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WEBSTER, KATHRYN JEWEL THORNE [KATIE]

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WEBSTER, KATHRYN JEWEL THORNE [KATIE] (1936–1999). Katie Webster, known as the "Swamp Boogie Queen," pianist, organist, "electric blues" vocalist, and harmonica player, was born Kathryn Jewel Thorne in Houston on January 11, 1936. She was the daughter of Cyrus and Myrtle Thorne. Her father was a ragtime pianist before becoming a Pentecostal preacher, and her mother played classical piano. The Thornes attempted to shield their young daughter from the evils of rhythm-and-blues music by locking up their piano when Katie was not taking her classical piano lessons. The girl, however, sneaked an old radio into her bedroom to listen to her favorite blues artists, Fats Domino, Little Richard, and Sam Cooke, on WLAC Radio, Nashville.

In the early 1950s she moved to Beaumont to live with more open-minded relatives. Her new-found freedom allowed her to pursue a boogie-woogie musical career in Lake Charles, Louisiana, while she finished high school. Within a couple of years, she had married Earl Webster. The union lasted only five years; after it, she never remarried.

Katie Webster had a long and very productive musical career, beginning with considerable popularity as a session pianist around Lake Charles. She blended a traditional boogie-woogie beat with barrelhouse rhythms to create her own style of "swamp blues." She played the piano on more than 500 recordings, primarily for Excello and Eddie Shuler's Goldband Records. She worked with such influential musicians as Guitar Jr., Lightnin' Slim, Lazy Lester, Lonesome Sundown, Juke Boy Bonnerqv, Hop Wilson, and Ashton Savoy.

In 1964, while Otis Redding was playing at the Bamboo Club in Lake Charles, he asked the Swamp Boogie Queen to sit in with his band. Redding was so impressed by her talent that he asked her to join his tour. Katie Webster subsequently toured with Redding's band until he was killed in a plane crash in Lake Michigan in 1967. Webster, who was eight months pregnant, had overslept and missed the flight. She was so devastated by Redding's death that she gave up touring. In 1974 she moved to Oakland, California, to care for her ailing parents. Although she played at a few local venues, she was not very musically active during the 1970s.

In the late 1970s, her old friend Eddie Shuler re-released two of her albums, thus helping to launch her comeback. Katie made the first of sixteen European tours in 1982, wowing the audiences with her boogie-woogie piano. She played at numerous prestigious jazz and blues festivals during the 1980s and 1990s. She did not have any significant solo recording success, however, until the late 1980s, when she signed with Alligator Records. With guest appearances by Robert Cray, Kim Wilson, and Bonnie Raitt, she cut three well-received albums: The Swamp Boogie Queen (1988), Two Fisted Mama (1990), and No Foolin (1991). In the acclaimed No Foolin she displayed her powerful blues vocals and her skillful two-handed piano solos.

In 1993 Webster suffered a stroke, which hindered the use of her left hand and damaged her eyesight. Although she regained some use of her hand and played at a few festivals and other gigs, her musical career was essentially over. She moved back to Texas in the mid-1990s to live with two of her daughters. She died of a heart attack at her daughter's home in League City, Texas, on September 5, 1999. She left behind two sisters, three brothers, two daughters, eight grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: 

Boston Globe, August 13, 1989. Michael Erlewine, et al., eds., AMG All Music Guide to the Blues: The Experts' Guide to the Best Blues Recordings (San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1999). Sheldon Harris, Blues Who's Who: A Biographical Dictionary of Blues Singers (New Rochelle, New York: Arlington House, 1979). Houston Chronicle, August 8, 1995; September 8, 1999. Colin Larkin, ed., Encyclopedia of Popular Music, 3d ed. (New York: Muze, 1998). London Daily Telegraph, August 10, 1999. Los Angeles Times, March 7, 1986; August 9, 1999. Robert Santelli, Big Book of the Blues (New York: Penguin Books, 1993).

James Head

Citation

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this article.

James Head, "WEBSTER, KATHRYN JEWEL THORNE [KATIE]," Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fwe77), accessed August 28, 2014. Uploaded on June 15, 2010. Modified on October 29, 2013. Published by the Texas State Historical Association.