By Kelly Baughman
There are some people who enter a room, and you know you are in the presence of greatness. Lea Anne Creswell is one of those people. Her statuesque figure, flawless face, and confidence is enough to blow anyone away, but when she sings, your heart will melt. With a voice like Patsy, a sense of humor like Lucy, and a heart of gold like Betty (White, that is), Creswell is truly a legend in her own right.
A hometown girl, Pensacola born and bred, Lea Anne Creswell, became fascinated with music after learning to play a guitar she received for Christmas at the tender age of 9. She spent the next 9 years honing her craft with an urge to hit the road. “I left for Memphis the day I graduated and started playing music at the Bombay Bicycle Club where I met a fellow musician and formed a duo,” Creswell recalled. That duo made the move back to Pensacola, where she became a staple at Seville Quarter.
While she loved playing the local music scene in the 70’s, she knew she wanted more. Creswell said that the Nashville call that many musicians get never appealed to her, but the draw to Texas was always present. “I knew I wanted to be in Texas, so I moved to Denton, about 30 miles north of Dallas. I wanted to be in the city, so I got the phone book out and called a talent manager by the name of Ed Cobb. He got me an audition for a great little place in downtown Dallas, but he told me it was a piano bar. I spent the next three days in a church borrowing their piano, and by Monday I had five songs ready to sing,” Creswell said. When she arrived for the audition, the line of eager young girls, all wanting the same job, was out the door. Creswell said, “It was a long shot, but I got the job. I spent the next few years having the time of my life.”
Creswell made the move back to Pensacola in the 80’s after he father fell ill to help her mother in their time of need. “I was lucky enough to come back to my gig at Seville Quarter where I ran into an old friend who said, “You should be playing at the Flora-Bama.”, said Creswell. Having no idea what or where the Flora-Bama Lounge was, Creswell and her friend jumped in the car and headed for the remote (at the time) little barrier island known as Perdido Key to check out the roadhouse that was making a name for itself in the music community.
Creswell recalled, “When I pulled up out front, my first thought was ‘I’m not playing in that dump’, but I walked in and the place was packed and the party was jumping. People were hanging from the rafters. I got up on stage and sang ‘Me and Bobby McGee’, and people were hollering and screaming, dancing and cheering….I knew that was the end of my career at Seville. It was what an entertainer lives for. I’ve been singing there ever since. 35 years to be exact.”
As she recalled her beginnings at the Flora-Bama, Creswell’s eyes lit up. Her nearly 50 year friendship with former Flora-Bama owner, Joe Gilchrist, visibly brings her fond memories. So much so that, she broke into a verse of ‘Crazy Arms’, Gilchrist’s favorite song during his days as a manager at the Townhouse Lounge in downtown Pensacola. “I was hanging out in there at the age of 14, and begged Joe to let me play a little. He let me one Sunday, and I sang this song,” Creswell said.
As she sang a verse of ‘Crazy Arms’ impromptu, the haunting similarities of Creswell and Patsy Cline were clear, but it’s also evident that she is very much her own artist. With a sultry voice that oozes the depth of pain a song can make you feel, Creswell can completely mesmerize an entire room with just a few notes.
Her stories and life experiences are as complex and enthralling as her music. “People would hear my voice and request Patsy Cline’s ‘Crazy’ nearly every night. This one regular would come in all the time, and request it, then put a $100 bill in my tip jar. Needless to say, I sang ‘Crazy’ for him any time he wanted,” Creswell laughed.
She’s hung with some of the best in the industry. Guy Clark, Billy Dean, Hank Cochran, and Red Lane, just to name a few. “Hank Cochran came to me at my house one night after songwriter’s festival and said, “Leanne, I just love the way you sing, and I’m getting ready to open up my recording studio in Nashville, and I want you to be the first person to sing there.” I was absolutely honored,” Creswell said.
Cochran, having written such legendary hits as ‘I Fall To Pieces’, ‘She’s Got You’, ‘The Chair’, and ‘Make The World Go Away’, took Creswell into the studio where she spent two weeks picking out 11 songs from Cochran’s library. At the request of Cochran’s wife, Creswell added just one more song, ‘Diamonds and Rust’ by Joan Baez.
Creswell recalled, “Red Lane and I had been recording in the studio, and this was of course back in the days of landline telephones. The engineer forgot to unplug it, and right when it got to the part of the song that says ‘And then the telephone rings…’ In perfect timing, the phone in the studio rang. The engineer motioned for us to keep going, and what we got was magic. Hank was a Godly man, who believed in things happening for a reason, so when we took him the first take, unaltered, he listened and said, “Well, we ain’t messing with that.” And it made the album.”
In addition to the magic Creswell makes in the studio, she’s also a talented artist, taking musical instruments and making them into one of a kind hand painted pieces that grace the walls of people from all walks of life all over the Gulf Coast. Her attention to detail, eye for beauty, and relentless pursuit of creativity has made her a unique and legendary artist both on and off the stage.
She’s a lady with many facets. Known as “the Queen” around the Flora-Bama, she graces the stage regularly with various friends, and never disappoints. She has even found time to MC the bar’s annual Mullet Toss event that has catered to thousands of locals and visitors alike for years, bringing her special mix of moxie, humor, and sass to adoring crowds.
To see Lea Anne Creswell in person, check PK Live’s live music lineup in this issue, or visit www.leaannecreswell.com or www.florabama.com to check for her upcoming shows.