Okay. It’s taken a few days but here is part two of my list of “fifteen or so” of the most memorable live music performances I’ve seen.
In the mid-80′s I was living just outside of Washington, D.C. in Prince George’s County in Adelphi, MD. I’d moved there because I had begun performing on the dinner theater circuit in that area as one of the brothers in “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat” at a theatre called Petrucci’s Dinner Theater.
I went on to play small parts in other shows there and at The Burn Brae Dinner Theater where my friend Donna eventually hired me to work in the kitchen and I ruled over the “meat board” on the buffet line. “Ham or Beef? Au Jus? You’re welcome. Enjoy the show!” it was very fulfiliing work. The best part was getting my shift drink and then getting stoned in the parking lot and listening to Joan Armatrading as the cicadas descended on us that summer. As much as I liked being one of the King of Siam’s guards and serving meat to busloads of tourists -or maybe I should say busloads of meat to… anyway, at a certain point I decided it was time to move on. I had recently been in a play called, “Chang and Eng” in the Washington Fringe Festival where I played one of the famous Siamese twins, Chang and Eng, who had worked in the Barnum and Bailey Ciricus in the 1800s.
My twin brother was Eric Dellums, an extremely talented African American actor who was from California and stood about 6 inches taller than me. At the time I was trying to decide if I wanted to be an actor and to really be honest with myself as to whether I had enough talent to make it my life’s work. I decided that if Eric and I could convince an audience that we were Siamese twins (now called conjoined) we could convince people of anything. The play was well received and that really boosted my confidence. Another thing I needed to know was whether or not I could, if I had to, make a living in the “straight” world so I got a job working at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts working as an assistant to the Maitre ‘D of The Roof Terrace Restaurant where many big name Washington politicians and celebrities dined before seeing one of the shows at The Kennedy Center. I was trying to be a normal, middle-class, semi-closeted gay wiith a job and I had a cute 80′s haircut, showed up to work in a classic Calvin Klein houndstooth sport coat with black Willie Smith pleated gabardine trousers and shiney black tassled loafers. It was an adventure which could only last for a brief period of time but it lasted long enough to give me the confidence to plunge into my life as a gender non-conforming queer in San Francisco a year later believing that I could -in case of emergency- break the glass ceiiling by returning to my closeted white male privilege again one day if need be. I’m happy to say I have managed to avoid that fate, thus far… And now that I’ve got breasts? Well, never say never!
One of the perks of working at The Kennedy Center was that i was able to sneak into a lot of great performances over the course of the 16 months or so that I worked there. I saw several operas, symphonies and concerts the most thrilling of which was Ella Fitzgerald.
I’m not sure of the exact date I saw Ella but I believe it would have been late 1987 or early 1988. I’m sure I have it in a journal buried somewhere in storage in my friend’s basement in Pennsylvania along with a bunch of angst-y missives about how my parents didn’t understand me and that I would never find ‘true love’ but who needs to go to Pennsylvania for that!?! I still keep a journal, hello, some things never change! Self-pity is a classic that never goes out of style!
Anyway!!! I was very excited to see Ella because when I was growing up we only had a few 8 track tapes in our 1961 Buick Special Skylark. The Buick was the first car I ever rode in and it’s where I fell in love with music. I have so many fantastci memories which are associated with that car. The first vacation I remember going on was when I was about 3 or 4 years old and my parents took me to historical Williamsburg. I don’t remember Williamsburg but I do remember my friend Lori Hill hid some of her Barbie’s under the car seat for me to play with on the trip! What a pal!!!
Here is a list of the 8 tracks we had in our car. I don’t think it ever changed until my parents sold the car when I was thirteen.
Hank Williams Greatest Hits
Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass “What Now My Love?”
Dr. Zhivago Soundtrack
Sarah Vaughn with The Count Basie Orchestra
Ella Fitzgerald Sings The Gershwin Songbook
Billy Vaughn and His Orchestra “The Golden Instrumentals
These were what we listened to in the car. My favorite was Billy Vaughn and his orchestra because it sounded like a movie soundtrack and when it was playing I pretended I was Cinderella or Bette Davis. Oftentimes I would hum the tunes as dance around on my tippy-toes imagining I was in high heels. I recently found “The Golden Instrumentals” on itunes and even though it’s awfully cheesey I still love it. Fortunately I don’t have to walk on tip-toes pretending I’m wearing high heels any more. I’ve got a lovely collection of high heels and with a slug of whiskey they barely hurt! Over the years I came to realize what a genius Hank WIlliams was but, back when we were kids, my sister loved Hank Williams and I was NOT a fan so we used to have big fights over what we’d listen to. Neither of us were into Ella Fitzgerald but Ella was my Dad’s favorite. He used to tell the story about how one night he and his buddies were loafing around outside of some jazz club in Georgetown when Ella came outside and said, “Hi fellas!” and made their night. So when I heard Ella was playing at the Concert Hall at The Kennedy Center I decided to go -if for no other reason than it would impress my dad.
As I’m sure you know Ella had terrible health problems in her later years caused by diabetes. By the time I saw her she had lost a tremendous amount of weight, could barely walk and had coke bottle glasses. After being helped onstage Ella leaned up against a stool in front of her orchestra and began singing. In spite of her obvious physical frailty her voice was still there and the joyful noise she made was overwhelming and all encompassing. She sang everything from her signature song “A Tisket, A Tasket”, which made her a star when she recorded fifty years before in 1938, up through “Mack the Knife”. Her voice soared and she caused the audience to go wild when she would scat, and she would scat whenever she forgot the lyrics -which was often. Seeing Ella was like attending a master class. Sometimes I’ve found the most interesting concerts to be the ones where the singer is struggling -either because of age or throat problems because it’s then that you get to see how they really work. One of the toughest concerts I ever sat through was when Marianne Faithfull sang at the Danny and Sylvia Fine Kay theater here in New York in the 90s. She had given a hell of a show the night before but had blown out her voice. Watching a singer maneuver their way through a show with a blown out voice can be very painful but illuminating and I learned so much from watching Marianne pull a show out of her soul that night because it wasn’t coming out of her throat. The same thing was true the last time I saw Anita O’Day at the Fez a few years later. It was Anita’s last appearance in New York before she died and although she couldn’t hit the notes her signature phrasing remained in place. But more on those two incredible women later…
Back to Ella. She brought the house down and frequently mopped her brow with the handkerchief that never left her hand. I swear that as she was led off the stage I was afraid she might die that night but she lived several more years until she died in her home in Beverly Hills in June of 1996. SIngers sing. My heroes are the people who do it until they drop. What could be better than singing your way into heaven? Lord knows listening to Ella was a spiritual experience.
Here is a link to a youtube video of Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé live. I really don’t think the Grammy’s ever got better than this!
Next up? Divine!
If you’re in NYC this week come and see me in “The Drift” at Joe’s Pub Thursday and Friday at 7pm!