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Peggi Blu on Singing with (and Cooking for) Bob Dylan
Bob turned and said, "Greens? You cooking greens?"
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Last month, I went song-by-song through Bob Dylan’s fascinating 1985 rehearsals for the first Farm Aid. It was the first time he ever played with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, for what was initially conceived as a one-off collaboration (they went on to tour together for two years).
But the song that most blew me away on that tape didn’t star Tom Petty. Here’s what I wrote about it:
Another duet, and this one not with his future-mother-in-law but with singer Peggi Blu. This is maybe the best part of the whole tape. He clearly took advantage of having these amazing Motown-steeped singers with him to do a song like “Then He Kissed Me” — for, again, the only time ever. In fact, Blu herself had sung this very song as part of a ‘70s incarnation of The Crystals. Wonder if Dylan knew that. He certainly doesn’t know most of the words. In this case, it looks like he’s following her as much as she’s following him.
So, naturally, I called up Blu herself to get the story!
Peggi Blu was only one of Dylan and Petty’s so-called “Queens of Rhythm” backing singers for a short time. By the time the full tour started in 1986, she was pursuing her own music career—she won Ed McMahon’s televised competition show Star Search that year. Other than Farm Aid, the only time she sang publicly with Dylan was at a 1986 Martin Luther King tribute concert (the same one I asked Noel Paul Stookey from Peter, Paul, and Mary about).
But she logged more studio time with him, singing backing vocals on Empire Burlesque, Knocked Out Loaded, and Down in the Groove. And, it turns out, even more time “off the clock.” She was close friends with Carolyn Dennis, Dylan’s backup-singer-turned-wife. Indeed, she was one of the few people who knew about their marriage at the time. Dylan would come to her house to practice in her studio—and to eat her cooking. He’s even godfather to her son. She tells me the story below.
But first, check out their “Then He Kissed Me” duet if you haven’t seen it:
How did you two first meet?
I was here in California doing The Wiz at the Ahmanson Theater. He was seeing a girlfriend of mine [Carolyn Dennis] who brought him to see the play. She introduced me to him after the play was over. We became friends that day, especially when we realized that we had the same birth month.
How did you figure out you had the same birth month on your first meeting?
Because it was my birthday. He said, "You are a May baby? Me too." We clicked right there, backstage in the dressing room. I was like, "Okay, you can be my brother."
How had you known Carolyn?
From the same show. She was a pit singer.
You know who else was? Cheryl Lynn. “Got to Be Real.” She and I sang side by side. In New Jersey, we had lived in the same apartment building. When she got her record deal, you should have heard her banging on my door. "Open the door, Blu! Open the door! I got to show you something."
When you first met Dylan, how aware are you of his music? Are you a fan? Is he just some guy you've heard of?
Oh no honey, I knew exactly who that was. I grew up with his songs. Child, please. How you hear a Bob Dylan song and not fall in love with that music?
What happens next? I know eventually you record with him. Is that soon after, or you're just friends for a while hanging out?
No, we were friends for a long time and still are. I was on the road so I couldn't record with him, but when I came off the road and he went into the studio, he was like, "Are you busy?" I said, "No." He said, "Yes you are. Because you're going to sing with me." [laughs] I was like, "Okay, I'm ready."
This would be, I'm guessing Empire Burlesque in 1985. You sang “Tight Connection to My Heart,” “Clean Cut Kid,” “Never Gonna Be the Same Again.”
What do you remember about being in the studio, singing those songs?
It was fun. He would lay down a little reference vocal, and he would just say to us, “Go sing.” Somebody had done what the background vocals were going to be; I didn't arrange that. He knew exactly what he wanted us to sing. We went in and did it, Carolyn Dennis and me and her mother [Madelyn Quebec]. It was devastatingly wonderful. I couldn't believe it. My mother couldn't believe it. "You singing with Bob Dylan?" I was like, "Yes, the same one you wouldn't allow me to listen to as a kid."
Is that true?
Yes, that's true. I wasn't allowed to listen to it.
My mother was saying, “Turn that radio off and go to sleep.” I would just say, "Yes ma'am,” and hide the radio under my pillow thinking that she couldn't see or hear it. She would say, "Take the radio out from under that pillow." I would be listening to “Mama He Treats Your Daughter Mean” by Ruth Brown. She was like, you can't listen to the blues. We only did gospel back then.
I grew up in North Carolina until I was a pre-teen; then we moved into New York. I was in the church choir. We had concerts at the Armory, this big, huge building. One day, oh God, I'll never forget this, there was a group from LA who came. I was supposed to be in bed, and my friend sneaked me out. He said, "Climb out the window. Throw your shoes to me." I did it not knowing that my mother was aware.
We [ended up] on stage singing and the place was a mess. Because they were standing up screaming, "Peggi, sing!”
All of a sudden the doors opened. My mother came in with three switches. She was going to spank me. When she saw what was going on, she broke those switches and threw them down and lifted her hands and said, “Thank you, Father, for my baby.”
After it was over, I got so scared. I said, "Mommy, I'm sorry." She said, don't be sorry because you just touched all these people in this building. She never bothered me again about what I was singing, because she knew it was real.
You’re talking about your gospel background. It's interesting at the time you started singing with Dylan he had a gospel background. He had just been singing his Christian songs only a few years before. Carolyn was singing with him on most of those gospel tours.
Probaby. ‘Cause baby, can she blow? Yes! Woo, she can sing.
What happens after this first session? It wasn’t very long between Empire Burlesque and Farm Aid. Do you remember how you heard about that?
When you work for Dylan, you don't think about any of that. They tell you where you're going and you just say, okay. They tell you how much you're going to be paid, where you're going, when the rehearsals are, and that's all. All we say is okay, and we get dressed and go.
Do you remember anything in particular about those rehearsals for Farm Aid, the ones that struck me on video all these years later?
Just that it was fun singing the music. I mean, you don't do anything but go to rehearsal, get in your place, get up on the floor, and do what you have to do. That's all.
I've talked to other people who've performed with him, and some people can be intimidated. Just in the video, you seem very confident. You look like you're having fun. You don’t seem nervous or shy.
Oh no, honey. No way.
When you're singing with somebody who you love as a person and who treats you like a human being and who respects your gifts, your talent, how can you be anything except grateful and have fun with it unless you're crazy?
Do you think that was part of it, that you did have this personal friendship already?
No, no. That had nothing to do with it because I was already in love with his music before I met him. I'm grateful that he even wanted me to sing with him. I mean, Bob Dylan, come on!
That's like when I got the phone call from Barbra Streisand and Burt Bacharach. These are people who you adore, admire, and just love for the music they do. So if they ask you to sing with them, what are you going to say except, “Where do you want me to be and what time do you want me to be there?”
I read somewhere that he and the Heartbreakers would come over and you would cook for them I guess at your house. Is that right?
Yes. Once in New Jersey—oh my God, it was so funny. I was cooking and all of a sudden my beeper starts in my apartment. It’s the doorman downstairs. He said, “Ms. Blu, there's some guy down here with a whole bunch of other folks. He says his name is Bob Dylan.” They wouldn't let him upstairs.
Probably didn't believe him.
He didn't believe him, because he didn't know who he was. I said, "He said his name is who?" He said, "Bob Dylan." I said, "Just hang on, I'll be right there." I got in that elevator and went downstairs and introduced him. The security guard almost fainted when he realized that the man was telling the truth. It actually was Bob Dylan.
Some of the band members, they had come with him. I said, "You about to spoil a dinner. I'm cooking collard greens." Bob turned and said, "Greens? You cooking greens?" I was like, "Yeah, I'm cooking greens. Only because you were coming."
They loved it. And then every time else he would come, [the security guard] was just like, "Oh, Mr. Dylan." He’d open that door.
When did you move out west?
I came out here in '86 when I won Star Search and got my record deal with Capitol Records thanks to Nick Ashford and Valerie Simpson.
Did he come by your place there too?
Bob was by my house a lot, because I had money enough, so I started a recording studio. I lived in four different places and every time I moved the studio got bigger. He would come over, and we'd just have fun. Honey, there's so many people who were in that studio doing stuff, but he would just show up. He didn't have to call. Just like, "I was in the neighborhood, so I stopped by." I would be like, "Come on in."
He would just rehearse stuff or work on stuff. He didn't record, because he had other places that he wanted to do that, but he would come and sit and have fun. If he was working on a song, he would just work on it there. He knew that he was safe because nobody was going to bother him. You couldn't get in without coming through the door and, if you weren't expected, you didn't come through the door! [laughs]
Do you have a sense of why he liked singing with backing singers? Before those gospel tours, that wasn't really something he did much, and then he kept doing it throughout the ‘80s.
It made it fuller and it was able to reach more people. He would sing something, we'd answer it in harmony, or we'd sing it with him in harmony, and it reaches people. He's a people-reacher. He loves to touch people. They're all like that. That's why when I was doing background, it was such a great experience, because they loved what we did and we loved what we did with them.
I said earlier how much fun it looks like you're having in the video, but I guess the other interesting thing is how much fun it looks like he's having. The weight of being “Bob Dylan” can sometimes seem slightly oppressive. It looks like he’s cast that off singing Crystals songs and “Louie Louie” with you all.
That’s what you do. When you're singing and there's an audience listening, you want to reach them and give them a reason to clap for you. You sing something that they recognize, and that they can sing along with too. That's just the most wonderful part of it all. You include everybody.
We did all of kinds of stuff. Whatever made you feel good and whatever make you feel happy, we did it.
Do you think he knew that you were with the Crystals? Was that why he sang “Then He Kissed Me.”
Yes, he knew. I was a Crystal, I was a Sandpebble, I was a whole bunch of stuff.
They did a big tour after Farm Aid with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers and some of the singers. Was Star Search why you didn't do the full tour?
After I did [Star Search], I was working on my own. I had my own band and my own shows, so I couldn't do it. I didn't think I could even be on Star Search because I had a record; I thought you had to be an amateur to go there. I had been in two gospel groups and we had records all over the place, but I had also done my MCA record, I Got Love.
One of the agents who booked Star Search was in my show in New York. I couldn't believe it. My friend told me, "There's a Star Search lady that came to your show." I said, "They're not going to do anything with me because I'm not an amateur. I'm a professional already. I have a name."
About a week later, I got a phone call from Ed McMahon. He said, "We want you on Star Search." I dropped the phone.
After you won Star Search and your career is blowing up, did you and Bob and Carolyn stay in touch?
Oh yes. We're still in touch. As a matter of fact, I just talked to Carolyn last week.
When they got married, there was a circle of secrecy around it. People other than you and personal friends didn’t find out for like 20 years. It’s impressive that no one went to the National Enquirer or something. That secret got kept.
Yes. There are certain things that, it's private. You keep your mouth shut.
He and I became really, really good friends, to the point that when I had my last child and I was almost dead and I was supposed to die, both of us, Bob showed up at the hospital and prayed. I made him my son Christopher's godfather.
I'm telling you, he's a beautiful person. He really is. He's a dear friend, and I will love him forever.
Thanks to Peggi Blu for taking the time to share her story! Keep tabs on what she’s up to at her website.