On a sunny summer afternoon in Northeast Portland, LaRhonda and Lauren Steele are gathered around the piano in their living room, trying out some new harmonies for an upcoming show. Mark Steele is coaxing out a jazzy version of “Bring It On Home to Me” on the piano. And while it may sound like one of the best live performances you’ve ever heard, to the Steeles, it’s just another day.
LaRhonda Steele is known as “the first lady of Portland blues,” through her decades of headlining performances at Portland’s Waterfront Blues Festival and dozens of other national and international venues. She was recently inducted into the Oregon Music Hall of Fame. Her daughter Lauren has achieved her own success as both a singer and actor. Lauren just released a new album, completed a tour in Brazil and opened Friday night in “Hair” at Portland Center Stage.
“LaRhonda and Lauren are a dynamic mother and daughter team,” says Portland blues legend Norman Sylvester. “They are phenomenal entertainers.”
Growing up in this musical family, Lauren’s career was perhaps pre-ordained. “On both sides of my family, we have multiple generations of musicians. And so it feels like something that was passed down to me…The gospel side on my mom’s side and the jazz side on my dad’s side.” But, Lauren says, “I know I got my voice from my mama!”
Born and raised in Spencer, Oklahoma, LaRhonda decided at age 11 to teach herself how to sing. “I grew up in church and listened to many choirs and many vocalists,” she says. “Wasn’t much else to do in Oklahoma!”
LaRhonda arrived in Portland in 1993 and soon met Sylvester who heard her singing backup for another band. Sylvester recalls, “I turned to my wife and I said, ‘She don’t need to be singing background with nobody.’” LaRhonda was soon on stage with Sylvester’s band, and many others.
Sylvester has remained a fan all these decades later. “LaRhonda can take a jazz tune or a blues tune or a gospel tune, and she can bounce over those chordal progressions beautifully. Like a surfer on a perfect wave,” he says.
When the whole Steele family comes together on stage, including Lauren’s sister Sarah (currently a student at Howard University and an intern with Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley), they’re known as the Steele Family Band, an act that’s rocked the Waterfront Blues Festival for years. Sylvester calls them, “the Steele Corporation. They are just phenomenal. The expression of the music, the tonalities, the perfect harmonies, the pitches, it’s all there.”
In the Steele household, music is just a way of life. “I think we’re always processing information through music,” Lauren says. “I’m always singing throughout my day, whether it’s a song that exists or it’s a song I just made up about how I forgot my keys…And then my mom is harmonizing about how she forgot her lunch, you know what I mean? …I think that’s how all three of us process, through music.”