Very few women seem to play bass, but Queen Sylvia Embry was a fine player who impressed Willie Dixon so much he sent her to Europe to play on the American Blues Festival tours. She also had an expressive, deep-toned Gospel voice that made her a hit on the Chicago club circuit, and was even more to the fore when she led her own band.
Sylvia Lee Barton was born in rural Arkansas in 1941 and learned to play piano as a girl, encouraged by her Gospel-loving grandmother. Her great voice got her hired by The Southern Echoes Gospel group and, when she was 19, she moved to Memphis to pursue a career as a singer. That did not work out, but she settled there, married, and started a family.
‘Wonder Why’ from Sylvia and Johnny’s album ‘After Work’;
Sylvia had also appeared at Willie Dixon’s Mississippi Blues Festival in Greenville, where she sang and played with Sam Myers, ‘Honeyboy’ Edwards and Robert Jr. Lockwood, which was released as an album and immortalised in a documentary film. Alligator Records also included four tracks with Sylvia leading her own band on their 1980 album ‘Living Chicago Blues Vol.6’, and she played the Delta Festival again the following year. The 1982 American Blues Festival tour of Europe had Queen Sylvia on the bill, making several TV appearances and contributing three tracks to the tour album, backed by Jimmy Rogers, Louisiana Red and Carey Bell. Again she was invited to go back next year as part of the Festival dedicated to the memory of the recently departed Muddy Waters. Around this time, Sylvia also began playing with West-side Chicago guitarist Jimmy Dawkins, touring widely, including Europe, to great acclaim, and Jimmy returned the compliment by appearing on Sylvia’s solo album ‘Midnight Baby’.