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Living with the Blues

Sonny Hess knows about hard times, in music and in life


They say a woman has to work twice as a hard as a man just to do the same job.

When female blues guitarist Sonny Hess showed up in 1987 to jam at Portland’s first ever waterfront blues festival, she says she had to sit and wait all night long, often after other bands had already played two or three times, before the boys dominating the rhythm and blues scene back then — folks like Curtis Salgado, Norman Sylvester, Lloyd Jones and John Lee Hooker — gave her a chance to play.

“They didn’t want to bring a girl up because they thought it would bring the show down,” said Hess, a teenager at the time. So when they finally let her on, the lean pixie-haired blonde from Idaho who played electric guitar with a wild yet controlled ferocity, had no choice but to blow them all away.

Blues music in Portland hasn’t been the same since and Hess hasn’t missed a festival.

Today, when Sonny “Smokin” Hess walks on stage, the singer-songwriter and local blues legend known for riffing emotional guitar leads and encouraging lady rockers to do the same, leaves few in the audience muttering, “She’s good… for a girl.” Mostly, they just say, "She's good. Very good."

Backed by drummer Kelly Pierce, bassist Jim Hively and saxophonist Kevin LaBaron The Sonny Hess Band will debut its new album “All Aces,” at the McMenamins Grand Lodge Theater this Thursday, Aug. 23. Released earlier this year, the album contains what Hess claims is some of her best work to date.

Living the blues

For all those who say women let emotion run their lives, Hess says you can’t play the blues without it. “If I’m known for anything it’s that I’m known for playing with emotion,” she said. She sings what she feels.

Hess was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2006. Undergoing a mastectomy and chemotherapy, she has been fighting the disease for the past six years. Only recently has she learned that she will live.

Though her performances have always been powered by intense feeling, in “All Aces,” Hess writes of the blues she felt battling cancer — her house burned down around the time she was diagnosed, adding to the turmoil.

Writing the blues as they’re happening isn’t easy. “You can’t necessarily write while you’re in the middle of it,” said Hess. “When you’re in the middle of it — it’s time to survive.” While music was her crutch through life’s nightmares, it took time for Hess to pour all that emotion into song. But in the end, it had to happen, “You really have to put your whole self into the song,” she said.

Despite living the blues, friends and fellow musicians say Hess remains kind and generous. As a cancer survivor, she plays benefit shows for breast cancer awareness and organizes fundraisers through Musicians for the Cure, donating proceeds from events as well as profits from CD sales to cancer foundations.

Blues wild child

Hess had a guitar in her hands at age eight and began playing in her family’s living room home in Boise, Idaho as the youngest of several sister musicians playing in bands inspired by the sounds of the 1960s.

As a teenager, Hess joined a band called Koffee before moving to Portland and falling head first into rhythm and blues. Taking notes from greats like B.B. King, Eric Clapton, and Buddy Guy, Hess teamed up and toured the city with the late soulful blues diva, Paulette Davis.

At a time when female musicians were rare, the two gigged tirelessly around town, demanding attention from the Northwest blues scene and setting a new standard in Portland music for years to come.

In 1991, The Sonny Hess Power Band was named “Best New Artist” and “Outstanding Rhythm and Blues Act” by The Portland Music Association, receiving Crystal Awards. Hess became the first woman ever nominated for the “Best Guitarist” Muddy Award by The Cascade Blues Association.

Hess founded The Northwest Women Rhythm and Blues showcases, collaborating with the region’s other prominent and talented women like bassist/vocalist Lisa Mann, Kimberly Hall, Lady Kat, Rae Gordon, Linda Hornbuckle, Duffy Bishop, Janice Scroggins and Ellen Whyte (as part of the duo Jane Doe).

While Hess has had many a reason to sing the blues, she also has plenty to be proud about. “I may not be the fastest guitar player or playing all these fancy riffs, but what I do is get the point across, you know?”

“And," she added. "I think I’m a pretty doggone good songwriter.”



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