Debra DeMilo with Arms are bringing their soul revue to Lincoln Theatre in Raleigh, Saturday, March 15.
"Who's Debra DeMilo?" you ask.
"I'm a gutbucket singer, I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel," is what she would say.
"Her approach and style has always reminded me of Tina Turner," says Scott Davis. Scott plays drums in Arms with the same high level of energy he brought to Arrogance, one of North Carolina's major rock bands into the early '80s.
All-Star Crackers Got Soul, Too
The roster of Arms reads like a who's who of players that laid the foundation of the Triangle music scene. Bassist Bobby Patterson was in radio-friendly Glass Moon, noted guitar-maker and guitarist Terry McInturff was in a proto-indie band from Durham called Safehouse, and tenor sax Eddie Blair was in national FM radio favorites Nantucket. Beefing up the big sound of Arms is woodwinds expert Rodney Marsh on baritone sax, Don Eagle of the North Carolina Symphony on trumpet and 30-year journeyman Phil Mazarick on keyboards. It's the same crew that first supported Debra on-stage in 1987. New backing singers Taz Halloween and Ellen Stephenson will debut, replacing Lisa Uyanik and Mary Rocap of the Mobile City Band.
And Debra DeMilo was lead singer for The Fabulous Knobs, a Raleigh outfit with an attitude like The Stones before the Stones became a self-parody. A Knobs gig meant hours of beer and shaking your ass off, with Debra a chain-smoking, Aretha Franklinesque cheerleader for your boogie. She even has the tambourine scars on her legs to prove it.
A lot of white girls have put in amazingly soulful performances before and since Debra. Why? Scott thinks part of it is the cracker component: "I think the cracker component is that poor whites and poor blacks have a lot more in common than poor whites and rich whites do. It's where country and soul meet."
A One-Night Stand That Lasted Years
Debra's '87 solo showcase was one show for East Coast label heads. There's no recording contract, but it felt so good that the group continued on for two more sold-out years. "This band was great fun to play in, especially with that killer horn section," drums Scott.
"People imagine I play a lot, but not many serious music opportunities come by." Terry McInturff's zeal is tempered by modesty, "I sort of feel like the hack, everyone else is so accomplished. It's going to be an exciting gig, it's all going to gel right there on the stage." Yes, he'll be playing several of his own guitars.
These players are returning to the stage on their own terms----doing what they love to do, with people they love to play with. They've gotten over on how the music business often works.
Presenting The Classics
The members of Arms have been re-connecting and rehearsing classic soul, rock 'n'roll and R&B for their version of a soul revue. For the past weeks they've been cooking it in McInturf's Holly Springs warehouse/workshop on a "proving ground" stage he built to try out new guitars. You can smell the sawdust.
Scott rapidly describes a revue: "If you'd go see Otis Redding, the Bar-Kays would first come out and play some instrumentals and then Otis would come out and kill you. That's what we do." Revealing the set list would be like a film review that spoils the ending, but there will be music by Booker T. & The MG's, Willie Mitchell, Wilson Pickett, Willie Nelson, Lowell George, James Brown, Bobby Womack and Chuck Berry.
Fabulous Knobs fans will be treated to several songs from that group's two independently released EPs, now collectors' items.
Debra Says "We Can All Still Hang"
I called Debra at home. Earlier, she and Scott did an interview on WBZB 1090 AM in Garner (a hybrid staion at www.wbzb.com). True to her style, Deb dropped this bomb: "I've looked into it and I finally decided I'm a gay man. Just look at my job, the way I dress ... "
I haven't spoken to her in 15 years. On the air she sure sounded like her old bad self. Debra answers and it's like we haven't spoke for ... a few weeks. "Scott's major hyper. If he thinks we're going to practice four more times he's crazy ... "
Debra had been working in Winston-Salem as a floral designer, when a man walked in and said, "I know who you are----you're Debbie Knob" and walked right out. Ed Baumgardner, a Triad musician and critic, persuaded Debra to go on-stage with an eclectic group of musicians known as The Liquor House Soul Revue. Performing at The Garage, Debra discovered that she could still sing and that she sounded even better. So much so that Ed insisted she was more a jazz singer than anything else. That's "jazz" in a good way, too.
Debra's thrilled, "I was flattered then. I'm still flattered now. It's amazing that these people want to play in a band with me. It's a reunion thing. We have fun. We like being together. I'm just blown away that Taz Halloween is my backup singer and I have the chance to play with my best friend's daughter [Ellen Stephenson]."
After a word-picture tour of her new car's tartan and red interior, Debra tells me "Scott is solely responsible for putting this band together, for all of this. He gets the game ball."
Debra gets the last word and makes it fun, "I said to Scott, how do you know I could still sing? He says, 'We're pretty damn sure you can still do it.' So I'm ready, I just hope people show up. We can all still hang. This is a dance band. This is a bumpin' band. It's a roots band."