By Jim Sullivan
---- — 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.
A Newton resident in her later years, Lewis lost her battle with cervical cancer on May 5 at the age of 76.
“She was just very, very outgoing and very friendly,” Laite said of Lewis. “She always had a beautiful, genuine smile and was a very gregarious woman. She would often put herself out in any way she could, particularly for her neighbors on a day-to-day basis.”
Laite can speak from experience. A blues musician himself, Laite had no idea how his life would change when moving vans arrived next door to him on High Street back in 1987.
“It was a bit of a shock when I was walking out my front door and first heard this magnificent voice belting out the windows of her apartment,” Laite said. “So, of course, I had to immediately walk up the stairs and knock on her door, and I met Shirley Lewis for the very first time. It was serendipity, maybe. She would probably say that everything happens for a reason. In fact, I’m sure she would.”
Over the years, Laite and Lewis would gig together and hold jam sessions in her apartment. Lewis would also become a cornerstone of Laite’s BluesCruises.
“She was very warm and engaging,” Laite said. “She had a magnetic quality that allowed her to make friends very quickly. She was indeed one of the most humble and magnanimous persons I’ve ever had the great privilege of calling my friend.”
If you go
What: Shirley Lewis Memorial BluesCruise
When: Saturday, 4 to 7 p.m.
Where: Boat departs from Plum Island Point, Newburyport. After-party follows at Michael’s Harborside, 1 Tournament Wharf.
Tickets: $34 in advance, $38 day of event.
More information: 978-463-7878 or www.newburyportbluescruise.com