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Form Wealth Management

Making her mark in Blues

February 23, 2011 | 09:04 AM
With her flowing hair bouncing and her infectious smile filling with excitement, Geneva Red could barely sit in her chair at a local restaurant as she told story after story about the people she's met during her famed music career.

But, she wasn't boasting or trying to impress. She wasn't trying to garner attention from others in the restaurant. Instead, her stories seemed more like an unassuming thank you to everyone who has helped her along the way and a personal reminder that she will never let any of them down.

Those are all the reasons why Geneva Red probably is the most famous Lake Geneva resident you've never heard of.

Unless you're really into traditional, soulful blues music, you don't know her. But she has been mentioned among the world's leading blues harmonica players and has played in some of the most famous blues venues with the best blues players around.

Let's not forget she also takes her name from the city she's lived in for many years. Following in the same vein as Louisiana Red and Kocomo Arnold, Geneva Red used to be called Red by her fellow musicians.

"The name happened naturally through other players," she said. "They called me Red and then they found out where I was from and added it on. It stuck and I kept it. I am interviewed all the time all over the world and I tell them I live in Lake Geneva. I always tell them."

She said people, especially those in Lake Geneva, probably don't know that. Although she said she has a local fan base, people who are not into blues music or the harmonica don't know who she is.

They certainly don't know she's in the Encyclopedia of the Harmonica, has appeared on the covers of blues magazine or that a formal picture of her, an outfit, hat and harmonica are all in the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi, next to Muddy Waters' cabin.

"I believe the only other white woman in there is Bonnie Raitt," she said. "The fact that I've toured with some of the greatest blues players out there — people around here don't know that. The fact that I'm included in the Delta Blues Museum just blows my mind."

But, she wants everyone to know, there's always a piece of Lake Geneva with her at all times.

"I carry Lake Geneva everywhere I go," she said. "I talk about it and it will be with me forever. For the history of Lake Geneva, it's important to know there once was a little gal from Lake Geneva who made a big splash in a field dominated by men."

An unlikely rise

Geneva Red moved to Lake Geneva after high school. She grew up in McHenry where her family ran a theater troupe and she started performing at the age of 7.

But, one day, soon after she moved to Lake Geneva, she attended the Chicago Blues Festival. She admitted she had grown somewhat dissatisfied with the theater and the people she found there. Her parents were involved in the Woodstock Opera House and the Shady Lane Theater in Marengo.

They did everything from writing and directing to making costumes, creating the set and promoting the production.

"That was the day that changed my world and my focus," she said of the Chicago Blues Festival. "I loved performing, but I hadn't found my niche."

She found her soul all right — listening to the sounds of Koco Taylor and Lonnie Brooks.

"I was just blown away by how authentic and soulful they were," Red said. "So, I really jumped on that. It kind of changed my whole focus."

It wasn't long after Red heard the harmonica.

"I thought it was the coolest thing," she said.

Jack Wolworth, who had taken her to the blues fest, gave her an old harmonica. But, this isn't a perfect story.

Shortly after she started playing her new old harmonica, one of Red's lungs collapsed. She admits she didn't touch the harmonica for a year. But, the intrigue never went away.

Eventually, she picked it up again and had no lung problems again.

"I locked myself away for a couple of years," Red said. "People didn't see me going out anywhere at night. I was playing listening and researching."

Now she has two bands and makes her living as a musician.

She leads the two-piece group the Original Delta Fireballs. She said that group is becoming more popular. She plays the harmonica and sings, while Wolworth plays the drums, guitar and bass. Geneva Red and the Roadsters is her full band.

"If I am not playing, I'm not eating," she said. "I play all the time and travel all over."

In April, she leaves to join John Primer, one of the last guitarists to play with Waters, to head on tour in Canada. The pair met about 10 years ago at a blues bar in Pell Lake, Red said. She also has gone on tour with him in Mexico.

She said one of her greatest accomplishments in music was being on the cover of a blues magazine which cited her as one of the best harmonica players in the world.

"Those are some big shoes to fill and it really makes me work hard to try to live up to that," she said.

The magazine article and photo on the front included Red among the greatest living blues players near the gravesite of Sonny Boy Williamson. Red called him one of the greatest mouth harp players ever.

She is careful to talk about fame. Red said she's been "blessed" to experience what has happened in her life, but it has come with a tradeoff.

"I know I have established myself and am in the history books," she said. "I'm proud of that because I worked hard."

But, she also said it's good to come home to Lake Geneva.

"It is good to get way and come home," she said. "I have a huge fan base here who knows us."

Red said she loves to turn people onto the blues, the way she and the other legends play it.

One of the main blues songs is "Let the Good Times Roll," she said. "That's what real blues is. If you are playing and your hips aren't shaking, you're not playing it right. When you get real authentic players who know how to play a double shuffle, you cannot sit in your seat. You have to get up and move."

She admits not everyone plays like that in any music genre.

"There's some good music today and some pretty bad stuff," she said. "But, nothing has ever touched me like this. Even the slow Blues, it is soulful to tears. If it doesn't move you, you're not playing it right."

No matter where Red is, there's a good chance she's playing it right and people are enjoying her harmonica playing and vocals.

To Red, it doesn't really matter that she's probably the most famous person in Lake Geneva nobody's heard of. In a way, that's maybe the way she likes it.

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