Hard Times Ring Sweet in the Soulful Words of Singer-Songwriter-Author Laura Love, Daughter of the Late Jazz Man, Preston Love Sr.
As a journalist I knew the late Omaha jazz musician Preston Love Sr. fairly well, but I didn’t know about his daughter, Laura Love. By the time I learned of her, Preston was gone. My work as a journalist and the relationship I had with her father led me to Laura, whom I first got to know through her autobiography. Then I heard her music. Then I interviewed her, by phone, and I felt as if I’d known her all along. Like her father, she’s an immensely talented musician and author.
My story about her appeared in a somewhat truncated form in The Reader (www.thereader.com). I offer it here because I would like to introduce more people to her and her work.
Hard Times Ring Sweet in the Soulful Words of Singer-Songwriter-Author Laura Love, Daughter of the Late Jazz Man, Preston Love Sr.
©by Leo Adam Biga
A version of this story appeared in a 2006 issue of The Reader (www.thereader.com).
Hard times never sounded so sweet as sung by Laura Love, the Seattle jazz-folk-R & B-gospel fusion artist whose bittersweet Nebraska past informs her soulful work.
The singer-songwriter-bass player was born and raised in Lincoln, along with her sister Lisa. The girls did part of their growing up in Omaha. Meanwhile, their single mother, Wini Jones, a lithe, sophisticated, swing-era big band singer-turned social worker, bounced around as mad as the March Hare. Paranoia gripped her. Between psych ward stays, undergoing electric shock treatments, her sanity wavered. Her young daughters awaiting the next breakdown. There were attempted suicides. Once, heeding the voices inside her head, she readied herself and the girls to hang themselves before the family cat interrupted the proceedings.
“A lot of the things she did were irrational, illogical, but when you’re a kid you go, ‘Oh, that’s just Mom.’ You don’t necessarily have a label for it. You don’t necessarily notice it as a pathology or a psychotic reaction,” Love said. “You just know that it’s really damaging. Then you get good at gauging where it’s going and when it’s going to come on — what’s going to trigger it.”
From the 1960s to the mid-1970s, the sisters flitted in and out of foster care homes as their mother went in and out of mental hospitals. With Wini unable to hold a job for long, bills piled up and creditors hounded them. Living on the edge, the family rarely stayed in one place more than a few months. Amid the dysfunction and chaos, they improvised a survival strategy that somehow staved off fatal disaster.
Just when Laura and Lisa staked their independence as teens, they discovered the father they’d been told was dead was alive. His name — Preston LoveSr. Omaha’s ebullient jazz icon. He’d been a sideman with Count Basie and played with scores of other legends. He’d hired Wini to front his touring band in the late ‘50s and the married man with kids had an affair with his lead singer. Laura and Lisa were the result. It was not his first affair and the girls were not the only children he sired out of wedlock. As if that wasn’t mind-blowing enough, Laura, then a budding musician, found a man who looked and sounded just like herself, yet whose cavalier attitudes about fatherhood challenged her ideas of Daddy Dearest.
“At 16 I’d lived my whole life not having a father. And when you don’t have one you make up the perfect father,” said Love, who found hers didn’t share her storybook fantasies. “Meeting him was just such a huge deal to me and I was so sure it would be for him, too. I just longed and yearned to have this family connection with him and to really understand who he was. It was a life changing experience for me and it took me many years to realize it wasn’t the same experience for him.”
That first meet came in 1976 at Lincoln’s Zoo Bar, where Preston was performing. She saw an item in the local paper about the return of the veteran musician to the area music scene after years heading up Motown’s west coast band. The name was the same but could this possibly be the same man whom her mother said died in a car accident? When she approached him after a set to inform him she thought she was his daughter, he confirmed it. They spoke at length and saw each other more times over the years. Lisa met him, too. Laura even sat in to sing with Preston and his band on stage. Once, he dedicated the classic ballad “Laura” to her when she surprised him by walking in unannounced to see him perform in a London club that was part of one of his many European tours. “That was sweet,” she said.
He offered no apology for his wicked ways. He rationalized it as rites-of-passage for men on the road. Laura couldn’t square such nonchalance with his warm persona.
“As affable and good-natured and smart and talented as he was,” she said, “he really didn’t have any sense of responsibility for me whatsoever. He had an incredible distance and familiarity at the same time. He was so accessible and inaccessible, just a walking contradiction. He never denied me access to him, but I never really got access to him either, unless I sought him out. We never didn’t get along, it’s just that we didn’t have a great connection either. He was just kind of a happy-go-lucky guy that went through life sort of hedonistically, doing what he pleased. On the one hand, it was a cool way to live your life and on the other hand there was this kind of trail of carnage left.”
Preston Love Sr.
The times she reached out to him posed problems for Preston, his wife Betty and the family. Betty made it clear Laura and Lisa were unwelcome at the Love home. A few years ago Laura was touring with The Temptations when Preston was booked to serve as the band leader for the group’s Omaha concert. It was a gig he’d handled before. As Love tells it, “At the last moment he begged off and took another gig…because it was a very sore subject with Betty that I was in existence, that I was in the world. It was their agreement to sort of ignore that. Her agreement, I think, with him was, I don’t like it, but if you’re going to do it, don’t put it in my face. So, in order to be respectful to her, he just bailed out…”
Despite feeling unappreciated here, Preston was undeniably a big fish in this small pond. He didn’t want a scandal to sully his name. He was a major presence by virtue of the steady gigs he performed locally, the long-running music column, “Love Notes,” he wrote for the Omaha World-Herald, the public radio jazz program he hosted for years on KIOS-FM and the many talks he gave about jazz as a visiting artist and lecturer. An opinionated and brilliant man, he spoke frankly and eloquently about black music and would not hesitate to call out or slam musicians he felt disrespected the art form. He was also an oft-quoted observer of the north Omaha scene. He wore well the term “legend” so often attached to him.
By 2000, Preston was pushing 80. Back in Omaha he basked in the glowing reviews of his 1998 book, A Thousand Honeycreeks Later, while in Seattle she enjoyed breakout success in her own career. After a period when they spoke very little, he began pressing her to come visit him in Omaha. In 2002, she did. Preston, his wife Betty and their children Norman, Richie and Portia were there. It came just in time, too, as Preston fell ill in 2003 and passed away the next year.
“It was a very sweet gathering. I enjoyed everyone’s company so much. They were warm and generous and loving to me. It was a great experience to have before he died,” Love said. His death came months before the release of her own acclaimed memoir and companion CD, You Ain’t Got No Easter Clothes (Hyperion Books and KOCH Records), which focus on her Nebraska odyssey. Chapters correspond to songs. References to north Omaha’s ghetto include Sacred Heart School, where she and Lisa went, and the Spencer Street Barbershop, where they took refuge from bullies under the watch of resident poet-barber-philosopher Ernie Chambers.
She bravely revisits her perilous early years in clear, simple prose and lyrics. Despite all she went through, Love’s words soar with a wry, forgiving tone that avoids any of the woe-is-me self-pity that she would have been justified expressing.
“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I do really feel grateful for those experiences now. I see people growing up now that don’t have nearly the resources I had. I mean, I had a really hard life growing up, but my mother, crazy as she was, gave me the tools to have a good life. She introduced me to reading and literature and musicals. If you can read, you can go anywhere and you can leave any horrible circumstances, at least for that time. I look at kids I know now that have no idea how to live in the world or how to cope with adversity or have no interest in reading and are intellectually impoverished. Or, kids that have been really well taken care of financially but have no rudder — no sense of how to do anything.
“So, one of the things I really treasure now is that even though we were really poor and had these really humbling and humiliating experiences my sister and I were also — through living in foster homes and all-white neighborhoods — exposed to how the other half lives. It’s kind of one of those, If-you-can-see-it, you-can-be-it, things. We understood there weren’t people living the way we were living. They were all around us. Some of them were our friends. We understood we had things in common with very poor and very wealthy people. We understood, especially living with a bipolar person, one day can be bad and the next can be just a blast.”
The irony, she said, is that her sense of La Dolce Vita mirrors that of her father, who emerged a bon vivant even though he came from a poor single-parent home himself. Preston was one of 11 children raised by Mexie Love in a ramshackle house jokingly called “the mansion.” He didn’t meet his father until he was a young man.
“I think a part of my basic personality is a lot like Preston’s,” Love said, “in that I just feel like life is good, and if today sucks tomorrow might be just incredibly fun.”
After two years at UNL, Love left Nebraska at 20 to follow a guitar player named LeRoy, whose band she sang in. Years later, she confronted her past in her work when fans encouraged her to expand on the rough childhood she alluded to in the liner notes of her early records. Mining that past proved healing.
“The whole experience was incredibly cathartic for me,” she said. “I remember I would just sit there, pour myself a shot of whiskey and start typing on the computer and start getting into the story. There were times I was almost scared to start writing because I’d left off at a place that was still painful or I was coming up to a place that was painful and I had to finish the story and to examine deeply how I felt and look back at what happened. Then I’d put the computer away and I’d get out the tape recorder and there I was again, having to think about it in a different way as I put it down lyrically in some way that made sense and evoked some kind of emotion. So, before the catharsis there was pain.”
Leaving Nebraska years earlier was cathartic for her in a similar way. She said getting away can be a healthy thing, even if you venture into uncharted waters as she did in the Pacific Northwest, where she and LeRoy no sooner arrived than broke up, leaving her to figure out a future alone.
“I think one of the things you need to do is leave comfort to challenge yourself. It wasn’t very nurturing or comfortable for me when I first got out to Portland and then to Seattle. It was hostile. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have an advanced degree or anything. It made me have to dig deep and look for a job, look for a friend. I just like hit the pavement as far as music went.”
Left high and dry in Portland, Love clung to one truth. “I didn’t know if I was going to have a career in music but I knew I absolutely needed it in my life.”
She scoured local papers “looking for anyone who was jamming” or “might possibly have gigs.” Again, she pushed beyond her comfort zone. “I got into sort of a funk garage band. It made me step put of myself and establish friendships with people and do things normally I’m not that great at, like being social. I was in a little Pop 40 band for a minute called Desire. It really is a huge education to go out there and just try to find people who are where you are musically or just a little bit further.”
Fixing on who she was as an expressive artist proved daunting. “I didn’t know what kind of music I really wanted to do. I mean, I was really drawn to jazz as well as funk as well as folk and pop music, and so to find out what I wanted to do I had to keep finding out what I didn’t want to do,” she said. Being African-American, she’s struggled with others’ expectations of what music she should or should not make.
“Oh, yeah, constantly. When I was kind of dabbling in funk music, we did a couple gigs in some black establishments and I just remember being stared at by the crowd and them thinking I wasn’t black enough. There’d be like dead silence after every tune. It was a really good band, too, but we only had three black people, including myself, and the rest were white. I remember saying, ‘We’re going to take 10 minutes and we’ll be right back,’ and this woman yelled out, ‘Hell, take twenty.’”
Confusing the matter even more is the fact many people “can’t quite tell often if I’m black, so they can’t quite tell what I should be playing. People always ask me, ‘What are you?’ I think one of the reasons they ask is they want to infer or have some notion about what I should be playing.”
The pull of music not deemed black still tugs at her.
“Even now, I’m just really, really loving bluegrass music, and there’s not a lot of black folks in bluegrass music. And folk music — you don’t run into a lot black people there. So, at times I have a little identity crisis there, thinking I don’t fit cleanly into any genre. Because I like so many, I have never really settled on a genre. I just write what feels good to me and sounds good to me.”
Those diverse roots set her richly-layered music apart.
“Yeah, I think it’s my strength and my curse sometimes that I love all kinds of music. When I write a song it’s like there’ll be bluegrass and folk and funk and jazz in it. And I love to do that. It’s not like I consciously seek out all these influences — they’re just in me. I listened to all kinds of music growing up in Nebraska. Radio was so much better in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I remember listening to WOW Radio in Omaha and KFOR in Lincoln and hearing this huge array of music. You’d hear James Brown and then Joni Mitchell, and it wasn’t like insulting to your intelligence. It didn’t occur to DJs and programmers back then that you couldn’t like folk because you liked rap or that you couldn’t like R & B because you liked country.”
Music labels prefer specialization to eclecticism, as she found in her dealings with Mercury Records, whom she was signed to for awhile.
“Particularly when you’re on a major label, they really want you to fit cleanly into a genre and kind of push you into that. And I think there is a lot of frustration among the labels about — What radio stations are going to play this?”
Her maturation as an artist coincided with her move to Seattle in the mid-’80s.
“I fell smack dab in the middle of the grunge scene, which is great, because I really wanted to learn how to play an instrument and with grunge you didn’t really have to know how to play an instrument, you just kind of had to have one. I remember buying a bass and getting a gig really before I even knew how to play it.”
Devoted to teaching herself to play, she made ends meet growing and selling pot.
“I bought a lot of records and I learned how to play with them. I listened to how the bass lines worked inside these records and things like that. I’m an ear player, but I had a lot of time on my hands to kind of figure things out.”
Her musical voice emerged in the process.
“The early ‘90s is when I really started putting down chords and melodies and writing my own music and that’s when I really started to define what I wanted to hear as my own sound. To some extent, it was limited by my ability to play guitar or bass and to play and sing at the same time. So, I was somewhat defined by my limitations as well as my broad musical experiences.”
Love said she writes when the mood “hits me,” adding she doesn’t have the “this-is-a job” discipline artists in music cities like L.A. or Nashville exhibit. However laidback she appears, she concedes to business realities. “Occasionally I write songs just for the fun of it and just because a melody hits me or something like that, but I have to have the motivation of a record deal to write songs.”
She’s musing over a possible new album that would mix original songs with her renditions of such beloved American tunes as “This Land is Your Land,” “Shenandoah,” “John Henry,” “Erie Canal,” “Red River Valley” and “Five Hundred Miles.” She feels these American classics are unfairly maligned or ignored. “They’re profound and incredibly powerful songs. Just beautiful songs. Just because we learn them when we’re younger doesn’t mean they have no value.” This project comes on the heels of her writing eight songs for a new musical, No Boundary, that premiered in New York.
With the success of her book and her music, she’s in a good place professionally. Her touring finds her playing festivals and clubs from coast to coast. More importantly, she’s in a good place emotionally. She shares a house with three other women — her partner Pam, her manager Mary McFaul and her sister Lisa. In 2002 Laura and Pam became foster parents to a baby, Chrsity, they’ve since adopted.
Her realization she is gay took time.
“Well, you know, as I got older I realized I like boys and I like girls, but I really, really like girls,” she said, laughing. “I’ve had a few really serious, long-term relationships with men. I was engaged a couple times actually. I just never quite felt comfortable there. I’ve jusr realized in my adult years that my deepest partnerships and connections were with women. I ended up falling in love with a woman who was actually dating the same man I was dating.” That was 20-odd years ago. She and her current partner Pam have been together nine years.
Laura’s mother is still alive. After years of separation, Love moved her out west and built a home for her. Untreated, Wini’s mental state worsened. One crisis after another convinced Love “I’d bitten off more than I could chew.” When asked to voluntarily commit herself Wini resisted but finally relented. Since being put on the newest psychotropic drugs, she’s thrived in a group home setting. “She’s very happy there. She’s very able to be regal and queenly and above it all,” Love said.
The specter of mental illness is something “I often think about,” Love said. Referring to her and her sister Lisa, she added, “We’re both prone to depression and despair and those kinds of things. I don’t know whether those things are learned or genetic. But, you know, I find my responses to things sometimes very much mirror my mother’s. I just have more coping strategies than my mother ever did.” Lisa is also doing fine, having just been accepted into an RN program.
Wini “doesn’t know of” her daughter’s book. “She’s in this isolated community there and I don’t want her to know of it,” Love said. “I just think it would hurt her because she’s never admitted to having any mental illness at all.”
What Love’s father would have made of her book is a mystery to her, except she notes, “He didn’t really do guilt, so I don’t think he would have felt guilty.”
For a long time she harbored hard feelings toward him, dismayed by the blase way in which he held her. She’s since come to terms with it all. “You know, he did what he could. He did what he was capable of,” she said. She’s even come to the point where, she said, “I’m grateful for the independence and autonomy his absence fostered in me. In the small amount of time I spent with him in my life, I never really heard him complain about his own deprivation. He never bemoaned his own fate. You just do. You realize your life is what you do with it.”
She did not attend his funeral. He died in 2004 after a long illness. His wife Betty is also deceased. Love maintains an awkward relationship with her half-brothers Norman and Richie and her half-sister Portia. She’s never met another half-brother, Preston Love, Jr., who’s recently returned to Omaha.
“I talked to him when he was in the hospital and kind of made my last peace with him and told him I loved him,” she said. “You know, I did not have that really big a connection to him in life other than he was my father and…I just thought it would be an odd thing to have people coming up to me offering me their condolences. I was one of his children biologically, but not really in day to day life.”
She regrets not having got to know him better but feels he’s a part of her, from the way she looks to the way she holds court on stage. “It’s funny because now that I make my living at music I see so many similarities in my performance to his, as far as being happy and talking to people and feeling very fortunate to be able to do all this. He would play some of the most beautiful ballads and play them with such soul but still this underlying playfulness, and I’m very much like that, too.”
Again, not unlike her dad, she’s apt to say politically incorrect things. While he rarely did on stage, she makes a habit of it, enjoying, as she describes it, a “definite free-association, stream-of-consciousness kind of thing going on there.” She proudly proclaims her Green Party sympathy and anti-Republican antipathy, using the stage as a kind of platform for her beliefs. Airing her political views has cost her work, she said. “Sometimes I wish I could suck the words back up into my head.” Still, she added, “it’s kind of a game to see how many ways you can screw The Man. It makes life more interesting and more fun.”
All of her CDs can be found at www.LauraLove.net.
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Author-journalist-blogger Leo Adam Biga resides in his hometown of Omaha, Nebraska. He writes newspaper-magazine stories about people, their passions, and their magnificent obsessions. He's the author of the books "Alexander Payne: His Journey in Film – A Reporter's Perspective 1998-2012," a compilation of his journalism about the acclaimed filmmaker, and "Open Wide" a biograpy of Mark Manhart. Biga co-edited "Memories of the Jewish Midwest: Mom and Pop Grocery Stores." His popular blog, leoadambiga.wordpress.com, is an online gallery of his work.
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