Doyenne at Danny’s; Sylvia and Eglamour come to the rescue of “Verona”
I was happy to stay in the city Labor Day weekend to catch Annie Ross at Danny’s Skylight Room on September 3. This jazz doyenne gave the Great American Songbook a true workout, sensitively interpreting, with ever fiber of her being, standards like “Alone Together” and “By Myself,” two hauntingly dark Depression odes by Howard Dietz and Arthur Schwartz, and a definitive version of what may be my favorite song of all, Kurt Weill/Ogden Nash’s “Speak Low.”
“Now that’s portamento,” I whispered to Opera News editor Brian Kellow, who replied, “Ruth Anne [Swenson] should hear this!” When I interviewed Ross, she also had strong views about certain would-be jazz singers. “I was listening to Renee Fleming on the radio,” she said, “and I heard her say, ‘Now that I’m a jazz singer, and I thought, ‘Oh, come on!’ She’s got a remarkable voice, but you can hear everybody in it, snatches of Nancy Wilson, Ella [Fitzgerald], Sarah [Vaughan].”
When it comes to fellow divas, Ross certainly knows the deal. Her aunt, Ella Logan, was the original star of Broadway’s “Finian’s Rainbow,” and gave five-year-old Annie a record of Ella Fitzgerald’s “A-tisket, A-tasket.”
“I didn’t know that what she was singing was jazz,” Ross recalled. “But I knew that that’s what I wanted to do.”
Logan, herself a pseudo jazz singer, wrote an arrangement of “Loch Lomond,” which little Annie sang in the “Our Gang Follies of 1938” (“Spanky McFarland gave me a charm bracelet.”). Ross said that after “Finian’s” Logan began speaking with a heavy brogue and told everyone she was Irish, although she was Scottish: “She got a little crazy. It was kind of sad.”
At age 11, Ross played Judy Garland’s sister in one of Garland’s most charming early vehicles, “Presenting Lily Mars” (1943). “You can be in the same film with somebody but never see them,” she recalled. “She came in to do a scene with the children crying, and I was so excited. But she didn’t say anything, just came in, did the scene and left. I met her a few times more when I had my club in London. We worked on the opening night right up until the doors opened, all the seats were allotted. She suddenly appeared with seven people. And you don’t say, ‘I’m sorry, Miss Garland,’ but, anyway, it worked out and after I’d finished performing, she said to me, ‘I want to look just like that in Vegas,’ because I had a boa and things.”
As for Billie Holliday: “There was only one Lady Day, a curious mix—childlike, wistful, mean, with a great sense of humor. She was fun to be with, and wasn’t, when she was in a bad mood, as everybody is. My favorite record of hers is ‘Lady in Satin,’ because there’s a whole life in that voice. It was the phrasing and the sound. You always knew it was Lady; that’s what so many singers don’t have today—a great, instantly recognizable sound. Words are very important to me, too, and you can’t hear the words of so many of the singers nowadays.”
Ross, however, does offer props to Shirley Horn, “the real thing.”
Ross was sort of the “honorary white girl” back in the day. She was tight with Sarah Vaughn, and remembered, with awe, her piano musicianship and the elegance of her funeral with a glass, horse-drawn carriage of a hearse.
“I stayed with her in Los Angeles, and we’d get into her convertible and hit those crazy freeways,” Ross recalled. “I was terrified and asked her, ‘Aren’t you nervous?’ She said, ‘I love it! It’s just like a pinball machine—things move and things go!’ And Dinah Washington was crazy. Her dressing room always had food, a piano, and racks of fur coats with the linings taken out, because they’d all been boosted [stolen]. She was amazing, so funny, but she was nuts!”
The lyric is key when Ross chooses her songs (“I can’t sing banal things”) and when she writes them, like her classic “Twisted.” When asked what inspired that, she simply replied, “Money. I was working as a waitress, hated it, and wasn’t any good at it. I met a record producer who asked if I’d heard ‘Moody’s Mood’ and if I could write the words to something like that. I said, ‘Yes,’ and he gave me a stack of music, and that one title, ‘Twisted,’ got me. I thought, ‘That’s something I could write,’ found it had a beginning, middle and end, and did it overnight. But I wasn’t in analysis, like in the song. I did go once for about two months and thought, ‘For $75 an hour, I better buy a tape recorder for the sessions. I listened to all this rubbish I was speaking and thought, ‘Nah…’”
Joni Mitchell and Bette Midler both recorded it, and Ross praised a young singer/actress, Joan Crow, who recently did it:
“A very nice little version where she talks,” she said. “It has no resemblance to what I did, but it’s interesting.”
Ross also loves acting. She did the film, “Short Cuts,” for Robert Altman.
“A wonderful man, great talent,” she said. “He lets you experiment and it’s kind of like jazz.”
Bisexual director Tony Richardson she “adored. He could be mean, a waspish tone, but I just loved him.”
When Ross lived in England, every Christmas she would perform in prisons, and one year got herself up in a glamorous Mongolian fur coat with her then-long red hair, “to give them something to think about later.” She went to a party at Richardson’s afterwards where he offered her the role of Pirate Jenny in “The Threepenny Opera,” with Vanessa Redgrave and Hermione Baddely, designed by David Hockney.
“On opening night, Hermione and I were waiting for the curtain to go up when a stage manager said, ‘I thought you’d like to know: Lotte Lenya [the original Jenny] is out front.’” Ross recalled. “Hermione said, ‘How dare you? What a thing to do just before the curtain!’”
But the evening went off beautifully, and at the after party, Ross asked Richardson to introduce her to Lenya.
“She was eating with a friend. They both had suits on and were very unglamorous,” she said. “Tony said, ‘Lotte, this is Annie Ross.’ She just kept eating. So I said, ‘Miss Lenya,’ and she said, ‘I am not “Miss Lenya.” So I said, ‘Lotte.’ And she said, ‘I am not “Lotte.” [Bertolt] Brecht and [Kurt] Weill always called me “Lenya.” And then she said, ‘I give you half my crown. Not all, but I give you half.’ I felt like I had a shot of oxygen.”
Before the current Danny’s engagement, Ross hadn’t sung for a few years.
“The reason was simple: depression,” she said.
But that’s turned around now, with a wonderful man in her life, David Usher, whom she met decades ago, when he was a record producer. He encouraged her tossing again, which she will be doing through November. In her act, she is backed by veteran horn player Warren Vaché, whose solos provide a ravishing counterpoint to her vocals. In the meantime, this proud Scot is jetting off to Glasgow next week, to perform the role of Carlotta in a gala benefit of Sondheim’s “Follies.”
For details on Ross’ upcoming evenings at Danny’s, call 212-265-8130.
Everyone wants to know if this production’s Julia, Rosario Dawson, who replaces Daphne Rubin-Vega in the film “Rent,” has any musical chops. On the basis of this, her absolute stage debut, I’d say not really, although she makes one seductively gorgeous vision. But hey, they can work wonders in the recording studio and she should prove more than adequate to anyone who loved, say, the “Chicago” soundtrack, with Renée Zellweger and Catherine Zeta-Jones straining their wee voices to sound like Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera. As for her on-stage lover, mincing Oscar Lewis who plays Proteus, director Kathleen Marshall should have given him one essential rehearsal note: “Be more heterosexual.”
You have two more chances to board Michael Fesco’s Sea Tea, which sets sail Sundays at 7 p.m. from Pier 40. It’s always a blast with fun people, yummy food and major entertainment for a mere $20. This Sunday, September 18, DJ Mark Cicero spins for the Leather Cruise, hosted by porn star Michael Brandon and the Men of Raging Stallion. On September 25, the final cruise will be a fundraiser for FireFlag/EMS, the gay firefighters and emergency professionals, as well as Gotham Volleyball League, with DJ Robbie Leslie and drag goddess LaRitza Dumont. For complete information, visit gaypartycruise.com.
Contact David Noh at [email protected].