Liz Mandeville sings from the soul. She came by that talent naturally, having been raised in a home where her parents’ love of music imbued her own appreciation for sounds of every variety, from Broadway musicals to New Orleans jazz to roots music, country, rock and pop. Pearl Bailey, Louie Armstrong, Nat King Cole and Ray Charles were her early idols, and those were the influences that eventually convinced her she could alternate between singing jazz and blues.
“I’ve always been driven to perform since I was a child,” she said, speaking by phone from her home in Chicago. “I remember as a child watching the ‘Ed Sullivan Show.’ I saw Tina Turner, this amazing black tornado, come out on stage, and I yelled ‘Mom, mom! That’s what I want to be when I grow up!’”
Like those musicians who find credence and conviction from their own actual life experiences, Mandeville channeled her own trauma and used her music to find her way out of some bleak circumstances. That included memories of a sometimes dangerous and dysfunctional family that haunted her even into adulthood. That’s what motivated her to leave home while still in her teens, hoping she could find her own way in the world.
After dabbling in theater early on, stage fright and shyness convinced her to change course and enroll at Columbia College Chicago instead.
She studied jazz and music theory and immediately found an early mentor in William Russon, an accomplished musician and head of the music theory department. She followed those early studies with eight years of voice lessons, expanding her foundation to include classical music even while she got on-the-job training by singing in local blues clubs at night while taking classes during the day. After graduation, she received a recording contract almost immediately from a blues label called Earwig Music.
“I’m not shy any more ... at least not much,” she said. “I am ... but when I’m on stage I’m not.”
After being introduced to the blues by the man she would eventually marry — and later divorce — Mandeville pursued her muse in earnest. A local Chicago show producer hired her for a series of cabaret revues that paid tribute to such early icons as Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Burt Bacharach. She toured professionally both domestically and overseas in the company of a variety of bands before forming a group of her own, a quintet called the Blue Points.
“I was just willing to do the work,” she said “It was never about being famous or anything. I wasn’t paying any attention to what I was doing. I just went out and did it.”
Mandeville released nine albums between 1996 and 2016, with a new, as yet unnamed effort, due Nov. 1. She also took up guitar, determined to expand her skills into other realms as well as singing.
“I’m pretty driven,” Mandeville said. “Whatever I do, I want to be excellent at it. I won’t allow myself to be second best.”
It was little wonder then that each of her efforts was accompanied by kudos from the critics, as well as various honors and awards. In 2001, her second album, “Ready to Cheat,” was nominated for Best Blues CD of the Year for the Chicago Music Awards. The following year, her third album, “Back in Love Again,” also was nominated for the same prize. In 2005, her song “He Left It in His Other Pants” garnered her an award as Best Songwriter in the USA by the USA Songwriting Competition.
Other accolades followed. Mandeville’s composition “Life Sentence of the Blues” elevated her to the semifinalist slot in the International Songwriting Competition. In 2008, she was nominated for Blues Songwriter of the Year by the American Roots Music Association. Her fourth effort, “Red Top,” remained in the top 20 of the Roots Time radio chart for 22 weeks. Likewise, her song “Scratch the Kitty” hit No. 1 on the Cashbox Top 20 charts, where it remained for 22 two weeks as well.
She capped those accomplishments in 2013 when she was inducted into the Chicago Blues Hall of Fame.
“Sometimes I ask myself, ‘Why aren’t I more famous?’,” she mused. “Then I think it doesn’t matter, because I’ve had so much fun.”
Nevertheless, her trajectory was interrupted by some unexpected disasters. A car accident caused by another driver and a subsequent bout with pneumonia left her severely shaken and threatened to put an end to her career.
“After the accident, I kept working even though I was using crutches or a cane,” she recalled. “Two weeks later I caught the flu and it morphed into pneumonia. I was so rundown, I laid down on my bed and I said, ‘OK, I’m ready to die. God, take me. And God said, ‘Really? That’s want you want? Well, let me show you what’s in store for you.’ I actually had an out of body experience, and I think I went to hell. I was so beat up, my voice was trashed. I went to a two-week yoga retreat, and it was through that that I found my voice again.”
Nevertheless, a period of self-doubt followed in which she questioned her worth as an artist and reasons for continuing.
Then, at the end of 2016, she had a head-on collision with a parked car due entirely to distraction. When she slammed into the vehicle at 70 mph, the impact left her with an injured spinal column, causing weakness in her arms and hands.
Rather than succumb to pills and medication, Mandeville opted instead for acupuncture and yoga, and four months later, she was back on stage. A short time later, she was able to resume touring. It took her two years after the accident to fully recover, but she credits support from her friends and fans for helping in the process.
“My voice is back, I’m back, and I’m so happy to be out touring,” she said with obvious enthusiasm. “God put me on this Earth to make music, to spread joy, to make people laugh and feel better. And that’s what I’m going to do.”