Deb Rhymer – Heart for Community, Soul for the blues!

Born in Victoria, she grew up in the naval housing in Belmont Park and only left to spend kindergarten to grade 2 in Winnipeg when her dad was briefly transferred there before returning. Music has always been a part of her life and she has always been an entertainer. Well, I always sang but I used to do it when everybody would leave my house. The only thing I had was my parents’ records, so I did all the show tunes. I would wait for everyone to leave at night and learn all these songs. When I was a little kid, I used to charge money, up on my sundeck on the side of the house. I was taking ballet at the time, and there were these twins that lived across the street, and I thought I’d have a twin on each side, and I’d be in the middle. I was 10. I would make the neighbours come, would charge 30-cents, and we would do a couple of ballet numbers and then we’d sing, and we’d do all these stupid little shows. And that’s kind where it started.

Right out of high school, Deb started playing with bands around town.  Around 1977, in the 700 block of Fort St up above where Dots Discount Designer Wear is, there were rehearsal studios and kids could rent space to rehearse their bands.

“There were five rooms, each band had a room, and we would rehearse.  I had a rock band called “Hostage”.  Don Peterson and I played together that long ago, that’s how long we’ve been friends. I did a little bit of playing here and there, and then I got married and I kind of got out of it for a while.”

It wasn’t until 1997 that Deb really got back into music and started singing the blues.  When she had the chance to go South, it changed her life.

“These guys came to me and said they thought I could sing the blues, so they gave me a few albums to learn.  The band was called “No Fixed Address” and we did Marcia Ball, Lou Ann Barton, Angela Strehli, people who were in the blues in the Austin Texas music scene way back then.”

There was a blues jam at Hermann’s on a Tuesday night, “Bluesy Tuesday”, and I used to phone them up because I didn’t know you just go down and sign up.  I sang “Stormy Monday” until everyone got quite sick of it, but that’s how it started.

“I was 40 years old, it was a big thing because I was just getting into it and the band was just kind of starting out and I didn’t know a lot. I went right from New Orleans up to Memphis, right through the Delta. That really changed my life because I realized the importance of blues and what it meant in history. Having not really cared about blues, all of a sudden, I cared about it a lot. And so that’s kind of where it started, and I never really stopped.  That trip made me decide that it was the blues. I knew it was really going to be important to me and it was exciting. I didn’t do it by choice, you know, it just kind of came to me.  So then after that, I really never looked back, I just kept singing blues.”

Finding that bands only stayed together for a few years before members changed and then eventually broke up, Deb decided to start her own band with her name on it.  She would never again have to throw away a band name and start again.  In the early 2000’s the “Deb Rhymer Band” began.

“I took it to heart, and I just thought, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do my own thing.  Only I have to show up.’  I put out our first album as a band in 2005, and then I didn’t do another one until 2018.”

We asked Deb what led to such a big break between albums.

“I was busy. I had a whole career.  I had a heavy-duty day job, so I didn’t have time.  I was working really hard, and I was a single mom.  I wasn’t going out every night, it was hard to get childcare.  Back when I was in the federal government, we had a lot of money.  I wish I was still there, because now I’d know exactly what to do with it. If we saw something in the community, we could fund it. If you look at the extension on the Belfry Theatre, that’s something that we did. We did the first needle exchange program.  We were really cutting edge back then and that was the happiest times in my career, doing that kind of work. I could really see the benefit of these community-based projects. It was good for the people on the projects because it gave them skills and they often got jobs and went back to work. I had sort of two paths in my career. I also worked in childcare, I built daycare centres, I funded daycare centres, I got involved in building an out of school care program at my daughter’s school.  I was always in job creation federally and provincially and when I add it all up, I was there for 35 years but singing always on the side.”

It was always my love, but it was secret.  There’s people my work life who would be absolutely shocked that I played music.

After years of service, it was time for more music.  The band’s second album titled “Don’t Wait Up” was released in July 2018 and includes 6 original tunes as well as 4 cover songs. Since its release, it has reached the Top 10 in Canada, the Top 50 of Contemporary Blues Albums in the US, and was nominated for the 2018 New Artist of the Year at the Canadian Maple Blues Awards.

I thought now it’s my chance, I can do what I want to do, when I couldn’t when I had to make a living. I started to record a couple songs and then David Vest, who you all know, said to me that it would be a game changer if I could write the music. I ended up writing or co-writing half a dozen songs on the album and that changed everything because all of a sudden, it was original music.  I had some wonderful co- writers like Bill Johnson. It felt really good, and I realized that that’s what I should have been doing all along.

We were curious if Deb’s creative side had helped her in her business career or if the business side had had any benefit to the music.

“If anything, the music part made me more sensitive to different social issues I guess, because I was always working in social programs, especially on the job creation side.  We’d always deal with people with multiple barriers, so I think the music, you know there’s so many different characters and people in music, made me more sensitive to the differences that people have. 

Then I found that if we did music, we could raise money, so that was the other big one. It was good for teamwork in that I used to always have my staff do little skits.  Every one of the people who worked for me will remember.  There was a guy named Jake, and we had a band called Jake, the Snake, and the Snakettes, and I was a fabulous Snakette. And we literally wore garbage bags, and danced around. I can remember throughout all the different jobs I’ve had, I’ve always tried to bring it there.”

Deb is still really involved in community projects and fundraising, from Bitchfest to the Blues Society and the board at Hermann’s Jazz Club, we wanted to hear more. What exactly is “Bitchfest”?

“A few years ago, we decided that it would be nice to have an all-women’s event and just support women serving organizations. Through all my employment programs work, I met all these agencies, Transition House, The Sexual Assault Center, I knew them all intimately, I funded them for years, and so I thought I’d like to support some of them.  I have to give credit to BJ Cook, she was an amazing singer who sang with Skylark, a very celebrated band, and she also sang with Ronnie Hawkins.  She used to get some of the women in town together and she’d say, “I’m going to call a meeting of the bitches”. It got bigger and bigger and other people wanted to come and then one day, she said, “You know, this isn’t just a meeting of the bitches, this is a Bitch Fest!” So that’s kind of how it started. In the very first year, we decided to have a “Bitchfest”, even though it was a bit controversial.” 

We thought we’d just have one night of dancing and fun and drinking and carrying on and entertainment.  We’d get the all the women singers we knew to get up and sing and we’ll raise money and put it back into the community into these women’s serving organizations. So that’s kind of how it started. The first one was, small and then it got bigger and bigger and bigger and, we’ve had a little break because of COVID, but we want to get back into it and raise some more money.

After attending blues cruises where she met representatives from blues societies all over Canada and the US, Deb decided that Victoria needed a blues society of its own, so in 2007 she helped form one.

“I started going on blues cruises and I did five of those with everyone from Etta James to Irma Thomas. They’re on a boat, they’re not leaving, they are with you for seven days and they can’t get away from you.  I could just sit down and talk to blues people that were my heroes.  It made a big difference.”

Each level that I got deeper into blues music, the more I appreciated it, and the more I understood what it meant. I remember going to a gospel brunch in the middle of the Caribbean and someone getting up on stage and singing and to see this, it was just so powerful and so wonderful. Each of those things contributed to loving it more and more. It’s been a labor of love ever since.

“The Blues Society is really just to appreciate the blues and put on blues shows.  We used to do education and training workshops around the blues and things like that. Just all appreciation and love for the blues. We’ve been going for many years, and have a strong board. We usually do shows all throughout the year and then take the summer off because it’s festival season.  We try and do a combination of touring artists and supporting great Canadian artists like Big Dave McLean, who’s a big Juno Award winning blues guy.  Victoria has always had a huge blues community, bigger than Vancouver in some ways.”

The Deb Rhymer Band hosts the Sunday Blues Service, the longest running blues jam in the Pacific Northwest.  This very popular free event showcases some of Victoria’s best musical talent every week at Hermann’s Jazz Club.

Having lived in Victoria for so many years, we wanted to know Deb’s take on the evolution the music scene has gone through.

“The hardest part has been prices going up, rent and everything.  It’s gotten more and more expensive to live here and there aren’t enough venues. There’s lots of creativity here, there’s lots of talented people, but they don’t have anywhere to play. You know, it’s been really tough.  If you think about Swans, Swans was a huge music hub.  It was a place to dance, and there’s none of that anymore.  It’s gone.  The Tally Ho was a huge live music venue with big, big room and it’s gone. I think that’s one of the big challenges for live music.  You’re either in a big theatre, or you’re in little tiny pub and there’s not many performance spaces in between. So that’s been a real challenge.  But there’s still a lot of music and a lot of bands here. That’s why Hermann’s Upstairs was such a great a great thing, because it became a medium size venue where there was not a lot.”

“One of the reasons I got involved in doing a duo with Victor Wells was it was a lot easier to find places to play because you could be in a restaurant, you could be in a pub, you could be at private parties.  It just sort of opened up the whole thing and we could continue to perform.  It was good for me because I had been so into the blues, then for the last few years, I missed singing other types of music, and it allowed me to do pop and rock and a little bit of jazz. I’ve even actually been working with another piano player just playing jazz, because I realized I really liked that too.”

Over many years, Deb has put in an incredible amount of work to create a very tight blues community.  She has overcome many obstacles along the way and still always finds time for give more.   How does she keep it all going?

“Interest. I’m just very interested in it. I just have a big capacity for work. I like doing it, you know, I like to be really busy. I’m all about, having a project, and so it was just attractive to me.  I’m just going to keep doing it.  You do something a little different and see what it can do.  Get involved in things.  The way I feel about it is, if I see something and I think I can fix it I want to go fix it.

An example is that there was no out of school care at my daughter’s school, and I was single mom that needed daycare.  They were building the new Sir James Douglas School and I saw an opportunity to build a daycare right into a brand new school.  Because I’ve been working in funding programs for years, and I kind of knew how to do that, I thought there was a BC 21 grant initiative, so I decided to get one and open a daycare at the school. Sometimes I was driven by my own issue and what I needed the community to do for me, and then I would just get involved in it and start figuring out how to get the money and get it to happen. So often it was driven by things that I saw were missing.”

I’ve always found that there’s a great capacity in the community with people that we know to get things done.  People are very giving, and kind and they’re always happy to work on things and help out and, and nothing is achievable without a wonderful team of people around you, so we would always would put some great people together just to get stuff done.

“There’s all kinds of wonderful people in this city that will work hard for a goal and make something happen when you’re good at gathering all those people together behind the cause.  Being here my whole life, I know a lot of people and can make a lot of connections. Our blues community in particular, are some of the most loving, wonderful people you’d ever want to meet.  It’s just been a wonderful, wonderful thing for all of us. And we’re, as you said, we’re very tight.  We care and love each other very much. It’s a wonderful community.  It’s not hard to keep it going and to find people who want to be part of that.”

The blues is about getting through things and, rising up.  It came from the cotton fields in Mississippi, that’s what it was all about. It is as much about sadness, as it is about new beginnings and joy and when I realized that, that’s when everything changed for me.

What would Deb Rhymer say if she knew the whole world was listening and would really take in what she was telling them?

Music is healing.  Music brings people together.  Music brings joy.  There isn’t anybody who doesn’t listen to an old song, and have it bring you right back to that certain person or a certain place or a memory. That’s the beauty of it.  It’s emotional, it makes you feel sometimes really, really sad or sometimes really, really happy. It’s such a big part of my life, it’s given me more joy than anything else, that’s for sure.  That’s the big thing about music, there’s something for everybody. There’s a song you will hear, a lyric, that’s going to resonate with you, and it’s going to make you feel emotional, and I think that’s incredibly powerful.

Deb Rhymer Band:
Rhymer & Wells:

Author: Christina Morrison
Photographer: AL Smith

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