Former Newburyport resident Shirley Lewis was “The Regal Queen of the Blues,” and she died too soon.
“She was a hoot, man,” said Joe Laite, who lived next to Lewis on High Street from 1987 to the mid-’90s. “One of the most amazing people that I met in my life, and a lot of people shared that.”
Laite, who produces the Newburyport BluesCruise, often played guitar for his friend. But his biggest Lewis-related gig will likely be Saturday’s “A Celebration of Life for Shirley Lewis.”
The inaugural benefit for the Shirley Lewis “Living the Blues” Foundation and a combination dedication ceremony and fundraiser, the celebration will begin with a BluesCruise in Lewis’ honor that will wind its way to Newburyport’s Market Landing Park, where Lewis will be recognized for her contributions to the community with a proclamation by Mayor Donna Holaday. The state of Massachusetts has also issued a proclamation in Lewis’ name, Laite said.
“I’m honored on behalf of Shirley and so pleased to see the recognition that she worked so hard to achieve,” he said. “It’s an amazing feeling to have the opportunity to honor her life and be able to continue what she started.”
The “Living the Blues” Foundation raises money for women’s crisis centers and an annual blues scholarship.
Among those performing Saturday are Cheryl Arena, Toni Lynn Washington, Bruce Bears, and members of Lewis’ original band, including Dutch Schultz, Richard Malcolm and Lee Lundy.
The daughter of a Hopi Indian father and a Blackfoot Indian and African-American mother, Lewis was one of 13 children. She was known both for her powerful voice and collection of signature hats. Among her many accomplishments, the spiritual singer was a two-time Boston Music Awards Outstanding Blues Act nominee, the winner of the 1989 Battle of the Blues Bands at Harpers Ferry and opened for such legendary acts as Ike and Tina Turner, Ruth Brown, Buddy Guy and B.B. King.