Pamela Rose performing a Wild Women of Song show in 2010.
Pamela Rose performing a Wild Women of Song show in 2010.

Q&A: Jazz vocalist Pamela Rose on singing the blues and the Jewish women of Tin Pan Alley

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Vocalist Pamela Rose of San Francisco found her niche in blues and jazz, taking the stage at a broad spectrum of venues — from San Francisco to London, from intimate clubs to modern performance centers, from outdoor events like the Monterey Jazz Festival to San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Rose is also a songwriter and storyteller, creating shows and giving talks on women who made an enduring mark on the music business many decades ago. She teaches singing at the California Jazz Conservatory in Berkeley and serves on the boards of two nonprofits: Little Village Foundation, which brings out-of-the-mainstream music to a national audience,  and Music In Place, which sprang out of Covid to support musicians and partners with Bay Area cities to bring free music events to communities.

Next up is an April 10 talk at S.F. State on the Jewish women of Tin Pan Alley. Rose spoke to J. just before International Women’s Day.

J.: When did you start singing?

Pamela Rose: I was always singing, just like people do. But I was always shy. Yet sometimes things just keep calling you, and that’s what you end up doing. Once I started listening to Janis Ian and Joni Mitchell, I became wedded to my guitar and piano, pouring all of my adolescent tragedies into songwriting.

In the late ’70s, after I’d moved to the Bay Area, I began performing. I toured with San Francisco organist Merl Saunders, who took me on an eye-opening East Coast tour when I was 20. We played big venues in Manhattan, New Jersey, Boston, little clubs in upstate New York … Let’s just say I was incredibly green, did a lot of on-the-job training and learned so much about being on the road.  Merl was very protective of me, treated me just as if I was his daughter.

Then I sang with some rock ’n’ roll bands, playing blues clubs in North Beach. In 1987 I joined the Zasu Pitts Memorial Orchestra, a San Francisco party band. We mostly played in the Bay Area, but every six weeks we’d perform at Harrah’s in Tahoe and Reno, and sometimes Las Vegas. We often worked seven  days a week, sometimes two or three gigs a day.

After having kids, I worked constantly — singing jingles and making recordings. I was the Taco Bell gal for a few years. “Hello, hello, Taco Bell” — that was me.

How did you become a blues and jazz singer?

Blues was really my first love. When I was a teenager, I commandeered my sister’s Animals and Rolling Stones records, and when I realized that they were performing songs by Howling Wolf and Muddy Waters, down the rabbit hole I went! There was always a group of musicians hanging out at the park down the street from our house  in L.A., so I’d sit in with all the blues I could remember. One of my first jobs ever was as a singing waitress, singing Bessie Smith songs … until they realized I had lied about my age, I was under 18.

Many years later, when I came off the road, I embraced this other part that I’d never gotten into [professionally]: blues, then jazz. It was really when I came up with this “women of song” concept — my 2009 album — focusing on great women composers of blues and jazz. It was so fascinating to me how little was known about these great women. I started putting together the “Wild Women of Song” project, with concerts and projected large-screen photos. It’s still available as a book and CD.

You give presentations at JCCs and universities on the Jewish women of Tin Pan Alley. Who are some of these women?

In the early 1920s to ’40s, almost all of the great songwriters were Jewish, including some women. I talk about these women and sing some of their compositions. The poster child for Jewish women was Dorothy Fields. She had a 50-year career with enormous hits in every single decade [“On the Sunny Side of the Street,” “The Way You Look Tonight”]. She came from a showbiz family and had a lot of connections.

Doris Fisher was extraordinary — she had so many big hits [“That Ole Devil Called Love,” “Put the Blame on Mame”]. But there were a lot of others: Tot Seymour, Ann Ronell, who wrote “Willow Weep for Me” … They carry all the way to Carole King.

And now you have an all-women sextet that combines storytelling with songs about great women blues singers.

“Blues Is a Woman” is an ensemble theatrical concert that we’re still performing, most recently at the Cinnabar Theater in Petaluma.  Of course I love the music, but I also love helping your average listener have another way of getting into the music … And I like to get audiences singing along.

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.