The Outlook Interview: Laura Petaway Talks to Joe Marx; Laura Petaway, 81, has been singing love songs, "popular classics" and the blues for more than half a century. Born into an African Methodist family in Snowhill, N.C., Petaway came to Washington in 1923. She has lived here for the past 26 years. er appearing numerous times at the celebrated Howard Theater Amateur Hours, she began her professional singing career in Washington clubs like the Republic Gardens, the Crystal Caverns and the Big Apple in Northwest and Jerry's in Southwest, where she earned $10 to $15 a week. Although she started out singing love songs, it was the influence of Washington pianist Jewel Jenifer that moved Petaway toward the jazz and blues forms. TIn the early 1940s Petaway moved to New York where she met her first agent, Chris Martinez. She still considers him her agent. Martinez helped her to get a job singing at Wise's, a nightclub on New York's Lower East Side, where she could earn up to $25 a night. Last March she was featured in the Smithsonian Institution's program, "Women in Blues," and she continues to perform with a number of Washington musicians, including pianists John Malachi and Dick Hopkins and singer Mary Jefferson. Joe Marx is a free-lance writer and a blues fan.
Q: What was the first blues song you ever heard?
A: The first blues song I ever heard was done by Mamie Smith. I was real young. It was the "Crazy Blues."
Q: Did you have recordings of it back then?
A: Couldn't get recordings, no. But I would hear and I learned those songs and sing them myself.
Q: You were born into a religious African-Methodist family. Tell me about your upbringing.
A: Well, my father didn't care much for the songs that I wanted to sing because he was very religious. He couldn't tell me not to sing, but he told me what he liked for me to sing. Said, "You should sing in the churches." I said, "Well, I do. I sing in the churches." But my sister, Minnie, was a lead soprano and I'd learn songs from her and we'd sing together.
Q: Who encouraged you to begin your career as a singer here in Washington?
A: A lady by the name of Jewel Jenifer. She was a pianist with Lou Leslies' Blackbirds. I was singing around in my little amateur shows and she started teaching me to sing the popular numbers and that's how I got out regular.
Q: What kind of numbers were popular back then?
A: "All Of Me," I got so many that I used to sing then, "Body and Soul." I was in my teens. I (went) around with her until I decided that I should have somebody to teach me to use my voice better and that's when I started with Professor Wellington Adams. I started him and went around to schools and churches. Performances were three dollars. I thought I was great. I was getting paid for it. After about two- three years, Jewel started playing for a nightclub and asked me to go with her. She taught me all the popular numbers, sexy numbers, sweet numbers. Like, "The Birds of Eden," "Sunrise," and I started singing up at 14th and T. The club was called Mr. Satterwhite's. Then they changed to The Big Apple.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was at the edge of 20. Most all the houses (were) request houses. The singers, and the dancers too, if they could sing, they would ask them to play this and they paid. That's how you'd make a lot of money.
Q: What's your idea of a perfect audience?
A: Quiet. Let me have a audience that's listening to me. A good listening audience and you can work.
Q: What was Washington like in the '20s?
A: Washington was good. It was real jazzy. Uptown was where the fun was. I used to work downtown a lot. I stayed downtown on New York Avenue in a place four years. Charlie Byrd used to work down there, too. There was two places. The one at 13th and New York Avenue and one at 18th and Columbia Road. That was called the New York Club. I worked for this man, I just can't think of his name. It's been so long ago. It goes away from you. I can remember him very well. He had a place downtown and mostly gays came in, but it was packed every night.
Q: Was it a mostly white audience?
A: Mostly white, yes, and younger people.
Q: That was during the Jim Crow era where everything was segregated, so most of the clubs that you performed in there were white audiences?
A: Mostly. I worked down there four years then I worked for another club right off Connecticut Avenue for two or three years. After I left there I gigged a while and then I went to New York.
I had (a) following for a long time. I'd work at places and they find that I'm there and so I'd get that bunch comin' to see me. Just like what happened (this spring) when I gave a concert at the Smithsonian. I had people come in there I hadn't seen for 50 years. Hadn't heard me sing for 50 years. They were so surprised because they didn't have no dreams I was even walking. It was nice to see the people coming and know them.
After hours sometimes they would take me to their houses. I used to go to a house on Q Street and these fine places, big places, the whole band, we'd go and sit down.
Q: So uptown allowed you an atmosphere that the downtown clubs didn't because they wouldn't allow blacks into the clubs.
A: That's right. Some places they didn't mind, but most of the places, well, you wouldn't go any place where you know you'd be insulted. Our (white) friends didn't want us to be insulted, so most of the time we'd take them uptown because we knew there were enough places uptown. That's where the action was anyway.
I really started out in 1936. That was my beginning, when I used to run around. Later on more nightclubs opened up, more singers came in town.
Q: What were you singing in 1936?
A: "I'm Going to Sit Right Down and Write Myself a Letter," "Them There Eyes." Those were populars and then there were jump numbers. Something jazzy. Something you clap your hands on. Ella Fitzgerald had a number then, "A Tisket, A Tasket." I used to really do that.
Q: How much were you getting paid?
A: Fifty dollars a week.
Q: What was the audience like during the Howard Theater amateur hours?
A: Good. They had a guy on there used to take a big hook and if he didn't like your music he'd pull you off. If the crowd didn't like it, they'd start booing you. He'd hook this big hook around you and take you off the stage.
Q: You never got hooked?
A: The first time I sang, I sang "Let's Call it a Day." And the crowd started booing, so I sang, "Oh Let Us Say" real high, and they just started clapping and I said oh good. I finished the song and went off. They was clapping for me to come back and I said no, I'm not going back. I wouldn't go back. They were going to boo me the first night and they want me to come back?
Q: Was it tough to make it, to be known in Washington, D.C. back then?
A: It wasn't so tough to be known. Wasn't much money being made but you'd be known faster in New York than you would in Washington. Everybody would say Washington's a hard place.
Q: What did your agent tell you to tell people if they asked you where you were from?
A: Say you're from New York.
Q: Was there a lot of good life up in New York?
A: It was good. Staying out late and going from club to club, downtown to uptown, it was very nice. We'd bring a bunch of people from downtown and they'd grasshop around. I wasn't drinking at all. I never drank, ever. Some time I tried to drink but it made me sick so I didn't do it. But they would come uptown and spend big money. Line the bottles up, everybody get what you want, a whole bottle.
Q: Would you stay out till daylight?
A: Six o'clock. And sometimes we'd go for breakfast, sometimes they'd take us home, they going back downtown.
Q: When you talk about entertainers, especially in New York in the '40s, blues singers or jazz singers, there are always tragic but romantic stories about the high life style and the drugs and all the drinking and partying. Were you part of all that?
A: No. But you get your group that you go out with and most of the time you're with the same group. My group didn't use drugs. They drank. Now and then I'd go out with a group that smoked marijuana. But I didn't. It didn't bother me. It was their money. They said, "Come on, live, Laura." I'd say no, you live your life, I'm living mine.
Q: Did you have a lot of boyfriends back then?
A: I had a lot of admirers. Wasn't no particular one.
Q: Why didn't you ever get married?
A: Well, I had a guy in Washington that I liked very much. But I was (having a) good time all the time. I had a lot of friends, and a lot of admirers. Women and men. And we would go places. That's the way I got my fun. I wasn't interested in nobody. I was too busy.
Q: Where did you live in New York?
A: 142nd and Seventh Avenue. Mamie Smith lived in an apartment across the street up and my landlady and she were friends. We went to visit Mamie and I sang a little and she said, "Oh, you can make it, you've got a good voice." So I said what can I do for you? And she said, "Oh honey bring me some bananas." And so then after that every day I'd go up and take her some bananas. She must have been in her 70s then. She had her pictures all round, and just think, I didn't take any of them with me. She was the first blues singer I'd ever heard and had visited. That was the real Mamie. And Bessie (Smith) came along. Bessie was good. I heard her at the Harlem theater. When she came out with "Bird of Paradise," she was beautiful. I wished I could be like that. The next one I wished I could be like was Ethel Waters. I love her because she sang from her heart. She used to sing those tear jerking songs.
Q: What are the qualities that make a good blues singer? What do you think you need?
A: Oh, a lot of soul. You have to feel it. You have to feel your words, the lyrics in your songs. You have to feel your audience and feel your song. It's like you're being in love with someone then remembering how it's been all along. That's the one thing that really makes you give out on a song. I have done numbers and feel sad, feel like I'm hurt by someone, and I've been a hurt a long time ago and it's just come over me.
Q: You remember emotions, things that happened?
A: Yes, you remember. I remember how long ago I was in love, I thought I was in love with somebody, and I did the singing and why was I born. That's one of the numbers I used to sing, why am I living? I could close my eyes and when I opened my eyes tears would fall. I used to use those numbers and everything would get so quiet. Everybody would be glued right on me, and I feel like, uh-huh, now I got your attention. I would sing it very low, gets very soft, almost a whisper and they could hear every word I was saying.
Q: They've got to hear the lyrics?
A: Got to hear the lyrics. And you have to sing them so that the people enjoy that. That's the main thing really about singing a song. I tell you who I like, I admire a lot is Sinatra. I like his voice. I really do. Because there's a tear in it. He sounds like he's singing right to you. That's why he's so popular. That's why everybody likes him. They might not like his disposition or something like that, but I have never heard anybody say they didn't like his voice.
Q: What do you think of the music scene in Washington here now for your kind of a singer, for your style? Is there still room for that?
A: I tell you, when I sang at the Smithsonian in March it made me think. People still like my style. Afterwards I heard so much talk about how they liked it it made me feel like I still can work Washington. I'm going back. I just haven't got my group together. I feel that I was kind of hard to play for. because I've got to have the right key and I've got to have the right chord. And I know what's right.
Q: Do you think there's going to be a recurrence of this kind of music?
A: If the Howard Theater does open again it will open with local talent. Of course I know the big stars will come down. But it's surprising when you go out and see those kids.
Q: Do you still have these people come in and just sing with you in your house?
A: Yes, they come around, we have a jam session. Sing. That's what I like. Everybody likes the blues, they want to sing the blues.
Q: What do you tell them if they ask you how to sing the blues?
A: Just give it out. Just give it out because most everything you sing is the blues. Just give it all you got. Get some good words in there, you put them in yourself, make up something good.
Q: What was the song about Joe Louis you sang?
A: Okay. "Joe Louis is a fighter/Cause he knocked old Walcott dead/But I'm a fighter too/But I do mine in bed." I was working a club down Southeast and, oh, I was just giving out because I had a good crowd and it was a good listening crowd. I was putting those little risque verses in there when the policewoman come up and took my arm.
Q: When was this?
A: Must have been in the '40s. She took my arm and said, "We don't allow those kind of songs to be sung." I had put in my Joe Louis. Oh, I had so many, believe me. And the people were going for it and I thought it was all right. She says, "The next time you sing those numbers I'll have to take you in. You just don't say them out like that."
Q: You're still going strong. You have a lot of energy. You're like a little kid.
A: Well. I don't know nothing but to sing. That's all I've ever done. And I got a little left.