"it is impossible not to be moved by this performer...with her lush, sultry & robust voice, Willson can get a rise out of a stone statue."
MSN music - all music guide
Michelle was seemingly born an emotional singer. Like many blues-flavored artists, she sang in the church growing up. One of her earliest memories was soloing on "Silent Night" at age 8 in church, imbuing it with a passion that stunned the parishioners. Michelle had been raised in an admittedly dysfunctional household and music became her catharsis and her way out. Then in the late '80s she discovered Dinah, Ruth, Etta et al -- and the exposure struck a deep chord.
"I'm very lyric-driven. I'm all about the stories in songs. And they told women's stories with a lot of wit and humor, which I loved," she says.
Michelle won a battle-of-the-blues bands in Boston that earned her a slot in a finals competition in Memphis. And then her love of female role models led her to Rounder Records, which was co-owned by a woman, Marian Leighton. The latter was married at the time to Ron Levy, who ran the Bullseye imprint. Levy produced Michelle's first two albums, "Evil Gal Blues" in 1994, followed by her "So Emotional" album in 1996, which featured the title track which she wrote and the rocking "Don't Worry Me Baby," penned by Levy. She added some other gems from Roy Milton and Elmore James.
Then Scott Billington took over for the albums "Trying to Make a Little Love" in 1998 and "Wake Up Call" in 2001, for which Michelle wrote 5 of the 13 tracks. They recorded together in New Orleans. One of her favorite tunes from those studio sessions was the first version of a cowrite between Dr. John and Doc Pomus, "Life Rolls On."
Michelle capped it by touring Europe, but her exhausting schedule caused her to take a giant step back from the business. "I was completely unprepared for success," she recalls. "I didn't take care of myself and I just crashed and burned. ... I drank heavily and did a lot of drugs. And for a few years, I didn't leave the house." Both of her parents also started going downhill at that time and she endured a "nightmarish" period.
She resurfaced, however, in 2006 with a well-received radio show, "Jazz 'n' Blues," on the Worcester NPR station, WICN. She ended up doing two radio shows for them and that rekindled her love of her beloved divas Ruth, Dinah and others. "The shows became popular,'' she says, almost with surprise.
Then the itch to renew her career returned. It happened when she was sitting in a snowbound house on Plum Island (about an hour north of Boston) in 2010. "I wanted to be a serious artist again. I wanted to reinvent myself," says Michelle, who decided to put together a scripted, cabaret-style show on Dinah Washington. She unveiled it in several Boston-area clubs. She soon met up with a business consultant, Fiona Cortland, who paved the way for the engagement at Scullers, where the new album was made with an outstanding band consisting of saxophonist Scott Shelter, guitarist Mike Mele, keyboardist Shinichi Otsu, bassist Sven Larson and drummer Zac Casher. It was a magical night and Michelle earned a stirring reception from her enduring fan base.
Michelle is sometimes "super-hypercritical," as she confesses, but she's quite pleased with the live album. "When I got back into the music, I thought, 'I don't want to die with my music inside of me. I want to get it out.' I really want to do this again because this music has its own authenticity.
"And I think kids today are more amenable to authenticity. I've been surprised at gigs by people who say, 'What is this? I really like it.' I just want the opportunity to do what I love to do in front of people who want to hear me do it."
Suffice to say that Michelle Willson has new dreams again -- and we're all fortunate to have her back.
-- STEVE MORSE, former Boston Globe staff music critic for almost 30 years who now teaches an online course in Rock History at Berklee College of Music