Joyce Cobb

Distinguished Achievement Award in the Creative and Performing Arts

Distinguished Achievement Award Winner

Although Cobb's musical style is derived from Blues and Jazz greats like Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald and Sarah Vaughan, it does not mimic it. Her presentation and diverse singing background has created what University of Memphis Director of Jazz Studies Jack Cooper says is a "unique," signature sound.

During his 17 years at the UofM, Cooper has performed with and written arrangements for her often. "There is no other performer like her. She is such a schooled vocalist and performer. She is a pleasure to write for, a pleasure to work with."

Cobb has been an adjunct faculty member in the University of Memphis Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music for about 25 years. An advocate of music education and the history of singing style in American pop and Jazz music, she works with younger Jazz vocalists and musicians at the Stax Music Academy. A singer, teacher and actor, she has enjoyed a long and varied career.

"Joyce is an invaluable resource for students because she is a walking encyclopedia of Jazz singing," Cooper said.

list of top awards and honorsHer professional music career started in Dayton, Ohio. By day, Cobb pursued a master's degree in Social Work at Wright State University. By night, she worked, performing in clubs with different blues and jazz bands. After being offered a road gig singing in duo with Bill Temme for Ramada Inn hotels, she decided to stop pursuing a social work career and become a professional singer and songwriter.

She worked the Ramada Inn Midwest circuit from 1969 to 1971. In 1971, she returned to her childhood home of Nashville and worked in a variety of musical genres, appearing at Opryland, on radio and on television. She was one of the first acts at Opryland USA in 1972 and voted "Best Performer" in 1974. During that time, she cut her first single for Truth Records, "He Just Loved You Out Of Me." The song was included on the "Best Potential Hit" list in the May 1975 edition of Billboard magazine. This single was meant to launch her country music career; it was last time she recorded in that genre.

"It was kind of amazing. She was going to be a country singer," Cooper said.

In 1976, she signed with Stax Records. The label was already in decline before her signing and soon went out of business. She remained in Memphis because of its diversity of musical style, which was a change from her professional work in Nashville. Cobb said, "everything was Black—Black music, Black bands. I said, 'Oh, I want to stay here."

"She is not the typical black singer. She is not the typical white singer. She is her own kind of singer," Cooper said.

In 1977, Al Bennett acquired Hi Records, which he renamed Cream Records. Cobb became an artist for the label, which produced a set of artists that had a solid reputation for making Soul, R&B and disco. She recorded a Top 40 single with Cream in 1979 with "Dig the Gold," which showed her versatility as a performer and a writer. It was a reggae style song with a funk/disco beat. It was her first real success as an internationally recognized pop artist.

Cobb's reputation as a contemporary pop singer and writer who could handle a variety of styles grew. Soon, Atlantic Records contracted her to record with T.H.P., a Toronto-based disco group. On their last studio album "Good To Me," she recorded as the lead, solo vocalist. It charted at #16 in the dance category in Billboard.

The following year, she charted for six weeks with "Glad I Am" on the Cream label, topping out at #90 in the R&B category with Billboard. She was #4 for 1980 in Billboard's End of the Year Awards list for New Female Single Pop Artist. Others on that list were Irene Cara (#1), Charlie Dore (#2), and Bernadette Peters (#3). During this time, she was the opening act for Al Jarreau and the The Temptations. During the 80s, Cobb recorded several singles with Willie Mitchell on the Waylo Records label and toured internationally with Waylo Artist Otis Clay. 

In addition to her recording career, she has performed in one-woman stage plays at Theatre Memphis, taught jazz vocals and hosts Jazz brunches in Midtown. In addition, Cobb has performed with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra and the Memphis Beale Street Blues Company, starred in local productions of "Ain't Misbehavin'" and performed at the Center of Southern Folklore's Beale Street Saturday Night, which she co-created. She owned and performed at Joyce Cobb's on Beale, which opened in 1992, the first club on the historic street to be named for a woman.

She has won numerous awards including four Premiere Player Awards for best female singer from the Memphis chapter of National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS). In 2004 and 2006 Joyce received rave reviews and was nominated for Ostrander Awards for her performance in Theatre Memphis' one-woman musical plays Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill and "The Devil's Music: The Life and Times of Bessie Smith."

Recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Cobb doesn't let her illness slow her down. She continues to teach jazz vocals at the University of Memphis, and for more than 33 years, Cobb has been a radio personality on WEVL-FM 89.9, the Mid-South's only listener-supported, independent, volunteer radio station. She hosts three weekly shows—Voices on Tuesdays, 2-4 p.m.; World Music Dance Party, Sundays, 4-6 p.m. and Songs For My Father, Wednesdays, 8-10 p.m.

"She is a trooper," Cooper said. "She's still performing...full speed ahead."

Tickets for the event are $50. For more information about the Distinguished Achievement Award or how to attend, call 901.678.2350.

Awards & Honors

  • Billboard "End of the Year Awards" list (1980), New Female Single Pop Artist
  • Voted Best Female Singer by Memphis Chapter of NARAS in 1986, 1988, and 1997 (nominated 1998 and 2000)
  • Voted Best Female Entertainer (1995), by the Beale Street Merchants Association 
  • 1995 - awarded Honorary Doctorate in Music from Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Michigan
  • Awarded Music Pioneer (2000) from United Music Heritage, Inc. 
  • Women of Achievement's Woman of the Year: Initiative award (2002)
  • Nominated for the Ostrander Award for Best Female Performance in a dramatic role (2004 and 2006)
  • Awarded Emissary of Music by the Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission (2009) 
  • HEBE Award from the Memphis Symphony League (2009)
  • Best vocalist in the Memphis Flyer readers poll (2011 and 2012)