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Queen Sylvia Embry

Hailing from Arkansas, Queen Sylvia Embry was among Chicago’s few professional female blues singers and bass players, recording albums, playing alongside blues guitarist Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins, and touring Europe.

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Sylvia Lee Burton was born on June 14, 1941, in Wabbaseka, Arkansas, just 20 minutes from Pine Bluff. As a child, she played the piano and sang in church. She loved rock and roll pioneer Chuck Berry, R&B singer Lloyd Price, and boogie-woogie music. Her grandmother demanded that she sing only gospel. Consequently, Burton joined the Southern Echoes gospel group during her teens. 

At 19 years old, she moved to Memphis, Tennessee, to pursue a singing career. Her singing career didn’t pan out, so Burton got married and started a family. In the early 1960s, she moved to Chicago after she and her husband divorced. She soon met and married Johnny Embry, a rising young blues guitarist. After falling in love with the bass line on Z.Z. Hill’s 1971 hit record, “Don’t Make Me Pay For His Mistakes,” Embry asked her husband to teach her to play the bass guitar. He reluctantly agreed, believing she would have trouble learning to play the bass because it was hard. Embry soon proved him wrong. 

She became one of the city’s few professional blues women as she played alongside her husband and other blues artists. She also played alongside blues guitarist Lefty Dizz in his band Shock Treatment as they played regular gigs at the Checkerboard Lounge for more than three years. The band also played regularly at Kingston Mines. As more people grew to appreciate her rich, soulful voice, she began fronting the band. Embry even persevered as other bass players greeted her with sexist remarks, telling her she should just stay home and make babies. 

In 1980, at the age of 39, after her kids were old enough to care for themselves, Embry finally made her debut recordings for Volume 6 of Alligator Record’s Living Chicago Blues series. Soon after, Razor Records released the album Troubles. Even though they had previously divorced, the album introduced them as John and Sylvia Embry as they remained friends. In 1982 and 1983, she traveled Europe with guitarist Jimmy “Fast Fingers” Dawkins. In 1983, she released her solo LP Midnight Baby as Blues Queen Sylvia. The album also featured Dawkins on guitar. 

In the late 1980s, Embry’s health began to decline. On February 28, 1992, she died after battling cancer, still not having received the recognition in the blues genre she deserved.


Written by: Ninfa O. Barnard

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