Introducing: Sandra Hall, Empress of the Blues
inThe Artistson December 11, 2018
Not many people have had careers as long and as varied as Sandra Hall, “The Empress of the Blues.”
Her career in the music industry began when she was just 12 years old, and it has never stopped: much like her father, the preeminent pianist Eddie Tigner. Sandra began performing gospel at the age of four in her grandfather’s church outside of Atlanta. He was a prominent pastor, and a major leader in the black church community.
Secular music was forbidden from Sandra’s childhood home, but when her grandfather would travel out of town, her grandmother would pull the phonograph out of its hiding place under the bed. This was Sandra’s exposure to blues and RnB. Neighbors and friends would come over to eat, listen, and party.
At one of her grandmother’s house parties, Otis Redding, a family friend, came by to enjoy her family’s great cooking. Sitting at Sandra’s kitchen table, Otis wrote the opening lines to his soulful classic “Dock of the Bay.”
Sandra’s grandfather didn’t approve when Sandra and her sister Barbara began singing in local nightclubs at age 12, but her grandmother believed in empowering her granddaughters to follow their passion for performance. She would chaperone the two young ladies on Friday and Saturday nights at Club 400 in Atlanta while they opened for acts like Aretha Franklin, James Brown, The Temptations, and Nina Simone.
Working the Atlanta Club scene was all business for Sandra and her sister. They made $25 apiece per performance, and they were forbidden from fraternizing with club patrons before and after the show. They had to make A’s and B’s in school, or else they weren’t allowed to gig. They made the grade, and performed for 33 weeks out of the year from ages 12 to 17 years old.
Sandra continued singing throughout college and nursing school, performing with her band the Exotics to pay for tuition, books, and housing. Sandra is a singer, but her ferocious stage presence belies the six years she spent dancing burlesque in Atlanta. Sandra was a student and a single mother, so burlesque offered the opportunity support herself and her daughter and to hone her signature charismatic stage persona.
Sandra says, “I was climbing the ladder on both ends: I was either going to be an entertainer or a nurse, and one was going to happen.” She ended up doing both! Sandra became a nurse and a successful touring musician, traveling regularly across the U.S., France, and Italy.
Sandra’s power on the stage is something to behold, but to give you an idea of her talent and creativity, here’s a story she told us:
In 1974, my friend Mr. Fred Logan opened his second club in downtown Knoxville, TN. He was having hard time attracting an audience to the new location, so he enlisted my help. While staying at his house, I looked out of his backyard to see a casket sitting behind a funeral parlor. Suddenly, I knew what we were gonna do. I asked his wife Patty to introduce me to the owner, and I asked him if I could rent a casket. He said, ‘Rent a casket?! What’re you gonna do with it?’ I told him my plan, and he agreed to loan it to us.
My opening night at the club, I set it to the side of the stage, jumped in with my microphone, and closed the lid. When it was time for the show to start, the band was my pallbearers, and they carried me to the front of the stage. I started singing Aretha’s “Spirit in the Dark” and rose up from the casket!”
Two weeks later and the club was a hit. There was line all the way around the block to see my show.