodigious talent, along with her take-no-guff attitude, struck a chord with music fans around the world. Considered one of the finest barrelhouse blues pianists of her generation, Rabson — an accomplished guitarist since she was a teen — didn’t start playing piano until she was 35.
DownBeat magazine wrote “Rabson plays bluesy, honky-tonk piano with staggering authority.”
Alligator president Bruce Iglauer, Rabson’s longtime friend and producer, said Rabson was a driving force in the blues world.
“Ann never gave her music or the rest of her life less than 100 percent of her commitment,” Iglauer said. “We were blessed to have known her.”
Rabson was born in New York on April 12, 1945, and raised in Ohio. As a child she was touched by the blues.
“Blues speaks to me directly. It wasn’t a choice, I was drawn to it naturally, sort of like a sheepdog with sheep,” she said.
She first sang professionally while still in high school. By age 18 she was performing around the Midwest. In 1971, Ann moved with her daughter to Virginia, where she performed full-time and gave music lessons on the side. During this time, Ann and her guitar student, Gaye Adegbalola, decided to perform together and the seeds of Saffire — the Uppity Blues Women were sown.
They pooled their money and recorded a demo tape, which they then forwarded to Alligator Records. Their 1990 self-titled debut became one of the label’s best-selling releases. With the addition of Andra Faye McIntosh in 1992, the trio continued to win over audiences around the world with their wholly original and captivating albums and joyous live performances. Their recordings for Alligator are among the best-selling in the label’s catalog.
The band’s last performance in the Tahoe area was in 2009 at John Ascuaga’s Nugget in Sparks.
“We want to quit while we’re still having a great time,” Rabson said. “We want to go out on top. We don’t want it to fizzle out.”
Rabson appears on albums with Cephas & Wiggins, Pinetop Perkins, EG Kight, Ani DiFranco and Muddy Waters guitarist Bob Margolin.
“She knew it was coming and lived her life to its fullest,” Margonlin told Alligator Records Marc Lipkin. “She gave death the finger as long as she could, and gave life 10 fingers on her piano. Personally, Ann Rabson was a big sister to me. Now I’m going to do what she would want, play some blues for her and celebrate her life and hold her in my heart forever. If you see me on a bandstand, and half-close your eyes, you’ll see her next to me.”