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Shirley Lewis, 76; Newton singer was queen of Boston blues scene

Shirley Lewis and her band won the Battle of the Blues Bands at Harpers Ferry in 1989.

BROOKS KRAFT FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE

Shirley Lewis and her band won the Battle of the Blues Bands at Harpers Ferry in 1989.

The cream of the Boston blues world honored Shirley Lewis in February during “Living the Blues,” a celebration of her life and career.

Musicians such as James Montgomery, Chris “Stovall” Brown, Professor Harp, Diane Blue, and Big Jack Ward showed up in Newton to pay tribute, a turnout that came as no surprise to emcee Holly Harris, a blues disc jockey who had known Ms. Lewis since she arrived in Boston 27 years ago.

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“Shirley was an integral part of the blues scene from the moment she got here,” Harris said. “She was one of the most kind, positive, loving people you could ever meet. She was a treasure. Every time I intro­duced her, I mentioned that she exuded love.”

Ms. Lewis, who was known as the “regal queen of the blues” for her resplendent, gown-and-hat fashions, died of cervical cancer May 5 in her home in the Waban section of Newton. She was 76.

Her last words to her daughter Marlene Kirby at her bedside were “I love you.”

On stage, the energetic Ms. Lewis was a blues dynamo. Her rafter-raising voice was a marvel of church-trained gospel and pure physical power. Through the years she opened shows for the likes of B.B. King, Buddy Guy, and Ruth Brown.

Locally, critics and fans honored her with a Blues Trust Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001, and she was twice nominated for outstanding blues act at the Boston Music Awards.

In 1989, she won the Battle of the Blues Bands at Harpers Ferry.

She cemented her reputation with an album of gospel songs and with the CD “Blues Through the Eyes of Shirley Lewis,” which featured some of her own compositions. Ms. Lewis said she knew more than 2,000 songs, spanning blues, R&B, jazz, and gospel, so it was not easy to accompany her on stage.

“You had to be on your toes, because she might do something 180 degrees different from song to song,” said Chris “Stovall” Brown, her main guitarist. “She was like a force of nature.”

Ward, who sometimes backed her on guitar or bass, said that “there was a spontaneity to every show and she knew how to work a crowd.”

“She knew it was all about communication,” he said. “And she loved to play to kids. She would take the microphone over to them to try to get them to sing and dance, and then the grownups would go crazy, too.”

Apart from her musical skills, Ms. Lewis was known for her generosity.

“One thing I will remember about her is that whenever anybody was needful in the blues community, she was always the first to step up to the plate to initiate a benefit concert,” said Montgomery, a singer and bandleader. “She was obviously the queen of our music community, but she carried herself with an almost angelic quality.”

Ms. Lewis also sang at benefits for women’s shelters and for musicians displaced by Hurricane ­Katrina in New Orleans.

“Now’s the time to play the blues,” Ms. Lewis told the Globe in 2005 before a benefit to raise money for displaced Louisiana artists. “Blues helps you get through those hard times. It comes from somewhere deep inside. It’s a release.”

Born in Sicklerville, N.J., Ms. Lewis led a varied, sometimes difficult life before moving to Boston in the late 1980s to house-sit and jumpstart her career.

Her father was a Hopi Indian and her mother was of Blackfoot Indian and African-American ­descent. One of 13 children, she was part of the Lewis Family Gospel Singers, a troupe put together by her father, a vaudeville entertainer.

Ms. Lewis married Peter Kirby, with whom she had two daughters while struggling to launch a solo music career. Her marriage ended in divorce, and she endured difficult financial times as a single mother.

Through a booking agency in Kansas City, Mo., Ms. Lewis landed spots on music revue tours across the United States and Canada, singing tunes by the likes of Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, and Dinah ­Washington. She then moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, where she sang in clubs for six years ­before moving to Boston.

Ms. Lewis remained spiritual throughout her life.

“She taught us to put faith in God first, and everything will fall into place,” said her daughter Marlene, a home health aide who lived with her in Waban and opened shows for her under the name ­Angela Warner.

“Mom would always say, ‘Be part of the solution, not part of the problem,’ ” Marlene said, adding that Ms. Lewis attended the United Methodist Church in Newton every Sunday.

In addition to her daughter Marlene, Ms. Lewis leaves another daughter, Minerva Joy Kirby Yee of Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada; a sister, Yuma, and a brother, James II, both of Glassboro, N.J.; two grandsons; and four great-grandsons.

A service complete with a Dixieland band will be held at 3 p.m. June 9 in American Legion Post 440 in Newton, with the Rev. Charlotte Pridgen-Randolph, pastor of the church Ms. Lewis attended, presiding.

With her friends Hattie Barrett and Shor’ty Billups, Ms. Lewis cofounded the Down Home Blues ­Society, a charitable organization that aids older blues musicians in need.

Four years ago, she helped another friend, Wendy Dodd, launch Smoken’ Joe’s in Brighton, a blues restaurant and club where Ms. Lewis played every Friday and Saturday, along with a gospel brunch on Sundays. “Shirley was the first act to play there,” Dodd said.

“She was one of those people who was larger than life,” said Alice Schaefer, another friend with whom Ms. Lewis lived in Newton Corner for several years.

Steve Morse can be reached at spmorse@gmail.com.
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