Brenda Boykin has earned a sterling reputation in the San Francisco Bay Area as a masterful interpreter of jazz and blues material gleaned from big bands, old blues hands, and honky tonk heroes. Boykin has firmly established herself as an unsurpassed vocal talent whose elixir of bourbon and cornbread - sounds from silk to sandpaper - delight both new listeners and purists who compare her to the giants of the past.
A native of Oakland, California, Boykin’s first musical experience came through the youth choir of the North Oakland Missionary Baptist Church, one of the many houses of the lord where raucous, heart-felt sounds of the faithful still ring out on the wide streets of the East Bay flatlands. The church strains can still be found in her rich, husky contralto, effortless power and controlled vocal passion. After studying the clarinet in high school Boykin entered the University of California at Berkeley - and though studying psychology and social welfare - gravitated toward the jazz bands working on and near campus. Boykin worked Bay Area jazz and blues hot spots that helped her expand her musical horizons.
With the encouragement of family friend and guitarist Sonny Lane, Boykin began to dig in with the blues people at Oaklands’s legendary Eli’s Mile High Club. The famous North Oakland night spot has been for many years the heartbeat of East Bay blues life, with giant figures including Percy Mayfield, Lowell Fulson and Jimmy McCracklin gracing the small stage alongside lesser-known stalwarts including guitarist and arranger Johnny Heartsman, Sonny Lane and Mississippi Johnny Waters.
Under tutelage of Lane, Waters and drummer Francis Clay - an influential force in the great Muddy Waters bands of the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s - Boykin absorbed the laid back, call-and-response magic of the late night urban blues. “Boykin does delightfully unfamiliar things with familiar tunes,” said the East Bay Express in 1988, “using her rhythmic authority and arranger’s sensibility to create exciting new version” of tunes from Basie, B.B., Buck Owens and everybody in between.
She often cites Sarah Vaughn as a major influence, but Brenda Joyce Boykin is certainly not a devotee to any one stylist or genre. She says that the incomparable blue balladeer Bobby “Blue” Bland, whose string of hits dates back to the early ’50s, has had an enormous impact to her vocal approach. She also gives a nod to Brenda lee and Elvis Presley, LaVern Baker and even the “divorcee music” of Nancy Wilson and Dakota Staton.
Boykin has won rave reviews for her repeat performances at the venerable Monterey Jazz Festival, the more boisterous Monterey Bay Blues Festival, the San Francisco Blues Festival, the Mississippi Valley Blues Festival in Davenport, Iowa, the DuMaurier Jazz Festival in Vancouver, and the Umbria Jazz Festival in Italy.
For many years she has performed duets with her “musical soul mate” Eric Swinderman, a sensitive guitarist who accompanies Boykin on material ranging from New Orleans rhythms to jazz standards. Boykin has performed countless times with Home Cookin’, a small combo with a changing roster that has included guitarists Anthony Paule and Steve Freund, pianists Steve Lucky and Caroline Dahl, bassist Tim Wagar and drummer Tyler Eng.
For the past three years Boykin has also taught singing workshops at the Rhythmic Concepts Jazz Camp, alongside a roster of the San Francisco Bay Area’s most celebrated and dedicated jazz musicians.
Boykin has mastered all of the crafts of a complete vocalist, she has a rich voice, a masterful grasp of musical dynamics, and a natural, unforced empathy with her listeners. “Part of showmanship is to turn to the guitar player and bass player and exchange some energy, look him in the eye and say ‘Yeah, Baby,’” Boykin told Blues Revue in 1995. “I’m like the party master. The way a hostess gets at a house party. I’m walking around making sure the energy is up in every part of the room.”
In 1997 Brenda received a BAMMIE nomination for Best Vocalist of The Year.