That the late Sara Jordan—Knoxville’s once-and-forever Queen of the Blues—wasn’t one to put on airs was evident in her casual bearing, in the way she would dress for a day at the house even when she was playing a night on the town.
“There were times we played gigs, big shows sometimes, and she never bothered to make a big thing out of what she wore,” remembers guitarist Labron Lazenby, who backed up Jordan for the better part of her career in Knoxville. “Just an old blouse and a skirt. She didn’t care; she just went up there and sang. She let her singing do the talking.”
Friends remember her as a self-effacing sort, in spite of her anointed status. She once told a reporter that her popular recognition as Queen of the Blues in Knoxville was mostly a matter of circumstance. “It’s by default,” she said. “There are women around who can sing. They’re just not singing the blues.”
A beloved blues scene fixture in Knoxville throughout the 1990s, Jordan died in 2001, taken away in the prime of her voice by complications from an asthma attack. Several of her Knoxville friends and fellow bluesmen will remember her at the Fifth Annual Sara Jordan Birthday Bash, Nov. 13 at Scruffy City Hall.
Though she was much-loved by many musicians in and around the city, Jordan always remained something of a mystery, even to those who knew her best. She came out as a professional singer late in the game, at a stage of life when many aspiring performers are leaving the long nights and stage lights behind for the responsibilities of adulthood.
Which isn’t to say that she was inexperienced as a performer. She cultivated her powerhouse voice from an early age, belting out deep gospel from choir lofts in Knoxville, and her native Wayne County, Kentucky.
She was often guarded about her past, but friends knew that the earlier half of her life had taken a rough trajectory. She had been homeless, for a time, and had battled alcoholism in her teens. “She was a big, good-looking black woman with a gutsy voice, so she looked the part,” says local blues promoter Michael Gill, a close friend of Jordan’s throughout the last years of her life.
“But she had lived it, as well. She had the difficulties and hardships. She hadn’t had an easy time of it.”
She channeled those hard times through the rugged medium of her powerful, singular voice. “Oh man, when I first heard her sing, it was like going back to church,” Lazenby remembers. “It wasn’t a pretty, angelic voice. She would rumble. It was nasty and badass. When she sang, it was like from a whole different part of her, like something that came from somewhere else.”
Local guitarist Jonathan Reynolds once said that, “Sara Jordan is a love goddess; she has a voice that’s eight feet wide.”
Jordan had her coming out party as a blues artist with a ‘90s Knoxville outfit known as the Delta Flyers. Longtime local blues guitar ace Michael Jordan says that her first show at the now-defunct Manhattan’s club in the Old City came as something of an epiphany, for performer and audience alike.
“She was overwhelmed with the reception we got,” Jordan says. “It was a shock for her, because she had always sang in a church. But in church, people don’t stand up and yell your name, which is what happened. She really turned their heads.”
In her years as a performer in Knoxville, Jordan fronted a host of local blues outfits, including the Delta Flyers, the Jordan Project, Mojo, and the aforementioned Sara Jordan and the Leftovers.
Her death in 2001 felt like a tragic mistake, leaving friends and admirers with a profound and ineffable sense of grief, and leaving the local blues scene untethered and adrift, having lost its mighty anchor. “It crushed me,” Lazenby says. “We were together all the time; we wrote songs together. It was like losing a mother and a sister all at once. It ripped my heart out.”
“If she were still alive today, the blues scene would be a lot different in Knoxville,” says Gill. “It took a big dive after she passed. There have been so many times where I said, wow, what if…
“She had such an authenticity about her. She added a grandness to the scene. She was the Real Deal. She was it.”
The Fifth Annual Sara Jordan Birthday Bash will take place Thursday, Nov. 13 at 7 p.m., with performances by Jenna and her Cool Friends, Leftfoot Dave, Rollin’ and Tumblin’, Roger Hay and the Romeo Kings, and many others.