BWW Exclusive: ALL EYES ON ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY; Richard Jay-Alexander Talks to the Singer / Songwriter / Actress / Dancer!
I'm happy to confess that this piece was a total, happy accident.
I called Ann Hampton Callaway at home on the day before she was leaving for South Africa for the "Joy of Jazz Festival" in Johannesburg. The reason I was calling was simple; I wanted to tell her how much I love her new album, "ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY: From SASSY to DIVINE the Sarah Vaughan PROJECT Live at Jazz at Lincoln Center's dizzy's club coca-cola." Yeah, I know, that's a lot of title but it's also, a lot of great music. (Click Here to Purchase!)
Ann Hampton Callaway is one of those people who has been a part of our business for a while and after hearing this extraordinary live recording, I came to realize those of us who know her and are around her regularly... take her for granted.
It's the people she goes and sings and plays for all over the world, that get to really be in awe of her gifts as she does over 250 concerts and appearances during any calendar year. Sometimes, some of them are with her sister, Liz Callaway, a Broadway veteran and another extraordinary vocalist.
Ann just completed a run at Ronnie Scott's in London and that was after enjoying a safari with her partner, Kari Strand (pronounced KAH-REE), to whom she is engaged.
But, back to the album, I wanted to talk about her love for singing, her musicianship, "sister stuff," her Mom and Dad, and growing up in Chicago.
We jumped all over the place. A good place to start would be the differences between Ann Hampton Callaway and Liz Callaway. There are two stunning recordings of the famous sisters: one is Sibling Revelry, and the other (and more recent) BOOM! Live At Birdland.
BOOM!, in particular, tells the story of their differences, musically. Liz's voice has been described as "sunlight;" Ann's has been described as "moonlight" and together it has been said, that they make "twilight." I would concur, agree and "sign on!"
Both girls are very 'popular' and I ask Ann, in particular, how she felt about being a singer and singer-songwriter, as a lot of the legendary "vocalists" lead quite tragic existences. Whether it was in their personal or professional life, as well as the presence of alcohol and drugs. In other words,"... do you really need to have lived a tragic life to sing the blues?" Which is also akin to "why do some people swing and other's can't?"
Ann's trajectory is all over the map, but somehow becomes very clear when you learn that at the age of 12 she found her way to Bob Dylan's Tarantula and discovered "free-form" writing. At 14, she was coming to grips with her bi-sexuality, and was also already writing poems and poems turned to lyrics very early on and straight through a recent bout of cancer.
Growing up in Chicago, her Dad was a reporter and would bring home news daily of killings and wars, and also spoke of what seemed like some of the most interesting people in the world. Her mom taught school and also taught voice. She knew that there was an interesting life out there that she could find, and it all starts to make sense. She has also lived her life by The Golden Rule.
She remembers, as early as 10 years old, writing lyrics, playing with a guitar and having her own rhyming dictionary. She first got a sense that she might be talented from her grandmother and her third grade teacher Mrs. Lawrence, but, she also never felt safe, had a tendency to over-analyze things and she wasn't particularly social; this all makes sense too, because how do you join the normal world after you've discovered Tarantula, right? But she took chances, used her emotions and always participated, putting all heart and soul into her music and her words.
Ann found her way to New York and even onto Broadway in a musical called Swing!, directed by Lynne Taylor-Corbett. The show opened on December 9th, 1999 and closed on January 14th, 2001. Ann was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical and stayed for the entire run of the show. She was able to show off her three-octave range and remembers taking care of herself meticulously in order to do the eight show weeks. She also remembers telling them, clearly when she auditioned, that she was not a dancer... but she did end up dancing and was pretty happy about it.
We got on to some current events and talked about Barbra Streisand's new album Partners. You may or may not know that Ann Hampton Callaway wrote the lyrics to Barbra and James Brolin's wedding song, "I've Dreamed of You." Ann also wrote the song "At the Same Time", which Barbra recorded for her album Higher Ground, which debuted nationally at #1.
Ann thinks Barbra's duets album is brilliant. I of course, 'edged' for some favorites, and she reluctantly named "It Had to Be You" the duet with Michael Buble and, of course, Mom's duet with Jason "How Deep Is The Ocean?"
When Barbra was honored in April, 2013, by the New York Film Society at Lincoln Center, Ann performed one of (what I like to call) her famous tricks at the party, where she takes suggestions from the audience (and this one was quite star-studded) and fashions a song for the occasion. I had been fascinated by this trick before, and asked her how it's done, but, like a magician, she will not reveal her secrets.
We talked about Polly Bergen's passing. Ann loved Polly, both as a performer and as a person and spoke about how she will be missed and how she'll never forget seeing her when she returned to the New York club scene at te age of 70, after a 35 year absence.
This got us talking about singers, as Polly was a Columbia Records recording artist with many albums. We started discussing our favorites and how Ann, who has such an appreciation for generations of musicians before her, has found herself putting together tributes to some of her favorites.
She started touring last year with The Streisand Songbook which she conceived and played prestigious venues with prestigious orchestras to rave reviews. And, of course, the new Sarah Vaughan recording is another for which she is very grateful to longtime friend and collaborator, Lisa Schiff, for helping to make it happen.
For those of you who don't know, Ann has 12 solo albums, 2 albums with her sister, Liz, and, of course, the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Swing! She can also be found on many other recordings as a guest or featured artist and you can find most of them on Amazon.com and/or iTunes, with a little good sleuthing. She also has her eye on the works of Shirley Horn for a future project and well as a Frank Sinatra idea, with the centennial of his birthday approaching. She has a great working title for it called, The World According to Frank.
You can find Ann occasionally on Sirius XM radio and she had a TV show in the works. Ann also has a Broadway musical in her brain, for which she needs a bookwriter (Broadway librettists TAKE NOTE!). Many don't know that she wrote (and performed with Liz!) the theme to The Nanny and many other fun things you wouldn't guess. I started thinking about her and her sister again and asked what she thought of Frozen, as that is the sisterhood film of the year, and to my amazement and awe (laughing) drum roll please... she hasn't seen it!!! I was both floored and then it made sense--- the girl is traveling and working for God's sake! But, I'm sure I'll get a phone call this winter, that she and Kari are on the couch having hot cocoa and crying, watching Frozen... and I will look forward to that call!
One of the most fun things we got to talk about was doing theatre when she was young... I am happy to inform you that Ann Hampton Callaway played Mame at the age of 16 and for a full circle moment two years ago, she sang "If He Walked into My Life" at a tribute to Angela Lansbury. Well, if that doesn't make your jaw drop, stop reading now.
We talk about Broadway and how we both loved Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. We talk about her Christmas album and recording it in Los Angeles in 105 degree weather (that's the time of year most Christmas albums are recorded...) This then brought up our mutual friend Jay Landers. Jay produced Ann's Christmas Album on Angel Records back when he was an A&R executive at the label. After my chat with Ann, I called him up and asked if he would share some thoughts on our mutual friend. Jay Landers kindly wrote the following:
I first met Ann Hampton Callaway in 1997 when she sent me a demo of her song "At The Same Time". In that Clinton reelection year, its message of global unity struck a nerve with me, so I gave the song to Barbra Streisand. The message resonated with her too, and she recorded it on her multi-platinum inspirational album "Higher Ground."
A few months later, Barbra performed "At The Same Time" at a Bill Clinton fundraiser in Los Angeles, accompanied by a fifty-voice strong children's choir. I remember the president, seated in the audience listening to the song, furiously scribbling notes on the back of an 8x10 card. After Barbra left the stage to thunderous applause, Clinton stood behind the lectern and said words to the effect that, although he'd prepared a speech, after hearing Barbra sing "At The Same Time," he'd been inspired to change his remarks. Then he proceeded to recite some of the key lyrics from the song. I don't know if I'd actually met Ann in person at this point, but I vividly recall wishing she'd been there to hear how her song was making exactly the kind of social impact she'd first conceived it for.
I subsequently learned that in addition to her writing skills, Ann was an incredibly engaging stage performer. The first time I saw her in-concert, she seamlessly glided from one emotional pivot point to the next - from humor to heartbreak - and truly understood both extremes.
Later, I asked Ann to set lyrics to an instrumental melody Barbra had discovered in a restaurant in Ireland, during the time she was first dating her future husband, James Brolin. We surprised her with a demo for "I've Dreamed Of You" the day before her wedding. Ann's intuitive skills captured Barbra's thoughts again. The next day, after taking her vows, Barbra sang "I've Dreamed Of You" to her new husband. Another indelible moment for a Callaway song!
Maybe it's because she is such a graceful songwriter, that Ann knows her way around a lyric so well when she performs. Actually, singing doesn't quite sum it up, because Ann truly caresses a lyric. She's got the heart+mind+voice connection that makes listeners believe her, even when interpreting songs by other writers.
Such is the case with her new live album, "The Sarah Vaughan Project". The record is subtitled, "From Sassy To Divine." Although Ann is referring to Ms. Vaughan, she could just as easily be describing herself.
Were this the 1940's, I'm quite certain Ann's new album would reside comfortably on the charts alongside Rosemary Clooney, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and other celebrated ladies of song. Alas, we live in a nosier world today, but thankfully Ann keeps the tradition of real songs and real singing alive and well.
Unlike many so-called cabaret entertainers, Ann's interpretations aren't merely sonic photocopies of the originals. Rather, she extracts the essential ingredients that made these legendary singers and their music shine, then assimilates them into her own artistic world view. The results are a tip of the cap to the golden-era of song, but it's also delightfully fresh and vibrant and alive sounding.
It's also been interesting to watch critics over the years, watch Ann grow, and one in particular is Stephen Holden from The New York Times. One of my favorite quotes about Ann is from her recent New York appearance, "Ann Hampton Callaway, like the great jazz diva Sarah Vaughan to whom she paid tribute at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola on Thursday evening, has a voice so rich, flexible and extravagantly gorgeous that it hardly matters what use she puts it to. The sound always comes first and is what you most remember."
To purchase this glorious live recording, Click Here.
We talked about YouTube (the glory and the agony of it) and I asked her to pick some of her favorites that she sees out there. I like to call it Ann Hampton Callaway's PLAYLIST for BroadwayWorld.com readers.
Ann & Liza sing "Stormy Weather" on TV Special Singer's Spotlight
Ann with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops "How High the Moon"
Ann with Bill Mays, Martin Wind and Tim Horner singing "Wave" in The Sarah Vaughan Project" during fireworks in Rockport, MA
Ann on The Rosie O'Donnell Show
The Nanny Named Fran written and performed by Ann Hampton Callaway with Liz Callaway on backup vocals
Ann sings "Blues in the Night" from SWING! in Times Square
For even more Ann on YouTube, click here!
And, last but not least, Ann was telling me that her during her bout with cancer, she wrote and documented some very powerful words. Being that it's Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I gently asked her if she could revisit that harrowing time in her life, and if she would be kind enough to share one piece of writing that might be particularly meaningful for her. This is what she shared:
8/17/12 (Written the week of my lumpectomy)
Canopies of trees
Sigh the green breath of morning
Whose leaves sing out
Gold rimmed at dawn
Like church windows,
With veins glowing
Of life itself.
A caterpillar studies
The tributaries of truth
In verdant Braille
And without fail
Her wings will one day
Flutter for us
Like a joyous flag
Waving to honor
That which is so essential
We cannot comprehend
Its splendid simplicity.
Mystery, we bathe in
Your morning miracles
As wounds heal,
And hopes lift sail.
Ladies and gentleman, I remain in awe of Ann Hampton Callaway. An artist, a survivor, an amazing human being and one 'kick-ass' singer. This is a girl who has found true happiness in her work, in her life and is totally in touch with her spirituality in a way that is very, very rare. It is no wonder to me that on her Bucket List are Tibet and India. She'll get there, I guarantee it!
with Tony Bennett
Ann with Carole King
Kari and Ann
John, Shirley, Ann & Liz
From This Author Richard Jay-Alexander