REVIEW by Willard Manus

THE DIVINE MS MARY is the first CD to come my way from South Side Records, the only company in L.A. that records the work of local blues artists. Started in 1999 by Jerry Rosen, SSR has released five albums, the latest of which features the singer Mary Dukes. The story of how and why Rosen decided to showcase the hitherto unknown Dukes is a serendipitous one.

"Last summer I was in the middle of searching for a singer," Rosen said, "and one of the guys in the band invited a friend of his to try out. It turned out that this friend was primarily into cover, R&B tunes, and not interested in singing the blues. However, she brought a friend along and her friend had an excellent blues voice. This is how I met Mary Dukes."

Although Dukes was new to the blues, she was a professional singer and entertainer, having sung backup for Marvin Gaye, Natalie Cole, MC Hammer and Stevie Wonder, among others. She was also an accomplished gospel singer who had appeared with the CME Community Choir, the Reverend James Cleveland and Sandra Crouch. She was also a veteran of numerous stage musicals.

"The tough things to learn about singing the blues are the spacing and phrasing," Rosen said. "Dukes not only handled these challenges with ease, she managed to sound like herself the whole time. Usually neophyte singers begin by trying to copy one of the greats, but she was able to fashion her own style, put her own nuances in, right from day one."

Dukes' prowess comes through even on a first listening. There is a warmth and freshness about her voice, backed by a personality that's all her own. Dukes sings eleven songs, all of which were written and arranged by Rosen himself. "I didn't want her to sing covers on her debut album," he explained in an interview. "I wanted to encourage her to be completely original."

Whether singing a slow midnight blues ("A Drinker's Lament") or breaking up defiantly with her spouse ("You Go Your Way") or swearing revenge on a scoundrel lover ("Justice"), Dukes delivers the vocal goods. Not a shouter, never raucous, she puts across a true blues feelings in a convincing and satisfying way.

Rosen's lyrics are first-rate, ditto his arrangements and guitar work. He plays lead on seven tracks, then rhythm behind South Side Slim on the other four. Slim, a partner (along with bassist Oklahoma Ollie) in South Side Records, provides considerable firepower, particularly on "Justice" and "Worried Blues." Like all of the other musicians on the album, Slim is an L.A. stalwart who deserves to be better known in the larger blues world.

Rosen's respect for these unsung musicians is what prompted him to start South Side Records. Though he had played guitar all his life, his day job was worlds away from the blues--teaching mathematics at Cal State Northridge. In 1992 he discovered South Central L.A. and its blues clubs, where he took part in open-mike nights and eventually joined the house band at the Safari Club. "I was blown away by the level of play --and was shocked to learn that nobody in L.A. was recording all these wonderful singers and musicians."

Despite a complete lack of business experience, Rosen took the plunge into the music world, releasing FIVE STEPS, a CD featuring South Side Slim. "It was so well received by the public and the blues media that it got me a national distributor, something people had said I'd never be able to achieve on the basis of one CD," he said. "Not that that makes things much easier. The record business is incredibly tough these days, especially for a small independent label."

With two strong, popular artists like Dukes and Slim under contract, Rosen has been able to land numerous local bookings, especially at such clubs as Mahe in Seal Beach and Harpoon Harry's in Sunset Beach, and to line up various festival appearances.

"If I knew then what I know now about the music busines, I doubt whether I would have started my own label," Rosen admitted. "It's a hard fight to stay alive, but I owe it to such talented people as Mary and Slim to hang in there."

(South Side Records are available at most record stores or online at & or