This extended Q&A comes as a supplemental article to the Fringe’s previously-released feature, “The Long Road to Markey Blue.” Here, the group’s frontwoman and namesake goes in depth about her introduction to the world of show business, the experiences that led her to the Pacific Northwest where she began singing country, Markey Blue‘s forthcoming Christmas release, and so much more.
You began as an entertainer at a very young age. Where were you born and how did you end up working in Las Vegas? What led you to becoming a showgirl?
Was born in Hemet, CA, but was raised in Southern OR. I was a dance major and I moved to Las Vegas to go to UNLV. Being so tall most dance troupes I’d audition for would ask, “Have ya tried Vegas?” so I did.
With in my first month or two of school, I heard one of the longest running shows was having auditions, the Lido De Paris. With braces still on my teeth I auditioned and got the show. I was the youngest cast member.
I had never even seen a G-string before. Over the next few years I worked my way up to lead show girl, starring in shows up & down the strip. I made billboards, taxi cab board and magazines, TV ads, I thought that was the peak of my career. But then I started seeing girls in their 30s being let go for being too old… and I decided I’d better learn another craft.
How does Ms. Jeannette Markey end up working a benefit in Palm Springs hosted by Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra? Did Rick Michel influence your introduction to becoming an impressionist? How did you start down that path?
I heard there was an opening for a starring role in “Crazy Girls” at the Riviera Hotel for a comedian/lead singer.
I didn’t know how to do either. I rented a bunch of stand up videos, and Sandy Hackett — Buddy Hackett’s son — helped me put an act together from a bunch of stolen jokes. I found a karaoke tape with one song I could kinda warble my way through, “Do Right” from Roger Rabbit. The audition was: they threw you in the show. They put a horrible wig and a sequin evening gown on me; I was so flustered I forgot to be nervous. I got people to laugh at my jokes and I got the job. I hired a joke writer out of L.A. and started my career as a stand up comic.
John Byner from the HBO show Bizarre taught me my first voice, Dr. Ruth. I put shoes on my knees and a little dress, and would come through the curtain and give a sex quiz to the audience. John and I starred in a show at the Sands Hotel called Comedy Kings with Sid and Marty Kroft Puppets and some very talented impressionist. One of the impressionists, Rick Michel took me under his wing and started teaching me about vocal placement – not until I started opening for Rich Little did I start using impressions to make a living.
At first I stunk!!! But practicing every day I grew to be very good. One of my proudest accomplishments is I’m in the Radio Hall of Fame. When they inducted George Burns and Gracie Allen, I accepted for Gracie.
The many number of stars I’ve gotten to worked for, opened for, worked beside, and have just gotten to hang out with amazing, Ive been very blessed.
There’s been an unmistakable trend of reinvention that appears throughout your career — how much of that can you attribute to your time spent in Vegas?
I think in life you need to reinvent yourself, I don’t believe in being stagnant — always wanna be growing, learning and getting better at a craft.
What lasting impression do you think the Riviera Hotel/Rich Little days had on you in terms of finding out what you wanted to make of your talents as a singer? Did those years invigorate your drive to pursue your own voice?
Well with doing impressions I got very good, at one point the producer of Baywatch offered to back a two man show on Broadway with Rick Michel and myself doing impressions — by that time I was so tired of not getting to be myself. I was doing countless radio interviews and the DJs would always ask “what does Cher have to say” or Joan Rivers.
I had been working so hard on trying to find my own voice – I’d go for long drives in the car trying to teach myself to sing, trying to find what I sound like. I started singing hard, really pushing and that kinda became my sound. I didn’t have very good control over my voice other than blasting.
You’ve noted, “When I was in my late 20’s early 30’s I used to open and perform with a lot of big stars and I guess I didn’t think it was out of the ordinary.” How do you think this time spent in such rare air helped guide you creatively?
Being so young I guess I didn’t realize at the time how special it was, hanging out with Charlton Heston at dinner on set at Universal and having him walk me through what movies he shot right there on that spot, opening for Frankie Valley and listening to him tell stories of his early years when he was signed to Motown touring through the south, or spending an evening with Hugh Hefner and Mel Tormé on the Queen Mary talking about old movies, hanging out back stage with Mickey Rooney listening to him tell stories and tell me that he told Walt Disney that Mickey should be a mouse, Phyllis Diller teaching me how to line dance, getting to work with the Reagans, Nancy and Ronald, and Bob and Delores Hope. Going to their homes for dinners, and so many other stars. I listen to all their stories of life, what to do and more importantly what not to do. It all seems like a life time ago.
When did you end up leaving Vegas?
1996 — I went through a hard divorce, I didn’t ask for anything just to be free… and walked away from everything to start my life over.
I didn’t know how to do any thing else but entertain, but a high school girl friend hired me as a bartender/waitress and I started my new life at a country bar in OR. (A few people came in with pictures or concert tickets I had signed years earlier from Reno or Vegas as I was clearing off their table [and] they would ask “Is this you?” I would say yes… I’m just starting over) Within a few months I was singing in a band, few months later we got an agent, we were booked solid and then bam! I was signed to a small country label.
A manager bought me off that label and moved me to Nashville. He died a few months later. I decided to stay in Nashville and learn how to song write. So I found a job as a waitress, and started the next new life as a country singer/songwriter in Nashville.
Are there any albums beyond: Making a Bad Impression (1998), Introducing Jill Markey EP (2003), and Simple Things (2004) that came out prior to 2011’s Blue EP? What do you think those releases helped you accomplish, as a singer?
The blonde hair then disappears and you release Blue simply as Markey. Was there a symbolic change beyond the simplification of your name and change your look during this time?
It’s funny to think about it now, but I’m such a Steve Cropper fan — his writing arranging and producing — his first band on Stax was the Mar-Keys, so it just kinda seemed fitting. I never thought I’d be getting to work with him, let alone meet or open for him.
I went by a nick name Jill to kinda hide from my past life as Jeannette Markey the stand up comic, so when I started with the EP Blue I didn’t what folks googling me and seeing a country singer or a stand up comic I wanted to start fresh. (Reinventing.)
I had stopped singing and writing for quite a few years. [Around] 2005/2006 my husband at the time (who was in the music business) would get very messed up and come home and tell me that I couldn’t sing or write, I might as well give it up so I did. (Needless to say later on we split.) He would go out on tour for months at a time while I was managing a restaurant, I would take all my extra money into a studio an make demos of the songs I had been writing kinda in secret.
I had tracking experience so the studio owner hired me part time to track other people’s projects to help pay for my demos. A friend who had introduced me into the blues world said that the artist Janiva Magness, and a few others were looking for songs and thought one of mine would be good. I was gonna hire a demo singer [but] a couple friends talked me into laying my own vocals. I sent out a few songs and wound up getting signed as an artist myself.
How did you become involved in the Nashville blues community? How did you meet Andy T & Nick Nixon?
After my husband and I split, I was playing rhythm guitar, mandolin, and a little harmonica & bass in a classic rock band. The bass player and I went searching for local jams to meet new players. I knew Nick Nixon because I used to book him at the restaurant I managed. I walked into a Nashville Blues Society jam and there was Nick. I felt at home. Andy T was the house band. Over the next few months/year Andy, Nick & I would play together in different band configurations, till finally Andy started [the] Andy T [and] Nick Nixon project, which I sang back up for a good couple years.
What year did you meet Ric [Latina] and what do you think was the initial artistic attraction between the two of you? Why do you work so well together?
In 2012 Ric and I were booked on the same bill with two other bands, I was singing lead and back up and playing several instruments. I got a call from him a few days later saying we should meet and talk about joining forces. I went to one of his gigs and sat in with his guys who were all tour cats. I hadn’t played with this caliber player since working with all the old stars back in my Vegas days. I was hooked. So 2013 we started playing together as a band “Markey Blue.”
Next we started to write together, a 4 song EP is what we talked about. Well… it turned into our full CD, Hey Hey. Song writing comes easily for us, for some reason the tunes just flow.
You’ve said you were used to singing “gut bucket blues,” but for the new album, you and Ric had to reconfigure your approach to songwriting somewhat in order to shift to the “New Indie Soul/Blues” sound you were aiming at. What was this process like?
Both of us had our “comfort zones” we were both used to playing and writing a certain way. But as these songs started to form we both had to really stretch out side of that. We started looking for a sound, something different. We knew it may not be accepted in certain genres, but we wanted to keep a foot in blues, but find enough of something that would make it appealing to a wider audience. I had to re-learn how to sing. My gut bucket belting was not gonna work for this project. And Ric, holy cow he really worked to find different sounds for this album.
Is “Baby I’m Cryin'” going to be featured in an upcoming indie film? What’s the movie called and how did that opportunity arise? Is “Baby I’m Cryin’” also the track that Steve Cropper produced on the new album?
I got a text from a girl friend that had two lines on it. She said she wanted to write this song for her dad that had just passed, and some folks she knew were doing a movie and wanted her to sing in it. Well I immediately text her back the next two lines that came to my head. We got together over at Ric’s and we finished writing it for her.
We did two versions, a slow blues and a Al Green feel. Anna recorded the slow one for the film and we recorded the Al Green feel. The movie is a small indie film called Turbulence and Love.
Markey Blue had opened for Cropper twice, he had stopped his show to talk about us, saying that Markey Blue was creating the music he would be making today. So the next time we played together he said he’d write our liner notes for us. We got the notes and were about to send in the artwork when he [texted] in the middle of the night and said he couldn’t get our song “Baby I’m Cryin'” out of his head!! We all about died!! Our hero is sitting around listening to us!!! But he said we wanted to fix a couple things. So he took us in the studio and he produced the vocal on it. It was so surreal to watch my hero rocking out to our music, giving us thumbs up on guitar riffs. I don’t think I will ever forget that day. Coming from doing impressions of others and singing their songs to seeing your hero digging your voice an your songs… I can’t tell ya enough how good that makes ya feel.
How do you think this experience — the larger process of recording and releasing Hey Hey — has influenced where you want to go with your music in the future? What has the album taught you about yourself, beyond the music?
Just being in the studio with these kats and watching them work is an amazing experience. This project, both Ric and I feel that we found ourselves. Being willing to take chances, go outside the box, and it’s amazing the people it attracts to you, and all of us as a band growing together and exploring on stage as we play. I love watching our band when they start “exchanging fours” during a solo. The energy and anticipation from the audience waiting to hear “what’s gonna happen next.” We get a lot of musicians that come out to hear us for that reason. As a band we’ve also been trying to incorporate that same energy into our recordings.
What is the mission of the “Women in Blues” show, and who are some of sources for inspiration behind the event?
The Nashville Fringe Festival and SoulOsound Records is sponsoring our Hey Hey CD release show on September 28th at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar. Featuring The Woman of Blues to benefit Second Harvest Food Bank, we will be having a food drive and the Strings for Hope girls will be there. They make jewelry out of broken strings. One set of broken strings buys 80 meals.
I’m a firm believer in giving back, when good stuff is happening for ya, you need to pass that along. There’s plenty good stuff to go around, and all we got is each other.
When I think of Christmas music, my mind drifts toward the unbearable, but if it weren’t for the name I wouldn’t have noticed that “Christmas Ain’t Christmas” is even a seasonal song. Is the rest of the forthcoming EP going to sound similar to that track, and what was behind the idea to release Christmas music in the first place?
None of them sound Christmasy. One is soul/R&B, the one you heard is kinda rootsy and we have a gut bucket one. And were writing the 4th one soon. We wrote the first one as a thank you to all our fans and friends that helped with our Kickstarter. We did a quick video for Christmas. Now the Atlanta Blues Society saw us play at a BMA event in Memphis, said they had to have us come down. We’re booked for December 20th – and since it’s so close to Christmas we are picking a local food bank in Atlanta to do a food drive for at our gig with the blues society there. We will also donate a % of every sale of the Christmas EP to that.
Please connect with Markey via Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. Markey Blue will be hosting the band’s Hey Hey CD release show on September 28th at Bourbon Street Blues and Boogie Bar, featuring The Woman of Blues to benefit the Second Harvest Food Bank. There will be an on-site food drive and the Strings for Hope girls will be there, as well. (They make jewelry out of broken strings. One set of broken strings buys 80 meals!) Click here to RSVP to the event.