Ever since she answered a newspaper classified ad in 1967 that read, “Wanted: One Soul Singer” – which happened to be the title of her favorite Johnnie Taylor album – Linda Tillery has been one of the most active and widely revered participants in Bay Area music. After responding to the ad, she was hired as lead vocalist by the psychedelic soul band, The Loading Zone.
Blessed with powerful alto pipes and a mastery of trap drums and hand percussion, the San Francisco-born, Oakland-based musician has traversed a broadly eclectic stylistic path that’s included R&B, rock, jazz, blues, oldies and women’s music.
Tillery spent seven years with Bobby McFerrin’s innovative a cappella group Voicestra, and for the past three has been a member of Hills to Hollers, a trio that fuses the bluegrass sounds of the rolling Kentucky hills with the blues and field hollers of the Mississippi Delta.
“You can take several American art forms and sort of merge them together and see where they intersect, where they overlap and maybe where there’s new discovery,” Tillery, 66, says of the trio’s music. “I’ve learned about artists that I’d never heard before. Listening is one of my main tools.”
“There’s a song we do by the Louvin Brothers. I’d never listened to them before,” she says. “I went online, listened to them and said, ‘These guys are fabulous! What a sound!’ It opened my eyes to something new.”
Tillery’s main calling, however, is her Cultural Heritage Choir, which she formed in 1992 after seeing opera divas Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing spirituals on a PBS television program. It was a life-changing experience for Tillery.
“I had a visceral response to this stuff,” she recalls. “I could feel it physically. I was sitting at home, just me and my cat, and I said out loud, ‘This is what your mother’s gonna do now. This is it!’”
Rather than sing spirituals in the European classical manner, as Battle and Norman had, the six-voice Cultural Heritage Choir delved into rougher renditions of spirituals from recordings made decades earlier in the rural South for the Library of Congress. Those performances, she says, “just made your hair stand on your head.”
The Cultural Heritage Choir, which has toured throughout the United States, in Canada and Europe, has recorded four albums of spirituals and folk songs between 1995 and 2010. “Say Yo’ Business,” from 2001, features Eric Bibb, Odetta, Wilson Pickett and other guest vocalists.
Although Tillery now gets around on crutches – having suffered from a stroke, heart arrhythmia, other ailments and undergone knee replacement surgery in recent years – that hasn’t stopped her from performing. She feels that if violinist Itzhak Perlman can walk on stage with the aid of crutches, sit down and play, so can she.