Jill West was one of those musicians who lived the double life.
By day, she was an operating room nurse, first at UPMC Presbyterian and then Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.
On night and weekends, she worked the clubs as a dynamic blues and R&B belter billed as the “Queen of Pittsburgh Blues.”
Ms. West, of Elliot, died Thursday after a long battle with cancer. She was 68.
“She was as close as we get in Pittsburgh to the real deal,” said Ron Esser, owner of the Blawnox blues club Moondog’s. “She exemplified that. She was a great singer, a great performer, a great bandleader.”
“She was a true professional who knew how to lead a band,” added guitarist Jimmy Adler, who worked with her in the mid-’90s.
Ms. West grew up in Elliot and began performing in the mid-’70s, singing a variety of styles in a wedding band called Shylock while also performing with such prestigious local musicians as jazz trombonist Harold Betters and Rodney McCoy and the Silk Band.
In Jazzmin, a quartet with three singers and a keyboardist, she performed easy-listening music.
It was all a precursor to her discovery of the blues. That happened in the mid-’80s, when she was asked to sing with local musician Bob Beach.
“She started coming out to see us. She liked what she was hearing. She thought she could sing that kind of stuff -— and she could,” Beach said. “Eventually, we started doing all the shows with her.”
She had to go to the record store, she told the Post-Gazette in 2001, to figure out what blues was.
In the racks, she found Koko Taylor's "Live From Chicago: An Audience With the Queen," and there was no looking back.
"That's all, she wrote. That's the only thing I wanted to play," Ms. West said.
At the same time, she noted, "I am not a blues woman. I have been very comfortable my entire life. My man wasn't beating me and stealing my money — I didn't have any of those terrible things."
Her first venture into the genre was with the Bob Beach Blues Band, which doubled as American Music, a group that played classic rock, depending on what the club wanted.
In 1991, she took the reins of the Hell Hounds, a hard-edged Pittsburgh band that featured guitarist Don Hollowood of Hollowood Music and Ron “Bird” Foster from the Silencers.
Over the next several years, the Hell Hounds would evolve into Jill West and the Blues Attack, one of the city’s premier blues acts. The Hell Hounds have the honor of opening for such legends as Koko Taylor, Buddy Guy, Bo Diddley and B.B. King, and in 2006 placed third at the International Blues Competition in Memphis.
Mr. Esser said was Ms. West knew how to take charge of a situation.
“Jill West made it very clear that when Jill West was in the room and it was her gig, it was her gig. It might have been your club, it might have been your event, but it was her gig, and she was the boss. And everyone respected her.”
The Blues Attack released several albums of original songs and covers, including “Faceful of Blues” and “Headline Blues.”
When she wanted to be with her ladies, Ms. West was also a member of Pittsburgh Women of the Blues, formed at Moondog’s in 1996, with a lineup that also included Shari Richards, Jill Paone Simmons, Erin Burkett and Lucy Van Sickle.
“I hate to say blues because once again it tends to pigeonhole,” Ms. West noted in an interview on her website, “because it's not strictly a group of blues women, but we still are grateful to be pigeonholed together in that category, although I certainly consider myself a straight ahead blues and rhythm and blues woman.”
"Jill and I shared the desire to not be pigeonholed as solely 'blues' singers,” Ms. Richards said. “Ironically, some of our best times together were singing in the original Pittsburgh's Women of The Blues. That band gave seven female vocalists the chance to build much-needed camaraderie in what was at that time a very male-dominated scene.
“What struck a lot of musicians about Jill was her laser focus regarding her musical career. ‘Queen Of The Blues’ became her moniker, which was naturally bestowed upon her as she gave her loyal audiences 110% each & every show. She ran her band and her shows with a discipline that reflected her day gig as a nurse.”
Mr. Esser said that his most memorable experience with Ms. West was when his newborn son was in the hospital for 77 days.
“During that time, a doctor came to me and said that, ‘Who do you know that you get all this special treatment?’ I said, ‘I'm friends with Jill West.’ He said, ‘That explains it all.’
“Jill West went out of her way for her friends, however she could and whatever she could do. She didn’t take no for an answer. I could talk about musicians that I liked. I didn't like Jill West. I loved Jill West.”
In a Facebook post, friend and fellow nurse Gaelle Kelly wrote, “She taught me more than you can EVER know. How to laugh out loud…how to be unapologetically Me,” adding, “The BLUES will be forever BLUER without this extraordinary woman to sing them.”
First Published November 26, 2021, 9:53am