A Whitney Global Media Commentary
August 25, 2021
By William O’Shaughnessy, President and Editorial Director
The Cabaret World on the distaff side is populated mostly by overly theatrical divas and coloratura belters who energetically emote and perform as they overwhelm every intimate, sweet, delicate and sophisticated song by making them resemble a booming bel canto aria.
There are a few exceptions. Most prominent among female cabaret singers who don’t fall into this “show-off” category these days is, of course, Diana Krall. While many singers attack sophisticated and sensitive lyrics, Krall brings a gentle, easy, intimate and respectful approach to her work.
I’ve got nothing against an authentic theatrical belter. I loved Ethel Merman. But I flee from the nasal, one-note wail of Streisand’s delivery. Tierney Sutton, a west coast singer, is another performer, like Krall, who knows how to caress a lyric and resists the temptation to propel it into the higher rafters. And Sylvia Syms, Blossom Dearie, Daryl Sherman, K.D. Lang and June Christy were perfect examples of what we admire. Also Susannah McCorkle.
Two other girl singers stand out in our musical memory: the lush, creamy, romantic voice of Doris Day … and the tightly-wound, tortured genius of Judy Garland whose appealing and accessible persona would let her get away with many high register notes just because she was so absolutely sui generis.
And don’t forget when they asked Louis Armstrong who was the best girl singer of all time, Satchmo replied: “Uh … you mean besides Ella?”
Speaking of which, the glorious Rosemary Clooney. When I asked her one day about Sinatra’s insistence of “finishing a word” and not ducking the sibilant “S” (Polkadotsss and Moonbeamsss) … Rosie Clooney said “William … how else would you do it?”
Many girl singers of today could also study Billie Holiday who never had to shift into a “Look at me – I’m an ‘entertainer’ – ‘a performer’” mode as she bestowed her uniquely sinuous, supple way on a lyric. My late friend Nat Hentoff once called Lady Day “the best and most honest jazz singer.”
I’ve recently discovered a marvelous singer Rebecca Kilgore who is based in Portland, Oregon in the Pacific Northwest. She can really sing without resorting to that high register belting. She is sometimes billed as “Becky Kilgore.” By any name, she is very special.
Much could also be learned from those gentlemen who approach the Great American Songbook with a becoming restraint and laid-back respect. The incomparable Sinatra, with his exquisite, sensitive phrasing, serves as the model and guide.
Melvin Howard Torme and Tony Bennett got it. Ditto Matt Dennis, Murray Grand, Richard Rodney Bennett, Steve Ross, Eric Comstock, John Pizzarelli, Ronny Whyte, Charley Cochran and a Connecticut man named Norman Drubner, who has embarked on a second career (he’s produced seven beautifully curated and assembled CD’s!) are examples of singers who know how to “gentle” a lyric. Also Doug Williams, a singer and pianist in Naples, Florida and Cape May, New Jersey in the summer.
And Chet Baker is being discovered all over again for his lush, haunting vocal renditions and deeply-felt romantic ballads to which he brings an intimate, almost intoxicating style in which he barely whispers.
Mabel Mercer, whom I adored, and who was a dear and luminous friend, could get away with a few high, other-worldly trills in her English accent as she sat so grandly on a stage in her wing-back chair dispensing the genius of Alec Wilder, Noel Coward and Cole Porter. Many worshiped her, including Sinatra who sent her a telegram “I learned more than most of them.” Mable Mercer was to cabaret and song what DiMaggio was to a baseball diamond, Pele to a soccer pitch, and Michael Jordan to a basketball court.
COLE PORTER … KNEW
And then, thank you God, there was the great Fred Astaire who is firmly ensconced in the pantheon of great singers and entertainers as was Miss Mercer. Cole Porter was said to have preferred Astaire’s style and classy way with his brilliant and witty songs to all others. We’re talking great entertainers here as well as singers or warblers and, in our time, we also treasured Bobby Short with his vast repertoire of romantic and sophisticated, endearing songs.
SOCIETY SALOON SINGER
And there was the delightful Hugh Shannon, the saloon singer who was adored by Bricktop and Ahmet Ertegun and a huge posse of swells – the wealthy and influential denizens of upscale venues and resorts. Hugh played the Hamptons, Capri, Rome, the Virgin Islands, Provincetown and Manhattan. John S. Wilson, the revered Times critic called Hugh Shannon “the last of the great saloon singers” … and the progenitor of a new generation of piano singers. He left the pencil spotlight over his perch at the Steinway in all those sophisticated places on October 20, 1982. I know the date because we were pressed into service to deliver Hugh’s eulogy before almost a thousand fans and admirers at St. Monica’s Church on the upper East Side. You should know I wasn’t the first choice for the honors as Patrice Munsel was scheduled to speak but begged off the night before. (My remarks appear in our book AirWaves). Bobby Short was there sitting among the swells and ladies who lunch who were destined for Mortimer’s as soon as I mercifully yielded the podium. Hugh Shannon, with his gleaming choir-boy looks and raspy, exuberant delivery from his warm voice aged in saloon smoke and worn to a glowing hoarseness was just perfect as when he crooned Cole Porter’s “Down in the Depths of the 90th Floor.”
“The crowds at El Morocco punish the parquet … and the couples at “21” clamor for more … while I sit above the town in my regal eagles nest … down in the depths of the 90th floor.”
He also knew the Rodgers and Hart song “You Are Too Beautiful.”
But save us from those earnest female “Bar the door, Nelly” emoters and coloratura divas with their upper register trills.
William O’Shaughnessy, a former president of the New York State Broadcasters Association, was chairman of Public Affairs for the National Association of Broadcasters in Washington. He has been a point man and advocate for the broadcasters of America on First Amendment and Free Speech issues and is presently chairman of the Guardian Fund of the Broadcasters Foundation of America, the national charitable organization. He is also a longtime director and member of the Executive Committee of the Foundation. He has operated WVOX and WVIP, two of the last independent stations in the New York area, for over 60 years as president and editorial director.
He is the author of “AirWAVES” (1999) … “It All Comes Back to Me Now” (2001) … “More Riffs, Rants and Raves” (2004) … and “VOX POPULI: The O’Shaughnessy Files,” released in January, 2011. He has also written “Mario Cuomo: Remembrances of a Remarkable Man,” a tribute to his late friend Governor Mario M. Cuomo. His newest book RADIOactive for Fordham University Press, another anthology with interviews, commentaries, speeches and tributes was published in 2019. He is presently working on Townies, a paean to those without wealth, influence or high estate in suburban Westchester County, the heart of the Eastern Establishment.