Early one morning, about 10 years ago, Harriett Frazier Ellis, also known as Queen Delphine, awoke and told her husband she wanted to sing the blues.
“He turned back around and went back to sleep,” Ellis said. “But, I started doing some research and came across Koko Taylor. I sound like her. My voice is so deep ... you catch me on a bad morning and I sound like Barry White saying good morning.”
This leader of an Indianapolis-based blues band, Queen Delphine and The Crown Jewels, has two performances in Uptown Greenwood during the Blues Cruise, part of the South Carolina Festival of Discovery, July 11-13. She takes her stage name from her actual middle name, Delphine.
This will be the 19th annual Blues Cruise, the music part of the South Carolina Festival of Discovery, a Kansas City Barbeque Society barbecue and hash cook-off in Uptown Greenwood that focuses on the rich tradition of Carolina Barbecue.
A self-described “blues belter,” Ellis told the Index-Journal she and her band “promise a heck of a show.”
“I’m spontaneous,” Ellis said. “I like having fun. I hope the sound man understands that I like to get off the stage with my mic and sing.”
These days, Ellis and her husband, Lee, co-write a lot of songs together. Queen Delphine and the Crown Jewels plans to release an album in the fall, with all original music.
Ellis said the album will include a bonus track, a Christmas song. The band previously released an album in July 2015.
“That thing went international,” Ellis said. “And, we happened to win the International Blues Challenge to represent Indianapolis, with the Crossroads Blues Society. We went to Memphis and performed there.”
Ellis has roots in South Carolina. Her dad is from this state, as are generations of her family, dating back to the 1700s. But, she grew up in Brooklyn, New York and moved to St. George, South Carolina in her 20s.
“The type of blues I was used to hearing are Southern soul blues,” Ellis said. “It almost sounds like R&B that’s a little bit different.”
Years later, when Ellis found herself in Indiana, she discovered Chicago-style blues.
“I learned some songs and found some people to back me up,” Ellis said. “My drummer’s wife had a barbecue and she found out I could sing and called me up on the spot. So, I just made up a song about one of my favorite foods, which is grits.”
In her household growing up, Ellis said there was always food and music and laughter and fun, even though Ellis’ mother died when she was only 29 years old, from illness.
Ellis said her dad would often make up silly songs to make the children of the household laugh.
Several family members might make the trek to Greenwood to see Ellis perform, she said.
Ellis, Queen Delphine, draws songwriting inspiration from people and experiences close to her.
“Our song, ‘My Cat Got Nine Lives’ is a huge favorite,” Ellis said. “It has a little twist on it.”
“There’s one song my husband wrote for me called ‘What Would I Do?’ Ellis said. “When I read the lyrics, I thought he was cheating on me, because I was like, ‘Who is this woman?’ And, it was about me.
“We talk about things that happen in our lives or things we’ve seen other people go through,” Ellis said. “I’m like. ‘Oh, man. That sounds like a song.’ And, we put it to words and the band helps put it to music.”
Harriett and Lee married in 2006.
“We met in jail,” Ellis said, matter-of-factly. “I was working at a jail as a nurse and he was working there as a counselor.”
Ellis said her current band lineup is ready to bring it to Greenwood.
“Another one of the band’s that’s going to be playing at the Festival (of Discovery) — The Good, The Bad and The Blues — we went up against them in the International Blues Competition,” Ellis said.
Smithsonian Magazine included Queen Delphine in their photo shoot during the Women in Blues Showcase in 2016.
Queen Delphine and the Crown Jewels won the Indy Crossroads Blues Society Blues challenge in 2016 and competed in The 2017 International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Tennessee.
Each member of the Crown Jewels has strengths, Ellis said, noting the Rapier brothers grew up in Gary, Indiana, watching the Jackson Five practice and the Rapiers have gone on to become accomplished performers in their own rights.
“The only thing I can say is that singing is in my DNA,” Ellis said. “Life is short. I don’t want to sit and think back on this time — 30 years from now — and say, ‘I wish I would have...’ No, I’m going to do it. My husband is 199 percent behind me. We are having so much fun.”
In addition to writing music together, Harriett and Lee have also written a play, “From the Cotton Fields, to Carnegie Hall. I am the Blues.” It premiered in 2018 in Indianapolis.
“In this play, the theater is transformed into a juke joint,” Ellis said, noting the two-act play pays homage to music greats and she’s enlisted the help of notable musicians in producing it, including Joseph “Mojo” Morganfield, youngest son of music legend Muddy Waters, and others.
Ellis is a mom to two sons and a daughter and she has grandchildren as well.
Ellis credits another motivator on her path, the late Jonathan Thompson, who gave her vocal lessons.
“He always showed me respect and he called me Mama Harriett,” Ellis said. “Blues is a feeling. If you don’t have that feeling, it doesn’t matter if you can hit it note for note. This is my calling. It’s a different type of healing from nursing, but it is healing.”
Ellis said there is no greater validation than when people in the audience tell her after a show, “You just made my night and my day better.”
One of Ellis’ favorite tunes to cover is “Let the Good Times Roll” by Koko Taylor.
“Because, that’s what we do,” Ellis said. “Blues are not always about ‘Oh, my dog died and my man left me.’ It can be happy as well.”