Willow Wray - vocals, percussion; Julie Nicholas - vocals, guitar, percussion; Steven Tamborski - lead guitar, slide guitar; Luna Wilcox - keyboards, flute, vocals; Hap P. Smith - bass; Bill Bowen - drums
In November of 1974, Bill Graham presented a special evening at Winterland that featured the cream of the local crop of female fronted bands, inviting Joy Of Cooking's Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite to headline a bill that also featured San Francisco's Anna Rizzo & A-Train and Marin County's Yazoo opening the evening's performances. Fans of Toni and Terry's set from this evening (also featured here in The Vault) will discover much to enjoy about Yazoo, a shortlived group fronted by Julie Nicholas and Willow Wray, two of the three women destined to found the renowned vocal group, Nicholas, Glover & Wray.
Julie Nicholas and Willow Wray began establishing their reputation in clubs and coffeehouses around the Bay Area in the late 1960s, when they first met in Berkeley. Initially performing as a duo, they eventually began recruiting musicians to form Yazoo. They assembled a talented quartet that included guitarist Steven Tamborski and keyboard player and flautist Luna Wilcox, with bassist Hap P. Smith and former Sons of Champlin drummer Bill Bowen as their rhythm section. Nicholas and Wray have a unique ability to adapt to any musical style and Yazoo's live performances displayed their range and featured an eclectic repertoire.
Although they had established a local following by 1974, this Winterland performance was a high profile gig for Yazoo and their largest audience to date. Performing on the same stage as the other more seasoned artists, including two who would figure prominently in their futures, makes this particular recording a compelling listen from both a historical as well as musical standpoint. This live set is indeed diverse, featuring an emphasis on the blues, but also including classic soul, jazz, country and vintage cabaret style songs, in addition to several covers written by Joy Of Cooking's Toni Brown. This vintage recording, which captures Nicholas and Wray at an early stage of development, clearly shows their promise as both singers and arrangers.
Following Jerry Pompili's introduction, Yazoo kicks off the night by paying tribute to the headliners, covering two of Toni Brown's compositions. The set begins with "Don't The Moon Look Fat And Lonesome," the leadoff track on Joy of Cooking's Castles album, followed by a delightful reading of "Beginning Tomorrow." Although the sound mix is being adjusted on these openers, the vocal arrangements resonate and by the latter song, Yazoo is already hitting the mark. Taking turns on the verses and developing complimentary vocal arrangements on the choruses, "Beginning Tomorrow" displays Yazoo in a most positive light. This also features tasteful accompaniment by the group as a whole, particularly Luna Wilcox who provides the flute solo as well as keyboard accompaniment.
From here on out, the set veers in many directions, including a reading of the Hank Williams country standard, "Your Cheatin' Heart," the old-timey Boswell Sisters tune, "Old Yazoo," and even an ambitious take on the Aretha Franklin soul classic, "Chain Of Fools." However the best is still to come, beginning with Julie Nicholas leading the group deeper into the blues on Bessie Smith's classic, "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out." The group even incorporates some reggae flavoring into the mix on "Mama Didn't Lie," prior to another highlight of this set - a remarkable cover of Dan Hicks' "News From Up The Street." This is a wonderfully jazzy performance, featuring captivating vocal flights from Nicholas and Wray and expressive solo breaks from Wilcox and Tamborski.
This jazz-inflected feel continues on the next number, an adventurous take on Toni Brown's "Papa, I Done You Wrong." Featuring Willow Wray fronting the group, this is another infectious performance, with Wray launching into scat style singing midway and Nicholas joining back in near the end. Two outstanding blues covers are up next, beginning with Blind Willie McTell's classic "Statesboro Blues," which allows Tamborski to showcase some slide guitar technique, followed by the laid back groove of "Woman Be Wise," a classic Cippy Wallace number.
Although the recording suffers from some distortion and age deterioration issues toward the end, the last number of the set is quite interesting. Nicholas and Wray encourage the audience to imagine themselves in an intimate German Cabaret, before venturing back in time for a swinging take on "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen." Recorded back in 1937 by the Andrews Sisters (and the first recording ever to receive a Gold Record Award by a female vocal group), this again displays the diversity of Yazoo. Featuring tight harmonies and scat-style improvising toward the end, this compels the Winterland audience to demand an encore. Yazoo obliges by ending the set much like they began, with another Toni Brown number, "I Don't Want To Live Hear Anymore." Despite the lyrical content (the end of a relationship), this is an uplifting conclusion to the set, filled with humor and a celebration of independence.
Although they never released an album, Yazoo continued performing to enthusiastic local audiences for another year or so before disbanding. Nicholas and Wray would both move on to work with Toni Brown and Terry Garthwaite on their various musical projects. In 1978, they would team up with Sheila Glover, forming Nicholas, Glover & Wray, continuing to develop their impeccable vocal blend, which is still going strong to the present day.