.West of Texas: Living Legend Diunna Greenleaf Graces the 40th Annual Fountain Blues Festival

It is the 102nd birthday of Diunna Greenleaf’s grandmother and, as she does every year, she teaches her granddaughter a song. She sings “He is Everything to Me” and the family records it. It is the early 1980s.

Some 30 years later, Greenleaf puts the recording on her album, Trying to Hold On. After the recording plays, Greenleaf sings the gospel song herself, a capella. The recording is enough to make one’s hair stand up.

Greenleaf says it always shows when a singer has a background in the church.

“People who haven’t had that, all you have to do is let them open their mouth and sing and you can tell who does and who does not,” she says.

The renowned, Houston-based blues singer performs in the Plaza de Cesar Chavez for the Fountain Blues Festival this Saturday.

Despite her own musical background, Greenleaf only stepped on stage reluctantly. Her father was a vocal coach, known far and wide by the likes of B.B. King and Ray Charles. Yet it was students she counseled at Texas Southern University and the University of Houston who heard her singing in the office and encouraged her. They invited her to perform at a block party fundraiser for a family whose house burned down. She couldn’t refuse.

After that, the late blues vocalist and pianist Teddy “Cry, Cry” Reynolds asked her to perform at his birthday. Reynolds was in hospice and thought it would be his last.

“I said, I don’t think I’m the one to do it,” Greenleaf remembers. “[Reynolds says] ‘Oh, yes, you’re the exact one. And if you just do it for me this one time you know, you’ll never have to worry about ol’ Teddy no more. Because I’ll be long gone.’ How you gonna turn down a dying man?”

The next year, Reynolds once more asked Greenleaf to sing, saying she wouldn’t have to do it again.

“I said, ‘That’s what you said the last time!’”

Then, she apologized and expressed her gratitude that he had another birthday to celebrate. “Of course I’ll sing for your birthday,’” Greenleaf recalls saying, with a laugh.

Since then, Greenleaf and her band Blue Mercy have toured internationally, playing at festivals such as the Lugano Blues Festival, Bern Jazz Festival and the Cahors Blues Festival. In 2015, Living Blues Magazine named Greenleaf Female Artist of the Year. Last year, her 2022 Trying to Hold On topped XM/Sirius Bluesville charts—though she doesn’t pay attention to that sort of thing. Her nine-year-old nephew has been known to manage her social media.

“He says, you know, you need to do it sometimes, take pictures. People wanna see what you eat. I say, ‘I’m not trying to see what they eat,” Greenleaf says, laughing again.

This year, Greenleaf is getting some long-due recognition in a documentary. When Houston Had the Blues—presently snapping up awards on the film festival circuit—describes the explosion of blues talent in Houston, Texas, and features musicians like Big Mama Thornton (who recorded “Hound Dog” years before Elvis hit the scene), Lightnin’ Hopkins, Clifton Chenier and Guitar Shorty. Plus, of course, Greenleaf herself.

Just don’t call her a contemporary blues singer.

“I have won the Koko Taylor Award twice for traditional blues, female artist. I was up for contemporary album. This time I was up for traditional female vocals. And I was up for best instrument voice. As I said, I like to mix it up. But when I’m going traditional, I’m going all the way. I’m going all the way with something we call good book at the bottom of the barrel blues,” she says.

In addition to singing traditional blues songs, Greenleaf composes her own. The songs nag her in the manner of a two-year-old child.

“Have you ever seen a two-year-old when you’re trying to do something else?” Diunna asks. “They’ll be going, ‘Mama, Mama, Mama,’ ’cause they want your attention. And you say, ‘Oh, all right, what is it?’”

So Greenleaf keeps tabs on these songs, recording them on the spot as she once recorded her grandmother, or with paper and pencil.

“I keep a notepad and a pen right beside me wherever I go.”

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