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Rhonda Benin: Press

Bay Area singer Rhonda Benin brings her fifth annual “Just Like a Woman” concert to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on March 11.

PUBLISHED: March 7, 2017 at 2:00 pm | UPDATED: March 8, 2017 at 3:57 am

Bold moves and blues-infused jazz laced with lyricism reflect the signature style of Oakland-based singer Rhonda Benin.

Bringing an A-list lineup to the fifth annual “Just Like a Woman” show Saturday at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley, Benin champions contributions made by Bay Area women in the music industry. The all-female lineup includes country singer Miko Marks, jazz vocalists Jackie Ryan, Lucille Hurd (aka Ladee Diva Chico), LindaKay, Carmen Getit and teen talent Moriah Brooks. Joining the headliners will be the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band led by pianist Tammy Hall Hawkins, with bassist Aneesa Strings, drummer Ruth Price, saxophonist Kristen Strom and guest trombonist Angela Wellman.

“My goal for this year and all the years I’ve been producing this show has been to present a variety,” Benin says. “I’ve been concerned about people getting a bang for their buck.

Given all the talent on hand, Benin, 62, need not worry. And as for musical variety, it’s in her DNA. Her legacy reaches back to the African origins of jazz, Caribbean music, and African-American folk music and spirituals.

 

Benin grew up in Los Angeles’ Crenshaw district and says, “My mother would tell you that as a toddler, if she fed me and put me next to the radio, I’d stay in one place. I’d hold onto my crib and sing and rock. I’ve always been like this.”

Singing anything and everything led Benin in 1995 to the groundbreaking outfit Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir. Benin has also performed or recorded with Taj Mahal, Al Green, Jackson Browne, Hugh Masekela, Sweet Honey in the Rock and others. After 25 years of touring, she “pulled back to strategize, play the rooms I wanted to” and earned her teaching credentials. Benin works with special education students at elementary schools in the Oakland Unified School District.

“I’m teaching them like I got taught,” she says, “making them work on critical thought. I don’t think that’s being taught in the inner-city schools. It’s part of the breakdown in public schools. The kids are written off, teachers overworked, underpaid and faced with kids who have many problems. There are psychologists on the campus. Maybe schools have been asked to do too much.”

Benin’s no-nonsense approach doesn’t include time to teach music, but she adopts lessons learned onstage for the classroom, including the understanding that you have to connect with your audience.

“I have relationship with children. I like them, number one. I’m stern in a real nice way. I have an imagination of an artist. A lesson that could bore you to tears, I can turn it into something else.”

And there is nothing boring in the not-so-hidden messages in the all-female show delivered by Benin with good-hurting, powerful punch. The loving, bridge-like concept that “people who play or hear music together are going to eat and laugh together,” is primary. But close on love’s heels, Benin rails against financial inequity for women in the music industry. As for blues music, she wonders if African-Americans have lost or have ceded control of it or if it has been taken from them.

“When I walk into a venue with an all-white audience and all-white band, the reaction is, ‘huh, here they come.’ It’s double worse for a black man. It’s easy to replace the black artist. How is that, when the music comes from our culture?”

Still, in selecting her “Just Like a Woman” lineup, Benin follows a perspective colored by inclusion, empathy and love — and produces a show that sells out every year because it’s “knock out” and full of female talent.

“Miko Marks is a rarity,” she says. “A black woman in country music who’s making strides. Country means a white guy with a guitar, but I saw her take down a room. There were tears in everyone’s eyes. Jackie Ryan, she embodies jazz. Lucille, I need that sister girl; she’ll rock and bring the audience to dancing.”

Benin says that a commitment to community involvement and mentoring also influence the artists she invites.

Beyond thoughts of touring the show and considering retirement from teaching, Benin says recording a new R&B and soul CD is on her to-do list. Until then, she’ll perform when and where it’s fun — and continue to sing and rock like t

Lou Fancher - Mercury News (May 24, 2017)

Posted: 03/04/16, 2:26 PM PST | Updated: 6 days ago

 

 

Without the lead vocalist, a band is, well, a band. But with the vocalist — a strong female vocalist — magic can happen.

And that’s one reason Rhonda Benin and Terrie Odabi perform “Just Like a Woman — A Concert Celebrating 100 Years of Song” on March 13 at the Solano County Events Center.

“Many times, when it comes to music, women are just thrown in as ‘the singers.’ It’s ‘she’s the singer.’ The truth is, without the singer, it’s not as compelling,” Benin said. “Most of the time, you need a singer to pull this thing off, and I think in the scheme of things, women get ignored for their accomplishments.”

So Benin sifted through the list of the 100 top female singers of all time, narrowing it down to a dozen or so for the performance, sponsored by the Solano County Library Foundation’s Women’s History Luncheon.

“I strategically looked (at the list) and wanted it to be diverse,” Benin said. “I thought about balance and the different genres so the show is interesting.”

It’s more than just a quick song about a particular artist. Benin distributes a two-page handout with the performer’s picture and a “quick synopsis” of their career.

This year’s honored vocalists include Betsy Smith, Coco Taylor, Karen Carpenter, Patsy Cline, Brenda Lee, Natalie Cole, Nina Simone and Big Mama Thorton, among others.

“I can’t give away the whole show,” laughed Odabi, interviewed by phone separately from Benin.

The concert is about cohesive collaboration and not competition, Odabi said.

“I think we really work well together. There’s a mutual admiration,” she said. “I really love Rhonda’s approach to her songs. And we’re also very different from each other. I think we’re able to enhance each other when we do sing together.”

Song selection is important, Odabi said.

“If I don’t have a passion for it, then other people won’t enjoy it when I’m singing it,” she said. “I sing music I truly love.”

There’s no arm-wrestling battle for any one song, Odabi said.

“Some songs Rhonda does, I wouldn’t touch,” Odabi said. “And she’ll say, ‘I can’t do that’ or ‘I don’t want to do that one.’ We’re very different. And that’s a great thing.”

“Terrie and I have two distinct voices,” added Benin. “I have a tendency to be a bit quieter. It’s a contrast.”

It’s the third year of the duo taking on “100 Years of Song,” and, though they have hit several Solano County libraries every March before, the March 13 performance is the only scheduled one for Odabi and Benin.

It’s been a roller coaster year for the Richmond resident, returning to teaching after 30 years of touring that “disappeared.”

“It’s good that I had a second career to fall back on,” Benin said, sighing, “the music industry changed tremendously.”

Full-time teaching or not, Benin will never give up singing or researching the greats, which motivated her to create the “100 Years of Song.”

“The research is part of the fun,” Benin said. “I do it all the time.”

There’s nothing like picking up a nugget she didn’t know about an artist.

Take Doris Day. “I didn’t know what her part of jazz was. To me she was a movie or TV star,” Benin said. “And I didn’t know Ethel Waters was a juvenile delinquent. By the time I saw her, she was a bible-toting little old Christian lady. I didn’t know she was a mess as a kid.”

Oddly, Benin said all of her musical idols when she was younger were all men: Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, and Al Green. Wonder and Gaye especially “because of their song-writing ability.”

But it’s all women, of course, at the 100 Years of Song show. And when the final song is performed, “I feel exhilarated,” said Benin.

“The afterglow is the best part,” Odabi offered. “And people smiling, sharing their experience, letting you know how they enjoyed the show.”

Odabi hopes the audience walks out “feeling or understanding how great these women were in the whole tapestry of American music.

Both Oakland’s Odabi and Benin of Richmond have other projects. Benin does her “Just Like a Woman” solo show Saturday at the Freight & Salvage in Berkeley. And Odabi unveils her new CD April 12 at Yoshi’s.

Rhonda Benin and Terrie Odabi salute the greats in “Just Like a Woman - A Concert Celebrating 100 Years of Song, Sunday, March 13, 3 p.m., at the Solano County Events Center, 601 Texas St., Fairfield. Free tickets available at any Solano County Library branch (limit to four per person). For information, visit solanolibrary.com or call 1-866-572-7587.

Sisterhood Is Soulful: Rhonda Benin’s ‘Just Like A Woman’

Rhonda Benin hosts "Just Like a Woman" this weekend in Berkeley. (Photo: James Knox)

Event Information

Rhonda Benin

Powerhouse vocalist brings handful of guests.

Mar. 7, 2015

Frieght & Salvage

With her command of an impressive array of African-American musical idioms, Rhonda Benin could front a soul revue all by herself. But when she throws a party, the veteran East Bay vocalist is determined to share the spotlight. Her third annual “Just Like a Woman” concert celebrating Women’s History Month returns to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage on Saturday, March 7, with an embarrassment of musical riches (the embarrassment belonging to all those venues and festivals that draw a blank when it comes to booking female instrumentalists).

A founding member of Linda Tillery’s invaluable Cultural Heritage Choir, Benin is a tremendously assured singer who inhabits the celebratory zone where jazz, soul and blues fraternize freely. Looking to showcase an array of Bay Area artists from rising acts to veteran performers, she’s shoehorned into a single evening more than enough talent to power a week-long festival. The personnel ranges from alluring Latin jazz vocalist Alexa Weber Morales, who earned a Grammy in 2013 as a member of the Pacific Mambo Orchestra, to blues guitarist and vocalist Pat Wilder, who’s been gaining attention in recent years with her exciting shows.

The exuberantly stylish Lavay Smith has been proudly swinging the jump-blues banner for more than two decades, while Tiffany Austin is a rising star who decided to concentrate on her music career after graduating from Boalt Hall School of Law. For instrumental prowess, it’s hard to beat the String Divas, a violin trio featuring Tarika Lewis, Sandy Poindexter and India Cooke (a bold improviser whose credits includes performances with Pharoah Sanders, Sun Ra, and Pauline Oliveros). Benin herself teams up with Wanda Diamond and Darlene Coleman to pay tribute to great female soul singers, both famous and lesser-known.

It takes a supremely well-versed combo to handle all of these genres and grooves with authority, which is why Benin always calls upon the impeccable services of pianist Tammy Hall. A consummate accompanist sought after by many of the Bay Area’s finest jazz and blues vocalists, Hall leads the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band, featuring Elvin Bishop bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruth Price and saxophonist Kristen Strom. The backing ensemble itself is well worth the price of admission.

Andrew Gilbert - KQED Arts (Apr 3, 2015)
Thursday, April 2, 2015
FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA
99 CENTS

‘Just Like a Woman’ celebrates a musical Women’s History Month

WomensJazz3-1024x825

Terrie Odabi, left, and Rhonda Benin sing during the Just Like a Woman concert held at the Solano County Events Center in Fairfield, in 2014. The two singers sang jazz and soul songs from Billie Holiday to Aretha Franklin. The concert was put on by the Solano County Library Foundation. (Adam Smith/Daily Republic)

By
From page B1 | March 13, 2015 |

 

FAIRFIELD — Apparently, the Solano County Library Foundation’s well-received 2014 “Just Like a Woman“ concert series wasn’t broken, so this year, they didn’t try to fix it.

The same two performers, blues/R&B/jazz/soul singers Rhonda Benin and Terrie Odabi, who packed rooms last year from Vallejo to Rio Vista in free concerts celebrating Women’s History Month, will do so again in 2015.

The show in Fairfield kicks off 3 p.m. Sunday at the Solano County Events Center.

“Just Like a Woman” celebrates and highlights some of the contributions women have made in music. The Solano County shows are actually smaller versions of a popular show that Benin dreamed up upon returning to the states after living abroad. The larger show features numerous other female Bay Area performers in a variety show format.

“I had to come up with something that would draw attention to me and I just thought it up and then it took on a life of its own,” Benin said. “I was able to hire some of the most popular women from the Bay Area and you can come there one night and see so much incredible stuff – it’s so eclectic.”

Benin was contacted by the Solano County Library Foundation to do the smaller show last year, and while the titles of the show are the same, there are differences.

“It’s actually a completely different show with a completely different person. The small show is just me and Terrie Odabi and a three-piece band. It is a performance/Q & A and I developed a workbook that people can take with them,” Benin said. “We highlight about 20 singers and Terrie and I alternate singing songs by artists like Gladys Knight, Carole King, Billie Holliday, Dinah Washington, Rosemary Clooney and more.”

Benin was born and raised in Los Angeles and moved to the Bay Area in 1989. She did not come from a musical family, but her talent led her in that direction.

“I used music as a hobby and by the time I became an adult, I started doing some session studio work. Once I moved to the Bay Area, I got an administrative job in the arts and ended up cutting commercials. Then I met Linda Tillery and have been a part of the Linda Tillery Cultural Heritage Choir for 26 years.”

According to its website, The Linda Tillery Cultural Heritage Choir is a Grammy-nominated, percussion driven, vocal ensemble with a mission to help preserve and share the rich musical traditions of African-American roots music.

That mission strikes a chord with Benin as she fears many parts of the African-American musical spectrum are underrepresented on radio airwaves these days.

“Growing up, on the radio we got everything from O.C Smith to Ray Charles to James Brown to Roberta Flack – you know, everything on the same station,” Benin said. “Urban radio now only plays a small portion of what black artists have to offer.”

While the theme of the “Just Like a Woman” series is to spotlight women in music, ironically, Benin’s biggest influence is a man: legendary singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder.

“That’s where it all started for me,” Benin said. “Vocally, lyrically, in songwriting – every groan and grunt, every overdub. Stevie’s music was where I really stopped listening just to be listening and started to try to unweave this thing and understand how it all worked.”

The response at last year’s series surprised Benin and she is eager to perform in Solano County again.

“Last year, Vallejo was good. It built in Fairfield and by the time we hit Vacaville, it was crazy. In Fairfield, people started lining up for the show two hours beforehand,” Benin said. “Terrie Odabi won the regional finals of the International Blues Challenge two years in a row and went to Memphis to represent the Bay Area. She is at the top of her game and I am at the top of mine. It is a really good show.”

 

Tony Wade - The Daily Repubic - Fairfield/Suisun (Apr 2, 2015)

Soul powerhouse Rhonda Benin spotlights Bay Area talent

Andrew Gilbert

Sunday March 2, 2014

Rhonda Benin has never waited around for the phone to ring. One of the Bay Area's most resourceful vocalists, she's deeply versed in the entire continuum of African American music, a soul powerhouse who infuses everything she sings with a blues sensibility. Despite the fact that she's at the top of her game, a spirit-sapping dearth of good gigs in recent years has pushed Benin to take matters into her own hands.

Rather than focusing on promoting her own career, she's doubling down on the Bay Area scene, producing ambitious events such as Saturday's "Just Like a Woman" concert at Berkeley's Freight & Salvage. Partially underwritten by a modest Indiegogo campaign, it's an old-school revue showcasing a stellar array of Bay Area talent backed by pianist Tammy Hall's all-female band with incantatory harpist-vocalist Destiny Muhammad.

Benin will sing a few pieces herself, but she's mostly turning the spotlight on her colleagues, including Lady Bianca, a prodigious blues singer and pianist who has recorded with Frank Zappa, Sly and the Family Stone, Taj Mahal and Van Morrison.

"Hands down, she's probably the best in the Bay Area, and to me she doesn't have the local recognition she deserves," says Benin, 59, who's probably best known as a founding member of Linda Tillery's Grammy-nominated Cultural Heritage Choir. "She's like one of those '20 Feet From Stardom' singers who catapulted people to the top because of that gospel sound that they put behind them."

Rising jazz singer

The program also features rising jazz singer-songwriter Valerie Troutt, Larry Graham and Graham Central Station vocalist Ashling Cole, and jazz chanteuse Veronica Klaus, who recently released a terrific album of songs associated with Peggy Lee, "Lee À la V," featuring the deservedly ubiquitous Hall.

Rather than merely rounding up talent, Benin is guiding the proceedings with a firm hand to ensure the material fulfills her other agenda, highlighting "the more invisible stuff, the songwriters and composers," she says. "When it comes to black women, the singer-songwriters never get discussed. We talk about Carole King but not Valerie Simpson. Even Aretha did a fair amount of writing, and that never gets talked about."

Stepping into the producer's role doesn't mean that Benin is backing away from performing (she's at the Solano County Events Center in Vallejo this afternoon with the dynamic Terrie Odabi). But she's definitely looking to pass the torch. One of the acts on Saturday's bill is MZSwitchedUp, a duo made up of sisters Millenia and Zandra Kay, ages 14 and 11, respectively, who accompany themselves on multiple instruments while singing R&B hits and originals.

Benin has taken it upon herself to mentor many young singers over the years, including Troutt, who met Benin about a decade ago after Benin sang at the Bay Area Black Expo in Oakland.

Powerfully impressed by the performance, Troutt was even more surprised when Benin, who had seen her perform with the Oakland Youth Chorus, greeted her by saying, " 'I know who you are.' That blew my mind," says Troutt, who went on to tour with group.

"Rhonda has been a mentor of mine. She's a real advocate of jazz, soul and blues, and always challenged me to listen widely and check out music from the original sources. When I go to her shows, she always puts me on the stage. She'll call my name out and have me come up and sing, introducing me to her audience."

Tight-knit family

Growing up in a tight-knit family in Los Angeles's Crenshaw district, Benin benefited greatly from living near the successful African American professionals and entertainers of the upscale Baldwin Hills neighborhood. While she excelled as a singer, winning a high-profile talent show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1972 with a vocal trio, she didn't think about music as a vocation until after college, when she took a job in the mailroom at CBS. "That's when the bug really bit me," Benin says, "because I could go in the commissary and, with four variety shows being taped, you'd see every major act.' "

Her career seemed to be on track when she landed a gig with Memphis-born R&B singer Randy Brown, who had signed to Casablanca Records. But after months of rehearsal, the tour was canceled and she and two other backup singers were suddenly left unemployed. They decided to stick together, and with the mid-1970s Los Angeles recording scene bustling, they wangled their way into dozens of sessions.

"We'd drive to different studios, park the car and watch who went in," Benin recalls. "We'd wait 20 or 30 minutes, ring the buzzer and say we were with them. We'd get in the studio, and the men weren't going to run out three girls in their 20s.

"Everybody was recording. We'd mostly get into rhythm section sessions. I'd write a hook, we'd run it down in the hallway and then go back in the studio and jump up and start singing."

Benin was teaching and gigging when a weekend job with Maria Muldaur in 1989 brought her to the Bay Area. She fell in love with Oakland, and when the summer came around, she came back to hang out and never went home. For the first decade, she supported herself working for arts organizations such as the Oakland Ensemble Theater and the Oakland Youth Chorus.

She credits Tillery and her experience singing with the Cultural Heritage Choir, which performs April 12 at the SFJazz Center, with grounding her in the African American bedrock of blues and spirituals. In many ways, "Just Like a Woman" builds on work that Tillery has been doing for decades.

"I often get ideas about how to present black musical culture in a positive way, and I think she's taken the ball and run with it," Tillery says. "Rhonda is unapologetic on her stance about black culture, and sometimes she's misunderstood. What she's really committed to is challenging people to be forthright about musical origins, giving credit where it's due, which is a good thing. Now she's rounding up some really vital voices and saying, 'Let's make our own show.' "

 

Monday, March 3, 2014

FAIRFIELD-SUISUN, CALIFORNIA

Women’s history concert packs the house

FAIRFIELD — There was no shortage of soul Sunday as a Bay Area band brought hits from Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday and Etta James to a packed Solano Events Center in celebration of Women’s History Month.

Hosted by the Solano County Library Foundation, the free show featured Rhonda Benin and Terrie Odabi, who took turns singing hits that included Ethel Waters’ “I got Rhythm” and Holiday’s “All of Me.”

A rendition of Fitzgerald’s “At Last” generated excitement from the crowd, which applauded immediately after the opening lyrics.

“Fitzgerald was out of this world,” said Fairfield resident Matilda Webb after the concert. “Awesome.”

Benin’s show, titled “Just Like a Woman: A Concert Celebrating 100 Years of Song,” included a three-piece band consisting of Fairfield’s Charles Spikes on guitar, Vallejo’s Lorenzo Hawkins on keyboard and Oakland’s Ruthie Price on drums. Benin even invited audience members to participate in a couple of songs.

Gladys Towne, of Vacaville, volunteered to be one of two Supremes. During “Stop, in the Name of Love,” Towne danced while Benin paid tribute to Diana Ross.

“I’m 63, so that’s my era,” said Towne, a Vacaville resident. “I love that music.”

Mary Spikes, wife of Charles Spikes, frequently sang along in the front row next to her daughter Cherish during the show. The longtime Fairfield resident said it was a joy for her to be at a quality concert so close to home.

“The music brought life to the room . . . ,” she said. “It was beautiful.”

 

Giving Them Their Due 

The second-annual "Just Like a Woman" concert highlights the underappreciated talent of Bay Area female musicians.

Sitting in her hotel room two years ago, during a three-month-long, six-nights-a-week summer engagement at the JZ Jazz Club in the eastern Chinese city of Hangzhou, Rhonda Benin pondered what she might do when she got back home to Oakland. She wanted to do something big, to make a splash.

It had been bothering her that no female musicians, not even vocalists, had been booked to play a daylong jazz festival held at Middle Harbor Shoreline Park at the foot of 7th Street in West Oakland, which she had attended before traveling abroad. "I found that to be odd," she recalled. And, as an instructor at both Jam Camp West and the Jazzschool Girls' Jazz & Blues Camp, Benin had noticed few girls playing musical instruments. "All the girls were stacked into the singing classes," she said.

The Los Angeles-born vocalist, who also teaches basic music and performance skills at Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito, decided to stage a show "to celebrate the Bay Area women of music" last March 28 at Freight & Salvage. She picked March because it's Women's History Month. "Just Like a Woman," as she called the concert, featured herself and singers Kellye Gray, Paula Harris, and Terrie Odabi, all backed by Tammy Hall's trio. Long the piano accompanist of choice for many local vocalists, Hall dubbed the trio "the Lillian Hardin Tribute Band" in honor of Louis Armstrong's piano-playing second wife.

The show was such a success that Benin decided to present a second edition at the Berkeley venue on Saturday, this one featuring singer-pianist Lady Bianca, vocalists Ashling "Biscuit" Cole and Valerie Troutt, harpist Destiny Muhammad, saxophonist Kristen Strom, pianist Hall, bassist Ayla Davila, and drummer Ruthie Price, plus six teen and pre-teen girls, including the members of MZSwitched Up, an Oakland duo made up of multi-instrumentalist sisters Zandra and Millenia Kay, ages eleven and fourteen, respectively.

Benin began her singing career in the late 1970s with two friends, collectively known as Joy, by doing background vocals on demos for guitarist Paul Jackson Jr. and disco and rock sessions in Southern California for record producers including brothers Brian and Eddie Holland and Stanley Clarke. "All the old Seventies B-side songs," she said of the records they sang on, none of them hits. She had hoped to land a record deal of her own, but by the time she was 35, she found doors closed because of her age and her size.

While visiting friends in Oakland in 1989, Benin saw both Lady Bianca and former Prince vocalist Rosie Gaines performing in clubs and decided to move north. "You mean my life isn't over because I'm over thirty and I'm full-figured?" she remembered asking herself.

"It was the best thing I ever did," she said recently, sitting at a table in the Montclair Women's Cultural Arts Club with Bianca and Cole. Besides performing with her own Soulful Strut band in local clubs after relocating, Benin has been a member of Linda Tillery's Cultural Heritage Choir for the past 23 years and has recorded 7 CDs with the ensemble. She made her own album of jazz, blues, and soul music in 2006, did backgrounds on albums by Maria Muldaur and Holly Near, and sang leads on recordings by Mal Sharpe's Big Money in Dixieland.

Benin, now 59, said she chose Bianca to perform at this year's show because "hands down, she's probably the best singer in the Bay Area."

"I might be the best singer, but because I won't take no shit, I'm not working," interjected Bianca, a forty-year fixture of the Bay Area blues and soul scene. She once toured as a background singer with Sly Stone, Frank Zappa, and Van Morrison but in recent years has focused on recording original songs written with her husband. She's made five albums since 1995. She keeps her age a secret. "I think it's rude and unfair to ask me my age," she said.

Soul singer Cole, who was born forty years ago in Vancouver and raised in San Francisco, landed a recording contract with Interscope Records when she was seventeen. She moved to Southern California to record an album for the label — which was completed, then shelved. Devastated, she quit singing, except in church, and instead waited tables and worked for Peet's Coffee and several paper-shredding companies. She reemerged four and a half years ago as a member of Graham Central Station (founded by onetime Sly and the Family Stone bassist Larry Graham) and is featured on the group's latest album, Raise Up.

Unlike Benin and Bianca, Cole is not African American. "I find her not to be contrived," Benin said of her friend. "She's not a little white girl who decided she was going to go learn soul so that she could go and get all the work. She's not pretending."

Rhonda Benin’s soul sisters, and recommended gigs

March 21, 2013 2:00 pm by Andrew Gilbert

 

Oakland’s Rhonda Benin is producing the vocal extravaganza “Just Like a Woman” next Wednesday. Photo: James Barry Knox Photography

Rhonda Benin knows that the music biz is unforgiving and that recovering visibility after four months off the scene can easily take twice as long. The Oakland vocalist doesn’t regret her summer-long sojourn in China, where she held down a nightly gig in Hangzhou singing soul, blues and jazz. But she knew that getting back into the groove at home might take some doing, which is why she is producing Wednesday, Mar. 27’s Freight & Salvage vocal extravaganza “Just Like A Woman,” featuring herself, Terrie Odabi, Kellye Gray and Paula Harris, all backed by pianist Tammy Hall’s Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band.

“Working six nights a week steady like that really took me to another level and brought up my live show,” Benin says. “It’s unfortunate that so many black women have got to go out of the country to work. I got offered another contract, but I wanted to come home. I was thinking ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ and that I better come up with something clever. I figured I’d pitch it to Freight & Salvage because they seem to be really open to a diverse array of music.” 

As a singer versed in a vast continuum of African-American musical forms, Benin is practically a festival unto herself. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she worked widely as a session musician, singing background vocals on more than 100 albums. A tour with Maria Muldaur brought her to the Bay Area in 1989 and she decided to stay. Benin credits her experience as a founding member of Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir with grounding her in the essential roots of African-American music, from cake walks, field shouts and work songs through spirituals, country blues, and various Caribbean traditions.

“That group taught me to be a musician,” Benin says. “Linda taught me to have integrity with my band, how to be a leader, what to perform. She pushed me out of my R&B life into jazz and folk and Latin and reggae, and changed my whole scope.”

A tireless champion in the fight for the recognition of black music’s centrality to American (and international) culture, Benin wages the struggle as an educator, artist and engaged citizen. Launching her own band, she created Soulful Strut, a vehicle for exploring her love of the great jazz and soul stars of the 1950s and ’60s, “somewhere between R&B and jazz, closer to Dinah Washington than to Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan,” she says.

Like many of the best singers in the Bay Area, such as Kim Nalley, Denise Perrier and Frankye Kelly, Benin built Soulful Strut around Tammy Hall, and it’s no surprise that she called on the conservatory-trained jazz pianist for “Just Like A Woman.” Conceived as a celebration of Women’s History Month, Wednesday’s concert is designed to showcase each performer’s particular gifts, while focusing on songs either written by female composers or indelibly linked to women performers. The antithesis of a diva, Benin digs the idea of sharing the spotlight with her equally formidable peers.

Terrie Odabi: devoted following

Steeped in jazz, gospel and soul, Oakland-raised Terrie Odabi has earned a devoted following through her work with the Medicine Ball Band. Dallas-native Gray is a stylistically expansive jazz vocalist who performed widely in the Bay Area in the 1990s, though these days she’s based in Austin (she released an impressive 2007 album “Live at the Jazzschool” with the great Venezuelan pianist Otmaro Ruiz, Cuban drummer Jimmy Branly and LA bassist Hamilton Price). Rounding out the foursome is the versatile Bay Area blues belter Paula Harris, a regular at Biscuits & Blues who also knows her way around the jazz canon.

“Paula is popular in the South Bay,” Benin says. “She’s got a meaty voice, and really digs in. I know Kellye Gray from when I first started singing with Mal Sharpe. Nothing stops her. And Terrie is very popular on the East Bay scene. I was being strategic, mixing it up racially and age wise. The bottom line is they’re all just really good singers.”

Benin is also using the concert to showcase some rising young artists who have studied with her, including vocalist/saxophonist Larrolyn Parms-Ford, vocalist and Albany High senior Lizzy Asarnow, and 16-year-old Hayward vocalist Samara Wright. They’ll perform as part of the first set along with each of the featured singers. For the second set, the four women perform two songs each and close the show with an all-hands-on deck finale.

When it comes to accompaniment, the singers couldn’t be in better hands. Taking the name of the under appreciated jazz matriarch Lillian Armstrong, an accomplished pianist, composer and savvy career guide for her husband Louis Armstrong during his breakthrough years in the 1920s, the band features the masterly blues bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruth Price, and alto saxophonist Sonya Jason.

"Rhonda is more than just a great vocalist.  Her show is full of energy, dance, wit and her certain joie de vivre"

"What an opening!! Rhonda Benin put on an amazing show. With Renzell Merritt on drums, Ruth Davies on bass, and Glenn Pearson on piano, it was an incredible evening. Rhonda dazzled the crowd with her beautiful interpretations of soulful jazz and R&B. She sang, danced and scatted her way into our hearts."

Robert Bransky - The Sound Room (Nov 30, 2012)
This is a classy and classic album. Lots of familiar music from people like Gershwin, Lennon/McCartney, Joe Liggins, Stevie Wonder and more. It's Blues, Jazz and Soul in exactly the way that we used to think of those three categories when we were kids.
"Rhonda Benin's voice is soulful, jazzy, classy, and sassy! Ms. Benin is the real deal. This CD is a must have!!!"
Larry Batiste (Mar 7, 2007)
Authentic sounding, swinging jazz blues. You are the real deal Rhonda.
Industry Reviewer - TAXI (Oct 29, 2006)

"Rhonda, I love your sound, original, soulful, smooth, what a voice!!"

A Fan - Guestbook (Mar 30, 2012)