Diunna Greenleaf & Blue Mercy
While following in the footsteps of many Texas blues greats, Houston’s Diunna Greenleaf has her own distinctive style, an intense yet playful combination of gospel, jazz, R&B, and soul. Equal parts tremendous power and passion, her voice is also capable of subtlety and nuanced inflections. As she puts it, “If you are a Texas singer, you need to be able to sing strong and clear—people need to understand what you are saying when you’re up there. But you also need to be able to sing soft and pretty.”
Greenleaf didn’t have to venture far from home to discover music. Her father Ben was a gospel singer and vocal coach whose clients included Sam Cooke. Her mother Mary Ella ran a café, Miss Mary’s Place, where visiting musicians like B. B. King would hang out. “People ran to Houston for the music back in the day,” says Greenleaf, pointing out a legacy that started with pioneering singer Victoria Spivey and continued with the Duke/Peacock label and the African American music venues and churches that thrived on Houston’s Lyons Avenue.
It wasn’t until Greenleaf had reached middle age that the rest of the world discovered her, thanks to a first place showing with her band Blue Mercy at the 2005 International Blues Challenge. That helped kickstart a career on the European blues circuit where she’s known as the “People’s Queen of the Blues.” In 2014, she took home the Koko Taylor Award (for best traditional blues female artist) at the Blues Music Awards.
A series of recordings have shown Greenleaf to be a songwriter willing to venture outside of the usual blues lyric terrain. “With Blue Mercy we do blues songs that I’ve written and that are personal and from a woman’s point of view,” she says. “I simply write about what I see, what I hear, and what I know. I can only be me.” A social worker by training, she also sees the links between music and counsel, whether that’s comfort in the moment of a performance or taking an active role through her work with Blues in Schools Program or as a past president of the Houston Blues Society, the first woman to ever hold that position.
After she was hit hard by pandemic tour cancellations, 2022 finds Greenleaf on the rebound. She was nominated for another Koko Taylor Award and is releasing her first record in a decade, I Ain’t Playin’. The recording features her own originals, songs from fellow Texas blues artists like Long John Hunter and Johnny Copeland, and a reflection of her spiritual side with the Civil Rights anthem “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free.” Greenleaf remains committed to the blues: “Any modern American music that you hear, blues is the mother. And you shouldn’t throw away your mama!”
Forming a tight complement to Greenleaf’s powerhouse vocals are the members of the Blue Mercy band: guitarist Cristiano Chochemore, bassist Jelando Johnson, and drummer Galvan Moolchan.