By Jeb Wright
Debbi Blackwell can sing. I mean she can flat out Aretha Franklin-like wail! She has had a pretty amazing career before she ever became a rock star… yeah, I said rock star!
Debbi is a vocalist in Phil Collen’s (Def Leppard) side blues/rock project Delta Deep. She is also the Godmother to his wife Helen. Together, Phil and Debbi take mixing up and combining musical influences to a new level. The result is one hell of a band.
Debbi also appears on the new Tesla song “Save the Goodness.” She excels on the tune, adding just the right amount of her special spice to make the tune become the best it can be.
Truth be told, I had to cancel a time to talk to Debbi because I had double booked her with a dinner date I had with my daughter. I felt terrible at my mistake, but Debbi was very understanding. In fact, a few days later instead of saying ‘hello’ she led off the conversation with wanting to know how my dinner went. She then opened up about losing one of her own children to gun violence.
What follows is an in-depth chat with a true angel… this woman is one and she sings like one… well, she can also sing like a devil! She can flat out sing and, as this interview proves… she can also talk, too!
Debbi: How was dinner with your daughter?
Jeb: Oh, thank you for asking, that’s very sweet. It was but too short, although it was great.
Debbi: It makes me very, very happy to see people with their children like that. I have five children and Helen, Phil’s wife is my God daughter. I lost my baby son to gun violence, four years ago. He was only 28 at the time. So when I see people enjoying their children, it makes my heart dance.
Jeb: Ahh, well thank you!
Debbi: Then when I see people lose their children it makes me pray because then I understand, I understand the journey and that crazy life that they go for, you know what I mean?
Jeb: Oh, well thank you and I’m so sorry… I just can’t imagine what you went through.
Debbi: I wouldn’t wish this on anyone that has children. I guess like Jesus said, it’s a bitter cup you know, life is filled with ups and downs and lessons and you know you have to embrace it all, you know what I mean? And some is easy and some is hard.
I birthed 4 young men and 1 girl. Each time my sons would turn 18 I would go to cry, I would cry and go, “They don’t need me anymore” and “ohhhh, my babies!“
These are the best gifts in life that I believe that I feel that you’ll ever have and the fact that I’m very close to all my children, even in spirit with my son that’s gone… well I won’t say he’s gone, I like to say he’s moved to heaven. We’re very close; I worked very hard with my children and asked them, “What would you do if you weren’t getting paid?” You know, I wanted to find their passion, you know, each one of them. One of them said he wanted to play ball, so I went and got a football and I would throw the ball to him and he’d have fun, he wound up being 5 years in the NFL...
Jeb: Oh my gosh!
Debbi: Yes, Kory Blackwell is his name, and then I had Troy who one day he was 8 months I think, maybe even younger than that, he was in a crib and I turned the opera off to put on cartoons and he had a fit. I said, “It can’t be!” So I turned back to the opera and he was fine, then I turned back to cartoons and he started crying and I said, “Oh!” So he loved the world of dance and creativity and he wound up doing the River Dance on Broadway, he did a performance at The Met....
Debbi: Yeah, then the baby son -he loved sound and he loved music- and this is the baby that moved to heaven, he’s my angel son. He did sound for Tyler Perry, he did sound for Maxwell, he did sound for the first lady Michelle Obama when she spoke at Morgan State University... He graduated from the Boy’s Choir of Harlem and sang at the World Series with The Yankees.
My older son, he is a Minister of Music… he plays for a mega church, he plays organ, you have to search a little bit for an instrument that he can’t play and my daughter the baby, she was the first black baby to get a Huggies printable coupon commercial.
You know, so I worked very hard to keep them from the streets and to lose him to the streets anyway… They stole from him. They grabbed him. It was Easter Sunday morning and I happened to be at Hard Rock Cafe with Phil from Def Leppard and my cell wasn’t working and someone Facebooked him and said tell your mother to call, it’s about D’Rock, so we called and nobody answered and I said, “What a mean trick.” Then the young man called me back and he said he’s shot. I said what are you telling me? He said he shot… I said where? He said I’m trying to find out. Long story short, I found out they robbed my son and it was all jealousy and we still don’t know exactly who, but they robbed him on Easter Sunday morning on the way to work to do sound for Sunrise Service, then they shot him in the head twice.
Jeb: Oh Debbi!
Debbi: Yeah, so I drank from the bitter cup, but my son still comes to me and he told me, “Mom, you sing my life…” because he knew the question I asked them, their passion, what would you do? They knew mine was to sing, so he came to me in a dream and he said, ”Mom you sing my life” and when I found out, I rolled to Phil and Helen’s room with my son Troy and I actually fell into the room onto the floor with Helen and Phil and Phil actually caught me in his arms and he literally caught me at my weakest.
Phil picked me up and put me to a microphone and in every song that we sing I whisper the name of God and my son D’Rock and I’m grateful to God.
When they said he was brain dead, I said “God, I’m grateful for the 28 years but you have to help me through this because I don’t know how to do this, and if you don’t help me, I won’t make it.” So you can see that I truly say, when you take your daughter out to dinner that you pay....
Truly Jeb I can say that one of the things that sustains me is the wonderful times and I always said to my kids, “Okay lets create some memories…” and the memories that we create embrace me constantly, it doesn’t stop the pain, but it does keeps me going and so does the music and I don’t know why I started with that, but the music, you know...
Jeb: Oh, that’s powerful stuff.
Debbi: Yeah, but I do appreciate you being a wonderful dad, because people have no idea, moment to moment anything can change for the good or the bad, you know.
Jeb: Well, I already thought you were a pretty cool lady before I even talked to you, now I really do; now I know why Phil says you should interview her. Actually, I asked him, and he’s like, “That’s a good idea.”
Debbi: He is my hero for sure and God bless the day that Helen met him and brought him into our family, God bless the day. I know that if he was not there, I don’t think I would be here right now and that’s the honest to God truth.
Jeb: Well that’s huge!
Debbi: There are so many things I could tell you about my son. I will tell you this, then I’ll let you start in… No matter where I was, whether I was in Germany or wherever I was in the world and we talked and he was in New York because he lived in Maryland, this happened in Maryland, I would say ‘well, text me or call me or skype me when you get home’, and no matter what time it was he would either text, skype or call me and say ‘I’m home, I made it home’. Well 9/11, I guess that was six months after, because March 31 was Easter, I had a dream and he said to me, you look dishevelled, I was like, well I thought you were in heaven, he said well ma, you’ve got to work in heaven, too!
So I said why are you crying, he said mom I’ve got to get to the light and then he started to speak spirit to spirit and they were saying to me, I’m still here because you’re sad and I remember the day after his services I actually felt the warmth and I heard him in my ear and this is not a joke, so I can’t come to you when you’re sad, okay. So he said to me I’ve got to get to the light and my brother always used to say 9-1-1 and 7-11. I said 7-11 is 7th heaven and 911 is emergency, so the emergency was 9/11, I have to get out of here otherwise I’m going to be stuck and he didn’t want to leave me.
Debbi: I said well, will I be able to feel you and he said God is going to always leave a part of me with you, but mommy I’ve got to get to the light. He trusted I said you go, I’m looking at him and he’s looking at me. I’m running backwards and he’s moving forward, there’s energy like a glass comes up between us to let me know he’s on the other side and he’s running and all of a sudden he took off and I heard him in a distance and he’s like Ma! I made it! I’m in the light! And I said even when he moved to heaven, he called to let me know he made it home.
He still called me crying because he said, not him, if these people knew, they think they knew him, but what I think happened is my son would help the lowest of the low or the highest of the high, and he could cook too, and he would cook and feed everybody and have people come up and Sharon would say you have to stop helping these people out. I think they saw what he had and I think they wanted what he had, I know they took what he had and he probably caught them and they took his life. That’s what my instincts tell me and what a loving soul, so we have to embrace each other and honour each other and celebrate each other while we have each other, and I do that every day. I whooped their asses, yes I did, because I’m from that school, you know...
I love them as hard as I got them, especially the boys because it was hard raising black young men.
Jeb: Well you have had quite a journey over the last several years that I had no idea about and so thank you for sharing. Do you want me to put that in or should I...
Debbi: You can do anything that we talk about here.
Jeb: I just wanted to make sure.
Debbi: No, I want him to be honoured. We call him D’Rock, everybody calls him Rock or D’Rock and my thing is I want people to know his name and I want him to always be celebrated. One of the songs, you’ve heard the album that we did, the cd? The song “Whiskey” is dedicated to him.
Jeb: I know Phil, so I know he’s musically all over the map, but most people just think of him as the guitar player of Def Leppard.
Jeb: Now, when did you guys know you would collaborate?
Debbi: He married my God daughter and I sang at the wedding. When they would go out of town on the road I would come and take care of the dogs. One day we just started singing around the house, some Motown stuff and it sounded good and he said hey do you think you want to do the Gershwin’s, a girl act for the thing at the Gershwin Institute, you think you might want to? I said sure, well that might be fun and when we did this people were like, where can we buy this?
Debbi: People might buy this... okay! So I went with them to New Zealand and we started writing. He actually had a song for somebody else that he had for years and they didn’t come for it and so when he was playing it, I think it was “Delta Deep” and “Down in the Delta” and I was like wait a minute, I hear this, he said wow that’s great, but I think we just lost a song and we started writing to that and then we went to New Zealand and wrote our very first song and it came out so good and then we just recorded it.
Jeb: And there it was started then. I’m guessing and you can tell me different, but once it became... there had to be a moment where everybody’s eye brows raised up a little bit and went ‘Hey, this is pretty good.’
Debbi: Well, I don’t know, I can’t remember, we knew it was good because we loved it and we loved what we were doing. I think we were so into not believing what was happening, we just kept writing.
Jeb: Oh that’s cool.
Debbi: I don’t know if we had the intention of doing the album and I can’t recollect whether we tried to do what we were doing now, but I think it was like in case we go out maybe we can sell a few records when we sing around.
Jeb: Now, of course, I don’t want people to get the wrong idea, it’s not like you were not, you’re already a successful singer in your own right, and this is just a different world. Real quickly, just so people know, before you met Phil, what was your career, what was your background?
Debbi: Oh man, I had 5 children as I said, so I did a lot of little things to keep me going so that they could go to college, I sacrificed really, working long so that they could get the grants and things, you know what I mean.
I worked at New York News Day for awhile, I worked at Citibank as a facility manager as a temp, they hired me for I think about 4 years as a temp, because I’m also an actress, I’m an award winning actress. I won a Delco for Best New Female Artist in a Musical; I’m a licensed cosmetologist and certified esthetician and a Master Barber.
I used to teach Esthetics on 5th Avenue at a place called Christine Brown Mae and I did that for maybe 5 years, I sang then I would go in and out singing on the road, I did Gospel tours for a lot of years and I sang for the Pope...
Jeb: You did!
Debbi: Pope John Paul, yeah, I started out in ’84 with a group called The Jammers, you can look that up on Youtube and one of the guys actually found one of the albums when Phil and I were out in London and actually had me sign it last year.
Debbi: Gregory Hines, I did background for him.
Jeb: Oh wow!
Debbi: I’ve done make up for theater and movies. I’ve done make up at Lincoln Center; I mean, I did make up for a lot of rap artists. I just kept busy and I had to dibble and dabble because I was also taking my kids on call because they did a lot of commercials and movies, I just had to keep them busy, so at this stage in the game to have the opportunity to sing a song that we wrote with Tesla “Save That Goodness” I had the opportunity on the last leg, to sing with them when they opened for Def Leppard.
Jeb: I saw it.
Debbi: I just feel like God is keeping me.
Jeb: I’m telling you that is a killer song, I was at the Kansas City show, I saw you play it.
Debbi: Okay, I just feel like God is also saying to me, your son’s move was not a punishment and my son did say to me I can help you better from here, mom... I’m serious. It seems like things slowly but surely are moving in a direction that I would only have dreamed. I would have never dreamed that it would be this and I’m so grateful.
Jeb: Before all this came about, did you even know who Tesla was?
Debbi: Hell no, I didn’t not know who Tesla were!
Jeb: Ha ha ha... that is so cool!
Debbi: And now I’m so close to all of them. It’s a whole new world. Of course, even if you didn’t know Def Leppard’s name you heard “Pour Some Sugar on Me”.
Jeb: Well of course, I just think that makes the story so cool, because I had a feeling you probably weren’t a Tesla fan.
Debbi: No I wasn’t, I wasn’t a Def Leppard fan. It’s not that I wasn’t a fan, I like their music, I didn’t really know them like I know Michael Jackson or Jermaine, I didn’t know them like that, like I know the Jersey Boys all that kind of stuff.
Jeb: I’ll put you on the spot… what was your first impression of Phil when you met him?
Debbi: We met at a hotel in Brooklyn and I said okay, he looks pretty, but I took him aside and I said, don’t hurt her, I said she’s been through a lot and if you hurt her, I’ll hurt you. I raised 5 black men, so my thing was I wasn’t scared, but I felt that he was a spiritual loving soul.
Jeb: He is.
Debbi: I really felt like that was my first impression that he was a spiritual loving soul and that he was harmless. He said to me, “I can’t believe nobody got her, she’s like a diamond just sitting there for everybody to look at.”
It’s a whole new world, not just because I didn’t know Tesla, it’s a whole new world because I live a pretty guarded life coming up as kid in the church, pretty naive, oh you got to do right because if you don’t you won’t be blessed... there is some truth in that, but you also have to look out for yourself because there are people that will pray for you and there are people that will prey on you, but we’re not taught that, I was not taught that, fairly naive and I watched a lot of my family that are in the same boat and if you tell them that they’re like oh that’s God... but I’ve learned so much about life and its ups and downs and how to navigate through it and I’ve learned so much about intention through Phil and I’m a more blessed woman because of him in more ways than one.
Jeb: What is the coolest thing about being in Delta Deep?
Debbi: The biggest thrill, believe it or not, when I see people knowing the words.
Jeb: Oh, it’s got to be. I have always thought how cool that would be.
Debbi: I looked at Phil and said, “They know the words, they know the words!” To just think that I was chosen to touch people and to make them forget their problems for one minute and even when singing “Whiskey” we get to share with them -you know what- there’s an angel out there that walks with you now because you’re going to call his name, he’s going to know you. Just to know that I’m ordained to make people smile or helping to release, because people come to me all the time and say, I don’t know why I got chills and I was crying, I got this I got that, but I forgot my problems, I’m like well thank you, that’s God.
Jeb: Now I’m going to put you on the spot one more time and this is a dual question because I’m asking both your opinion and about yourself.
Jeb: I’ve been telling people this for 10 years: Phil Collen is not just a guitar player -that guys got a voice. He can sing… so I want you to talk about him, and so my second question is: do you realize what a damned voice you’ve got, because it’s amazing, I mean its Aretha amazing, it’s amazing.
Debbi: Oh thank you Jeb. Well, Phil Collen, yeah his voice -it cuts through pain, I would say anointed.
Jeb: Did you say emotive?
Debbi: I said anointed.
Jeb: There you go! Yeah, that is awesome. Now Phil told me there is a live album coming up, is that true?
Jeb: How long do we have to wait?
Debbi: You know what, I’m not sure. I know they had said the fall, but I’m not sure. It’s pretty much the same stuff, but it’s live.
Jeb: I know there were some guests on the record, did you get to be with them or was that done through the mail, everyone does that nowadays where they record it in their own studio and mail it back and forth.
Debbi: No, I didn’t get to sing with them, it was mailed back and forth. However I did have the opportunity to meet David Coverdale and it was a blast, he’s a wonderful dude, and he’s funny!
Jeb: Yeah, he is funny.
Debbi: I had the opportunity to meet him. I look forward to the day I can sing with him, of course Joe (Elliott) and I fooled around in catering singing it one time, we were singing the wrong words, we were cutting up back there! I get to see Joe all the time and I love him, he is just -oh man- he’s a gift to the world and I look forward one day singing it with both these guys.
Jeb: I was in Kansas City and you guys came out when Tesla was on and you played that song… I am in love with that song.
Debbi: Singing is so healing for me and God knows that I can afford all the healing I can get, from what we first started talking about and it’s healing to me because you know that part where it’s better to give than to receive? I’m giving and there is so much appreciation and it’s like wow! Jeff (Keith) is off the charts. What an opportunity to sing with all these fabulous men! Ha ha ha!
Jeb: To wrap it up, have you been inspired to do any singing on your own outside of Delta Deep or are you all about Delta Deep?
Debbi: Of course, I would love to, but I don’t ever not want to sing with Delta Deep, as a matter of fact one of the principals of the schools around here is tomorrow I’ll be singing “Star Spangled Banner” for her school and I’ve done it for a college that was out here as well.
Yes, I’ve written a lot of songs. Text me your address and I’ll have my son Troy send some CD’s up to you. I’ve done house music under the name of Madeva in Germany. I sing a lot of house music. I’ll have Troy do some CD’s and have them send to you from me. Like I said, I did the house music under Madeva and The Jammers, what else did I do? I’ve done so much stuff. When my son first moved to heaven I had to write to keep my sanity, so I did that and I haven’t done anything with it yet. So just for giggles, I’ll send it to you, we can keep in touch, you have my number.
Jeb: Oh you bet I will!
Debbi: Let me know what you think.
Jeb: Sure thing. See if you can impress an old rock guy… that will be tough!
Debbi: You know me and Phil should put some of this to house music.
Jeb: You could. I have a feeling you two could do about anything you want, but I think you’re doing the right thing.
Debbi: But you know what, I want you to promise me if I send you this stuff you’re going to tell me what you think, you’re going to take me through it.
Jeb: Of course!
Debbi: I had started writing a play about the life and death of my son. There’s another young man that calls me his mom, he’s a writer and he said mom, let me take this over and so he took it over and some of the songs will go into this play, into the musical.
Jeb: Tell that Englishman that I enjoyed talking to you and that maybe when the live disc comes out we have to get both of you on the interview, that would be kind of fun!
Debbi: Oh that would be fun! But like I said you have my number feel free, you can call me. You had me at, “I’m taking my daughter out to dinner...”
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