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The Swamp Boogie QueenCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Webster, KatieKatie Webster was a hard-hitting blues and boogie-woogie pianist who earned her reputation as the "Swamp Boogie Queen" in the course of playing on well over 500 records as a session musician in the 50s and early 60s.
She was born Kathryn Jewel Thorne in Houston, Texas. Her birthdate is the source of some confusion, and is often cited as either 1 January or 1 September 1939, although some sources place it earlier, in 1936.
She was raised in a very strict religious atmosphere. Her father was a preacher and her mother a missionary, and permitted her to play only gospel and classical music on the family piano, which was locked up when she was not supervised. As is often the case, such repression only kindled her curiosity about secular music, and a secretly owned radio fed her a clandestine diet of blues, jazz, rhythm and blues and pop music.
By the age of 13, she was travelling the Texas-Louisiana circuit with a jazz band. She went to live with more liberal relations in Louisiana at the age of 15, where she met and married pianist Earl Webster. Guitarist and singer Ashton Savoy recruited her to play on a record, which brought her to the attention of local record producers.
She quickly established herself as a mainstay of the studio scene, working in particular with producers J.D. Miller in Crowley, Louisiana, and Eddie Shuler in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She accompanied dozens of blues and pop singers, including Lonnie Brooks (known as Guitar Junior), Lazy Lester, Slim Harpo, Lightnin' Slim, Clifton Chenier and Phil Phillips (whose big hit, Sea of Love, remained in Webster's own repertoire throughout her career), and racked up several hits in her own right.
The pianist led her own band, The Uptighters, throughout this period, and was playing at the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles in 1964 when she came to the notice of singer Otis Redding. Her powerful left hand rhythms and rock-steady time made a profound impression on the rising soul star, and he immediately signed her up to join his entourage.
She both opened his show and played in his band for the next three years, but was on maternity leave at the time of the fatal air crash which killed the singer, by then a major international star. Devestated by the loss and wrapped up in family affairs, she spent most of the following decade raising her daughter and caring for her elderly parents in California.
She returned to the music scene in the early 80s, when she was invited to make her first tour of Europe in 1982, an experience she repeated on an annual basis until she suffered a stroke in 1993 which impaired her vision and limited her use of her crucial left hand. It severely curtailed her activities, although she continued to make occasional appearances in blues festivals in the USA even after that misfortune.
Her exhuberant two-handed piano style and soulful vocals made her a favourite on the blues circuit, and she gave workshops and demonstrations of boogie-woogie piano techniques in schools and colleges. She recorded several albums, initially for the Arhoolie label, and then for the Chicago-based Alligator Records. Her debut for the latter label in 1988, The Swamp Boogie Queen , featured guest appearances by Bonnie Raitt and Robert Cray, and she went on to record two more albums, Two-Fisted Mama! and No Foolin' , prior to her stroke.
Katie Webster died of heart failure at her home in League City, near her native Houston.