Skip to main content

Chester County Press

Philly blues, Philly soul: Deb Callahan to perform at Brandywine River Museum of Art

08/04/2015 02:00PM ● By Richard Gaw

By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer

"Deb Callahan is a shouter, a crooner, a soul-belter and above all a gifted lyrical interpreter. She could sing the phone book and make it sound good."

Living Blues Magazine

The musical roots of Deb Callahan are in Boston, but her soul found its home in Philadelphia, where she has lived for the past 25 years.

Over the course of her musical life in Philadelphia, Callahan has been a mainstay on the Mid-Atlantic blues scene, and on Aug. 14, she and her band – Allen James, Garry Lee and Tom Walling – will be performing as part of the "Music on the Brandywine" series at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford.

To hear Callahan sing is to listen to the sounds of her influences: Aretha Franklin, Tina Turner, Nina Simone, Bonnie Raitt, Otis Redding, Billie Holiday, Buddy Guy, Stevie Wonder, Etta James, and many others.

The journey that has gotten her to this point began early, when she was 8 years old. She attended the Elma Lewis School for Black Cultural Arts in Roxbury, Mass., where she studied African American music and art, opening her ears and heart to gospel and traditional spirituals.

"I am the oldest of four children, and when I was about 5, my parents adopted two children who are African-American," Callahan said by phone from her vacation in Maine. "Once they became a part of our family, my parents wanted to expose all four children to a lot of multicultural things, by way of the black cultural arts scene in Roxbury. Of the four of us, I was the most drawn to it, and it has stuck with me."

While attending college in Maine to pursue a degree in social work, Callahan sang with her first blues/rock band, and she fell in love with the raw, passionate power of the blues. In 1990, she moved to Philadelphia to study for her master's degree in social work. In 1995, she joined a newly formed group called The Blue Root, which gave her the opportunity to perform a catalogue of early blues songs by Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Mamie Smith, Robert Johnson, and Blind Blake. Two years later, she formed the Deb Callahan Band.

Her 2002 debut CD, "If the Blues Had Wings," was featured as the hot debut in the October/November 2004 issue of Blues Revue Magazine, which called her the next Bonnie Raitt and raved that Callahan "has the pipes, the songs and the raw talent to graduate to the next level." Since then, she has released four other recordings: "The Blue Pearl" (2005); "Grace & Grit" (2008); "Tell It Like It Is" (2010); and "Deb Callahan @ The World Cafe Live" (2011). Her recordings take on subjects like experiencing love and joy, finding spirituality, giving voice to the experience of homeless children without family support, and how hard it can be to make life changes. Thirteen songs for her new CD were recorded in Los Angeles this spring, and the album is expected to be released Sept. 1.

Callahan said that she enjoys the dual life of a recording artist -- the grinding minutia of attempting to find perfection in a recording studio, as well as the unabashed freedom of performing live.

"I would enjoy spending more time in the studio if I had more resources in which to do so," she said, "but at the end of the day, there's something about live performing that pushes me. It's sometimes hard to capture that energy of blues and soul in a recording studio."

Throughout her career, Callahan has been able to juggle the demands of music with the other side of her life as a social worker. On Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, she is at a youth center in Philadelphia, working with young adults in transition, freeing her weekends for recording, writing and performing.

"Yes, it's a balancing act, but it feeds both sides of my soul," she said. "I love working with people and finding out the many ways they find connection. Because of my profession, I've found that I'm not afraid to go to hard places with people, emotionally. Playing music, especially the blues, allows me the freedom to go to those similar, deeper places."

Admission to the concert is $15 ($12 for museum members), and $8 for students through Aug. 10. After Aug. 10, tickets are $25 ($20 for museum members), and $10 for students. A cash bar and food will be available. Visit, or call 610-388-8326.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail


Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Chester County's free newsletter to catch every headline