A Conversation With Robbie Montgomery

Artette, Ikette, and Soul-Food Genius

Photograph by Greg Rannells

Champagne-colored fur wrapped around her shoulders, Robbie Montgomery conducts a business meeting at one of the back tables at Sweetie Pie’s in the Grove. The fragrance of brown-sugared sweet potatoes and fried chicken swirls around her, and her iPhone rings every few minutes with calls from a guy stringing holiday lights for her (“Another $100?”) and workers who are getting her third restaurant ready to open at Delmar and Grand. In the ’60s, Montgomery traveled the country singing backup with Ike and Tina Turner, bluesman Earl Hooker, and voodoo R&B legend Dr. John. When her lung collapsed, she came home, put on a white coat, and learned to be a dialysis technician. Then she opened a soul-food restaurant, and it’s done more to integrate the city than most politicians.

You were only 6 when you moved to St. Louis—do you remember anything from your early years in Mississippi?
Chickens running around in the backyard. We lived with my great-grandmother, who was American Indian. We called her Miss Pathenia. She had a real huge house, with a porch that went all the way around. That was always my dream, to have something like that.

Do you now?
I don’t even have a porch! [Her giggle bubbles into a hearty laugh.] Oh, and I remember my mom having my brother Harold. This lady came to the house—I later learned she was a midwife—and when she left, we had a little baby!

I know you grew up singing gospel at True Light Baptist Church, but did you have any formal voice training?
My mama gave me piano lessons. We had this big ol’ huge, straight-up piano. Never could play it. I never got that together. I did learn a couple songs out of the book, though—classical songs—and I thought I was important! And then I learned how to play the boogie-woogie.

You were an Artette, then an Ikette, then a Mirette—what was the deal with all the ’ette names in those days?
That was like a fad. Ray Charles had the Raelettes. In my neighborhood, we had the Chordettes—Mr. Goodlow was our manager, and he would put us on the talent shows. Then the girls in my building at Pruitt-Igoe, we decided to form a singing group called the Rhythmettes.

You started singing professionally with Art Lassiter—
Who I later had a child by.

How did you go from being an Artette to an Ikette, singing behind Ike Turner?
Ike wanted Art to sing the lead of “A Fool in Love,” and he needed girls to put background on the record. Tina [Turner] was Ike’s vocalist, and she was to sing background with us. The day we were supposed to go to the recording studio, Ike and Art fell out—something about money. We were there anyway, Ike had the time booked, and Tina said she knew the lead.

That song became a huge hit—what do you remember about the recording session?
I remember we ate Steak ’n Shake, because we didn’t have those in our neighborhood, and I loved their chili. The studio was Technisonic, way out in Brentwood.

You stayed in St. Louis to have your baby, then started touring with Earl Hooker.
Yes, I toured the South with them, as the only female with this blues group. Which was very uncomfortable, ’cause I was a shy person. And it was the first time I had left home.

How did you get back with Ike?
He came to my mother’s house and told me the record had hit and he wanted me to tour with him. I ran up and said, “Mama, if you let me go and watch my baby, I’ll pay your rent!” I was 21.

You left the next night for your first gig—where was it?
I don’t even remember. I just know we rehearsed in the car, sang all the way there.

What were Ike and Tina Turner like?
Tina was just like one of us. She was the employee. Ike? Back in those days, we thought he was mean. But he was a professional about his business. Later on in life, he said to me that he was scared, too. He had all those
people depending on him for a payday. He only got $750 for the whole revue, and there were 20 people, and he had to keep a bus going. We made $25 apiece a night, and we bought our own food, bought our own costumes, paid for our hotel. And I sent my mama money.

Did you have fun touring?
Tina wasn’t a party person, because Ike didn’t let her be. He basically called the shots for her life. They traveled by car. But we were on the bus, and we had good times. We would gamble, sing, dance, all the way to the next gig.

Did Tina ever open up to you?
Oh yeah, we all talked about everything. We always said, “Why don’t you leave him?” She didn’t want to be talked into that.

How long were you an Ikette?
Probably about eight years. We toured what they called “the chitlin circuit”—basically, the South. Every once in a while, we’d go to New York, or the Howard Theatre in Washington, D.C., or the Uptown in Philadelphia. The fun was interacting with the audience. The energy was coming from them, and you were trying to give it back. You wanted to knock ’em dead. We’d come offstage and hit each other and say, “All right!” And if we had a bad show, we’d come back with our tails waggin’.

Any wardrobe malfunctions?
A lotta straps broken, runs in the stocking. Ike did not allow you to have a strap break. He felt you should check that before you went on. And we were so careful with our stockings. We were Hanes girls; we always wore Hanes.

You toured the South in the days of “Colored” or “White Only” signs—how did the segregation feel?
We didn’t try to go where we weren’t allowed. But I remember in Birmingham, we went in this bus station. The gossip was that things were becoming integrated. We went into the Greyhound bus station, and we were standing in line, and this lady said, “You all are in the wrong line,” and I said, “I’m not going anyplace.” And for some reason, we all stood there, and they served us anyway. After they passed the desegregation laws, we were in Jackson, Miss., and Ike got us all rooms at this big white hotel, and we partied.

What broke up the Ikettes?
We’d had several hit records, and we weren’t seeing any of the extra money. So we left. We went with a company called Mirwood Records in L.A., and we called ourselves the Mirettes. We had maybe three or four albums.

Above: Robbie Montgomery (center), with fellow Ikettes Venetta Fields (left) and Jessie Smith. Soon they would leave Turner and become the Mirettes...

Did you keep singing backup, too?
Oh yes. The British Invasion, they started using black girls behind them, so we did the background for the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd…

I read you sang backup for the Beatles, too.
Oh, not the Beatles. I don’t know where they got that. You say British Invasion and they write “Beatles.” But just about everybody else.

Then you became a Night Tripper for Dr. John, and the touring got easier.
Oh yes. We rode in limos and had food and drinks in our dressing rooms. You have this dream of being a movie star, and you think someone is coming to your door saying, “Miss Montgomery? Five minutes.” None of that happened with Ike and Tina! But Dr. John was with Atlantic Records, and they took care of us.

Who else have you sung behind?
B.B. King, Barbra Streisand, Debbie Reynolds, Joe Cocker, Stevie Wonder…

So what made you retire?
I’d get onstage and sing, and every time I hit a high note, my chest would start hurting. I thought it was gas! When we were in New York, I had terrible pain. I was bent over. Turns out my lung had collapsed.

That’s scary.
In the hospital, they put an oxygen mask on me and left, and that was the first time in my life I had ever been alone. My mom had nine kids; I traveled with 20 people. I’d never been alone. I kind of hated it.

Did your lung heal?
They said it would. But two weeks after I came back to St. Louis, my little dog ran out in the street. I screamed, and the lung collapsed again. I wound up having surgery.

What kind of dog?
A little mutt. I would raise hell about him in the airplane: “I want my dog to have his food.” They thought I must have a pedigree, and then they saw him!

Do you miss performing?
No. I don’t even have a radio on in the house. I’ve had music in my bones for so long, I appreciate the quietness.

How did developer Leon Strauss come to back your restaurant?
When I came back to St. Louis, I became a dialysis technician. I said, “I need a lot of money,” and my friend told me about that program. Mr. Strauss was one of my patients, and we would spend 5 hours together, three times a week. We became very acquainted, and I became a part of their family.

At first, he wasn’t very enthusiastic about a restaurant project.
Mrs. Strauss had opened the Bistro on Grand, and it didn’t do well. I told them I wanted to do something different. I’d work, buy a table, work, buy a chair. I rented an old Italian bakery—it was a dump—and $50,000 later, we still hadn’t opened. So Mr. Strauss told the people who owned the building not to put me out, ’cause he was behind me. I got open maybe a week or two before he died, and I took him pictures.

So what’s the difference between soul food and white comfort food?
Oh, it’s basically the same. But we know how to make a meal out of nothing. We know how to improvise. And we cook with a lot of butter and sugar. A white person’s comfort food might be meatloaf and mashed potatoes, where ours would be meatloaf, greens, and black-eyed peas.

That sounds lighter than mashed potatoes.
Oh, but we use pork in it, or bacon fat, ’cause we want that grease. Health food is good, but you don’t use it in soul food. Our food is cooked with love and butter.

What made Leon Strauss so generous?
He said, “When I renovated the Fox [Theatre], everybody told me white people wouldn’t come back downtown, but they did. If this is your dream, pursue it.”

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