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Death claims Ann Rabson, noted blues musician


Ann Rabson, a co-founder of the internationally known, Fredericksburg-based blues trio Saffire—The Uppity Blues Women, passed away Wednesday morning at the Hartwood home she shared with husband George Newman. She was 67.

She was critically acclaimed for her work both with Saffire and as a solo performer, particularly as a blues pianist. Rabson recorded eight albums with the group and one of her own for Alligator Records and did three solo albums for other labels.

Newman said she had battled several forms of cancer over the past five years.

He said that while she was undergoing chemotherapy, she recorded “Not Alone” with Bob Margolin, which has been nominated for a Memphis Blues Foundation Blues Music Award, formerly the W.C. Handy Award, for Best Acoustic Album of 2013.

“Ann was one of the smartest, funniest, most sardonic and most committed people I’ve ever met and her music was filled with all of those qualities,” Bruce Iglauer, the founder and head of the independent blues record label Alligator Records in Chicago and one of Rabson’s producers, said in a phone interview.

Rabson was born in New York and raised in Ohio before moving to Fredericksburg in 1971, where she worked as a computer science teacher at Germanna Community College, a musician and a guitar teacher.

She began playing a guitar found in her father’s attic at age 17, and she idolized blues guitarists Big Bill Broonzy and Memphis Minnie.

Rabson didn’t begin playing the piano until 35, but, influenced by Pinetop Perkins, came to be regarded as one of the best boogie-woogie pianists.

“She was committed to the blues tradition and loved exploring it and leading her listeners on a voyage of discovery,” Alligator’s Iglauer said. He said that when it came to blues piano and guitar, she absorbed that tradition “just like an amazing sponge but it always came out Ann Rabson. Her music was full of humor, it was full of energy and it was amazingly subtle. Ann’s music always made me smile.”

In 2009, Rabson explained how Saffire came to be. She said that in the early 1980s, while she was on faculty at Germanna Community College, one of her students had a death in the family and missed an exam. So Rabson took the exam to student Earlene Lewis’ home. It turned out that Lewis had a piano and a bass, and Saffire was conceived.

Gaye Adegbalola, a teacher at James Monroe High School in Fredericksburg, had been one of Rabson’s guitar students.

“Ann and I had no place to practice, so we’d sneak into the rehearsal rooms at Mary Washington College,” Adegbalola recalled, “When we found out Earlene had a piano, we began rehearsing at her house.”

The rest is blues history. Saffire developed a cult following, not just in America, but around the globe.

When Lewis left the band in 1992, Rabson found a replacement in Andrea Faye when Rabson was teaching piano as part of a blues workshop at a college in West Virginia.

“She was one of the most natural musicians I had the pleasure of working with,” Faye said in a phone interview from Indianapolis, where she now lives. “It was just inside her. She was not a schooled musician. She was really creative and inventive. She was ambidextrous and had such a killer left hand. It was a phenomenon.”

Longtime Rabson friend Nancy Moore of Fredericksburg said, “She was self-taught by listening to records and working it out herself,” adding that despite that, when it came to Saffire, “Musically, Ann was the glue.”

The band ended its quarter-century run amicably in 2009.

Rabson played piano and guitar. Adegbalola plays guitar and harmonica. Faye plays bass, mandolin, fiddle and guitar. All three women sang and wrote songs for the group.

“We’re the Three Musketeeresses,” Rabson said in 2001. “One for all and all for one.” Around that time, she said of the band’s success, combined with her own growing recognition as a solo artist, “I couldn’t be happier.”

Adegbalola said Rabson “was one of the funniest people I’ve ever known. All those rides all over the country, we had a wonderful time. And she had a wonderful life. And her life is an example to anybody who wants to know how to live, how to follow their passion. The three of us made a living doing what we love, in this day and age.”

Rabson is survived by husband, Newman, her father, Gustav Rabson and sister Mimi Rabson, both of Massachussetts, brother Steve Rabson of Fredericksburg and daughter Liz Rabson Schnore and granddaughter Georgia Rabson Schnore, both of Brooklyn.

Newman said plans for a memorial celebration of her life will be announced soon.

Michael Zitz: 540/846-5163