By Hilary Saunders for The Oregonian/OregonLive
LaRhonda Steele remembers the date precisely. On July 17, 2011 her naturopath recommended a mammogram and a biopsy. Soon after, Steele received the diagnosis: Stage 3 breast cancer. The Portland soul singer was stunned. “I couldn’t even move,” she recalled recently, her tenor dropping to an even lower register.
Seated next to her in a cozy Nob Hill teahouse, Steele’s musical partner Louis Pain — who performs around town as King Louie and who The Oregonian once described as “Portland’s boss of the B-3″ — rested his arm on Steele’s elbow in a show of support.
Even after the five surgeries over four years and a recent check-up that showed no evidence of disease, Steele, 46, and Pain, 62, still regard the experience with trepidation. Her illness, however, spurred them to record “Rock Me Baby,” a collection of songs that captures the sound the singer and organist have created in live performances. They’ll celebrate the album’s release with two shows at Jimmy Mak’s, the first on Friday, Dec. 18 and the second on New Year’s Eve.
The two musicians first met in 1994, but they didn’t really start working together until 2006, when Pain had organized a tribute group called the Portland Soul All-Stars. The All-Stars performed the music of soul heroes like Wilson Pickett, James Brown and Etta James, with the late vocalist Linda Hornbuckle and the late jazz pianist Janice Scroggins often anchoring their gigs. When they needed another singer, Steele usually received the call. “My feeling was that if I could get Janice, LaRhonda and Linda —” Pain began. ” — then we’d have a show!” Steele jumped in, completing his thought.
Pain, who delved deep into soul and gospel music in his 20s, listened to classic groups like The Dixie Hummingbirds, Mighty Clouds of Joy and Five Blind Boys of Mississippi with Archie Brownlee. He loved Ray Charles and organist Billy Preston, and he remembers snapping up Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” when it came out. The Portland Soul All-Stars shows were intended to capture a similar energy, he remembered: “I’m hearing LaRhonda and I’m hearing that sound!”
Steele, for her part, grew up in Jones, Oklahoma, on the outskirts of Oklahoma City, the state capital. Her mother and aunts sang in the church choir, as her grandfather, a Baptist evangelist, preached. The gospel music from her church and the songs she heard on the radio defined her early years, until she moved to Portland and began listening to soul and R&B artists including Franklin, James, Sam Cooke and more.
Pain and Steele had performed in the same circles off and on over the years, but it wasn’t until Hornbuckle, fighting her own battle with kidney cancer, had to scale back in 2012 that Steele began working with Pain more frequently. In fact, at one point Hornbuckle and Steele each sang Franklin’s “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” at benefit concerts for each other.
When both Hornbuckle and Scroggins died in 2014, it was music that buoyed Pain and Steele through the deaths of their colleagues and friends, just as it was music that carried them through Steele’s bout with breast cancer. As a result, “Rock Me Baby,” which is dedicated to Hornbuckle and Scroggins, represents a triumph tempered by loss.
The album’s 11 cover songs span a range of genres, bringing a non-denominational spirituality to gospel tunes and highlighting the redemptive, healing power of soul classics. Steele and Pain perform everything from a sultry version of B. B. King’s “Rock Me Baby” to a sadly sweet “Phenomenal Woman,” featuring Steele’s daughters on backup vocals. Most impressively, the studio recording manages to capture the spontaneity and improvisation that energizes the duo’s live shows.
Until a few years ago, Steele said, “I hadn’t worked enough with Louis to know the tricks in his bag. He’s got a lot of references from different songs and progressions from different things he’s learned over the years, so it always makes it new.”
When Steele and Pain perform together, they don’t hew to a rigid script. Each brings a list of songs, they briefly compare notes, keys and tempos before show time — and then they just go for it. “Every time we’d do a song, it’d never be the same,” Steele said. “There was always something a little bit different about it. That’s what I love about working with Louis. The music is always alive.”
They both laughed, then Pain jumped in: “It’s a jazz sensibility,” he says. “You’re playing soul music, but improvising the arrangement. And keeping each other amused!” Portlanders got a taste of what Steele and Pain can do this summer, when they performed together in Pain’s King Louie’s Blues Revue at the Waterfront Blues Festival.
How the music went down on the 4th of the July at the Waterfront Blues Festival. Moving forward, the pair hopes to share their music with more people through the release of the album and through live performances coming in 2016. Steele in particular feels reinvigorated and “clearer about what I’m here to do.”
“When she hits the stage now, it’s another level,” Pain says. “Everyone hears it. I think you can hear it on that CD, too — the fun and the spirit.”
— Hilary Saunders for The Oregonian/OregonLive
King Louie and LaRhonda Steele Holiday Party
When: 8 p.m. Friday, Dec. 18
Where: Jimmy Mak’s, 221 N.W. 10th Ave., jimmymaks.com
Tickets: $12 at the door