Ms. Robbie Montgomery has had an extraordinary life: in music, in cooking, in restaurant ventures, in television and in the St. Louis community, which she still calls her own. And at the age of 78, she's not near done yet.
In the last two years alone, she's closed one restaurant (Sweetie Pie's at the Mangrove), opened another (Sweetie Pie's Hamburger Heaven, in the Skinker DeBaliviere neighborhood) and ended a long run (100 episodes) of the award-winning reality television show Welcome to Sweetie Pie's, which aired on the Oprah Winfrey Network. With Sweetie Pie's locations still open in Ferguson and Grand Center, she remains an icon of both soul food and soul music, though for the last decades of her life, she has only performed the rare concert and released no full-length recordings.
This fall, however, Montgomery has decided to return to performing and to recording, with Miss Robbie Is What They Call Me, her first substantial release in 40 years. The seven-song EP finds the singer in warm and feisty voice, her distinctive vibrato only barely mellowed by time. The release would sit well beside the late-career work of her deep-soul peers Candi Staton, Mavis Staples and even Tina Turner, with whom she came of age as a working musician in the Ikettes.
"I learned everything from my time in the Ikettes," she says on the phone from her home in St. Louis. "We all left home at a young age. We learned to dance, how to deliver songs, please an audience. We were a family. There were maybe twenty of us. We did everything together."
That early life in music introduced Montgomery to both the art and business of entertainment. She grew up fast and saw the world, including the segregated South, with one of the greatest rhythm and blues revues in history. She was more than just a backup singer to Ike and Tina Turner. She was Tina's confidant through some of her darkest days, and her life on the road only made her more convinced of what she was born to do.
"Back in the '60s it was called the Chitlin Circuit," she says. "We traveled on the bus, slept on the bus, and there were very few hotels for black entertainers. We'd wait on our bus till James Brown and his band checked out, wait 'til the maids cleaned the rooms, and then we'd check in. And then another group would follow us. Things were very limited. Restaurants were segregated, so we'd go in through back doors. But that was what the world was made of. So we had to adapt and do what we had to do."
Surveying Montgomery's musical history is like plunging into a deep well. As a young woman living in the Pruitt-Igoe projects she formed a group called the Rhythmettes, sang on the legendary session for Ike and Tina's breakout hit "A Fool In Love," formed the Mirettes with Venetta Fields and Jessie Smith (also alumni of the Ikettes) and released several albums with that vocal group. Throughout the '70s she remained in demand as a singer, working with everyone from Dr. John to Stevie Wonder to B.B. King to Pink Floyd, although contrary to some reports she never recorded with the Beatles. Just as the music of Aretha Franklin would not be so transformative without the backing of the Sweet Inspirations, it's no overstatement to say that the evolution of rhythm and blues into rock & roll and into soul and funk would sound very different without the voice of Robbie Montgomery. (And in case Joe Edwards is reading this: Ms. Montgomery is way overdue for a star on Delmar's Walk of Fame.)
For years Montgomery poured her soul out on stage, though she often did so through the pain of the asthma, until finally her lungs gave out at a concert in New York and she had to put a halt to her musical career.
"Nobody told me I couldn't sing," she explains, "but I had to give myself the proper time to heal. You keep trying and trying. I did little songs here and there and conditioned myself with breathing. I'm not going to work like I did back in the day on the road, not every night. But a few shows a month, I think I can do."
Along with the strength of Montgomery's voice, the most welcome revelation on Miss Robbie Is What They Call Me is her choice of songs. Along with moving (and funky) original material, she turns to some of her favorite country songs, including hits from unlikely sources like Barbara Mandrell and K. T. Oslin.
"I love country music," she says. "You don't have to be black or white to listen to it. It's just like gospel. It doesn't matter how good you can sing. It's the stories. I'm an Elvis Presley fan, and I really loved him back in the day. I've always listed to the lyrics, the content of the song. Country songs are love songs to me."
And just as she sees no boundaries between musical genres, Montgomery sees no separation between her culinary and musical gifts. Both are about keeping the customer satisfied — that's ultimately her motivation and reward.
"I'm a people person," she states. "If I'm dealing with the public, I feel right at home. You're trying to please people. It was the same thing when I went into the restaurant business. I was pretty comfortable with the transition, with the exception of my health. I came from a big family of nine, and my mama taught me how to cook. I'd do all the cooking on the road, and if the band liked the food, I knew I could do it. I cook my food with love, so it's better than the average. When my customers are happy, and they say they like the food, that's a reward you can't buy with money."
For her EP release at the Sheldon Concert Hall, Montgomery will be joined by a full band largely drawn from the St. Louis gospel community and directed by veteran musicians Charles Creath and Donald Gibbs. At the concert, Montgomery will cover music from across her career, including songs by Etta James and Tina Turner.
"I'm hoping all my years as a singer, singing with all these different groups, I can make this work," she says. "I tell everyone that music is my first love and the kitchen is my second. I'm just doing my best to put on a great show."