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Blues fans mourn death of singer Vala Cupp, 51

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When Laura Osborn, a longtime friend, heard the news that blues singer Vala Cupp had died, she said, "Well, at least now she's with John Lee. That's when Vala was the happiest, when she was with John Lee."

Cupp, a brilliant but not widely known blues singer who toured for nearly 15 years with blues legend John Lee Hooker, and for a time lived in a room in his Redwood City, Calif., home, died Oct. 31 in her Austin, Texas, home. Her death was ruled a suicide. She was 51.

During the time Cupp toured with Hooker, she would open his sets by singing a song or two with his Coast-to-Coast Blues Band, which was led by guitarist Michael Osborn (Laura's husband). Then, during Hooker's own performance, he would bring the petite Cupp out on stage again to perform a duet of "Crawlin' Kingsnake," always a hit with the crowd.

When Hooker retired from touring, and the blues scene in the San Francisco Bay Area was fading, Cupp, who had never known crossover success as a musician though she was admired among blues fans, moved to Austin in hopes of energizing her career. She found the Austin music scene a tough nut to crack, although she continued to play gigs with various bands. Financial success eluded her, and she worked a series of day jobs.

Cupp had suffered for years from bipolar disorder. Although surrounded by a circle of close friends in Austin and in frequent touch by e-mail and phone with many friends around the nation, she had become increasingly withdrawn.

Amy Skoczen, one of her Austin friends and partner in the band Chicken Plate, said that Cupp had gone through periods when she would not answer the phone or her door.

"More than once I called the police to get her door open," Skoczen said.

Skoczen found Cupp's body Nov. 4.

A preliminary report from the Travis County Forensic Center lists the cause of death as asphyxia by hanging. The death has been determined by the medical examiner and Austin police detectives to be a suicide.

Mike Kappus, owner of the Rosebud Agency in San Francisco, met Cupp when he was managing Hooker and remained a friend thereafter.

"We stayed in touch on a regular basis and had exchanged e-mails shortly before she died," Kappus said. "The latest exchanges were more about her work with animal rights, but she mentioned that she was going to send me some demos and joked about being a late bloomer. That gives me the impression that she had hopes and intentions, and that her last action was the result of some shorter-term upset."

In her last e-mail to Kappus, Cupp wrote: "I feel very much alone, but the up side of that is that I can kiss my dogs on the lips (eeeww) and look `em in the eye. The cat is another story, I think she wants me dead."

Cupp was an active supporter of animal rights. She signed all her e-mails "Vala, Booger, Fooey & Sybil."

Booger and Fooey were her dogs, Sybil her cat. Cupp's friends were surprised that she had not made provision for her pets at the time of her death. (The pets are now in the care of friends and family.)

Born in San Luis Obispo, Calif., Cupp's stage debut was at age 5, in "The Seven-Year Itch." She started singing in folk-rock bands when she was 14. She was 15 when she first heard a Bessie Smith recording, and the course of her life was set.

"It really struck me big-time," she said in a 1991 interview with the San Jose Mercury News. She said she had become fascinated by "the most macabre tunes," like "Electric Chair Blues," "Blue Spirit Blues" and "Evil-Hearted Me."

"I never have been one for pretty songs. The strong ones are a kick in the butt to sing, and they're a strong emotional release," she said.

Cupp was petite but had an enormous, powerful voice that made her seem a giant on stage. She performed with Hooker on major stages around the world, and with other bands in many Bay Area blues and rock clubs in the 1980s and `90s.

Michael Osborn, who worked with Cupp on several recordings and in various bands, said, "Vala was a warm, witty, charming, outgoing, extremely talented and loyal friend. I was always in awe of the way she could belt out a blues tune. I and countless other folks will not only miss her talent on this Earth, but I know all of us who knew her have lost a dear friend. I will miss her for as long as I live."

On her 1990 album, "One Thing on My Mind," Cupp sang a duet with Hooker of his song "Crawlin' Kingsnake," probably the best version of that song ever recorded.

She appeared on several other albums as a guest, and was at work on a John Lee Hooker tribute album at the time of her death.

Cupp is survived by her mother, Violet Cupp, of San Luis Obispo; and her sister, Nina McLaren, of Perth, Western Australia.


(c) 2005, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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