Ella Ruth Piggee has been gone from San Diego far longer than she was here, but the mark she left on this town’s music community remains as pronounced as ever.
In her too-short time in San Diego, she became one of the biggest acts on the local music scene—holding down gigs at most of the leading venues in town and regularly working five nights a week, if not more. Her backing band over the years was a who’s who of San Diego’s jazz, blues, and soul scenes, which reflected her broad, cross-over repertoire.
Just 38 years old when she passed away from cancer, she was only in San Diego for about a decade after relocating from her native Iowa. She released a mere two recorded songs, never went on tour, and didn’t write much of her own material. And yet, 32 years after her passing, on June 28, 1988, in a year she would have turned 70, fans and fellow musicians still recall her with an intensity and a passion that is remarkable.
“She was my girl!” said Jeannie Cheatham by phone earlier this summer. Cheatham—who in the 1980s was a star in her own right, leading the Sweet Baby Blues Band with her late husband, trombonist Jimmy Cheatham—used to play piano behind Piggee from time to time. “She was very easy to play behind. She led her band with her mouth.”
Cecil McBee Jr., who played bass in her band in the mid-1980s, recalled that the first time he went to hear her at the Old P.B. Café. “We stood in line for two hours and never got in!”
Trumpeter Mitch Manker, now based out of Marina Del Rey and a successful studio session player, first met Piggee in Iowa City and then encouraged her to move to San Diego. “I think about her often. Quite often. She was my sister, and I miss her terribly.”
Paul Kimbarow played drums in her band after having backed Angela Bofill and the calypso-funk band Odyssey while based in New York City, and said she was unlike any other singer he ever played behind. “As a drummer, you’re very cognizant of not overpowering singers. With her, it was virtually impossible.”
Pianist Mel Goot, who now lives in southern Illinois, recalled her repartee with fans. “The woman was magical, and she had a way of making the audience feel so comfortable. After a few numbers, she’d already added to the fan club.”
San Diego journalist Michael J. Williams started going to hear her perform while a student at San Diego State University in the late 1970s. “Ella Ruth was a powerful presence on stage and you really can’t comprehend her artistry and charisma unless you experienced her and her band live.”
Trumpeter Bruce Cameron, who gigged with her off and on from the late 1970s through the 1980s—even as his own band was one of the top draws in town—remembered, “She really admired and respected the other musicians. She didn’t have a big attitude to deal with as some of the successful ones often do.”
Ella Ruth Piggee was born in Des Moines, Iowa, in May 1950, to Claude and Doris Piggee. She had two brothers, Claude Jr. and James, and a sister, Arvine. Growing up, her musical foundation was in the church, playing piano in her congregation’s gospel band. Williams recalled, “She told me she did not sing in church. She played piano. I asked why she didn’t sing. She said, ‘I knew if I sang, I would be singing baby somewhere in there, so it was safer to stick with piano.’”
In a February 7, 1986 interview with Thomas K. Arnold in the Los Angeles Times, Piggee said she began entering local talent shows in junior high school and explained the approach to music that shaped her ensuing career. “I tell you, when I first started singing I wanted to follow in the footsteps of great jazz singers like Sarah Vaughan and Nina Simone. But I realized I didn’t have the voice they did—I couldn’t even come close.
“So, I decided I would make do with what I had and make up for my lack of a great voice by getting closer to the audience, just making sure everyone had a good time.”
By her early 20s, she was singing at a club called Ernie’s Urban Lounge in Des Moines. Drummer Duncan Moore, who also grew up in Des Moines, had moved back in with his parents after a rock band he had been touring with folded. One night he dropped in at Ernie’s to see Ella Ruth and was blown away. Moore said he asked her drummer about hanging out and taking some lessons, and during his first lesson his new teacher told Moore he was moving out of town and did Moore want the gig with Piggee?
Moore said after about six months of playing with Piggee, he decided to go back to school at the University of Iowa in Iowa City, where he ended up joining a band featuring Diane Moser on piano, Manker on trumpet, Bob Schleeter on guitar, and Randy Ward on bass.
A few weeks after he left Des Moines, Ella Ruth called him up and asked, “‘What’s going on in Iowa City?’ I told her to come on out and see—it was only a few hours away. She moved in with us on weekends, and we kept playing gigs around Iowa City.”
Manker, a Chicago native who had attended Drake University in Des Moines, said the shows in Iowa City weren’t too different from what fans in San Diego would hear a few years later. “It was a really interesting time at that school…. There was a wide acceptance for anything artistic and creative and we just flourished. When we would play in clubs, before she came up, we would do jazz and even free-form improvisational stuff; it was very eclectic. When she would come up, we would do what she did in San Diego. We did the covers she liked—it was much more of a commercial moment. It was fine. We covered all the bases in a set.”
On Moser’s website, she recalls that when Piggee sang, “We mostly played a combination of jazz/funk/blues and R&B covers. She could sing anything and make you feel things that you didn’t even know you had feelings for!”
But by 1977, the band’s members had all had enough of Iowa’s winters and decided to move to California, Manker and Moore both said—all but Piggee.
“The plan was to come out here, scout the area, and then send for Ella Ruth,” Manker remembered.
Moore picked up the story. “We were going to go to L.A. but stopped in San Diego to visit some friends and ended up staying.”
But Manker said it was slow going at first. “Duncan and Diane got an apartment together, the bass player and I got tiny apartments in the same building. There was a lot of ramen, a lot of it! We were doing our young artist thing and were happy to make it work, even in its humble way.
“When we first came out, we had to scatter and pick up gigs wherever we could, and then bring our band into other places. You had to kind of work your way in. You’d go and you’d sit in. You’d give people your number. You’d just hustle. It just kind of spreads slowly.”
In the summer of 1978, Ella Ruth called Moore to see how things were going in San Diego. Once again, he told her she could stay with him if she changed cities. “The very first weekend she was here, I took her out to Chuck’s Steakhouse in La Jolla,” Moore remembered. “At this time, there were two bands splitting the week: Joe Marillo and Butch Lacy. The night I took her Butch was playing, and I knew Butch because I’d already played with him a few times. Hollis [Gentry] was on sax.
“Butch asked Ella Ruth and I to sit in, and she raised the roof on the place! It was that Ella Ruth energy—she gets into those vamps and people go nuts! Butch just fell in love with her. He invited her to come back the next week, and we went back. The very next day, Butch calls us up and hires both of us. It was three or four nights a week at Chuck’s Steakhouse, late summer or fall of ’78. We played there the rest of the year. At that point, the rest is history. Butch moved to Europe, Ella Ruth took over the gig, and it became her gig at Chuck’s.”
By late 1978, the band members—both together and individually—were being noticed around town.
Williams discovered Piggee at Chuck’s even before the gig was hers. “I first heard Ella Ruth at Chuck’s Steakhouse in La Jolla with the late Butch Lacy on piano. I would come in before the first set and she would typically be sitting at a table having some dinner. Maybe the second or third night I was there, she invited me to sit down and we talked. She told me about her background growing up in Iowa and getting involved in the music scene there. From then on, when I came on, I was always welcomed to sit down at her table. To not do that, I felt she would have taken it as a slight.”
Cameron also ran across her at Chuck’s not long after Williams. “I know Chuck’s Steakhouse in La Jolla was a favorite hangout of mine at the time. As soon as I went down there, I met her and the other guys in the band. I think Hollis was playing with her at the time, with Ronnie Stewart on the drums, Sammy Tritt was on organ and he’d play the bass part, too.”
By the early 1980s, Piggee was one of the top local musical acts in town—and the live music scene was much bigger than it is today, even though the region’s population was significantly smaller.
“San Diego’s music scene was huge!” Cameron remembered. “All the clubs in Mission Valley, Harbor Island, and Shelter Island, the Boat House, the Hanalei Hotel, the old Stardust. All of those clubs in the ’70s and ’80s had music at least five nights a week, sometimes seven. So many guys were working constantly, constantly. And the money was good.”
Moore remembers that not only Ella Ruth’s band but also other bands he played in during that time would have lines of 100 people or more waiting to get in. “It was a great time to be a musician in San Diego,” he said.
Other clubs she performed at were the Catamaran, the Black Frog, the Blue Parrot, the Triton, the Crossroads, the Old Pacific Beach Café, and Alphonso’s in La Jolla, according to those who worked with her.
But McBee said it didn’t matter where they played, she could own whatever space she was in. “She could drive a crowd crazy any time she wanted to. I remember seeing bartenders standing on the bar going completely crazy; waitresses were dancing on the tables.”
RULING THE ROOST
Piggee’s shows were about more than just great music. As her above quote to the LA Times pointed out, she wanted people to feel entertained.
“She could be really funny in an irreverent way,” Williams recalled. “For example, one night with a packed bar at the Triton, she stopped in the middle of a tune and said to a customer in the front row, something like, ‘Wait a minute, man, where the hell did you get those socks? Those are the ugliest socks I’ve ever seen. Who the hell goes to a show wearing bright green socks?’ All the time she raps the band is pumping away. She also would interrupt a tune (while the band played on) to chastise the audience: ‘Hey, hey, hey. What’s all this chit chat going on? Hey, you, you want to listen to music or you wanna chit chat?’
“I was the victim of this one night at the Triton. An attractive woman struck up a conversation with me while Ella was singing. I was trying to politely keep the conversation going, while knowing the risk we were taking. Pretty soon, Ella pounced with her chit chat line. Seeing it was me, she said something like, ‘This young man came here to listen.’ She left the stage, walked up to the lady talking to me, took her hand, and parked her on the other side of the bar. The crowd loved it.”
McBee said Piggee’s reaction to talking during a song depended on the kind of song, and where the talkers were sitting. “If she was doing a ballad and they were sitting right down front, she did not appreciate it and she would let them know.”
When asked about Williams’ observation about her chastising them for “chit chat,” McBee laughed and said, “‘Chit chat.’ That’s when she was being nice about it.”
The late San Diego Union-Tribune biotech reporter Bradley J. Fikes was a huge fan of Piggee, but like many college students, he frequently pulled all-nighters, cramming for classes, and paid the price the next day. One evening at the Triton, he had the misfortune of falling asleep at a table in front of the stage. By his recollection—and he delighted in sharing the story in subsequent years—she came off the stage saying, “Oh no, not at my show you don’t,” lifted his head off the table by his chin and told him to stay awake or else!
Drummer Gary Nieves, who played in several bands with her and his brother, Steve (a saxophonist), from 1978-’84, said telling the audience to pipe down was part of her act. “She wasn’t vindictively mean about it—she was able to do it like an insult comedian would.”
Cameron remembered another of her signatures. “She had a unique way of finishing each set. She’d concoct a way to arrange the song, and she’d go into this long church thing. The audience would go wild—it was astonishing…. She had that kind of magnetism and personality that could go over.”
Goot, who played piano with her for awhile, echoed Cameron’s recollection. “We called her the Vamp Queen, musically, in terms of treading water on the changes, creating a spiral, and building and building. She would launch into this whole thing and sometimes get a call and response going. At the end of the song she had this thing she did that looked like she was snapping her fingers, but she wasn’t. She was channeling Mahalia Jackson.”
But she had non-musical tricks up her sleeve, too, Cameron said. “One of the shticks in her shows that I recall was that every night was her birthday! She would encourage the audience to buy her a drink for her birthday, but it was every night! She was a terrific performer, but that was one of the other things that made her appealing to the club management was she would increase the bar business.”
All of this added to her reputation: Ella Ruth Piggee was must-see, must-hear. When San Diego’s live music scene was at its peak, she was the queen, the biggest star in a town that was rivaling Austin and Minneapolis as a regional music hub.
McBee said that Piggee was such a huge draw at the Old P.B. Café that he “couldn’t even get to the bathroom during the break, it was so crowded. And forget about getting a drink, because by the time you worked your way to the bar, it was time to play again!”
“She was a phenomenal musician,” Moore said. “She always worked. From that night Butch heard her and hired her, I don’t think she was ever out of work.”
ELLA RUTH AS BOSS
Most of those who played with her said she could be demanding of the members of her band, but that it was accepted because her demands were well-reasoned.
“If she thought you were playing the wrong chords or the wrong tempo, she’d let you know,” said Nieves.
Moore, who knew and played with her the longest of any of her collaborators, said she could be a tough taskmaster—and it forced him to learn when he was first starting out with her in Des Moines. “She didn’t put up with much—it all came down to the feel, down to the groove. If you weren’t hitting the groove, she’d give you a look. I was a rock musician who knew just enough about playing R&B and funk to be dangerous. But I learned real quick: She used to turn around and yell at me. It was all about the feel—and she knew. Now I tell my students, there’s no faster way to learn than getting yelled at.”
Goot added that if he wasn’t giving her quite what she wanted on piano, she wasn’t above showing him. “Ella Ruth, like Sarah Vaughan and Carmen McRae, on occasion, would come over and scoot the piano player off the bench and start playing something on the piano and get a groove going and then go back in front of the band.”
And McBee said, “If you were doing something wrong, she would just tell you to stop playing and you would be so embarrassed because everybody is watching and you’re standing there not playing—and she would say it on the mic! It never happened to me, but I was terrified it would.”
She also had a reputation as a highly competitive businesswoman. Moore said she taught him a lot about dealing with club managers, about getting paid when they were still in Des Moines.
And Cameron—laughingly—shared a story about a time she was mad at him over business: “Mark Hunter, the bass player, worked with her a long time. When Hollis and I got our band really going, the pre-Fattburger Bruce Cameron-Hollis Gentry Jazz Ensemble, we found that Hunter and her drummer wanted to join our band. The drummer we had wasn’t quite cutting it the way we wanted, but she got really pissed at me. I mean, really pissed at me, like it was my fault. And I had nothing to do with it; they had talked to Hollis. Of course, I took the bad rap for it. For a while, she wouldn’t even speak to me!”
Even Williams, who only interacted with her as an audience member and friend, noticed how she could be demanding of her bandmates: “She knew the dynamics of the gospel, soul/jazz, and blues idioms and would often instruct her musicians on stage how to play the tune. Like she might tell the drummer ‘16ths on the hi-hat’ or sing a line she wanted to the bass player.”
While the stories of her singing prowess are legion among both fans and fellow musicians, the only recorded history is contained in a handful of videos that McBee posted online from a KIFM show she did, and two songs she recorded in the studio as guest vocalist for “Make That Dream Come True” on Fattburger’s 1987 release, Good News and “I Don’t Want to Be in Love (With You Again)” from a 1985 EP titled The Sounds of the People, issued by On Fire Records.
Ella Ruth Piggee and the Talk of the Town Band live at the Catamaran Hotel, 1985. With Mitch Manker, Michael Evans, Michael Thompson, Jeff Snider and Cecil McBee Jr. Video clip courtesy of Cecil McBee Jr.
So why didn’t one of the most popular acts in San Diego make any records of her own—particularly when so many of her local contemporaries were? Not only Fattburger (which was becoming a national act thanks to the then-new “smooth jazz” radio format), but the Cheathams (Concord Records); Peter Sprague, Bob Magnusson, and Cameron (Discovery Records); and in other styles, the Beat Farmers, Mojo Nixon, Cindy Lee Berryhill, Joey Harris, the Monroes, Buddy Blue, Robert Vaughn, and the Paladins all had record deals happening at that time.
Moore said she did go in the studio and recorded more than an album’s worth of material in 1978 and ’79 at Studio West’s old studios in Clairemont Mesa, sessions on which he played drums. However, the album was never released, and his cassette copies have deteriorated to the point they’re unlistenable. Nor does he know what happened to the open-reel master tapes.
Manker said he thought she was on the cusp of a record deal as she grew in popularity and confidence in the mid-’80s. “She was being courted by a number of labels at the peak of her career, and they wanted her to go into the studio and do a studio recording. She was not excited about that. She wanted to do it live in front of an audience. And that was always a point of contention with the people she was talking to…. She wanted to do it live at the Old PB Café, which was her favorite place, because she could light up just by walking in there. Then the cancer took her out. It was just about to happen and it would have been amazing. She was just peaking and getting a handle on what she liked and what worked.
“She didn’t like the sterility of the recording studio—nobody does until you do it a lot and get used to it. As a live performer it’s the very opposite of what you think of as a performing environment. It’s just a weird experience.”
Kimbarow also heard she was in talks about a record. “Some label was interested in her, and then she got sick. I believe there were people interested in her. If they got her out there with a record she would certainly have been an international star.”
Goot said he believes that the late Carl Evans Jr.—who had played keyboards with her off and on for years and had become good friends with her even while he was leading and touring with Fattburger—was trying to get her a solo record deal. “That Fattburger track was just to get her in the studio.”
Jeannie Cheatham said that before Piggee passed, she gave Cheatham all her musical arrangements (which Cheatham has carefully preserved in storage), saying the condition of them may explain why Piggee didn’t gig in other towns. “She gave me all her music. Her arrangements were all tattered and torn—you have to get them recopied. Nothing was really professional. But it costs money to do that. Nobody gave her a break.
“Everybody here knew her repertoire. To move around and go up and down the coast with musicians who didn’t know her, you need written charts, and she did not have that.”
Moore agreed with Cheatham that Piggee didn’t have much in the way of arrangements. “Both of the bands of hers that I played in—back in Iowa and San Diego—it was all by ear. The bass players know the groove and the drummer knows the groove and you just dive in.”
Cheatham also said Piggee may not have known how to market her music if she had recorded. “I was always aware of when styles changed. There’s always a little bridge from the old to the new. I think she kind of thought she was caught. Music was changing so fast, it was hard to make a decision about who she wanted to be.”
McBee pointed out that while Fattburger, the Cheathams, and other acts mentioned above are still remembered and get played on local radio. To a certain extent, Piggee has been forgotten by the larger San Diego community—and he thinks it’s because she didn’t record more. “If you don’t put your music down on recordings, people can forget about you a little bit because it’s not out there for them to hear.”
Even without a recorded legacy, though, clearly she’s remembered—and not only here, but back home in Iowa, too: In 2001, she was inducted into the Iowa Blues Hall of Fame.
Most of the above conversations about Ella Ruth included lots of laughter, and some stories are best not repeated. What was perhaps most notable was how much respect for her talent and skill came through, respect that some very highly regarded musicians do not give out lightly.
Goot, for instance, is still awed by her technique and what she could do in the moment during a performance. “She had a certain kind of biting edge to her tone, and then the way she would bend her notes was very unique, not unlike Billie Holiday. She could really manipulate the tone; she had the full palette of colors happening. She could sound like a pop artist if she wanted, she could sound like a gospel artist. She didn’t copy anyone—she put her own twist on all of that.
“She could untune her voice a couple of cents sharp or a couple of cents flat, on purpose, to give a section a lift. She wasn’t missing a note, she was purposely bending tones like that. On occasion, I’ve heard a gospel singer do that, but not in jazz.”
Kimbarow, who was drummer in her band the last year of her life, begged off a request to try to analyze her technique, arguing that such an approach missed the point. “Her phrasing, to me, I couldn’t even analyze that! I didn’t even think like that with her—she was just Ella Ruth, and she was unique. I don’t even think anybody thought of it like that. I’ve never felt she was affecting the tempo in any way. She had really great time, really swinging phrasing, a really great rhythmic feel.”
McBee summarized his feelings this way. “Playing with her is one of the greatest musical experiences I’ve ever had—right up to this day. She did everything her way. she didn’t try to sound like anybody, she had her own thing. She’s still loved by many people—a lot of musicians still love her.
“Anybody who’s been in this town from back then remembers Ella Ruth.”