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Requiem for a Bay Area Soul Queen

June 6, 2019

Leola Jiles never became a legend herself, but with her innate talent, dogged work ethic, and love of entertaining, the Pittsburg, California, vocalist enjoyed a five-decade career that took her around the world and spanned a daunting array of styles. With her death on May 16 at the age of 81, the Bay Area lost one of its greatest soul singers, a resilient artist who reinvented herself again and again while staying rooted in the sanctified soil of the black church.

After her early years performing in gospel ensembles she went on to sing various strains of soul music through the 1960s. The 1970s found her delving into jazz and musical theater, and by the end of the decade she’d become a beloved presence on the San Francisco cabaret scene. Along the way she was picketed by Mahalia Jackson and opened for Barbra Streisand, introduced songs by Leiber and Stoller and Ashford and Simpson, starred in a 1980s London production of Sammy Cahn’s Words and Music, and recorded with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie on one of the bebop patriarch’s last projects.

If her stylistic reach seems improbably expansive, Jiles hailed from an environment where “everybody did everything,” says Berkeley jazz and blues vocalist Faye Carol, a childhood friend of Jiles’s from Pittsburg who toured around the country with her in the late 1950s singing gospel music with The Angelaires. “You didn’t break yourself up into different styles in your own mind. Dinah Washington sang whatever she wanted to sing and that’s how we saw things.”

Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on April 2, 1938 (or 1941, another commonly cited date), Jiles moved to Pittsburg with her family at the age of 9. She was in her early teens when Faye Carol joined her parents in Pittsburg from Meridian, Mississippi, where she’d been living with her grandmother. Carol recalls with exquisite detail her first experience hearing Jiles, walking into Solomon Temple Missionary Baptist Church and hearing “two angelic voices. Leola Jiles and her mother were singing to the heavens like I had never heard before.”

“Leola was young and pretty, stylish and popular, and we soon became best friends, harmonizing to the top of our lungs walking from church. She was fearless, and would really go after it and get it done. She was a great cook and liked to travel. People would say she had a lot of chutzpah. She was compassionate and a complicated person too. You didn’t want to get on the other side of her. As long as you’re on the good side, you’re golden.”

As a performer, Jiles is best remembered as the lead vocalist for the 1960s soul gospel ensemble the Apollas (which also recorded as Leola and the Lovejoys), an all-women vocal group that gained international renown with incendiary live performances. While the Apollas never scored a top-10 hit, the group’s recordings gained an avid cult following, particularly in the United Kingdom, where soul-besotted vinyl sleuths came to treasure their singles. In 2012, the British label Kent Recordings released Absolutely Right! The Complete Tiger, Loma And Warner Bros. Recordings by The Apollas, a project produced by London-born, El Cerrito-based writer, archivist, and producer Alec Palao, who describes Jiles as “one of the most powerful voices in R&B and soul to come from here. I don’t know why the Bay Area hasn’t given her more recognition.”

Jiles isn’t the end of a line. There are a handful of her peers still active, including the dynamic Faye Carol, the powerhouse Lady Bianca, and Dorothy Morrison, whose lead vocals on the Edwin Hawkins Singers’ 1968 hit “Oh Happy Day” (recorded in Berkeley’s Ephesian Church of God in Christ) was a landmark of gospel music crossover. But long before “Oh Happy Day,” the Apollas started making waves in San Francisco, performing regularly at Sugar Hill, the Nob Hill club run by folk/jazz singer Barbara Dane (who’s still going strong at 91).

A compilation of singles, Absolutely Right! makes it abundantly clear that the group’s gospel-fueled sound and stylistic reach resulted in music far more interesting than many “girl groups” that attained far more popular success. They got their first taste of national notoriety performing at a Manhattan night club called the Sweet Chariot, which was presenting African-American gospel music to largely white audiences. Offended that sacred sounds were being served up along with booze and cigarettes, gospel legend Mahalia Jackson picketed outside the venue, a story that made the six o’clock news. The attention drew more people, and audience members included Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis, Loretta Young, and Barbra Streisand, who’d met the trio months earlier when they opened for her at the Hungry i in North Beach.

The women also made a powerful impression on Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller, who were in the midst of their extraordinary run as a hit-making songwriting and production team. They changed the group’s name to Leola and the Lovejoys and recorded the women singing a series of secularized gospel songs like “Wait ’Round the Corner” (to the same melody as “Wade in the Water”). None hit paydirt. Back as the Apollas, Jiles, Ella Jamerson, Billie Barnum, and Connie Wye signed with Loma, a Warner Bros. subsidiary. The popularity of all-women vocal groups was at an all-time high and there were big expectations around the Apollas.

Working with excellent songs and top-shelf production, the women recorded pieces like “You're Absolutely Right,” “Just Can’t Get Enough of You,” “Pretty Red Balloons,” and their biggest (albeit minor) hit, “All Sold Out.” The singles got airplay and attention overseas. The women made numerous appearances on television, and landed many choice gigs, including opening for the Monkees on their first tour. But none of the tracks climbed the charts, and by the early 1970s the Apollas were done.

Jiles seemed on the verge of her big break when vocalist Jean Terrell left the Supremes and Jiles got tapped as her replacement. When her manager Dick Glaser insisted on producing some of the group’s recordings the deal fell through, and Jiles stepped away from music for a while. Looking to explore another creative path she plunged into theater. According to a detailed piece on the Apollas by vocalist, music writer and former KPFA DJ Opal Louis Nations, Jiles won a Drama-Logue Critics Award for her work in the play Generations and was nominated for a Bay Area Critics Circle Award playing Sister Margaret in Amen Corner. After recovering from a serious car-crash injury, she returned to the stage as Mary Magdalene in Ted Neely’s production of Jesus Chris Superstar at the Concord Pavilion. 

While enrolled at UC Berkeley to study drama, Jiles returned to singing and became the lead vocalist with the UC Jazz Ensembles under the direction of David W. Tucker. She performed widely with Sammy Cahn’s autobiographical show Words and Music, including a run in London. Reinventing herself once again, she became a beloved fixture on the San Francisco cabaret scene in the frothy years before AIDS dimmed the all-night party. Pianist Glen Pearson was working on the Castro scene in those days with Faye Carol, who also found a new audience among the gay men who embraced bawdy blues and show tunes. He played with Jiles several times, including several hometown gigs around Pittsburg.

He recalls how she made the classic Nancy Wilson vehicle “Guess Who I Saw Today?” her own. “She had her own twist on that opening monolog,” he says. “She was definitely very comfortable on the stage. She genuinely enjoyed entertaining and connecting with an audience. Playing with her was invigorating, with her energy and presence and musical tenacity, the sense of preciseness, the things she insisted on. She was a joy to work with, her demeanor and professionalism, delivery, and interaction with the audience.”

She won numerous awards as a cabaret vocalist, and ended up connecting with Dizzy Gillespie in Europe, who was featured in José A. Zorrilla’s 1991 film The Winter in Lisbon. Jiles sings a song she cowrote with the trumpeter on the soundtrack, which was Gillespie’s last studio recording. She ended up sitting in with him when he played Kimball’s East in Emeryville the following year. A bout with cancer and other health problems slowed her down in the mid-’90s, but she continued to perform and even toured China in 1997. While her discography is distressingly thin (particularly after the Apollas folded), you can get a sense of her presence and power by searching through YouTube and listening to Absolutely Right!

“She could handle pretty much anything that was thrown at her,” says Palao, who formed a close friendship with Jiles and was hoping to produce a new recording by her. “She gravitated in her late years to the Great American Songbook, but at the bottom she had that robust gospel growl that gave a sizzle to everything she sang. And she could still do it. I was trying hard to get her into the studio right up until the end.”

A Los Angeles native based in the Berkeley area since 1996, Andrew Gilbert covers jazz, international music and dance for KQED's California Report, The Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, Berkeleyside and other publications.