Feeling her roots

Singer Topsy Chapman performs in the Hot Jazz Series.

Dragan Tasic. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Dragan Tasic.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
They say that children from large families tend to be tougher. It stands to reason that if you’ve got a horde of siblings vying to grab their parents’ attention or simply to get to the food on the table, you have to develop sharp elbows or go hungry. While I’m not suggesting that there were stampedes around mealtime at the Chapman household, being number 15 of 16 children must have left its imprint on singer Topsy Chapman’s formative years.
“I started playing the piano when I was four years old, and I think that made me kind of precious,” says Chapman, who is coming to play eight dates around the country (April 9 to 16) as part of the Hot Jazz Series. The show goes by the title “Passion for New Orleans.” She will be supported here by the local six-piece New Orleans Function Jazz Band.
“Of course, I was doing more things than anybody else because, at a young age, I was playing at jazz festivals. I was always in the spotlight,” she says.
And she has been front and center ever since.
Gospel has been a central theme of Chapman’s output, but she has always had several strings to her artistic bow.
“We do everything,” she says. “We do traditional jazz, traditional gospel and modern gospel. We also do rhythm and blues. We do a little bit everything.”
It also helps to come from the right part of the world and to have the right genetic heritage.
Chapman hails from New Orleans, and her father was a gospel singer and accordion player. And there’s plenty more where those familial connections came from.
“My relatives are all over the southern area,” she notes. “My father’s relatives are from Mississippi, and we are related to the Jackson family, Michael Jackson’s family. His grandfather and my father were cousins.”
It may came as little surprise, then, that Chapman got an early start to her performance career.
“I was four years the old the first time I got on a stage,” she recalls. “It was at a country fair, with animals and all kinds of amusements and stuff. I was one of the highlights of the parish fair.”
Getting used to strutting her stuff for the public when she was so young was a valuable asset which, Chapman says, has stood her in good stead throughout her career.
“That’s why I’ve never had stage fright. I’ve never been afraid of an audience. I have been looking at them all my life. I just remember looking out at people and singing. When I was small, I had no idea what they were sitting there for,” she laughs.
She certainly knows what her audiences want from her today, and she has been pumping out uncompromising vibes for more than 60 years, to great success. She has also kept the family tradition going. She regularly performs with two of her daughters, with whom she has recorded a couple of albums, and is often joined by her guitar-playing grandson.
“I never studied music formally,” she says. “I learned as I went along. That’s what they call it the university of the streets.”
Growing up in New Orleans, Chapman had the opportunity to learn from some of the doyens of the art form and to get some insight into the roots of the music from some of the older guys on the block, people who knew and worked with some of the pioneers who were pushing the musical boat out.
One of those venerable musicians was Creole singer and trumpeter Lionel Ferbos, who died two years ago at the age of 103.
“I worked with Mr. Ferbos when I was 25. I got a chance to talk to him about a lot of different things. He told me a lot of stories. I also met Eubie Blake [jazz pianist, who died in 1983 at the age of 96]. He used to come to our show. He liked it a lot. He said it was authentic,” she recounts.
Chapman has mixed with a glittering roster of esteemed musicians, and her work has brought her into contact with US president Jimmy Carter. She also got the opportunity to have a brief chat with Queen Elizabeth when she performed for Her Majesty as part of the original cast of the hit musical One Mo’ Time.
“When I was a kid, I never dreamed I’d perform for and meet the Queen of England. That never even crossed my mind,” she laughs.
All these years down the road, after thousands of gigs across the United States and around the world and chewing the fat with VIPs, it seems that Chapman has never lost sight of where it all comes from and the spirit of the music.
“You have to sing what you feel,” she declares.
And gospel is at the root of everything that Chapman puts out.
“You have Aretha Franklin singing rhythm and blues, but there was always the gospel feel, the gospel soul feel,” she says.
The same can be said of Ms. Chapman.
“That makes the music outstanding. Whatever you have in you, it comes out. Whatever you have done and seen, it’s in your music,” she asserts.
Considering Chapman’s background, that is a rich offering indeed.
Topsy Chapman will perform from April 9 to 16 at Mercaz Habama in Ganei Tikva; the Jerusalem Theater; Zappa Herzliya; the Tel Aviv Museum of Art; and Abba Hushi House in Haifa. For tickets and more information: 1-700-500-039; (03) 573-3001; www.hotjazz.co.il