Countess Williams Credit: Courtesy the Artist

Blues singer Jean Williams, known as the Countess, delivers her music with a theatrical panache that recalls the classic blueswomen of Bessie Smith’s era; skilled thespians as well as gifted vocalists, they often transformed their songs into melodramas that they carefully acted out onstage. Born in Chicago in 1966, Williams cultivated her musical tastes by listening to artists such as Nina Simone, Sarah Vaughan, Bette Midler, Tina Turner, and Madonna, and she honed her theatrical chops by attending what she calls “the drag queen shows on Rush Street,” where a dancer named Flame Monroe taught her the finer points of makeup and fashion (she still designs most of her own stage outfits). By the late 1990s she’d gravitated to the blues, and she’s been a mainstay on the south and west sides ever since, though she performs as far away as Peoria and Galesburg (and became a staple at the now-defunct Women in the Blues revues at Reggies’). Williams’s repertoire includes standards from blues and deep soul as well as R&B club favorites, but the real treats are her originals, on which she commands an emotional range as wide and deep as her stylistic one. After delivering a series of sassy erotic throwdowns in a croon that sounds like barbed wire wrapped in velvet (“I can make my own kitty purr,” she sings on “Kitty Purr”), she’ll drop her defenses and unleash a full-blown psychodrama such as “Wasted My Time,” where she immerses herself so thoroughly in her character—sinking to her knees, pounding the floor, literally writhing in agony—that by the time she’s through, it’s hard to tell who’s been dragged through a more harrowing inferno, her or her audience.   v