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Blues in the key of love

Liz Pennock and Paul "Dr. Blues" Shambarger have been together on stage, and as husband and wife, for 20 years in a profession of late hours and low pay.

DAVE SCHEIBER
Published June 19, 2003

ST. PETERSBURG - They have played thousands of nights like this, side by side in the dim lights of a cozy music room, where background clatter, conversation and cigarette smoke accompany their bluesy beat.

Almost hidden behind the new baby grand inside Caspy's Waterside Restaurant, with a little clip-on lamp illuminating her face, the diminutive blond woman begins banging out a big boogie-woogie melody.

A few feet away, a lanky guitarist with a beret angled over his long brown hair riffs on the syncopated rhythm.

The Sunday night patrons fall silent, soaking in the music of Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues: a.k.a. Paul Shambarger, her husband.

Shambarger dedicates the next tune to a couple of newlyweds in the back room. It's a piece he and his wife co-wrote, called In The Same Key. Then he reveals a little secret of his own.

"In a few days, we'll be married 20 years," he says amid whoops of approval. "Seems like only 19."

A funky, New Orleans-style piano intro kicks in, and the first blues couple of Tampa Bay starts singing about their enduring relationship:

"Maybe unusual in this day and age . . . the book of love just added a page, with a few exceptions of disharmony, we're playing baby, in the same key."

"It took us two years to write it," Shambarger says later, smiling, "because we couldn't agree on anything."

The mortality rate is alarming for marriages and music groups, but somehow Pennock and Shambarger have managed to sustain both. Married 20 years as of Wednesday, they have kept their relationship alive while playing night spots and festivals, touring nationally and making records as their sole profession. And they've done it in a world of late-night hours, low pay, constant headaches and the occupational uncertainties of a fringe genre.

It can give you the blues. And make you blissful.

"We concur on how the money's spent, wonder together, where it went. We both flirt so there's no jealousy. We're playing baby, in the same key."

She is known for her infectious piano stylings: the strong walking bass lines with her left hand, the bouncy melodies with her right.

Her skill is remarkable when you consider what she has had to overcome: Pennock was born missing four fingers. The baby girl had only a thumb and two fused-together digits on each hand.

Surgery was performed when she was young to separate the two fingers, giving her far greater dexterity than she would have had.

"Without that, I could never have played piano," she says at the couple's St. Petersburg home.

Pennock, 46, also has earned praise for her harmonica playing. She performs by using a blues-harp rack while playing piano, much less common than guitarist-singers such as Bob Dylan. The Hohner Harmonica company took notice of Pennock's harp work several years ago, honoring her and five other female artists as "Women of the Blues."

Shambarger, 53, meanwhile, is an accomplished blues guitarist and dobro player whose rhythm and lead work complements his wife's playing. Together, they engage in playful patter with their crowds. And they share the soulful vocals in a repertoire that draws, on any given night, from more than 200 covers and originals.

Little by little in the past 15 years, they've become a fixture on the Tampa Bay blues scene.

This year, the couple released their fifth CD for self-owned Upright Records. Live From St. Pete was recorded at Caspy's Waterside Restaurant on the Pinellas Bayway. Half of the 18 tracks have a Florida theme, including a boogie-woogie rendition of Stephen Foster's "The Swanee River" (Old Folks at Home).

The music that keeps them together also brought them together.

"We're the only married couple in town, that won't put up with puttin' each other down. When we give each other hell, it's so heavenly. We're playing baby, in the same key."

They met one night in 1981 in the rural river town of their native Marietta, Ohio.

Pennock was playing solo in the lounge of a docked showboat. Country and Top 40 ruled the clubs, but the pianist had long been drawn to the blues.

Pennock had been married briefly to a musician, but after eight months, he told her he wanted a divorce. He left, and she was playing her showboat gig the night that Shambarger, a guitarist/singer in a local rock band, stopped in.

"I heard her voice, and I said, "That doesn't sound like Marietta, Ohio,' " he says. "I think I was the only person clapping. She did Bonnie Raitt, Bessie Smith, Muddy Waters. I thought it was so cool."

Shambarger also was in the midst of a divorce. His wife had abruptly left him. "Neither of us wanted divorces, we'd both been rejected and felt terrible about it," Pennock says.

She and Shambarger struck up a friendship, and he started sitting in for a song or two at her shows. They married in 1983 and formed the act, touring in Ohio college towns such as Columbus and Athens.

Their popularity grew. It coincided with a higher profile for the blues. By the mid 1980s, blues societies began to crop up around the country, spurred by big names such as Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In 1987, the Pennock/Shambarger act formally became known as Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues. "Shambarger just didn't fit on signs well," he says.

One year later, they were invited to St. Petersburg to perform a show with gospel and blues singer Diamond Teeth Mary McClain. Over the years they performed with her on tour and locally; they also backed her on the first CD of her career, Walking Mary's Blues, when she was in her 90s. She died three years ago at 97.

"It was so amazing being with Mary, because her mind was always so clear," Shambarger says.

That first gig with McClain led to annual winter gigs in the Tampa Bay area. In 1996, they decided to make the move full time from Ohio. It was hard leaving friends, family and a comfortable farm house behind, but they had become part of the blues community here. They moved into a simple four-bedroom home filled with Pennock's collection of miniature toy pianos, purple interior decor (Pennock's favorite color) and dozens of framed photos and clippings from their career.

One room is set up for rehearsing and composing, with a baby grand and an array of guitars. Another is their office, where they handle bookings, maintain their Web site (www.lizpennock.com) and store boxloads of their CDs.

Home is where Pennock and Shambarger escape the rigors of performing. Often, they don't return from gigs until 2 or 3 a.m. They usually eat, then watch TV until 4 or 5 a.m. to wind down.

"Normal people have their day jobs and work separately and come home," Pennock says. "The other person really doesn't know what they went through. But being together, it's great. We come home, we'll discuss the gig, and we know what happened, the good and the bad."

There are many challenges.

"The most stressful thing about the music business compared to other small businesses is it has so many extremes of highs and lows," Pennock says. "The phone rings, and it can mean you just lost a gig, or somebody might want you in an hour. You have to learn to deal with the extremes, and the lack of structure from an erratic schedule."

As with any couple, there are differences of opinion and issues to work out. "We air any problems pretty quickly, especially at a gig," Shambarger says. "It's like the Blues Brothers. We're on a mission from God. When you're at the gig, that's the work you're doing. You can't let disagreements get in the way."

"We're pretty easygoing people, too," Pennock adds. "We don't like to fight."

Vacations are rare. Instead, they go on tour, like the six-week stint they'll embark on this summer to Ohio, Indiana, West Virginia and Georgia.

"We're best friends," Shambarger says. "If one of us was on the road and the other one wasn't, well, I wouldn't want her to miss all the cool things that happen. Spending all the time together, because we're friends, makes things so much better."

Sound bites

To hear samples of songs by Liz Pennock and Dr. Blues, click on www.sptimes.com then on Floridian, and follow the links to this story. Their next shows are from 7 to 10 p.m. Saturday at the Peninsula Inn in Gulfport and from 7 to 11 p.m. Sunday and Monday at Caspy's Waterside Restaurant in St. Petersburg.

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