Linda Tillery founded the Cultural Heritage Choir to showcase Black musical traditions. Credit: Sandy Morris

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As protests and marches swept across the Bay Area in the weeks following the death of George Floyd, Linda Tillery could hear the rising calls for change from her room in the Carlton Senior Living center across the street from the San Leandro Police Department. The protestors probably didn’t know it, but their chants flowed from a songbook that Tillery has spent much of her career carefully tending.

Over the past four decades, no one in the Bay Area has done more to breathe life into freedom songs than Tillery, the powerhouse Oakland singer, activist, educator, and leader of the Cultural Heritage Choir, a vocal and percussion ensemble that encompasses the entire history of African-American music. With Carlton Senior Living on virtual lockdown to keep out COVID-19, Tillery hasn’t been able to participate in any protest actions directly, but she’s heard the sounds of change outside. 

“Initially the revolution was going on right under my bedroom window,” Tillery said. “Black Lives Matter chants, cars honking, people yelling. My unit is right on the corner so I hear everything.” 

Tillery said she has been posting and reposting her song “Freedom Time” on her Facebook page, as well as a song that Rhonda Benin wrote, “You Don’t Want Me,” about how the world embraces Black culture—its music, fashion, and dance—but not the people who create it. “They want everything, except Black people,” said Tillery. “That hit close to home for me.”

Finding strength in her work

In song and deed, Tillery has supported many of the movements for social justice that have transformed society since the 1960s, but these days, she’s in need of support as she contends with a complex array of health and financial problems. 

A recent GoFundMe campaign launched by Berkeley vocalist Zoe Ellis has raised more than half of its $75,000 goal to help Tillery pay for her healthcare needs. However, the lockdown at Carlton Senior Living means that Tillery has to pay for in-house care services rather than availing herself of less expensive outside vendors, depleting her funds at an uncomfortably quick rate. 

“I’m paying an arm and a leg for rent here, and there’s always some extra charge to get proper care,” she said. Still, the facility has been more fortunate than other elder homes and nursing facilities where COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on residents. “This place jumped on COVID, and we were virus-free for three months. Then one person tested positive, a woman who’s 109 years old,” said Tillery. “She had her own personal caretaker who tested negative and nobody knows how she got it. She went to the hospital, got better, and came home.” 

Like with so many artists, the pandemic swept away Tillery’s best gigs. In mid-March she was in the midst of a major project as the co-composer with Molly Holm for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s production of Oakland native Marcus Gardley’s black odyssey. At a stage in her career when performing regularly and touring isn’t an option, Tillery felt the high-profile Ashland job was a financial and creative lifeline. But the gig has been put on hold.

“The thing with me is, I have so many chronic conditions that it’s hard for me to be able to sustain a way of earning money during this outbreak,” Tillery said. “I had switched to orchestrating and composing for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I’ve done black odyssey for Cal Shakes and Seven Guitars for ACT. This was the biggie. I would have been up there for a whole new audience and then, boom, it’s gone. There’s nothing like working to make you feel better.” 

A lioness in winter, Tillery is coming to terms with physical limitations. Most difficult of all is that her voice, the instrument with which she’s defined herself and helped envision a more perfect union, is no longer reliable. She describes bouts of immobilizing depression, though she also has her good days. 

“I have to reconcile with the fact that I’m a different person,” she said. “People will say things like, I hope you get well soon, but you don’t really get well from COPD and congestive heart failure.”

A well of musical knowledge

A San Francisco native, Tillery first gained notice on the East Bay music scene in 1968 as a six-foot-tall, 19-year-old frontwoman for the Berkeley psychedelic rock band The Loading Zone. With the rise of the women’s movement in the 1970s she was a creative force at Olivia Records, the pioneering label run by a lesbian-feminist collective. She also worked as a studio musician, contributing to dozens of albums by the likes of Santana, Boz Scaggs, Sheila E, John Santos, and Turtle Island String Quartet. 

Tillery honed her skills as an improviser in the early 1990s as an original member of Bobby McFerrin’s talent-laden a cappella ensemble Voicestra, an 11-member group that also included Rhiannon, Raz Kennedy, Joey Blake and Molly Holm. “He’s a mensch,” Tillery said of McFerrin, who is one of four newly minted NEA Jazz Masters being honored at an online event produced by SFJAZZ on Aug. 20. 

“Working with Mr. McFerrin opened up my ears and my mind to going back to find out how people made music before all the electronics, the Yamahas and Tamas and Rolands. It was a string or a jug or just their voices. I remember the first time I heard a Gullah spiritual I almost jumped out of my skin. I’d never heard anything like that. It sparked a feeling of jubilation and admiration.”

It was another elemental encounter that set her on a path that has defined her music for the past three decades. Watching a PBS broadcast of Kathleen Battle and Jessye Norman singing African American spirituals, Tillery was so struck by the music’s power and the memories summoned by the songs that she decided to start an annual spirituals concert in Oakland, an event that evolved into the Cultural Heritage Choir.

A self-taught musicologist, she’d been researching African-American music for years. The repertoire she developed for the CHC encompassed just about every idiom, from field shouts, work songs and spirituals, to R&B, soul and jazz. The group toured internationally, earned a Grammy nomination, and earned a particularly avid following on the Canadian festival circuit, where presenters often paired the CHC with other artists on stage for impromptu encounters.

Rhonda Benin, a founding member of the CHC, was already a veteran vocalist when Tillery recruited her, and she considers the ensemble her graduate school and launching pad. 

“She took five of us unknown singers and molded us into a world-class group,” said Benin, a Richmond resident who said she is itching to move back to Oakland. “I got a chance to see the world. And secondly, I was not a musician before I met Linda. I was just a singer. Linda made me learn what I instinctually knew. I had to stop and be able to understand the theory and really study the genres.”

Part of what made the group such a powerful force is that the musicians followed Tillery in honing their percussion skills. Playing shakers and chekeres, tambourines and hand drums, the singers created syncopated textures as intricate as their five-part vocal arrangements. “I always believed that if you use the phrase African-American, the African part needs to be fully represented,” Tillery said. 

Her ability to elevate just about any musical setting has led to her being featured a guest artist with a far-flung array of ensembles, from the cappella jazz quintet SoVoSó to the klezmer band Kugelplex, with whom she’s been known to belt out a song in Yiddish. As an educator, she’s influenced hundreds of musicians through formal teaching at workshops and informally as a mentor. 

SoVoSó’s Zoe Ellis already had a three-decade-long resume as a soul, funk and jazz vocalist before she started subbing in the CJC about five years ago, from the Mo’Fessionals to Darryl Anders’s AgapéSoul. She describes Tillery as “a keeper of some of the most valuable information.”

“She’s got this depth of understanding where, in a two hour show, she can explain how the music traveled from Africa through the trans-Atlantic slave trade, across the Americas, and into American popular music,” said Ellis.