“I’ve managed to make a career doing what I damn well please, musically,” Janiva Magness says.
It should go without saying. Anyone who has ever heard Magness sing—live or on any the baker’s dozen of releases she has put out since coming on the scene twenty-six years ago—can immediately predict that this is a strong, resilient, commanding woman in masterful control of her voice and her destiny, if not always her heart. In the space between the notes, you can hear a performer who has survived a difficult life by anyone’s measure to become one of the top blues vocalists of her generation. She is only the second woman, after blues legend Koko Taylor, to win the Blues Music Awards’ coveted B. B. King Entertainer of the Year award.
A seven-time Blues Music Award winner, Magness has more than earned her right to sing the blues. Her life story comes straight out of a blues song. As she recounts in her soon-to-be-published memoir, she was born in Detroit, Michigan, and among the fondest memories of her childhood were the sounds of her father’s blues and country record collection.
Childhood was short-lived for Magness, however; as an adolescent, she lost both parents to suicide. She spent the next several years bouncing around the foster care system, a traumatic experience that inspired her adult advocacy involvement with a variety of foster care programs. As a young woman, her life was seemingly spiraling out of control. She was saved one night in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when, underaged, she snuck into a show by bluesman Otis Rush. She started down the path of a music career, working as a recording engineer before being coaxed out in front of a microphone as a backup singer and finally forming her own group in Arizona.
Since then, Magness’s life has not been without its downs, including the deaths of many close to her and the dissolution of a long-term marriage. But she has persevered. Recently remarried to English bluesman T. J. Norton, she has continued her steady progression up the career ladder.