Toronto
3 min

Divanation

Discovering new queens of song

CROWNING GLORY. Who should the show-tune humming, diva-loving audiophile listen to, now? How about Molly Johnson? Credit: Xtra files

There was a time when a visit to Sam The Record Man was the closest this gay man felt like a kid in a candy store.



Walking disdainfully past the pop and rock section to vocals and jazz on the second floor was a lot more than shopping: For a show-tune humming, diva-loving gay man, it was a little haven from the macho posturing of musical fads.



But about three years ago, the thrill was gone. It seemed that there was nothing to buy – nothing new, at least. How many dead singers and back-catalogue reissues can there be in any collection? I miss the excitement of a new release and the thrill of discovering new singers (which in most cases is a female singer).



For a discerning gay man of a certain age and a conservative, some may say predictable, taste in music, the options looked dire. Many of the great singers we love are either dead (Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf) or have reached a point where their music is too painful to listen to, and their personalities verge on the grotesque (think Diana Ross, Cher or even the divine Barbra Streisand).



But the picture is not all that bleak.



The good news is that there are many wonderful, contemporary singers continuing a tradition that the discriminating, musically-oriented man or woman will appreciate.



And now that the holiday season is here, what better excuse to treat yourself or a friend to a classic but new musical experience. To get you going, here’s a (highly idiosyncratic) list of female singers to warm your heart and soul this winter.



Ann Hampton Callaway


Anyone with a taste for beautiful melodies and rich vocal works could do worse than give cabaret singer and composer Ann Hampton Callaway a listen.



I strongly recommend her first and last albums as the best immersion tactic. The first is 1992’s self-titled CD (from DRG) which contains “I Gaze In Your Eyes,” her composition to a forgotten Cole Porter lyric poem. But it is 1999’s Easy Living (Sin-Drome Records), recorded live in a studio with a band, that is her most ambitious to date. There’s no attempt to dub cracks in her voice or less-than-perfect delivery on the odd occasion when it happens, and the result is a refreshingly honest and brave recording that includes such stunning interpretations of classics as “Nice Work If You Can Get It” and “Come Rain Or Come Shine.”



Audra McDonald


Triple Tony-winner Audra McDonald is simply a slice of heaven on a CD.



This beautiful mezzo-soprano’s latest album How Glory Goes (Nonesuch) is a carefully chosen collection of traditional American standards (Harold Arlen’s “The Man That Got Away” and “Sleeping Bee”) and brand-new theatrical art songs by upcoming Broadway composers like Adam Guettel and Stephen Flaherty.



Once converted, check out Way Back To Paradise, her 1998 debut album from Nonesuch, which is more experimental in nature but just as vocally compelling.



Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone


Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone are two theatre divas more associated with overblown Andrew Lloyd-Webber musicals. However, both have recorded albums with nothing more than piano and vocals (and a dozen or so great songs).



Heart To Heart, released earlier this year by KO, is Buckley’s latest offering in this mode and contains her most understated and effective vocals. A version of Stephen Sondheim’s “Anyone Can Whistle” is the stand-out cut.



Matters Of The Heart is Patti LuPone’s last studio album from 1999 (LayZlay Records) and is based on her one-woman cabaret act. It includes several light-hearted comic songs alongside pop and standards.



Maureen McGovern


Another old-timer, Maureen McGovern’s career has taken a turn for the better and she’s now my absolute favourite. Since the mid-1980s, she has been one of the most stupendous interpreters of American standards. Her Naughty Baby (CBS), a recording of Gershwin songs, is the best interpretation of that composer since Ella Fitzgerald’s in the 1950s.



On The Pleasure Of His Company (Sterling), with pianist Mike Renzi (with whom she recorded her coming-of-age CD Another Woman In Love in 1986 with CBS), McGovern breathes new life into classics and two new compositions. It is one of only a handful of CDs I’d go as far as calling perfect from start to finish. Not to be missed is The Music Never Ends, a collection of songs by lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman released in 1997 from Sterling.



Finally, here’s a round-up of other great female singers, many of whom are Canadian, and their best CDs:



– Holly Cole’s latest, Romantically Helpless (Alert Music), is her best effort to-date


– Linda Eder’s cheesy but addictive new show-tunes in last year’s It’s No Secret Anymore (Atlantic)


– Cory Jamison’s Here’s To Hoagy (LML Music), a funky tribute to Hoagy Carmichael


– Ranee Lee’s Dark Divas (Justin Time), a double CD of music recorded by female jazz icons


– Local legend Molly Johnson’s new self-titled CD (Chinook)


– Out lesbian Patricia Barber’s 1998 Modern Cool (Premonition) and this year’s Night Club (Blue Note), with gorgeous versions of “Alfie” and “I Fall In Love Too Easily.”