Heather Hardy Concertmaster of the Blues
By DEBRA DeSALVO
Blues Revue - Profiles
Heather Hardy's violin slices through a muddy live recording of The Sam Taylor Band like a diving falcon. Her solos marry lightning virtuosity with melodic sophistication and unhindered soul. And when she runs her Zeta five string electric violin through a wah-wah pedal on "Lucille," it sounds like the freewheeling bastard child of a guitar and a saxophone.
In a more perfect world, Hardy would win the Handy award for "Best Contemporary Female Blues Artist" award hands down, but odds are she won't even be nominated€¦this year.
For that matter, the unsigned Sam Taylor Band-an institution in Tucson, Arizona-deserves national, not just regional, recognition. Cuts from the CD the band hopes to shop to a label sparkle. "Feed Your Dog," is Taylor's gritty admonition to a lover to "feed your dog, if you want your dog to stay home."" Another Sam Taylor original, "Ain't No Love," is soulful R&B a la recent Neville Brothers or Bonnie Rait hits. Lifting "Ain't No Love" into the pop stratosphere is a wall of violin and guitar harmony providing a Motown-like sheen few radio stations would be likely to resist.
Sam Taylor's background reads like lifelong preparation for just such music. The son of 1940s big band leader Sam "The Man" Taylor, he was born in Alabama in the early '30s. Taylor boxed professionally before joining the military. After his service he played guitar for Etta James, then went on to lead the Sam and Dave band for many years. Taylor also played with Otis Redding and polished his songwriting at New York publishing houses during the '50s and '60s. As a result, Chicago blues, Detroit soul, and Memphis/Stax-style R&B, color Taylor's fluid voice, which sounds gruff one minute and pitched into Al Green territory the next.
The rest of the band is closer in age to Hardy, who is 29. She is joined by Ed Delucia on guitar, Michael Nordberg on bass, and Paul Elia on drums. Hardy described the band in a recent interview: "Ed is a real Wes Montgomery head who can also throw down on modern blues like Stevie Ray Vaughan; Michael is a thrash punk rocker who's obsessed with Parliament; the Funky Meters is his all-time favorite band. Our drummer comes from a jazz/rock background and does a mean Frank Sinatra impersonation. Then you have Sam, the great older bluesman. Somehow, it all works."
Hardy joined the band in 1992 after completing a two-year stint at one of Tucson's other unsung institutions, the Amity Therapeutic Teaching Community. How a classically trained violinist raised in posh Westport, Connecticut, landed in drug rehab in the desert is a story that winds from the uptown Manhattan School of Music to the darkest doorways of New York City's Lower East Side.
Hardy began studying piano when she was six years old. By fourth grade she was taking violin lessons at school, where she was, "...really lucky that my early teachers let me have so much fun. A lot teacher can turn kids off, which is sad because it's not so much talent that makes you good, but how much you love it."
When she was in eighth grade her mother became ill with multiple sclerosis. Hardy coped by getting heavily involved in church activities. "I'm still into the church," she explains, "but not like that. Back then I was going on retreats and coming back saved by Jesus. It was definitely an escape."
In high school Hardy became serious about making music a career. Her parents encouraged her with the best teachers and instruments, but Hardy was showing signs of severe internal strife.
By the time she was a junior in high school, "the church didn't work anymore," Hardy says. She developed terrible headaches for which doctors and psychiatrists could find no cause. "I pulled away from the church and started smoking pot and messing with different drugs to ease the pain," Hardy says, adding, "the only thing that kept me going to school was playing music."
During high school she studied violin with Richard Errante, a student of the great teacher Rafael Bronstein Hardy later studied with Bronstein at the Manhattan School of Music when he was ninety years old.
During her first year at the Manhattan School of Music, Hardy hooked up with a boyfriend who introduced her to harder drugs. She took a year off school and started hanging out in Washington Square Park with street musicians like Don Houston, who became her mentor.
With a beat-up guitar slung across his back, gray-haired, bushy-bearded Houston was a fixture of the Village street scene. "Don was a troubadour of the streets," Heather says. "He looked like one of the furry freak brothers and had more soul than anybody-just a great singer. He sat me down and broke me out of the whole classical mold. He'd just scream for me to feel it and not think about the notes."
Hardy spent that summer playing in the streets and subways with Houston and spending her daily earnings on life's necessities, which by then included heroin. She was spotted by The Crunge, a rock band fronted by a female singer who also sang back-up for Michelle Shocked. The Crunge took Hardy to record with them at Vital Music Studio on East 10th Street. She became a popular east village session musician, playing with everyone from folk singers to punk bands with names like Rats of Unusual Size.
At Vital, Hardy met the political puck band False Prophets. She joined for three years of crisscrossing the country in a van, as well as more comfortable tours in Europe, where the band had a large following. By this time, Hardy says, "I had lost my heart to improvisation." She began studying with improvising violinist Judy Lieberman. She frequently joined False Prophets' guitarist Steve Taylor-a member of the Fugs, and poet Allen Ginsberg's accompanist for ten years-on stage with Ginsberg and with Tuli Kupferberg and Fuxxon. Hardy was also playing Irish fiddled music, blues, reggae, and traditional Italian folk songs when she wasn't shredding her brow to pieces with the cacophonous False Prophets.
"False Prophets was really good for me," Hardy says, "because I developed a lot of backbone. I learned to dance around the stage in front of an orchestra, but because it was a newer form of music, we were constantly trying to figure out each person's role. You had to learn how to keep the music sacred and still work on those relationships."
False Prophets also refused to take Hardy on the road unless she was drug-free. It was, she says, "the first time I was challenged by other musicians to be clean."
Breaks from her addiction, however, were invariably followed by steeper descents into it. Band members-fearing her death-sought help from a former punk drummer named Dave Hahn, who was a counselor for Amity.
By this time, a lot of Hardy's street pals were dead or dying of AIDS, including Houston, who was very ill. "I used to sit and play blues in the garbage cans and the big old rats," Hardy says. "The spirit won't let you play anything but the blues at that time of the morning."
When Hahn found Hardy he promised that if she went to Amity he would never let the treatment center take away her violin. "He kept his word," Hardy says, adding, "When I first got there they wanted to take it away, but he convinced the director to let me keep it."
Hardy left New York planning to spend thirty days cleaning up at Amity and stayed for two years of soul-searching rehab. "At Amity, people told me I should hook up with Sam because he was a recovering addict," Hardy explains. "When I was ready to leave, I looked him up, thinking he could introduce me to some people. Instead, he asked me to join the band as a featured soloist."
At that time, the Sam Taylor band also had a three-piece horn section. Hardy says there were "a lot of toes to avoid stepping on as I tried to find my niche-especially because I thought all the other players were so smoking." Taylor encouraged her to solo, however, and began giving her songs to sing. On the live recording made at Sam Taylor's House of Swing-a new bimonthly blues showroom at Tucson's Santa Rita Ballroom-Hardy sings a smoky version of "Reverend Lee."
While discussing how her role in Taylor's band developed, Hardy mentions that "there's a lot of pressure on women to be extra-nice and not show temper or ego or other things that a male musician may feel more comfortable showing."
"Doing drugs," she adds, "was my little secret that no one could touch or take away from me. It was easy to be self-effacing and smile as long as I knew I could leave and do my secret thing."
These days, however, Hardy is committed to sobriety and the Sam Taylor Band. Under Taylor's tutelage she has blossomed from an extremely good improvising violinist-already a rarity-into one with few peers.
As for Taylor, Hardy says, "I've fallen in love with him as an artist and a human being. I've had such fleeting chances with masters who have walked in my path, but I didn't fully appreciate them because was too busy trying to escape the rest of my life. After his last heart operation [Taylor had his second triple bypass in 1993], it's a miracle he's in such good health. My support helps him stay young and focused on his vision, and his wisdom helps me when I get weak."
Although Hardy's commitment to Taylor is profound, she is eager to play with "lots of people." She is looking for backing to record a solo album and would love to organize an all-women blues festival in Tucson. In the meantime, there's her gig with the house band at Taylor's new showroom downtown.
"The House of Swing will be like the House of Blues, or B.B. King's club. We'll be opening for lots of national blues acts and Sam is really excited about it," Hardy says. Let's hope The House of Swing shines a light on the deserving Sam Taylor Band and the gifted violinist Taylor calls "Little Mama."