To iconic blues singer-songwriter Rita Chiarelli, blues music was always the most honest expression in music. The expression was real. It was about life—the anger, joy, and sadness—and you could hear it in the lyrics.
The Queen of Canadian Blues, as Chiarelli has come to be known, was the daughter of Italian immigrants, born in the working-class steel town of Hamilton in the early ‘50s.
“In Hamilton, we identified with blues music,” says Chiarelli. “We identified with hard work and hard times—that blue-collar mentality. That’s the kind of town it was.”
Chiarelli’s parents worked difficult jobs that paid very little at nearby cotton mills. And although they were strict, they were supportive of their daughter’s passions.
“Singing seemed like an impossibility,” she says. “But they believed I deserved to be heard. For traditional Italian parents, that’s a huge leap of faith. I give them credit for that.”
With Hamilton’s close proximity to Michigan, radio frequencies from the U.S. spilled onto local airwaves, offering the nascent singer her first taste of the blues.
She soaked up the soulful tunes of ‘60s powerhouse singers, such as Big Mama Thornton, Janis Joplin, and Odetta. “Hearing blues music for the first time was a revelation,” she recalls.
To feed her growing hunger for the blues, she would sift through bargain bins of ‘45s, finding obscure jams by some of the artists that she had heard on American stations, including her first record, Jackie Wilson and Linda Hopkins’ “Shake a Hand.”
“Shake a Hand” performed by Jackie Wilson and Linda Hopkins.
The young songstress would eventually cut her teeth performing at dances and the odd club shows despite being underage. After high school, the girl with the three-octave voice went out on the road, touring through Michigan and New York, and later Canada, with her nine-piece R&B band, Battleaxe.
“I just worked a lot to be the best I could be,” she says. “I worked all the time.”
In those early years of touring the Canadian blues circuit, Chiarelli played her fair share of seedy joints, and she was usually the only woman on the bill.
“I remember doing sound check at the King Eddy in Calgary, and when I looked around the room at all of pictures of blues artists that have played there, I counted 50 pictures and only two were women,” she says. “Koko Taylor and Marcia Ball were the only two women out of 50 pictures.”
“I played them all—The Eddy in Calgary, The Windsor in Winnipeg, The Yale in Vancouver, Harpo’s in Victoria,” she continues. “They all had the same scary feeling during the day, but they became magic at night. When people are cheering you on and you’re rockin’ very little else matters.”
Moving to Toronto in the ‘80s, she started jamming and performing with artists, including Ronnie Hawkins. After a prolonged period of overproduced disco and pop, Chiarelli says there was a return to roots music with acts, such as Jack de Keyzer, Handsome Ned, Gary Kendall, and rockabilly trio The Razorbacks, filling Toronto clubs.
“Queen Street was rich with places to play in those days,” she says. “The Horseshoe Tavern, Albert’s Hall, X-Rays—all kinds of places. It was an exciting time in Toronto.”
In 1989, Chiarelli’s single “Have You Seen My Shoes?” caught the attention of filmmaker Bruce McDonald (Hard Core Logo), who included her song in his movie Road Kill, attracting some exciting new exposure for the blues artist.
“Have You Seen My Shoes?” from the 1989 soundtrack for Roadkill.
Several years later, McDonald would again turn to Chiarelli for a tune, featuring her cover of Bob Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited” in his 1991 follow-up, Highway 61.
Though she had been touring North America for at least a decade, she released her first studio album, Road Rockets, in 1992. Eight more studio releases would follow, including the JUNO Award-nominated Just Getting Started (1995) and Breakfast at Midnight (2001).
As blues societies started to spring up in Toronto, more and more industry people began to take notice of Chiarelli. And at the very first Maple Blues Awards in 1997, Chiarelli won Female Vocalist of the Year. It would be her first of many subsequent Maple Blues Awards.
Chiarelli performing live. Photo supplied by artist.
With several successful albums behind her, Chiarelli released an album of Italian folk songs in 2006 as a tribute to her heritage. Veering outside of the genre that she had become known for was a risk, but one that paid off. And it remains one of her best-selling albums to date.
“People loved it,” she says. “It’s a different genre than people expected from me, but it was very passionate, very expressive, and people understand that. It just shows you how music transcends.”
That yearning to go deeper creatively had always been important to her, however. The singer-songwriter embarked on a musical pilgrimage to the birth of the blues in 2001, driving from Toronto to the American South down Highway 61, dubbed the ‘Blues Highway,’ which leads to New Orleans, Mississippi and Louisiana.
She made stops in Clarksdale, Mississippi, where blues great Bessie Smith died, and Rosedale, Mississippi, where Robert Johnson is said to have sold his soul to the devil to become a great guitarist, and then came across Angola, Louisiana, the site of the largest and bloodiest prison in the U.S., where many blues artists recorded music while they served time, including Lead Belly.
“I couldn’t get the place out of my mind,” she says about her first visit to the prison. “It’s haunting.”
It was on that initial visit that she conceived the idea to create a concert film where she would preform with the inmates, rather than for them. “It was all spontaneous,” she adds. “There were no plans for this.” After getting permission to film in the prison, she contacted McDonald who immediately agreed to direct the project. From 2001 to 2009, the two would take many trips to Angola, finally unleashing the finished product in 2012.
Featuring the stories of inmates and their harrowing and emotional accounts of redemption, the film—Music from the Big House—is a testament to the power of music.
Official trailer for Music from the Big House.
“Some of their crimes you’d be out in 10 or 12 years in Canada,” says Chiarelli. “In the U.S., you’re there for life. Angola is a heavy place. You can see it in the eyes of these inmates. The power of music is what keeps them together. When they’re singing, they aren’t angry. They’re releasing it all… It was an incredible experience.”
Chiarelli’s hit song, “These Four Walls,” appears on the film’s soundtrack.
Indeed, Chiarelli has touched countless lives through her music. And while she has received critical acclaim and won numerous awards for her work, she still just wants to make the best music possible.
“I have had people tell me that certain songs of mine have moved them to tears, sadness and joy,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing to hear as an artist and as a songwriter.
“Awards are wonderful, but at the end of the day you will be remembered for your body of work. That’s what sustains us as artists.”
— Julijana Capone