Local legend Sista Monica proves that you can’t keep a good woman down
Blues Lioness” Sista Monica Parker is about as successful as a Santa Cruz musician can get: She’s performed at major music festivals all over the world, accepted an invitation to play for President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at the 2000 Democratic National Convention, and won a profusion of awards—including Artist of the Year for Santa Cruz County, a Bammie for Best Blues Artist in California, the 2000 Gail Rich Award and the San Jose Mercury News’ award for Silicon Valley’s 12 Most Creative & Powerful Women. So it will surprise some people that in the almost two decades that Parker has been singing blues, soul and gospel music for a living, she’s kept a day job as a recruiting consultant for various high-tech companies in the Silicon Valley area. “That has been what has been able to catapult me into existence as an artist. By having my own record label and taking my band to the studio and saying, ‘We’re gonna do this, and I’ll pay for it,’” she explains.
Not even a Blues Lioness is impervious to the ravages of a bad economy, however. In May of this year, Parker lost a little more than $100,000 in income when a Silicon Valley company laid off all 16 of its recruiters, including her. “So, what I did was, I just said, ‘OK, Monica—this is an opportunity for you to go full-bore and start doing your music,’” she states. The vocalist adds that she thinks her music is her true gift to the world. “I used to think that my gift to the world was having my day job!” she says before emitting a leonine roar of laughter.
Parker, who has organized benefit concerts for tsunami and hurricane victims and cancer survivors, responded to her financial disaster by starting Sista Monica Presents, a production company that allows her to hire musicians and be available to do “not just fundraisers, but also to do some good music around the country.” Parker notes that she probably wouldn’t have launched the company if not motivated by this year’s layoff.
“The ultimate goal is to bring a more uplifting tenor to the blues community.” —Sista Monica
On Sunday, Nov. 22, Sista Monica Presents brings a festival-like atmosphere to First Congregational Church with “Singin’ in the Spirit,” a blowout gospel concert that will be recorded live. “We’re asking people to come prepared to engage in the liveliness of it,” Parker says. With its inspirational tone, the show will be a chance for artists and audience members to partake of some pre-Thanksgiving gratitude. “There’s so much going on in the world today that I thought, ‘Of course I could do blues all night long, but maybe the community could stand some uplifting music,’” Parker says.
Parker’s festival band (drummer David Tucker, guitarist Don Caruth, bassist Chris Akin and tenor saxophonist Gary Regina) will be performing at “Singin’ in the Spirit,” as will a 50-voice choir called The Sista Monica Gospel & Inspirational Choir, for which Grammy-nominated vocalist Tammi Brown serves as assistant director. Also on hand will be pianist/tenor saxophonist Deanna Bogart. Parker says that when she called Bogart to ask if she’d be interested in performing at the concert, she was surprised to learn that Bogart had just written two gospel songs. “So, I said, ‘Good! Let’s do ’em!’” she recalls with a hearty laugh.
Other entertainers at Sunday’s event include vocalist/percussionist Linda Tillery, who will be coming from Oakland to perform some older spirituals as well as Bob Marley’s “One Love,” and gospel mimes who will dance and act out the music that is being played during set changes and instrument switches.
“I’m very happy that I was able to live and also to live out my purpose. You don’t always get that chance, you know?” —Sista Monica
Parker hopes to eventually take “Singin’ in the Spirit” around the world. “The ultimate goal is to bring a more uplifting tenor to the blues community,” she states. The next locales where she plans to bring the show are Oakland, Humboldt County and possibly Seattle and Canada. While she and Bogart will be mainstays of the show, Parker envisions bringing in guest artists based on concert location. Ronnie Baker, Buddy Guy, Elvin Bishop and Guitar Shorty are some of the names she tosses around as potential “Singin’ in the Spirit” guests.
Sunday’s concert will be a return to form for Parker, who began singing gospel music as a 7-year-old child in Gary, Indiana (“The home of the Jackson Five!” she announces playfully, punctuating her comment with a soulful cackle). The singer says her early exposure to gospel was crucial to her development as a musician. “A lot of the instrumentation that comes with gospel music is piano, bass, guitar, drums, tambourine and occasionally the trumpet or sax, right?” she says. “So I got real familiar with working with that kind of instrumentation in church. When I decided to do blues, R&B and soul music back in 1992 in Santa Cruz, it was real easy for me to just take that instrumentation and parlay it into blues, soul and gospel music.”
Parker has been singing gospel music with renewed vigor since recovering from a rare and severe form of cancer called synovial sarcoma, for which she was diagnosed in 2002. The vocalist, who has been cancer-free for six years, says her recovery “has really cemented my faith that there is a true and living God that will see you through the hard times.” She adds, “I’m very happy that I was able to live and also to live out my purpose. You don’t always get that chance, you know?”
Parker says that singing has been tremendously helpful to her throughout her recuperation, because the music going through her body makes her feel safe, alive and secure. Since recovering from the disease, she has continued to perform in blues and jazz festivals around the world, but has always been able to incorporate some uplifting gospel toward the end of the set. “Even before I was sick, I was doing that, but now it seems as though everybody hears me!” she notes.
And with that, The Blues Lioness unleashes one more rafter-rattling belly laugh.
Singin’ in the Spirit takes place at 6 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 22, at First Congregational Church, 900 High St., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 in advance or $25 at the door, available through Gateways Books & Gifts (429-9600) or Logos Books & Records (427-5100). For more information, go to sistamonica.com.