Soul singer Christine Ohlman —known to her legions of fans as The Beehive Queen for her eye-catching retro coiffure – has been exploring remote tributaries of America’s river of song since she was a young girl. A member of the Saturday Night Live band for more than 20 years, she also fronts her own band, Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez, and plays occasionally with an all-star band at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, with the NYC Hit Squad at the Iridium in New York City and with the Decoys in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where she recently organized a tribute to music producer and journalist Jerry Wexler. Since 1995, Christine Ohlman and Rebel Montez have released 6 CDs of predominantly original songs –The Hard Way, Radio Queen, Wicked Time, Strip, Re-Hive and most recently The Deep End in 2009. They are currently working on the seventh. A DVD, Live Hive, was recorded at a show in 2011. Ohlman spoke with ROLL about her career and her musical enthusiasms in the living room of her nearly 400-year-old Connecticut cottage.
When did you become interested in music?
I don’t remember ever NOT being interested; I must have been born interested. My parents were very musical and we always had music in the house. I was always the one that they’d have to trot out at every family gathering to do a “show.” I would enlist my cousin – my cousin couldn’t sing so I don’t remember what she did – but I’d be up on some little hassock or something singing.
I remember as a little kid asking my father to get records for me and they were always things like Jackie Wilson – not what my sisters and brothers were listening to –it was always weird stuff. I must have seen him on Ed Sullivan or something. And my father would get them, so that was kind of cool. Our first band rehearsed in my parents’ basement. My father let us keep the PA there.
My younger brother took up drums and he said we’re having a band so why don’t you be the chick singer? At first I doubled as the go-go dancer. Our first gig was at a teen club and I swear to God, I got up on a student’s desk that they put at the front of the stage and I did go-go dancing in between singing. I’d dance and then I’d jump down and I’d sing and then get up and I’d frug…what a freaking riot.
Did this band have a name?
Yes, the Wrongh Black Bag….wrongh with an h. (We thought it was cool.) In fact, we were on a label in NY called Mainstream. The owner, Bob Shad, was a cool cat; he recorded Ray Charles down in Florida early in Ray’s career. Mainstream had been a jazz label and then they signed Ultimate Spinach and Big Brother and the Holding Company and the Amboy Dukes so it became a rock label. We were the little baby band. We were easily 8 years younger than any of these other bands.
So you had a record deal with your very first band?
Yeah, Bob Shad came up to Meriden CT in a light plane, came to our house and signed us. This was in the late 60s. Our record was just re-released last summer in the UK and over here. Ace Records did a compilation of the Mainstream label and included the B side of our 45. The A side was “Wake Me Shake Me,” which was Al Kooper and the Blues Project. But they used the B side, “I Don’t Know Why,” which was a knock-off of a Lightning Hopkins tune that I’d heard and I basically stole it and put my name on it. Forgive me. (Like he never stole anything in the first place!) So it came out in the UK and my brother and I could not have been more startled. And you’d think that it would never see the light of day again and there it was!
Did the band stay together?
Yes. It morphed into a band called Fancy and Fancy had a different guitar player but some of the same people. And then it morphed into the Scratch Band and that’s the band that G.E. Smith showed up and joined. And that’s how I met G.E. He was from the Poconos, but he had friends near New Haven and they had a real interesting cover band called Hombre and he came to play with them. Then our guitar player left and he showed up and auditioned and we loved him and took him. The Scratch Band was always more eclectic. We didn’t really play the hits of the day; we played weird stuff, album stuff. And then we started to write and we had a couple of records out. That band was active for a number of years and then broke up. G.E. left and played with Hall and Oates and other people before he got the gig at Saturday Night Live as a guitar player. For about 12 years we didn’t play together, but we were always in touch.
A musical bond?
I’m a big soul music collector, as you know, and all those years I had been making mix tapes and sending them around — weird little things from my collection. G.E. had been the recipient of all of these tapes. To this day, one of the main things we do is try to stump each other. We’re always calling each other up and saying hey, I got one for you.
So that’s how you hooked up with SNL?
Yes. When Lorne Michaels came back to the show after leaving for five years, they were looking for a new band. G.E. ended up getting that gig partly because he had been married to Gilda Radner so he had an in with the show. Then in 1991, he called me up and said we have this gig and we need a singer, do you want to do it? It was a wedding gig but I didn’t know it was Lorne Michaels’ wedding party out in the Hamptons.
G.E. said, ‘we’ll do some of those really obscure songs on the tapes that you’ve been sending me.’ So we rehearse a couple of days and they write all these great charts for me. We do the wedding, and also we played Stephen Talkhouse. I’m thrilled to be playing with a great band and a horn section, but I’m thinking that will be the end of that. The next week is the first show of the season, and Lorne Michaels comes up to the bandstand and says to G.E., ‘where’s the girl you had with you at the wedding? She’s great, call her up and tell her to come.’ And I’ve never left. (She laughs uproariously). So I got it as a wedding gift.
What happened in between The Scratch Band and SNL?
I had a band called Christine Ohlman and the Soul Rockers, which was basically the kind of stuff I just wound up doing in Muscle Shoals, all classic soul stuff. I wasn’t writing much, but my late husband, who was a producer and keyboard player, kept saying ‘you can write, you could have been the best writer in the Scratch Band, you just wouldn’t do it.’ So I started. The Soul Rockers morphed into Rebel Montez, and I began making records. The Hard Way was my first.
Were your bands always regional?
Yes, we would play in Massachusetts and New York and other places on the east coast. What takes me farther afield now is the solo stuff with these all-star bands that I’m put with, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame kind of thing. That’s not Rebel Montez, it’s a bunch of guys like Jeff Carlisi from 38 Special and Ed King from Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Tell me about the evolution of the beehive.
The beehive started in the Soul Rockers. We were going to have some publicity pictures taken and I thought what can I do for this? I used to dress retro a lot. I had a whole thing with cocktail dresses, very sort of B-52s, but not with my hair up. So I teased my hair and people went berserk. They went freaking nuts. So I thought ‘maybe I hit on something here.’ It quickly became evident that I would have to keep teasing it up because everybody liked it so much. And I liked it because it really went with the retro thing. So it was a visual decision and really it came about because of the Ronettes and the way they used to wear their hair. Ronnie Spector has since become a good friend, she calls me ‘Beehive.’
Did it create sort of a persona too?
I have no idea. I didn’t start calling myself the Beehive Queen, I honest to God do not know who did. But all of a sudden someone said to me one day, you know this Beehive Queen thing is really catching on, look on Google. Put in the words beehive queen.’ I did and my name was the number one hit! So then I thought I’ll just run with it. That was a few years ago. I was not really prepared for all this. It happened while I was off doing something else, but I love it because Ohlman is kind of a hard name to spell. It regularly gets spelled various wrong ways but people can just look for Beehive Queen and you’ll find me and invariably they do.
Have all your records have been with Rebel Montez?
Yes. The Deep End, as you know, has lots of special guests. And some of those tracks were recorded with Andy York in his home studio. Andy has played on every record. So some of the tracks don’t really have Rebel Montez on them, but for the most part, the rest of the record is that band.
Does the band have the same lineup?
Yes and no. My husband passed away New Year’s Day of 2005 and Memorial Day weekend of 2006, Eric Fletcher, my guitar player, was found dead in his house, apparently he had a heart attack. So that’s when Cliff Goodwin from Worcester Massachusetts joined, but Cliff does not always travel with us. We have a second guy named Chris Bickley — the guy with the cowboy hat —who travels with us. But the drummer and the bass player have stayed the same.
Tell me about them.
Michael Colbath, the bass player, is from the Hartford area and Larry Donahue, the drummer is from the New Haven area. They’re just really great, solid players and wherever I want them to go, they go. Before Rebel Montez, the late Eric Fletcher, Michael and I had a band with a drummer named Steve Parrish. And Steve got a job at a Berklee School of Music detached campus and moved to Idaho, of all places. For about a year and a half we called ourselves The Amazing Drummerless Trio, based on the early Elvis Presley band that had no drummer and the early Muddy Waters Band that also had no drummer. I just tried to become as strong a rhythm player as I could. But then we made The Hard Way, and that record has SNL’s Shawn Pelton on drums, Michael, Eric, me, Andy and GE. Then we decided that we needed to get a fulltime drummer so we got Larry Donahue. And that unit stayed together until Eric’s death. Then we got new guitar players and we love Cliff and Chris. One of the things all this taught me was adaptability. I have friends who have played with the same people for 25 years. The SNL band, for example, is incredibly stable. Unless somebody retires, nobody leaves that band. It’s nice to be in stable units, but since my husband passed away I do a lot more of this moving in and out.
“I’m not a lead guitar player at all but I’m a strong rhythm player.”
So you have 2 bands happening at the same time.
Oh no, I have more like 4 bands or 5 bands. I play the original stuff with Rebel Montez. Then there’s the SNL band, and then I have my little side project the NYC Hit Squad with Ricky Byrd and Liberty DeVitto and that’s been going on for like 10 years. That band plays at Iridium and we play all covers. Ricky Byrd on guitar and Liberty DeVitto on drums and a bass player and a keyboard player from Southside Johnny’s band. Also, I now go down to Muscle Shoals and play with the Decoys, which is the legendary David Hood and a bunch of guys from down there – the Swampers. I do that at least twice a year now. I also just did a big tribute to Jerry Wexler that turned out to be a wonderful connection. I was in New Orleans in October doing a little gig with Dave Malone from the Radiators. My husband’s passing — horrible as it was and as it is, and terribly stressful and everything else — seemed to be the catalyst for my reaching out, maybe because I knew I had to do everything myself. And the reaching out has been incredibly successful and artistically satisfying in terms of leading me down all these different pathways with all these different people. Jeff Carlisi, the guitar player for 38 Special and one of the people with whom I do the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame gig, turns out to be the most amazing swamp guitar player. He came up in Florida with the guys from Skynyrd before he wrote “The Heart Needs a Second Chance” and “Hold on Loosely,” the radio hits. So he can really swamp, it’s an amazing thing. So now he and I talk Muscle Shoals and I try to get him over there. I tell him ‘these are your people.’
When did you start playing guitar?
In my terrible laziness, I always had the guys play the guitar while I would get up and do the hip shake and throw down. And it was again my husband who said if you’re going to write, you’re going to learn how to play. He said, ‘you’re not going to just write words, are you?’ He was pushing and pushing, needling and needling so I got one of the guitar players to find me a 65 Fender Mustang which I still have. That was my first guitar, candy apple red. I don’t really like the electric guitar but finally my husband bought me a Martin and then my great friend, the late Cesar Diaz who was a guitar tech for years for Dylan and Stevie Ray Vaughn, found me my 66 Gibson. Most of my amps I also bought from Cesar over the years. The 66J-50, yeah that was my favorite. Cesar died of liver failure. He was a great friend of GE’s, they both came from the same town in Pennsylvania, Stroudsberg.
I endorse Luna guitars now, they’re a division of Dean. They’re wonderful acoustic guitars and they’re designed by a woman. Not all of their endorsees are women but a lot of them are, and they’re just cool acoustics. I’m much more partial to the acoustic guitar but I do own a bunch of electrics. I’m not a lead player at all but I’m a strong rhythm player. I’ve developed a sort of tremolo wanging style, it’s kind of minimalist but kind of crucial to the sound of Rebel Montez I think. And I think the band thinks so too. They don’t tell me to shut up anyway. (Laughs) But it’s been a great help. For a songwriter in this day and age, you have to know some instrument to guide yourself, even if you’re not a great player, which I’m not by any means. But yeah, the guitar is a cool thing. I like it.
What are you working on now?
I’m writing for a new record, which is taking a long time because I’ve been so busy. The tentative title is The Grown Up Thing and it’s more love songs. There’s been some talk of doing a record of covers but I have sort of a resistance because it seems like a lot of people are doing that. I don’t know, I would probably pick such obscure stuff that nobody would want it anyway. A lot of stuff covered on my records is so obscure that people think that I wrote it. I have to keep telling them I didn’t.
There are a couple of great covers on The Deep End, songs that were unfamiliar to me.
The interesting thing of this year has been the resurgence of one of the guys who originally recorded “Cry Baby Cry,” the duet with Dion on The Deep End. It was by Van and Titus out of Nashville. I found the record up here about 20 years ago. A guy up the street had three shoeboxes of 45s, $5 each. I had no idea what I had, but when I got them home I realized that for $15 I got the perfect little deep southern soul collection, not obvious stuff. Deep like the Goldwax label out of Memphis, I thought, ‘who is this guy who had all this stuff?’ In one box was “Cry Baby Cry” and I put it on the turntable and the hair on the back of my neck stood up. I immediately put it on mix tapes and started sending it around and Dion ended up with one of the mix tapes. So when the time came to do The Deep End and I knew Dion was going to do a duet, I said what about that Van and Titus song? We were in Saratoga Springs in April and one of the real Van and Titus singers — George and Bill Brantley, they’re brothers — George lets it be known through channels that he’s going to get in a car and drive from Knoxville TN to Saratoga Springs and come to the gig. And I thought this will never happen, this guy will never show up. But he did. And he showed up at a gig in Muscle Shoals in July —a lovely, quiet, soft-spoken cat. That record was never a hit anywhere. It was very obscure, but that’s how I found him.
The other cover on The Deep End is “Walking Down A Street Called Love” by Link Wray. Link and his brother Robert made it together, and it’s pretty obscure. The late Eric Fletcher and I had played it on the radio and I wanted to try to get him on the record. We had a pretty good air-shot of it from the radio, so there it was.
So what was your main source of old records?
I have long-standing relationships with a bunch of dealers. Back in the day, you would have a want list but now you just go on the Internet. But you’d send your want list out in the mail and get it back marked up – we have this for $10, we have this for $13, very good condition, very good plus, good, excellent. It was all done by hand but you had to know what to ask for. Val Shively from Havertown PA, he was the cat, and he’s still around. And Victor Pearlin from Worcester Mass. They would also send out mimeographed or Xeroxed lists, multiple pages folded and stapled, saying here’s what I have. Or you would Xerox and send them your want list and they would mark it up and send it back. Also, Bob Shad from Mainstream let us into his office in NYC and told me to pick anything up off the floor from a huge stack of vinyl. That’s where I got my first Ruth Brown and LaVerne Baker LPs on Atlantic.
“The river of American popular song is a huge and deep and wide river and you can go down its many tributaries for your whole life.“
How would you know what you wanted?
I read a lot and I have an incredible collection of books about music. I would take notes and always have my want list, as would any other collector. Nowadays the number one usage of YouTube for somebody like me is these things called static youtubes where people have digitized the vinyl. You call it up and there’s a picture of the record. It doesn’t move, it just plays the music. You literally can find almost anything now on YouTube. People are digitalizing like crazy. Someone somewhere in the world is putting these things up and they’re so easy to find. But back in the day, you were searching forever. When the Scratch Band first broke up, I had a friend from England who first played me Erma Franklin’s version of “Piece of My Heart.” It was a fucking revelation. I had no idea, I’m said what’s this? Erma Franklin, who’s she? Aretha Franklin’s older sister, really? Who knew? He puts this on the turntable and I am just captivated. It’s the best thing I ever heard. He also played me a record that I still may cover by Ketty Lester. She was “Love Letters Straight from your Heart,” but she had this other record called “River of Salt,” amazing. I didn’t know about it but now I want to get a copy. I think my copy of “Piece of my Heart” came from Val Shively.
But it’s always been interesting to me that when I was kind of in between bands, I spent probably three years doing nothing but listening to stuff, taking notes, writing things down, making these mix tapes, immersing myself. And the mix tapes are what led me to the gig on SNL. You go along and things happen and if you’re smart you maybe try to connect the dots a little bit but you can’t really predict where it’s going to take you. But the important thing is to be dedicated to it and have it in your heart all the time, every day, every fucking hour of every day. Because the river of American popular song is a huge and deep and wide river and you can go down its many tributaries for your whole life and there’s just so many of them. It’s completely fascinating.
You seem to be particularly fond of uncovering hidden gems.
Elmore Magazine a few years ago gave me a chance to write a cover story about soul queens and what I really wanted to do was to focus on the really obscure. And Suzanne (Elmore publisher) said nobody will want it. And I said, do you really think they won’t want it? The title of your magazine is Saving American Music, so she said we’ll compromise. If you’ll do Etta James and Mavis Staples, then we’ll let you put in Candi Staton and even the more obscure —Betty Harris and people like that. So that’s how I did it, I made big headings for the star women and then I back-doored in the more obscure ones because that’s what I really wanted to write about.
We have had “He Made A Woman Out of Me” by Bettye Lavette in the SNL band repertoire since I joined the band, when nobody knew who she was. At the second live gig I did with the band, Paul Shaffer was in the audience. We did that song and he sent a note up to the stage: Where did you get that song? And that’s how I met Paul Shaffer. At the break, he came over and said did you get my note? And I said that’s Bettye Lavette and he said who? Now of course, how many times has she been on Letterman? But back then she couldn’t get lost. That record came to me somehow –probably because I read about it and I ordered it. It was on a record label of Lelan Rogers, Kenny Rogers’ brother, Silver Fox from down south. And Paul Shaffer, you can’t stump him. But I stumped him. I have a couple of those songs in mind for The Grown Up Thing already, one of them might be Ketty Lester’s “River of Salt.”
How long do your song ideas percolate before you decide?
I’m a very slow writer and it’s been compounded this time because The Deep End was sort of a breakout for me in terms of how many people heard it and how well and widely reviewed it was. It’s generated a lot more busy-ness for me so it’s been harder to just kind of retreat. But they percolate a long time sometimes, other times they just kind of spring out of your head in one piece. Some songs are different than others. There’s a song called “Alabama and Lonesome” that will be on the new record and I swear to God I’ve been working on it for three years and I just couldn’t finish. And then finally I was up in Vermont a couple of months ago and it was like suddenly, ‘Oh, here’s the bridge, here are the lines I’ve been waiting for.’ They just presented themselves on a little silver platter. My friend came home and I said ‘I finished the fucking song!’
Where do you record?
My brother Vic Steffens has a studio, Horizon Music Group, in West Haven. It’s a wonderful full-service studio and I just kind of moved over there and made that my home. My brother plays multiple instruments and he’s extremely talented. Not a great singer but he plays everything and he writes. He has a real killer ear and he bought into an already-established studio. He’s also very involved in the gospel scene in Bridgeport CT, which is very viable and surprisingly so, for a small city. They have had a number of very, very successful acts come out of there. We also did some of the stuff for The Deep End at Andy York’s house and we were lucky enough to do a few tracks at Levon Helm’s studio when he was still alive.
Were you and Levon friends?
I knew him through Paul Ossola, the bass player in the Scratch Band. Paul had been Levon’s bass player for a while. That’s who set up that session. We used Marshall Crenshaw, who lives over in Rhinebeck, and Jeff Kazee who’s Southside Johnny’s keyboard player and is also in the NYC it Squad. That was the band that day.
Did Levon play on that record?
Yes. He played on a few things. He was extraordinarily generous and lovely and gracious.
How did you come to collaborate with Andy York?
I’ve known Andy forever. G.E. had a side project in NY called the High Plains Drifters back in the day and Andy was in that band. It was sort of an alt-country band so I knew Andy just from hanging around. The next thing you know, we started playing and doing a few things together and then he moved up to New Milford CT. Ian Hunter also lives in New Milford and it was becoming very symbiotic. I was singing on Ian’s record and when I recorded The Hard Way, I had been in the SNL band for a few years and so we pulled in a number of people from that band to guest on some tracks and we also had Andy come up and play. He’s an amazing session guitar player, has amazing ears, and has played on every one of my records. For The Deep End, my husband had been the producer so I asked Andy to produce the record and he very generously said yes. It was wonderful to have him and hopefully he will also do the next one. He jokes that Ian and I are the two people he produces.
Do you have a wish list of other projects you’d like to do?
I’d love to collaborate a little more than I do with ensemble singing. The Blind Boys of Alabama asked me to sit in with them last summer and every once in awhile I work with a backup group called Sin Sisters. They sing with me and we’ve done a few kind of white gospel acoustic gigs together. It’s a lot of fun for me to sing ensemble with other singers, I really enjoy that. I have become close friends with Bonnie Bramlett and she has been dangling the idea of a project with her and Rita Coolidge. In fact, I am going to start pulling her chain now because since we did a show in Muscle Shoals recently she and I have talked quite a bit. I would love to do something like that.
How did you get to know Bonnie Bramlett?
I met her three years ago in the Shoals. She came down to sing and I was introduced to her by people down there and we had a wonderful time and kept in touch a little bit back and forth. Then I saw her last October in Nashville, we had lunch together. Then she came and did this thing with me in Muscle Shoals and we had the most lovely, amazing time. She was coöperative and lovely; it was amazing to have this icon up on the stage. I could not have been happier or prouder, I have so much respect for her. She fucking threw down at that show.
What is the pull of Muscle Shoals for you?
It’s a celebration of a genre and a time and a place. The day I left the Shoals, Eli “Paperboy” Reed arrived to do two days of sessions at Fame Studios with the same guys I had played with. You do find people who will cycle back around into those genres — the British are a good example of that with Adele and Amy Winehouse. But for me it’s a style of playing that’s timeless and will never go out of style. A band like the Black Keys will revive this sort of minimalist thing, which is a lot of what came out of Muscle Shoals — kind of bare bones tracks with great singers over the top. Going to the Shoals for me — or New Orleans — is like going to the Pyramids. It’s like going to worship at some altar of music. There are cradles of American popular song and certainly Muscle Shoals is one of those.
“There are cradles of American popular song and certainly Muscle Shoals is one of those.”
How did the Jerry Wexler tribute come about?
It was in July at the W.C. Handy Music Festival in Florence, Alabama. It was my fourth time going to that festival. It’s very small compared to some other things we go to, but the town just comes alive. They had never done anything for Jerry Wexler but they said go ahead. I was so happy to be able to gather up those people who performed. His career spanned so much – from Ray Charles right on down. The world would not have Ray Charles if it wasn’t for Jerry Wexler.
How do you manage your time with so many projects going on simultaneously?
My own band is very dear to me, but adaptability is something that I’ve had to cultivate. It’s really second nature to me now, but at first it was hard. You feel you have to super-prepare. The SNL band was the first where I thought, ‘you better really know what you’re doing and don’t fuck up.’ But that band is a very small expenditure of time. We rehearse on Saturday morning a little bit, every once in awhile we’ll do a little on Friday. Sometimes we’ll get to play out live and we love that so much. We’re like little kids. We did something in December for the wrap party for 30 Rock. We got to play all of our songs all the way through and it was a lot of fun and everybody danced. We had a really, really good time.
How did you find this wondrous house and how long have you lived here?
I’ve lived here forever. Our studio was six miles down the road and a friend of ours was living here. We thought it was little and cute, I could have a garden and it would be easy to take care of. So we came here and it’s been a long time. The land is part of a family trust. This house was built in 1690 and is the oldest standing structure in the town. The big house (next door) was built in 1720. They had horses and probably chickens. It has a wonderful fireplace, and lots of windows.
Do you have non-musical interests?
My secondary love is gardening. I’m pretty good with flowers, I could putter around all day. I always said that if I didn’t do music. I’d probably have a landscaping business because I’d love to get my hands in dirt everyday. Both of my grandmothers would say they could kill a philodendron. My mother and my aunt were raised in the Bronx but they were both green thumbs and when they moved to the suburbs they both started gardens and they were enormously successful at it. I’d also like to travel more than I do, not for work. Travel is something that I have really come to enjoy these last few years.
For more information on the Beehive Queen and her music
Christine Ohlman on Amazon
All images including featured image by Catherine Sebastian.