LaRhonda Steele's summit: Oregon Music Hall of Fame
LaRhonda Steele spent years singing on local stages, toiling "in the trenches" in what she considered relative anonymity, but people watched and listened and enjoyed.
And, now she receives her just due.
Still actively performing — "Music is what I do in order to stay employed," she said — and filling rooms with songs of rhythm and blues and gospel, Steele goes down in history when she enters the Oregon Music Hall of Fame Oct. 9 at Aladdin Theater. The mother of four (including two stepdaughters) and wife of musical partner Mark Steele, the 52-year-old singer will be recognized for her career works and as "The First Lady of Portland Blues," a nickname given to her by friend and KOIN 6 News anchor/reporter Ken Boddie.
"It makes me feel incredibly honored and blessed. It makes me feel (really, really) proud," Steele said. "Good Lord, I come from a family of people (in Oklahoma) who work hard, who are not necessarily pursuing musical dreams or even thought of it.
"Even at this wonderful local level, my dreams have come true. I've met people who I idolized, meeting people like Curtis Salgado and Gina Vannelli. I've been on stage in front of 20,000 people. Stuff I dreamed about back in Oklahoma — it came true."
A performer, choir leader, teacher and inspiration to many, Steele knew that she had put together a fine career since moving to Portland in 1993. But, an Oregon Music Hall of Fame member?
"I was shocked. I didn't think I was on their radar," she said. "I just keep working. I have enjoyed getting the Cascade Blues Hall of Fame award. I'm so glad people are noticing that I'm still here, still at the same profession, being professional, doing what I do, adapting to times, staying healthy."
Steele thinks back to all the performances, her ordeal with breast cancer (2013) and the passing of good friends and fellow Portland singing stars Linda Hornbuckle and Janice Scroggins, who helped her along the way.
"I want to give back to keep us all alive," she said.
Steele has performed on many stages big and small, from the Waterfront Blues Festival to Alberta Rose Theatre, where she'll be Saturday, Sept. 18, for her "I Put A Spell On You" Nina Simone Tribute concert along with The Adrian Martin Sextet.
Steele has produced or co-produced five CDs, including one of all originals, and performed alongside Vannelli, Scroggins, Hornbuckle, Salgado, Obo Addy, Mel Brown, Lloyd Jones, Sonny Hess, Ken DeRouchie and Norman Sylvester and many more — a who's who of Portland rhythm and blues music. She has won three Muddy Awards for best female vocalist, which led to her being inducted into the Cascade Blues Hall of Fame.
She has performed overseas in South America and Italy, and performed with Obo Addy at Lincoln Center in 2005.
Whereas Steele said it's shocking to be entering the Oregon Music Hall of Fame, her husband said, "She deserves it."
Mark Steele added: "She's worked really hard. She's been singing her whole life. Sometimes it's hard to find whatever that niche is, where you're accepted, but the blues community has been very good to her. She's paid her dues. I'm very happy for her, very proud of her. She's a great singer. She expresses a song better than anybody I've ever worked for. There's just something about her voice that brings out the emotion of a song."
Mark Steele jokingly refers to himself as "Mr. LaRhonda," and it's clear that he and LaRhonda and their two daughters together, Sarah and Lauren, enjoy performing as The Steele Family Band. The mother takes great pride in knowing that her adult daughters have followed in her performing footsteps, while also loving stepdaughters Adaira and Alexis — "they, too, are my babies," she said.
"We made a beautiful blended family of brown and not-brown folks," she said, chuckling.
Steele moved to Portland after college, partly because she couldn't find a suitable job in Oklahoma. She had relatives here, including aunt Jean Stadamire. She joined an a cappella gospel choir and soon began to perform, such as with the World Arts Foundation Inc. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration with Ken Berry's band Time Sound.
She met her husband in Portland; he hailed from South Bend, Washington, and his parents had a jazz club in downtown Seattle, Patti's Place.
The rise to local star level has been steady, but not easy. "I was in the trenches for a long time, and I'm a singer who can do just different things — be a lead person, sing background, harmonize," she said. "I kept myself employed by being versatile."
She also does teaching (Portland Center for Spiritual Living) and choir directing (Portland Interfaith Gospel Choir). She and her husband, like many people in the arts and entertainment worlds, had to string together jobs during the COVID-19 pandemic while receiving some grant money and contributions from friends.
Mark and then LaRhonda worked with Bethel AME Church. They picked up several Zoom gigs, including for Women in Politics.
"We didn't have a bill unpaid," she said.
Steele's first album, "Artistic Differences," included originals, but she doesn't shy away from talking about covering songs, such as with her upcoming Simone concert.
"Linda Hornbuckle once told me, 'What we do is bring to life the words of the songwriter," Steele said. "I said, 'Yeah, you can't sing a love song if you don't know what love is.' It opened up my world.
"How can you sing 'Chain of Fools' (by Aretha Franklin) for 20 years … I mean, you can phone it in, but when I sing, 'I thought you were my man,' I know what that means."
Along with "Artistic Differences," which she made with her husband, Steele does have a couple other albums with originals, including "Yes Please," which she made during her breast cancer ordeal along with Ed Snyder. Her latest collaboration was with activist Karen Haberman Trusty, "Spirit of Freedom," and it's on Band Camp.
"She tells (civil rights activism) stories and I sing songs," Steele said.
A common thread through her singing and career has been gospel music, having been raised among church-going folks and still dedicated in her adult years. She doesn't consider gospel music religious; it's more spiritual.
"I use it as a bridge builder," she said. Gospel music helps close the divide between black people and others from different races and ethnicities, she added.
"Gospel music isn't just for Christians. I want to teach people about this and open it up," Steele said. "Look up (for guidance), not just into what this realm is, but look higher. Teaching that in a nonreligious platform, it actually gets into your heart and raises your consciousness.
"I'm not trying to convert anybody, but I want us as human beings to aspire and reach beyond what this realm is. That's what our spirits are, reaching to higher heights. You can do that through the medium of gospel music. Once you get into the energy of it, there is freedom in that."
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