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Diunna: “There were projects I was working on. There was going to be two duets between myself and B.B. King, two duets myself and Otis Clay and one with the man that was going to take Otis’ place after he died, Mike Ledbetter.” Riley B. King passed away on May 14 in 2015, Otis Clay on January 8 in 2016 and Mike Ledbetter on January 21 in 2019, at the age of only 33.

  “B.B. wanted to do the song Resolutions with me. He said that if he recorded it, it would get a lot more airplay and more people would hear it. He told me several times that there were people, who didn’t want us to record together, but he was very determined to do it. But when his long-time valet, Norman Matthews, died (on May 11 in 2014), B.B. talked to me and said that this had hit him pretty hard and his mind needed to rest for a while, and after that he wanted to do these duets, before it was too late. I saw his last performance in Houston. He told Otis Clay and Willie Rogers of the Soul Stirrers ‘I want to get this recording done with her, because if I do then more people can hear her.’ And he would tell me ‘your mom and dad really took care of me.’”


  Diunna was born in Houston, Texas, on October the 6th in 1957. She has three sisters and two brothers. “My mom and daddy gave me that name Diunna. It’s the name of a little girl from an African tribe. She sacrificed herself to save her mother and her home village.” First Diunna lived in Fifth Ward and later in North Houston Heights. “It was great growing up there. If there was anything too terrible, our parents would shield up from those things. I was the first black child at my elementary school. There were some rough days, but not because of the kids initially but some of their parents.”

  Her father Ben Greenleaf (1911-87) had been a member of such gospel groups as St. Paul Four Gospel Quartet and the Spiritual Gospel Singers of Houston, and the latter group has at least one single released in 1948 on the Gold Star label. The line-up of that group was Ben, Wiley, David Elmore, Willie Phlegmand Anthony Hall. “They recorded many songs, but they recorded many of those for Duke/Peacock Records. They stopped working for Duke/Peacock, because there was a disagreement with Don Robey. One brother was with another group and that group was disbanded. They wanted the brother to be able to come and be with them. Don Robey said ‘no I want your brother to go with another group that I have. They said that we want to be together. He said ‘if you do this, I make sure you never work again in the business.’ The brothers and the cousin sat down at the kitchen table and decided they wouldn’t sing anymore – just for the Lord, and they would all go to different lines of work. I think that was in the late 40s and early 50s, because when I came along daddy and the group had stopped and did other things. One uncle, A.W. Hall, went to a construction company, uncle Willie became a long-distance trucker, daddy started working for a steel company here in Houston, Hughes Tool Co. Everybody did something to contribute to the family. Anthony Hall, Jr., Anthony W. Hall’s son, became actually a city councilman and the city attorney here in Houston. They all became deacons in churches, too.”

  Diunna’s father Ben became a deacon and a church choir director at the New Mt. Calvary Church. “B.B. King told me that when he was a DJ at WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, he used to play them all the time and he couldn’t wait to meet them, because their spell was so sweet and pure.”


  “Another thing my daddy did, when he stopped with the group, he still gave vocal lessons for young men going into gospel. He was a vocal coach for B.B., Joe Tex and Johnnie Taylor and Sam Cooke, who were in the group called the Highway QC’s. My daddy was the coach also for Cecil Shaw, who was a deacon in New Mt. Calvary Missionary Baptist Church in Houston. Cecil had one lady in his group, Della. Daddy told us that she was the only woman or a girl that he ever coached, and it just so happened that she was the young lady that Ray Charles married.”

  “I didn’t meet Ray Charles until 1996 at the Atlanta Olympics. When I told him that my name was Diunna Greenleaf, he immediately said ‘oh Greenleaf. I got some good friends in Houston, Texas, named Greenleaf, but you probably wouldn’t know them, Ben and Mary Ella. I said ‘That’s my mom and daddy.’ He laughed and started asking me about different people, but there was only fifteen minutes left before Ray had to go on stage. They told us we have to leave before the concert was over, so that we could get ahead of the crowd, because we were all in one van. So I didn’t get a chance to go back and talk to Ray. Just as we got into the van and were driving out, we heard a big boom, and that’s when the man had set off the bomb, and it was right in the front, where we were sitting.”

 “My mother Mary Ella (née Travis, 1921-95) sang gospel, but she didn’t sing professionally. Her good friend, Mahalia Jackson, did. Miss Mary’s Place was her café but it served no alcohol, just food. My younger sister, who passed away, played piano, organ and saxophone and she and I sang together. She was a minister. I have an older sister, who’s a piano player and an organist at a church here in Texas.”

  Diunna lists Dinah Washington, Aretha Franklin, Koko Taylor and Patsy Cline as her early musical influences, but - since she joined the church choir at the age of five – spiritual music has always been close to her heart. “I heard many gospel singers, because daddy made sure we knew who they were. Many were his good friends. Among my favourites those days were also Dorothy Love Coates and Clara Ward & the Ward Singers, but I listened to a lot of the male artists, too, both gospel and the rhythm & blues guys: the Fairfield Four, the Staple Singers – daddy was associated with Pops, too – the Pilgrim Travelers, the Soul Stirrers, the Nightingales... There was always also the pure blues.”

  Diunna graduated with honours from Prairie View A&M University with a BA degree, and she graduated from Texas Southern University with a masters degree in Educational Counseling. “I enlisted while I was in college. I went into the training program in 1977, and when I graduated in 1980 I went into service. I finished my service and was honourably discharged as a captain of the U.S. Army in 2000.”


  “In the 1990s I was doing reserve work with the army, but I was working a full-time corporate job downtown, and I would sing on weekends.” One of the first gigs in her career took place in Houston’s Warwick Hotel in the late 80s. “After my daddy died (in 1987), my mother didn’t have a lot of interest in different things. One day she called me, while I was at work: ‘tomorrow I would like you to get from work a little earlier, so that we can go to Warwick to have lunch.’ She had wanted to do that for many years. Next day, when we got there, she said ‘we’re gonna have lunch afterwards’, because she wanted me to audition. They were looking for a wedding singer. I said ‘I ain’t gonna do that’, and she said ‘yes, you are, because I’ve already given your name.’ That was the first time I ever auditioned. I didn’t have any sheet music with me.” Diunna sang Evergreen in the same key as Barbra Streisand – “Miss Greenleaf, if you are interested, you’ve been chosen!”

  Today Diunna is known as the “People’s Queen of Blues.” “Koko said in Switzerland and in Norway that she wants me to be the next queen. I said that I don’t have to be the queen as long as they call my name right. Then someone else said ‘well, you’re the People’s Queen of Blues.’ When I came to Brazil, they had this big poster - ‘People’s Queen of Blues.’ I went to France, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, and each time they would announce ‘Diunna Greenleaf, People’s Queen of Blues.’”

  As has become apparent Diunna has toured all over Europe - and Asia as well. “I’ve also lived in other places besides Houston. I was an exchange student to Denmark, when I was in high school. When I came to Europe for a tour, I always made sure that I go to Denmark and see my Danish mor on the island of Fyn. She’s in her eighties now.”

  Diunna was a featured vocalist in the Legendary Blues Band, consisting mostly of Muddy Waters’ previous sidemen, since the 1990s till the early 2000s. She joined the Houston Blues Society and served as President for three years (1999-2002). In 2000 she formed her own band called Blue Mercy with a varying line-up throughout the years. The newest member is Darryl Lavigne, a former B.B. King keyboardist.


  Diunna released her debut album, “Crazy” but live in Houston in 2004, first on her own Blue Mercy label and then let CDBaby distribute it. Backed by her Blue Mercy Band, it was the first legitimate record her voice is on. “My band was the backing band for Pinetop Perkins, and there’s bootleg material that I’m on before my record in 2004.”

  This set was recorded live at Red Cat Jazz Cafe in Houston with Jonn Richardson on lead guitar, Larry Johnson on bass guitar and Vernon Daniels on drums. For the most part the show consists of both familiar, and new, mostly big-voiced blues numbers, such as Dust My Broom, Born under a Bad Sign, Built for Comfort, Black Cat Bone, Mother Earth and 29 Ways. There’s also a stormy cover of Sly & the Family Stone’s If You Want Me to Stay, a slow and restrained tune titled Hellhound and the intense inspirational, Swing Low Sweet Chariot. The title tune, Crazy, closes the set. “That’s another song that I wrote, but I don’t get to do it very much. I thought it was a good album.”


  Diunna’s follow-up, Cotton Field to Coffee House, was released three years later, and predictably we are treated to some big-voiced blues, whether standards like Little Red Rooster, or Diunna’s own songs - the funky Backdoor Man and Love Treasure. The cover of Robert Johnson’s Possession over Judgement Day is metamorphosed into a loud stormer. “When the guitarist Robert Lockwood Junior was still alive, the Robert Johnson estate wanted him to be included.” Robert Lockwood Jr. passed in November 2006.

  Ray Nobel’s tender song The Very Thought of You was first released by Ray’s orchestra with Al Bowlly on vocals in 1934, and was later covered by Luis Russell, Billie Holiday, Little Willie John, Natalie Cole, among many others. “It was the song that I heard my mother sing around the house all the time. She had such a strong and pure voice. I didn’t realise until I became an adult the versatility of her voice.”

  Diunna’s version of A Change Is Gonna Come is intense and filled with emotion, as is her interpretation of Resolutions, the song that B.B. King wanted to duet with her. The guitarist Bob Margolin is one of the players that Diunna used to work with in the Muddy Waters Legendary Blues Band, and here Diunna does two of his songs, the slow Lonely Man Blues and Just before Dawn. Add still Larry Addison’s touching song titled Members only - originally by Bobby Bland - and a Joe Morris’ song best known by Faye Adams, Shake a Hand, and you’ve just finished listening to this enjoyable CD - with the exception of a bonus disc called Rehearsal Jam.


  “I have three blues music awards – 2008, 2014 and 2017 – and I’m also the first woman to win the International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee in 2005. Another woman didn’t win again for eleven years.” In 2008 Diunna won the Best New Artist Debut award at the Blues Music Awards and in 2014 the Koko Taylor Award – Traditional Blues Female. “In 2017 I won the Koko Taylor Award again.” Besides those national blues awards, there are also many local awards to her credit.

  Recorded at Blue Heaven Studios out of Salina, Kansas, Diunna released a 5-track vinyl LP in 2009, and it included reworks of Resolutions, Crazy and Love Treasure. “People ask me to do more LPs, but it’s too difficult to travel with and too heavy to carry on a plane.”


  For her Trying to Hold on CD, Diunna wrote and co-wrote as many as eleven songs out of the fourteen on display. Some of her guests on this record include Bob Margolin, Anson Funderburgh, Smokin’ Joe Kubek, Billy Branch and Bob Corritore, and the record was released in 2011. “2011 was the 100-year anniversary of my father’s birth, and also Robert Johnson’s. I recorded that CD in various studios. I recorded ‘Cause I’m a Soldier in Chicago and a couple of songs in Dallas. I did one here in Houston and then four or five in Phoenix, Arizona.” The concluding Chicago track, ‘Cause I’m a Soldier, is slow and patriotic song, performed at a marching pace.

  Among the blues numbers there are the slowly swaying Be for Me, the faster Sunny Day Friends, the quick-tempo I Can’t Wait, the slowly rolling Taking Chances and the uptempo title song, Trying to Hold on. There’s also the storming I’m a Little Bit mixed up, a tribute to Koko Taylor, whose version was released in 1969, but Betty James’ original appeared eight years earlier. Jimmy McCracklin’s slow Double Dealing derives from fifty years back, and You Don’t Feel That Way about Me is Diunna’s melodic, mid-tempo mover.

  One of the highlights on the CD is an emotive, 6 ½-minute long soul-blues ballad called Growing Up and Growing Old. “It didn’t get a lot of airplay, because they want the songs to be only about 3 minutes and 15 seconds long.” Beautiful Hat is a straight country jogger. “I wrote that too. My mother was a hat model here.” On the first version of the traditional He Is Everything to Me the voice belongs to Sylvia Travis, Diunna’s grandmother, who at the time of this recording was 102 years old. “She lived to be 105 years old. She only sings gospel and spirituals, and every year on her birthday she would teach us a little song and that would be like a tribute to God for letting her see another year.” On the following track Diunna delivers her a cappella version of the same song.


  “I’ve recorded many songs for other people on their projects. I recorded with the B.B. King Orchestra. I recorded with Kevin Wayne, and I also recorded with another of my former students. We call him Rooster. I also recorded on the Clint Morgan CD and with several other people.”

  “During the ten years (2011-21) between the albums Trying to Hold on and I Ain’t Playin’, I was performing and still continue to run my own band, Blue Mercy, in Houston. When the hurricane came in 2017, I got hit by that. The flood took my car away. I had to move twice, and I’m still looking for what I call a proper house. I just had to put my life back together.”

  With her impressive new CD, I Ain’t Playin’, Diunna however is firmly back in business. Please read the review of that CD - partially in Diunna’s own words – at Although the European tours that were scheduled for this year have been cancelled due to the Covid-19, Diunna has many gigs in the U.S. “If the promoters want to have me for festivals and events, they should not miss the train” (laughing).


“CRAZY” BUT LIVE IN HOUSTON (Blue Mercy -> CDBaby) 2004

Calling New Mercy / Built For Comfort / Dust My Broom / If You Want Me To Stay / Hellhound / Black Cat Bone / Swing Low Sweet Chariot / Born Under A Bad Sign / Mother Earth / 29 Ways / Crazy (long version)


The Backdoor Man / Possession Over Judgement Day / The Very Thought Of You / Little Red Rooster / Love Treasure / Tribute To John Lee Hooker / A Change Is Gonna Come / Lonely Man Blues / Beams Of Heaven / Resolutions / Members Only / Shake A Hand / Just Before Dawn / Bonus CD: rehearsal jam

DIUNNA GREENLEAF (Direct-to-Disc, vinyl LP) 2009

The Bachelor Man (You Want To Be) / Resolutions / Crazy / Love Treasure / Double Dealing

TRYING TO HOLD ON (Blue Mercy, BMR930 -> CDBaby) 2011

Be For Me / Sunny Day Friends / Growing Up And Growing Old / Beautiful Hat / I Can’t Wait / Taking Chances / Tryin’ To Hold On / You Don’t Feel That Way About Me / I’m A Little Bit Mixed Up (A Tribute To Koko Taylor) / Double Dealing / He Is Everything To Me (feat. Sylvia Travis) / He Is Everything To Me / I Got A Notion To Leave / ‘Cause I’m A Soldier

I AIN’T PLAYIN’ (Little Village Foundation, LVF 1045) 2022

Never Trust A Man / Running Like The Red Cross / If It Wasn’t For The Blues / Answer To The Hard Working Woman / I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free / Sunny Day Friends / When I Call Your Name / I Don’t Care / Damned If I Do / I Know I’ve Been Changed / Back Door Man / Let Me Cry / My Turn, My Time

(Interview conducted on March the 11th in 2022; acknowledgements to Diunna and Noel Hays.

Sources: Terry Mullins in Blues Blast Magazine in 2011; Paul J Wolfle in Music Interview Magazine in 2014; Lee Hildebrand in Living Blues in 2015).

© Heikki Suosalo

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