Her late father, Ulysses Davis, was a drummer who performed locally around the family's Perry, Ga., home in middle Georgia, playing "that Saturday night stuff," Brooks says. His dreams for young Essie Mae began after she excelled in singing in school.
"Daddy always said if he had the money he would put me on the road, but he never had the money," recalls Brooks. "There were 10 of us children and we grew up on a farm, so there was not much money."
Today, Brooks has five grown children and 15 grandchildren and still lives on the family farm in Perry. She's done some traveling recently, however, having performed in concert in New York and Washington, D.C., as well as in Italy. Brooks will perform at the Northside Tavern this Saturday, Feb. 10, backed by local band Mudcat. She's also celebrating the release of her first CD, Rain in Your Life.
The CD, recorded in October, is a collection of gospel tunes, most sung a cappella, with others featuring subtle support on piano or guitar from "Cool John" Ferguson. Included is "One of These Mornings," known also as "Move up a Little Higher," which Brooks says was her father's favorite song. "If he was living, I know this would have been one of Daddy's enjoyment things, to sit down and hear this," Brooks says.
The CD and tour dates stem from the efforts of the Music Maker Relief Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Pinnacle, N.C., dedicated to helping elderly Southern musicians. Music Maker, founded in 1995 by Tim and Denise Duffy, distributed more than $163,000 last year to musicians in need, assisting with everything from day-to-day living expenses and medical care to the acquisition of musical instruments.
Music Maker's criteria for recipients is that they be rooted in a Southern musical tradition, be at least 55 years old and have an annual income of less than $18,000. Music Maker has also supported a number of Atlanta performers, including 91-year-old Frank Edwards; Covington native Cora Mae Bryant, daughter of late bluesman Curley Weaver; and Beverly "Guitar" Watkins, who just received a W.C. Handy Award nomination for her 1999 Music Maker/Cello CD release, Back in Business.
Music Maker will also release a CD by Atlanta pianist Eddie Tigner next month, and the Northside Tavern will host a release party and performance by him on March 10. Tigner performs on Thursday nights at Fat Matt's Rib Shack in a combo named Chicken Shack.
Brooks is grateful for Music Maker's support. "I appreciate everything they've done for me," Brooks says. "They help me out real well in different things. Even when my van tore up, they help me get it fixed."
Brooks performs locally around Perry and surrounding Houston County, she says, singing -- usually a cappella -- at weddings, birthday parties and funerals. "I specialize in funerals. I do more funerals in Houston County than anybody," she says.
Her Northside performance won't be nearly so obsequious, of course, but it might be somewhat more low-key than a typical Saturday-night show. Mudcat will back her up, and her son Oscar Andrea Johnson and nephew, Joseph Watkins, will also perform, she says.
"We'll also encourage her to sing a cappella," says Mudcat bandleader Danny Dudeck, who has backed Brooks before, and who is adept at aligning the talents of traditional artists with the expectations of a rowdy barroom crowd. "It's a delicate balance ... [but] the focus will be on her."
Essie Mae Brooks performs at the Northside Tavern on Sat., Feb. 10. For more information call 404-874-8745. For more information on Essie Mae Brooks or the Music Maker Relief Foundation, visit www.music maker.org.