Gwen Avery, an African American lesbian musician who influenced the women’s music movement, died January 31 at Sutter Hospital in Santa Rosa. She was 70.
The cause of death was complications due to surgery, said her friend and former partner Pier Macrae.
Ms. Avery was best known for her composition “Sugar Mama,” which was featured on Olivia Records’ groundbreaking collection, Lesbian Concentrate, in 1977. Originally slated to release a solo album on Olivia, she toured with her label mates Linda Tillery and Mary Watkins on the Varied Voices of Black Women Tour, which also featured poet Pat Parker and Vicki Randle providing supporting vocals and percussion.
Tillery, a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and producer, praised Ms. Avery.
“Gwen Avery was an authentic blues and gospel singer,” Tillery said in a statement. “She was raised in a juke joint, where from an early age, she heard first hand, the sounds of Black Troubadours weaving tales of love, passion, frustration and pleas to God – any god, for release from Jim Crow, segregation, and the horrible legacy of racism in America.”
Ms. Avery stood apart in the women’s music movement: a woman of color who understood the connection between her grandmother’s juke joint and the women’s music movement of which Olivia Records was at the center.
Ms. Avery was quoted as saying, “I dressed differently. I would wear satin suits and platform shoes with an Afro with neckties and beautiful silk shirts. They were wearing plaid shirts and blue jeans.”
About 12 years ago, Ms. Avery said in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that the same issues of race and classism that confounded the early feminist and gay rights movements also infected the women’s music scene. Olivia Records “broke her heart,” she said.
Her solo album never came to be via Olivia Records, but she continued to work on the road until her debut solo album, Sugar Mama , was released independently in 2001.
Judy Dlugacz, founder and president of Olivia, said in a statement that Ms. Avery was one of the “truly great blues singers of our time.”
“In the tradition of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith a strong fearless woman with a soulful/sexy message. How crazy to try and critique Gwen Avery. She was as real and as brilliant as truly great artists are. We will miss her,” Dlugacz said.
Tillery said that Ms. Avery’s unique style was her hallmark.
“Lesbian yes, black woman yes, real-deal soulful singer, yes. Yet I wonder how many people really understood her gift?” Tillery said. “You would have had to listen to Bessie Smith, Ma Rainey, and Mahalia to recognize the ‘time stamp’ that marked her unique style. She became the ‘Sugar Mama’ of women’s music, no longer a prisoner of love denied but a champion of love out in the open – raw and unashamed. That was her gift to us all.”
Singer-songwriter and activist Holly Near said she has fond memories of Ms. Avery.
“Gwen was bigger than life. Well, maybe just bigger than my life,” Near said in a statement. “I had never met anyone like her before. I had to fill up to my fullest self to meet her head on. She would bear hug me, her big laugh exploding in my ear and it was terrifying and terrific all at once. She laughed and poked fun and would catch my eye to make sure we were still good. We were. Teresa Trull and I and maybe others, I don’t remember, sang back up for her on her classic ‘Sugar Mama.’ I don’t know if she used my part. I was the wrong gal for the job. But she wasn’t.”
Near said the song is one of her favorites.
“Many years later, I went to hear Gwen at a dive out in the little river town of Guerneville, California. As I sat at a funky table sipping a beer, I wondered how she was going to pull it off. How do you sing to a talking, distracted, drinking crowd of old hippies, bikers, and meth dealers. But she started to sing and all that fell away. I don’t remember all those other people at all. Just Gwen singing. Singing ‘Sugar Mama’ to me.”
Terry Baum, a lesbian activist who has run for various political offices in San Francisco, said she was in the process of making a documentary about Ms. Avery.
“And now Gwen has died and gone to heaven,” Baum said in a eulogy on her blog. “I don’t know if there really is a heaven, but I do hope that Gwen’s soul has found peace. She rarely found peace outside of music when she was in this world. Oh, Gwennie, there is still so much I wanted to do with you. … I’ll finish the full-length documentary now. I promise.”
Ms. Avery spent the last decade of her life performing in the Russian River region, bridging the gap between the blues and gospel, continuing to thrill audiences with her distinct interpretation of the rich heritage of black music.
Ms. Avery is survived by a brother, James.
Macrae said that two memorials are planned. The Main Street Station in Guerneville, where Ms. Avery performed over the last few years, will have a memorial later this month or in March. In April, a memorial is planned at the Montclair Women’s Cultural Arts Club in Oakland.