Karen Somerville’s songs reach to the heavens
By Ameila Blades Steward // Photo by Pamela L. Cowart-Rickman
Vocalist Karen Somerville is pictured at Hope Fellowship Church in Chestertown where she currently serves as Administrative Secretary.
“Hardly anyone from Butlertown, where my mother was born, didn’t sing.”
Vocalist Karen Somerville of Chestertown has used her deep roots in Kent County to launch a music career as a singer-songwriter and producer of solo and group performances in gospel, blues, jazz, and folk music, while never forgetting to shine a light on her faith.
Music pulses through her DNA. Her paternal grandfather was a musician who had learned from his former slave grandparents how to play the harmonica, banjo, and accordion. Her grandmother was from a family of musicians — all great singers.
Somerville comments, “That was the way they socialized, entertained their families and contributed to the community.”
Her parents, Catherine “Kay” Somerville and Alton Somerville were very musical. Her father played the piano and guitar and her mother sang and played the piano.
“Out of the crib, we were singing. My mother instructed us, as young as four years of age, to harmonize by listening with our ears. We were her backup singers. She even dressed us in coordinated outfits to match her dresses, designing and sewing them herself. We were known as the Somerville Family and mainly sang African American tunes from the A.M.E. hymnals.
Somerville was the only sibling who took singing into a career. She recalls, “It seemed to be something that was happening to me, even if I had wanted to get out of it, I couldn’t.”
At a young age, she was a part of its Celestial Choir for youth and young adults at Mt. Olive A.M.E., her family’s home church. Later, she and two cousins formed a second generation acapella group named after “The Melonaires,” a regionally-known acapella group that her mother and other church members had formed.
Over the years, her jobs included being a radio voice on WCEI and WCTR, and in retail sales management. She quipped, “No matter what job I had, I was always singing.”
In 1996 Tom McHugh, the founder of The Mainstay in Rock Hall, Maryland, approached her to sing in “Lady Sings the Blues” a tribute show to the blues queens for the 20s and 40s. This was her first professional gig. She recalls, “He said he was looking for a particular sound and a voice.”
She remembers asking herself what her grandmother, a devout church-going woman, would think if she sang something other than gospel music.
The show toured for eight years with a blues band and told the story of the blues and how it came from gospel music. She commented, “Since then, I have always included gospel in my shows, leaving the word of God in the room for my grandmother.”
Somerville’s deep faith has sustained her through some dark times, including the loss of her son in 1996 and a serious work-related injury in 2001 which left her with health challenges that kept her from singing for five years. In 2003, while recovering from her injuries, she developed Sombarkin’, an acapella group based on the “singing and praying bands” that had come out of slavery. It was a form of music that combined singing and praying in a continuous way. Her mother had told her about this form of music as a child when she was at church camp. Once choirs and ensembles developed in churches, however, “singing and praying bands” disappeared.
“Acapella music originated in black churches where there was no accompaniment. It just happened organically. With Sombarkin’, I created a style which involved getting inside the acapella technique, reinterpreting and borrowing from the singing and praying bands,” Somerville reflected.
She added, “When I was experiencing sleeplessness while recovering from my injuries, I listened to classical music, then I started hearing songs in parts. When I listened to it with a more technical ear to duplicate the sound, I heard harmonies in the layers. I thought I would love to recreate that sound.”
She quips, “I remember having to borrow a bunch of tape players from people to sing the individual parts and record them. I then made a demo tape by playing the individual tapes at the same time.”
When Somerville went to her friends Lester Barrett, Jr., Chestertown, Jerome McKinney from Butlertown — with the idea, their reaction was, “If this is what happens when your mind is recovering from a head injury, what would your mind do when it’s working right.”
Sombarkin’ was born. The group’s name, Sombarkin’, comes from the performers’ last names Somerville, Barrett, and McKinney.
She stated, “In that season, God wanted me to realize that there was still growth in tragedy. He used the injury to illuminate my talent.”
Top left: Sombarkin’ & the cast of Red Devil Moon at the Roberto Clemente Theater New York, NY. Top right: Rehearsal with the Blue Knight Quintet Silver Spring, MD. Bottom: Sombarkin’ “Blessing of the Fleet” Sailwinds Emporium, Rock Hall, MD. Photo by Art Willis.
The group was known for their dynamic vocal instrumentation and the polyphonic technique in which they delivered explosive performances in genres from Negro Spirituals to contemporary jazz renditions before retiring its show in February 2020. Sombarkin’ is featured on the album” Rattle Them Chains” by Pam Ortiz. Somerville also worked as executive producer to Mark Bramble (Broadway 42nd Street) in his 2011 production of Showtime, and the 2014 Showtime II; with Playwright Robert Earl Price as the co-star in the Golden Sardine, and All Blues. In 2014, she and Sombarkin’ debut the original musical theatre, Red Devil Moon, story by R. E. Price and music compositions by Chestertown resident Pam Cardullo Ortiz.
In 2014, Somerville had an amazing opportunity on the national music scene when she was asked to join Stevie Wonder’s “Songs in the Key of Life” Washington, DC Tour as a backup singer. A cousin, Marlon Saunders, who originally sang with her at Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church, was now providing background singers for celebrity artists and recommended her for the job.
She recalled, “It was so different. I couldn’t believe I was singing with the 8th Wonder of the World. I usually sang with a five-piece band and while he sang with a traditional band, he also had a string orchestra and a large percussion line. I had to bring my A-game to the show. It was a wonderful experience.”
Over the years, Somerville also had her own shows, many at The Mainstay and the Garfield Center for the Arts in Chestertown. Her acclaimed performance in her self-produced show “Just Call Me Billie,” a tribute to jazz/blues icon Billie Holiday of the 1930s and 1940s was revived for Billie’s 100th Birthday Bash in 2014 to sold-out audiences through the Mid-Atlantic region. She has produced three albums: Everyday Is Sunday, Love Cures, and Our Stories, Our Songs.
“As a whole, I am proud, without false pride, of my journey. I have always held onto and shared my faith — no matter if I am singing the blues, jazz or gospel.”
She has brought her grandmother’s discipline with her along the way — showing love and respect for the woman who inspired her. She adds, “If that had not existed, I wouldn’t have cared what I produced.”
“God just made music and music is music. Like everything else in life, what we do with it, is up to us. I want people to take something away from my performances. God lives in me and I can’t create it without him being in it. I have learned that anytime you ask him to be a part of it, you gotta get the heck out of the way, as he shows up.”