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FEATURES -- Inside the Blues with Liz Mandeville

Zora Young

The French Connection

Delmark Records

 Zora Young French CD art

By Liz Mandeville

The French Connection is the new CD from Chicago based blues singer Zora Young. It’s being distributed in the U.S. by her long-time label, Delmark Records. The CD, a collaboration with French multi-instrumentalist Bobby Dirninger, is the fruit of a relationship built over 20 years of touring together. The CD features 14 tracks with three different bands recorded over a period of 15 months including five live tracks and nine studio recordings.  The live songs come from three different shows from Zora's 2008 tour in France. 

Stretching beyond the boundaries of traditional Chicago blues, Zora’s music is flavored with heavy doses of gospel, pop, country and soul. With the ad-libbing, improvising and commentary (that is so much a part of a Chicago blues woman’s show) woven seamlessly into the fabric of this CD, listening to this disc is the next best thing to actually being at a Zora Young performance. She sings with a bold, unhurried, honesty that seems like a confession. She is deliciously imperfect.  Your ears are caressed by the warm intimate feel of Zora’s vocal delivery. Her innate sense of phrasing and her supreme confidence never overshadow her quiet dignity. This is a sultry, sassy sistah with no shame in her game, Zora Young at her finest. 


Zora and Bobby chose the 14 songs together, except for In The Ghetto, chosen by Chris Dussuchaud, who produced the project along with Dirninger and Pasbal Theneau-Beige. The idea was to make a record that was half electric and half acoustic. Chris Dussuchaud, a French journalist and long-time Zora fan, is the one who asked for an acoustic flavor on the CD. The choice of material was surprisingly eclectic. There are the few blues chestnuts, to be sure, but there are tunes on this disc that really showcase Zora’s artistic range, set in spare or lush arrangements that (unlike some American ensembles I’ve heard her with) get out of her way and let  her sing!


The unifying elements that tie all these dissimilar tracks together, aside from the unmistakable voice of Zora Young, are Bobby Dirninger’s hot, honey dripping slide guitar and the overall feel.  This CD is enhanced by the amazing rhythmic talent of Catherine “Cajun” Girard on washboard

Here is a rundown of the tracks:

1)    Noted Chicago blues producer Dick Shurman penned, “Better Be Ready”, which starts out like a ‘70s Blaxploitation movie sound-track with  wah-wah-guitar talking smak. It’s a feminist manifesto, with wise words from a woman who knows.


2)    “Goin’ Back To Memphis” (version 1) was written by Chicago’s blues piano legend and Zora’s mentor, Sunnyland Slim. Slide guitars, washboard shuffling like a train. Gut bucket blues. This is Zora at her best, when she sings “You act as if you don’t even want me here!” you hear the bewilderment and pain in the subtle tear in her voice.


3)    Willie Dixon’s song “Wang Dang Doodle” is played at least once a night in every Chicago blues club. Here it’s given a nice push-push groove 


4)    Zora does an insightful spoken word intro, like she would during a live performance, reinterpreting Elvis Presley’s hit “In the Ghetto”. A great surprise in repertoire, showing Zora’s flexability as an artist. Her version is deadly serious, unsentimental, she proclaims that in every city all over the world it’s all the same. It’s a bluesy almost gospel interpretation with acoustic bass, washboard, grand piano; haunting ghosts of guitar are blanketed in a bank of strings


5)    Perhaps my favorite track on the CD is the high spirited “I’m In Love With You”, penned by Bobby Dirninger. It rocks and rolls with a veritable Napoleon pastry of layers of funk and R&B!  With lyrics that give just enough to paint a dark picture of love and voodoo., this song gives Zora a chance to show her funky side and Southern roots.


6)    Zora’s only original tune on this disc, “Toxic”, is a bouncing, slow blues heavy with piano, sporting an ice cold trumpet solo by 19-year-old Olivier Bridot. It was captured live in Limoges.


7)    A moaning and pleading interpretation of the gospel standard “Just A Closer Walk With Thee” boasts nice guitar accents.


8)    Another real surprise on the disc is this wonderful reinterpretation of Bob Dylan’s country song “Tonight  I’ll Be Stayin’ Here With You”.  Done as a duet with Bobby D., whose rough, sexy voice blends perfectly with Zora’s raw-silk tones. Once again, his shambling slide guitar threads through the song, binding this track to the rest of the CD.


9)    “See See Rider” is a nice, relaxed acoustic approach to the classic Ma Rainey tune. The washboard is delightful, almost like brushes and percussion, the best of both.  It’s great because you can really hear the voice. There is no strain, it’s almost like you’re listening to her thinking.


10)  “Mystery Train”, another Elvis hit, features a nicely executed spare train groove created by Catherine “Cajun” Girard’s fabulous washboard wizardry. Zora’s voice on this one reminds me of Big Maybelle, with her swoops and slurs and mellow tone.


11)  “I’m Movin’ On”, by country legend Hank Snow, was recorded live in Ensisheim, Alsace. Up tempo with a fine economic horn section. You can hear the influence of Koko Taylor on this live recording when Zora sings the high notes, there is a power and a tear in her voice that reminds me of Chicago’s late Queen.


12)  “Goin’ Back To Memphis” (version 2). With acoustic slide and voice wailing, this song flies by like scenery through a train window.


13) “Rock Me Baby” (Live) Here is a big fat band with horns and a belly-rolling piano with drums swinging. Fred Boulanger is doing the bottom right with tasty bass that reminds me of Muddy’s bassist Bob Stroger. Philipe Devin’s economical guitar solo is just the right touch. This song is a standard; it holds a place in every self-respecting Chicago blues divas song book. Zora inhabits it like a familiar sweater, stretching it and rubbing it all the right ways.


14)  Muddy Waters would enjoy this version of his classic, “Honey Bee” (live). Here it gets an electric slide guitar intro. I really like the approach Philip Devin takes with the no nonsense, big bottom bass. You don’t want the bass to push the beat in blues music and this guy is putting it right where it needs to be. This is an energetic fresh recording that has all the electricity of the live audience response and yet it is easy, taking its time. These French muthas sure can play some blues!



A Conversation With Zora Young’s “French Connection”:

Musician Bobby Dirninger

Bobby Dirninger

By Liz Mandeville


Q: How did you start your association with Zora Young?
Zora and I met almost 20 years ago in Switzerland. She was always great
 with me, always helped me. She was a great support all these years. I owe her so  much, you cannot even imagine. I'll always wonder why she did all that for me?

 Believe me, even though I got better these last years, I sure didn't have the skills to back her 20 years ago!! I think she did it because she knew I was really broke at that time. I was 24, poor, didn't have nothing but a guitar those days.


Q: When did you come to Chicago and did you work with Zora in the States?

I moved to Chicago in ‘92, and stayed until ‘94. I didn't want to bother her at that time, so I didn't even call her. She found out that I used to live in Chicago when she came back to France in 1995.

Q: What was it like for you in Chicago?

 When I was living in Chicago, a woman called Mary Edsey helped me a lot; I  
 stayed in her basement, drove her car, called on her telephone...and I played in
 several places in the city. I played several coffee houses, Phyllis’  Musical Inn, for sure, the Heartland, Quicksiver Dancing Noodles (don't exist no more), some restaurants, 10 or 12 different places.

 Chicago is very different from the European cities. I used to play a lot in the streets of Europe at that time. The kind of streets with no cars (we call these streets "walking streets"- rues pietonnes where cars are not allowed). So, on my first day in Chicago, I went for a big walk downtown in search of these kinds of streets. I walked a long way....and finally found out this was not really possible.

I really dug Chicago, and miss it often. Everything is possible, you could find a job easily, be invited for jams, meet and talk to people pretty easily (easier than here). Relationships are more simple, direct, and maybe even more respectful towards the "strangers" arriving from nowhere (That was my case) All that sounds normal to you, but Europe is not the same, I tell you! The problem is, when I’m in Chicago, I miss Europe and the beautiful old churches, the small cafes, the little streets and the cool, quiet atmosphere. Europeans know better how to do nothing... Sometimes, it gets boring too, though! I love Chicago. There is something about it Europe will never get. I guess it comes from your very special history.


Q: You play guitar, some amazing slide and equally fine piano on this disc. Which came first? Who were your influences? What is your axe of choice?

 Thanks for your comments on my slide playing. I never really worked
 on the slide techniques, though!


 I play both piano and guitar because I often perform alone in clubs. Playing these two instruments gives me a chance to present versatility to the audience. I play one set on the piano, and the second set on the guitar. I like to play both instruments the same. People seem  to like me more on the guitar; but I practice the piano a lot more. It's fun to play both of them. I learned the piano all by myself, although I have to say that I took a few piano lessons with Erwin Helfer in Chicago. I am a big fan of all the blues piano players (Roosevelt Sykes, Blind John Davis, Otis Spann, Pete Johnson, Curtis Jones, etc.). I did start the guitar first, aged 16. Folk music (Bob Dylan, Doc Watson), then blues (David Bromberg, who I met him later in Chicago, Muddy Waters, Mississippi John Hurt, Lonnie Johnson, etc.)

 Q: Since you left Chicago where is home now?
I live now in a small city (200,000) in the middle of France called Limoges. It's country here! Rents are pretty low (that's why I live here!!), and for music, they have something special; A great radio station playing 24 hours of blues and jazz. This radio is unique in Europe, and the old man who owns it, Mr. Jean Marie Masse (90 years old!) used to book shows here. So
 Limoges had Big Bill Broonzy, Rosetta Tharpe, Sonny Terry, John Lee Hooker,  Muddy Waters...all of the blues legends played here once. It is definitely a jazz and blues city (modest but genius) and well, this is my town now.

Q: What did you do before recording this disc with Zora?

 I’ve already cut three CDs. Only one is distributed in Western Europe. It’s
 called "In The End".  You can order one from
Otherwise, it's free to listen to it on the net if you click here


About the Author

Chicago Blues Guide is happy to have Chicago blues artist Liz Mandeville as our columnist.  A true renaissance woman, Liz is a sultry singer, award-winning songwriter, guitarist, journalist, painter, educator and all around bon vivant. She has performed all over the world and has four CDs on the Earwig Music label to her credit.  With each column, Liz takes us behind the scenes of Chicago blues and beyond, to share unique insights from people who have dedicated their lives to the blues.

Liz Mandeville Inside The Blues ARCHIVE


Photo by: Eric Steiner

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