Blues and gospel singer Lea Gilmore sits in Station North's Red Emma's Bookstore Coffeehouse unnoticed. If the Baltimore native had been drinking her pot of tea in Brussels or Glasgow, by contrast, it would be a very different situation. That's because, despite living her entire life in Baltimore, Gilmore is far better known in Europe than she is in her own hometown. In fact, over there, she's a star.
Her four best-selling albums are European-only releases, and she often headlines 3,000-seat cathedrals and 5,000-seat arenas in Europe. Here at home, she only does a few concerts a year, usually in intimate spaces such as the Creative Alliance or Center Stage.
To watch a 2012 video of her in an arena in Belgium leading several hundred choir members in a rousing rendition of "This Little Light of Mine" in front of several thousand audience members is to prompt the question: How can she be so famous there and so little known here?
"It's not an uncommon story," Gilmore, 49, says with a shrug, looking regal with dozens of tiny braids pulled back from her moon-round face, a leopard-print scarf wrapped around her neck, and silver owl earrings dangling from her ears. "A lot of American performers have had more success in Europe. In my case, it was one of the most organic processes ever."
By that she means that she wasn't looking for a singing career; a singing career found her—and it did in a Catholic church in the small village of Erembodegem, Belgium. This was 1997, when she was working as deputy director for the Maryland ACLU and scratched her musical itch by discussing blues history on the Internet. When she mentioned online that she was taking a trip to Europe, one of her chat-room friends, Marc Borms, invited her to sing at his church in Belgium.
"I thought he wanted me to sing Schubert and Bach," she recalls, "which I could have done, because I'd studied that in college. But he said, 'No, we want Mahalia Jackson.' I was used to singing in church, of course, but this was so different for me. I was nervous for the first few songs, but then someone started clapping, and that gave permission for other people to start clapping. Then, one person stood up, and that gave permission for other people to stand up. Then, one person started singing along, and that gave permission for everyone to start singing along."
One of the people in that audience was Walter Van Wouwe, the person in charge of special projects for the Damien Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to battling leprosy and tuberculosis around the world. Having witnessed how Gilmore could rouse a room of strangers, he thought her music could be the perfect tool for his organization. He hired her to train choirs all over Belgium in African-American gospel and then to perform at fundraisers all over the nation. Before long, audiences were calling her the "Gospel Queen of Belgium."
"Western Europe is a very secular place," Gilmore observes, "so they don't have that weekly chance to bring their feelings out like we do. But these gospel concerts give them a chance to do that."
The churches of Baltimore are full of powerhouse singers who know how to put a blues twist on a hymn. But in Europe such singers are a rarity, and that's part of the reason Gilmore became such a star there. But even if you transplanted dozens of Baltimore church soloists to Belgium only one or two would have the charisma and cross-cultural comfort to connect with European audiences. It wasn't just a fluke that made Gilmore a star there; she was uniquely prepared for the opportunity.
Before long, audiences were calling her the "Gospel Queen of Belgium."
"There are a lot of great singers," says Walt Michael, the founder of Carroll County's Common Ground on the Hill, where Gilmore has often taught courses on the blues, "but Lea was willing to use that to cross lines. She went to a mostly white girls school in Baltimore, so she grew up with that ability to speak to everybody and still tell the truth; she was comfortable in all cultures . . . but she never once forgot who she was as a black woman."
Gilmore grew up in the middle-class Northwood neighborhood, near the Morgan State University campus, the daughter of a nurse and a medical technologist. Both had grown up in North Carolina and her dad's family had been sharecroppers.
"Education was what got them off the farm," Gilmore says, "so they put a lot of emphasis on school. My mom was the oldest of 10, and each one put the next one through college. I was the only child of older parents, so they invested a lot in me."
She earned a scholarship to study piano at Peabody Prep when she was 11, and then attended Mercy High School. Equally important to her education was the Mount Hope Baptist Church at Gwynns Falls Parkway and Reisterstown Road. She sang in the choir, but it wasn't until she entered the "Miss Mount Hope" competition at 15 that people realized just how powerful her voice was.
"Like a lot of performers, I'm really a shy person," Gilmore confesses. "Before that competition, most of my singing was in my own bedroom.
"To me, beautiful music was beautiful music. I loved Donna Summer, but I also liked the records my dad played: Sam Cooke, Mahalia Jackson, Otis Redding, even country and western. When my Peabody instructor played Chopin for me, I thought, 'How can something this beautiful even exist?'"
During her years at Morgan State University, Gilmore helped pay the bills by taking roles in Baltimore-area dinner theaters. Often, she was asked to play blues singers in shows such as Ain't Misbehavin'. As she researched those roles, she was haunted by the recordings she discovered but frustrated by the lack of information about the women behind the music.
She decided to fill in the void of information about female blues artists by co-founding a website, It's A Girl Thang, with Florida blues scholar P.W. Fenton. She not only read every book and magazine on the subject she could find but also interviewed as many living artists as she could. She wrote the cover story on Sister Rosetta Tharpe for Sing Out! magazine and accepted, with Fenton, the 2003 Keeping the Blues Alive Award from the Blues Foundation.
Even as she began to build her own blues mama reputation, Gilmore continued to work as a political activist in Baltimore. She had gotten the political bug as a college intern in Congressman Kweisi Mfume's office, and went on to serve as deputy director of the Maryland ACLU, a Maryland State Advisory Board member for the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, and the director of outreach programs for the National Abortion Federation.
"I had two sets of people in my life," she remembers. "There were people who had never heard me sing a note, and people who only knew me as a singer. I wanted to make my life more holistic. I realized that even if you change the laws, you still have to change hearts and minds. And sometimes it's easier to do that with music."
"I thought he wanted Schubert and Bach. But he said, 'No, we want Mahalia Jackson.'"
Providing the thread to sew the two halves of her life together was the Common Ground on the Hill program at Westminster's McDaniel College. For more than 20 years, this nonprofit has pulled together people from different cultures through classes, workshops, and performances in the arts. She had first attended as a student in 1994, but was soon teaching classes on "Women and the Blues," "Malcolm and Martin," and "Seeking Our Common Ground," the latter a course on the way folk art and music such as the blues, gospel, and string bands can build bridges between races, classes, and regions.
When Common Ground's more established blues performers such as Guy Davis and Sparky Rucker pushed her to sing more in public, she took courage and did so. Soon she was presenting lectures and/or concerts about African-American music, not only for Common Ground and the Damien Foundation but also for the University of Mississippi, Holland's College of Sittard, West Virginia's Augusta Heritage Center, Scotland's Umoja Musica, the U.S. Embassy in Paris, and a documentary film shot in Kinshasa, Congo. Back home, she's now working with students at Franklin Square Middle School in a project called Baltimore Voices. She will also perform locally this spring, though where and when remains undecided.
When she rattles off all the jobs she's had and all the countries she's performed in, she sighs. "With all the things I've done," she says, "I feel like I should be 89, not 49." In addition to everything else, she's been married for 31 years to David Gilmore and they have raised two sons: Jonathan, 30, and Gabriel, 24. Ask which of the many unexpected twists and turns in her life has surprised her the most, she says:
"I remember getting ready to sing at the Cathedral of Our Lady in Antwerp. I was thinking, 'I'm just this little girl from Baltimore, and here I am about to do a concert in a Belgian cathedral.' It was a surreal moment. This big Belgian choir was on stage, ready to sing behind me. Thousands of Belgians were sitting in their seats, waiting to hear me sing the music that came out of the most painful experiences of African-Americans. It was this massive stone building with very high ceilings. On each side of the stage was a Rubens painting. But that was okay, because I am Rubenesque myself.
"Once I started singing, it stopped being surreal. It was as if all the history there—the European history in the building and the African-American history in the music—surrounded me and embraced me. Music communicates to and from our souls, and our souls don't have colors. We don't laugh in black and we don't cry in white. I felt connected to everyone in that building, and I remember saying to myself, 'I've come a long way, but I've a long way to go.'"