by Len Lear
“I once opened for Karen Carroll, a great blues singer from Chicago, and I asked her if she could give me any advice. She said, ‘Girl, you can SING! My advice? You (blank) sing! Don’t let them EVER (blank) tell you not to sing. You (blank) sing, no matter what! You (blank) hear me??!!”
That advice was taken to heart. Stephanie (“Stevie”) Nolan, 70, “and getting better and doing more things all the time!,” a Germantown resident for the past 39 years, has been singing her keester off and providing nourishment for the soul since 1985.
If you are a regular at the Mermaid Inn, where they have played at least 30 times over the last 15 years, you have surely seen Nolan’s trio, Stevie and the Bluescasters, or at any number of clubs, bars, restaurants, concerts, festivals and events in the Philly area. Their next gig will be Friday, June 14, 7:30 p.m., at the Philadelphia Folksong Society, 6156 Ridge Ave. in Roxborough.
Unfortunately, the blues are not everyone’s cup of soul, but if you are one of the possessed ones who get off on the passion of Magic Sam, Jimmy Witherspoon, Bobby Blue Bland, Etta James, Howlin’ Wolf, Big Mama Thornton, Jimmy Rodgers, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, etc., then Stevie and the Bluescasters are in your corner.
Nolan, who grew up in Mineola, New York, a half-hour outside of New York City, went to Goddard College, a very progressive school in Vermont, where she earned a BA in dance and philosophy. (“Yo, it was the 60’s!”)
After college, Nolan was a self-employed jeweler for a long time and then an early childhood music specialist for over 20 years. Why music? “I have been intensely and joyfully listening to music and surrounded by musicians my entire life. Aside from some voice lessons and a class here and there, I am totally self-taught.”
Nolan met Paul, her husband of 30 years, 38 years ago when she was looking for a piano player and obviously found a harmonious match. He is also a self-taught guitar player with a BME from Shenandoah Music Conservatory in Virginia in Piano and Music Ed and an MA from Hahnemann in Creative Arts Therapy. He has played blues, rock, folk, classical piano and bluegrass for decades. A bluegrass band he was in, “Flexible Flyer,” has a CD in the 2005 Grammy book.
In addition to Nolan and Paul, the acoustic blues trio (no drums!) includes Seth Holzman, a phenomenally magical harmonica player who has taught many harmonica courses for Mt. Airy Learning Tree. The band plays all kinds of blues, from the hip-shaking Mississippi Delta to the swinging shuffle of Chicago to the simple, plaintive moans at midnight as well as old gospel, old country, a bit of R&B and International “blues” sung in Portuguese and Spanish.
According to their website, “This is music that rouses your soul, moves your feet and melts your heart.”
Nolan grew up in a music business household that included family relationships with R & B and jazz greats such as the Drifters, Billy Ward and the Dominos, Clyde McPhatter, Count Basie, Illinois Jacquet, etc
“I met many of these amazing musicians when I was little,” she recalled. “I even was listed as a songwriter when I was 4 years old since the lyrics were too risqué, and everyone thought it would harm the reputation of Clyde McPhatter of the original Drifters, who actually did write them. So they put my name on the record. I guess I had nothing to lose at age 4!
“And my Hungarian mother was always playing music in the house: Hungarian Czardas, gypsy violin, cha-cha, mambo, meringue, etc.” How has the music business changed since the beginning of Nolan’s career?
“The RELENTLESS social media assault you have to engage in order to get the word out, which I hate! And fewer places to play, although the recent phenomenon of House Concerts has been very good for us.”
What was the hardest thing Nolan ever had to do musically?
“When I sing and play, I inhabit the music and try and go as deep as I can emotionally. So I would have to say that the times I performed after my younger brother, mother and father died were the hardest. It was tough to get through particular songs for a while afterwards.”
Nolan loves Philly, but in a perfect world, she would live in the Alfama section of Lisbon or the French Quarter in New Orleans.
“It’s because of the kinship I feel with musicians when I am there, plus I think/know I was there in another life. New Orleans because of the incredible types of music constantly being played all over and the open, freer, more joyous feel the city has.”