Valerie Johnson and Albert Ingram, a husband/wife duo, sing and play around San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties in a variety of settings and groups. They perform blues, jazz, Dixieland, gospel, swing, and rock ‘n’ roll.
The Nipomo couple performs as duo Valerie Johnson and Al B Blue. The name Al B Blue arose from their singing the blues and Al’s childhood nickname of “Alby.” They also perform in Valerie Johnson and her King Bees, in the Valerie Johnson Quartet, with the Cliffnotes, and as members of the Creole Syncopators.
At the Red Dirt Coffee House in Arroyo Grande, I was treated to a personal performance by Val and Al.
She belted out a song called “Hesitation Blues” in Janis Joplin style and played washboard while Al made his guitar sing. Staff and patrons of the Red Dirt came over to see what was going on, asking who these incredible performers were.
In addition to performing, Val and Al visit schools and present Blues for Kids interactive workshops. “We wanted to have a way for kids to be able to experience music. ... We tell a little bit about what the blues is,” Valerie explained.
They begin with the slave ships, where the blues probably started. They go on to teach about slaves on plantations — where songs were based on everyday situations — and how they felt.
Slaves started hollering across the fields. It was called “field holler” — a call and response. Val and Al do this with the school kids. They love it.
Many songs the slaves sang included secret messages. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” for example, would be sung when a slave was covered by brush in a wagon and smuggled to freedom. “Wade in the Water” was sung to tell the person to go to the river, where dogs couldn’t pick up human scent.
The couple then follows the blues into the 20th century, and they end their workshop with a hands-on instrumental free-for-all. The kids try out guitars, washboards, kazoos and diddley bows — a string mounted on a board, which is how B.B. King got started. The kids then compose their own song as a group.
Al was born in New Jersey and started playing the piano at 7 or 8. “There was always music in the house,” he said. His grandma and her friends sang gospel music. At 18, Al joined the Air Force, where he played guitar. In L.A. in the ’70s, he played with Big Black, who had played with Hugh Masekela.
Val “grew up all over,” as her dad was in the Air Force. She graduated from high school in Lompoc. She toured as a singer with Big Brother and the Holding Company, where Janis Joplin got started.
A major health issue slowed Val down in December, but now she is getting back into the routine of doing shows and schools with Al.
Four shows coming up
- May 1, 6:30 p.m., Bon Temps Creole Café in San Luis Obispo, Cinco de Gumbo,Valerie Johnson Quartet
- May 3, 7:30 p.m., SLO Down Pub in Arroyo Grande, Val & Al & the Cliffnotes
- May 25, 7 p.m., Shell Beach Café in Pismo Beach, Val & Al & the Cliffnotes
- June 5, 6:30 p.m., Bon Temps Creole Café, Janis Joplin Show, Valerie Johnson Quartet