Everything about Joce’lyn B is big — her band, her nails, her heart, her knockout voice, everything. Since age five, when she went to Rev. C. L. Franklin’s church and heard Aretha Franklin sing, she’s known she wanted to sing herself. Determination landed her work over the years with the O’Jays, George Clinton, and Donna Summer, and for eight years she lived and performed in New York, on and off Broadway. She came back in the late 1980s because “Detroit is in my blood.” Plus, she wanted to sing the blues.
Backstage in her dressing room at Nick Easton’s fantastical Cavern Club (with its intimate, rounded tunnels burrowed into the 150-year-old basement), Joce’lyn sits me down and tells beautiful stories about her beloved granny who performed in vaudeville and taught her how to sing. “You can’t sing the blues unless you’ve lived the blues,” she warns. We talk for what seems like a long time while she readies herself for the stage. She’s powerful and unapologetic — and dressed like a flaming jewel.
Out on the floor, her fifteen-piece, all-male band warms up. Like an expectant groom at the altar, the musicians wait for Joce’lyn to make her entrance. They’re playing louder and louder until even my untrained ear can tell it’s probably time for her to come out. “Come on,” she says, and she walks to the stage door, opening it a crack to reveal the eager faces of her rhythm section. “Give me that cordless,” she calls.
Mike in hand, she closes the door and starts talking again. I can hardly hear over the band, so I move closer. Someone from a radio station had called to ask her to perform but then didn’t like her set list because the songs weren’t about Detroit. The person implied she wasn’t representing the city.
The band is cycling up, up. Joce’lyn’s eyes widen with rage as she remembers the insult. “They think they can tell me what to sing?” she bellows. “They’re gonna call me up and ask me to sing and then tell me what to sing? I love Detroit! I told them to kiss my ass!”
We’re standing inches apart. “I guess I’ll be calling her to apologize,” Joce’lyn says, shaking her head. “But I was real mad. I was hurt.” She stares at me. I stare back. Then she takes a step toward the door, flicks on that microphone, and starts singing.
It’s like a steam engine, roaring, “Somebody call my momma / And tell her what shape I’m in.”
I bet Joce’lyn’s momma, wherever she is, could hear her daughter singing and listened in. No phone necessary.
Joce’lyn B returns to the Cavern Club on Friday and Saturday, December 6 and 7, and Tuesday, December 31.