BWW Interview: Natalie Douglas of TRIBUTES at Birdland
Disappointed to learn about the Birdland series "Natalie Douglas Tributes" after the shows that spotlighted Shirley Bassey, Cher, Lena Horne, and other famous artists, I vowed to catch the summer's Judy Garland and Roberta Flack themed shows, and it was one of the best decisions I ever made.
The Tributes Series is in its third season. For the first two seasons Ms. Douglas and her band, phenomenally lead by musical director/arranger Mark Hartman, did evenings that showcased the work of six singers. This season they did ten. That means every four to six weeks Douglas and co. present an entirely new show, which is mind-blowing, but not to them, apparently, because with only four weeks between June's Judy Garland Show and July's Roberta Flack show, this team of artists brought their A-Game, making the prospect of seeing the upcoming Nancy Wilson Tribute even more thrilling.
The main room at Birdland is a big, a legendary room, and it takes a big personality to fill it. This is the room Ms. Douglas plays all the time and she has the personality and voice to fill it, and the band and guest artists, too. It's an embarrassment of riches worth the cash and the trip out into the sweltering summer to get to the nightclub. Douglas is very funny and incredibly genial, doling out trivia tidbits between songs, but not in that Learning Annex way that some singer-specific shows can tend toward. This is fun and informative at the same time, like a good gossip session with a close friend over a pot of tea... and a grand piano.
A Mistress of the art of musical storytelling, Ms. Douglas isn't just able to change the timbre of her voice from light, airy and bright on "Dear Mr. Gable, You Made Me Love You" to rich, deep and fervent on "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", she showed that she is adept at making those changes from sentence to sentence while singing "Come in From the Rain" (neither a Garland nor Flack song, but appropriate because songwriter Melissa Manchester wrote it as though composing a song for the late star of The Wizard of Oz). The tone set by the artist Douglas is spotlighting changes, like water, to fit the singer inside of the song. The night of the Judy Garland show, Ms. Douglas was all giddy girlish exuberance, and for the Roberta Flack evening, Natalie was sultry as the summer night. From show to show, from song to song, Natalie Douglas is a chameleon, never boring, always engaging, authentic to herself and dedicated to her idols. She can sing anything and she can sing it in ways you didn't know they could be sung, and then, just when you think you couldn't like her any more than you already do, she hits you with her humor.
Particular standouts in each of the two Tributes I saw this summer:
During the Garland show (which took place during the week of Gay Pride) the most beautiful part of the night was Natalie Douglas taking a seat and sitting stock still center stage and singing "It Never Was You" - it was a moment that was like light - it didn't weigh a thing but it sure filled the room. How prodigious that so intimate a moment should cause so vast an emotional echo in an evening brimming with celebration. And how lucky audiences are that Natalie Douglas can stand before them and open herself up in a moment as intimate and personal as singing one of the greatest love songs ever, "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" directly to her husband, whom she openly discusses with all in the most passionate and endearing of ways.
After only two Tribute shows, this ardent admirer of Douglas' work reached out to the award-winning entertainer with a few questions about the work that, clearly, rewards her with great joy.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Natalie, you recently finished your 19th Tribute, playing to a sold out house. How satisfying is it to have created such a popular phenomenon?
Yup! 19 is right! It makes me really happy, especially because it means that there are people who like these artists as much as I do, who are coming to share in their glory. Each month I get to dive into the work of people I really admire, who've been an influence on me as a singer and an actor. I love that the culmination of all that is an evening I spend with a lot of other people who feel the same way.
What was the inspiration for the Natalie Douglas Tribute series?
This series, specifically, was my husband's idea. Two summers ago I was lucky enough to get a monthly residency at Birdland. I said yes of course; then my husband and I were talking and he said maybe it's a chance to do something specific with it, something that is actually a series, as opposed to doing the same show four months in a row or bringing back something we had done in the past. He said: "what if you do a tribute to a different artist every month" because he knows that whenever anyone asks me what my favorite song is, I can never answer that question. Because I love too many songs, and quite honestly I always feel partial to whatever it is I'm working on at this moment - I'm just so excited by the new thing that I'm learning. I like learning a lot of things, even though it's insane, and I don't know why (but) I thought it was a good idea. It intrigued me and I thought what the hey let's go for it. The whole idea of tributes began sixteen years ago with Jim Caruso, he said "I want you to do something for us but I want people to know that it's not what you just did downtown (at The Duplex)" And at that point I had never done any kind of theme program, so I was trying to come up with something that would definitely be different than what we had ever done before. And my husband said "what about Nina?" because up to that point I had put at least one Nina Simone Song in every show I ever did (Laughing) because I adore her, but I had never done an entire evening of Nina songs, so that was the very first tribute ever, but we didn't call it tributes and I had no idea that it would go on to become this thing.
Which singer did you have to do the most amount of research on?
I'd say probably ... I did a lot of research on Sammy Davis Jr. and a lot of research on Elvis. Sammy because there are SO many bios and there's so much footage of him (and this is true of all the artists I've been lucky enough to choose) -- every bio is written from a different point of view. It's almost as if every biography (in some cases autobiography) it's a different person. I like to read more than one because I like to get a feel for what actually might be there, and what are the things that we put on them. Because these people are iconic and loved. We hang our stuff on them, so I like to have an idea of where that line is. It's impossible to have that completely because obviously, I have my attachments to them and my opinions. I think Elvis is one (show) that my husband and Jim Caruso wanted. I did a show called Black White and Blues years ago that was about the place where music we associate with black artists (and we call that blues or rhythm and blues) and music we associate with white artists (and we call that bluegrass or country) are actually the stories of every day working people in America, and those stories are all so similar. Or they have some similarities. So we did this show where we made those connections obvious. After that my husband and Jim Caruso said "you need to do an Elvis show" and I thought "oh, interesting!" cause I was familiar with latter-day Elvis. I thought he was impressive as hell but it wasn't music that always spoke to me. In order to do that show, I had to do a deep dive to find out who he was and where our overlap was. He has that quintessential bio that's split into two volumes, it's so in-depth. You get the idea that I LOVE the research.
My first Tribute was your Judy Garland show, and I was so moved by what a sweet girl you are.
Then I came to your Roberta Flack show and then I found out you're a bit naughty, aren't you?
Does it just depend on which singer you're doing, what parts of your personality come out?
It's funny, another friend of ours saw both of those shows and she said to Billy Joe "She was completely different!" I don't think of it that way! I think of myself as just talking and telling stories and having fun and being the way I am, which is kind of insane. But yeah, I guess different sides of my personality come depending on which person we're celebrating. I just like telling the stories - I luckily come from a long line of great storytellers. So I always feel like I'm just doing justice to the story. It's a conversation like we're having right now, or if we met for brunch and you said to me: "What was that Judy Garland story?" I'm having a conversation with the audience.
Natalie, what's the last thought that goes through a singer's head before they walk out on stage to sing an hour of Judy Garland songs in their original arrangements?
This is terrifying! Also... can't wait...let's go!
Your musical director, Mark Hartman, seems to have a telepathic connection to you - the two of you are never out of sync. Was that an immediate part of your relationship or did it develop over time?
It actually was immediate. We met working in a piano bar. He came there, people told me I would love him and I thought "you don't know me... We'll see" and it was instant. There was a mind-meld. He played what I heard in my head. It was also really clear that when we worked together we got a lot out of it. We grew together, we could each go farther. He's one of my best friends, he's part of my family. My husband refers to it as our "Logical Family", an Armistead Maupin phrase, logical as opposed to biological. I'm really fortunate, I happen to know a lot of people that are friends who are also talented, and I like that. I like working with people I really enjoy who are also really good at what they do.
I've heard it said that if something scares you, you should definitely do it; and you said the Garland show was terrifying. Who's an artist whose cannon you would like to explore, that would also scare you?
That's definitely my mantra! In fact, the next few Tributes fall into that category. The brilliant Nancy Wilson, the ultimate diva Barbra Streisand, plus Joni Mitchell, Marvin Gaye, and a million more!
In both of your shows that I've seen you've mentioned your Jesus lookalike husband. How many years are you married now?
(Laughing) It'll be twenty years in January.
You are clearly devoted to one another.
Yeah, it's good!
Does he direct your shows?
He's my co-producer and he's the best support there's ever been. Sometimes people think that he's my manager or he's my director because he is so involved. But he's not... we work together, he has his own business too and I help him: we really like each other, we like working together, we believe in one another and we both find that we are better for the bouncing off of ideas. I've known him for a really long time and tomorrow (August 7) is the twenty-seventh anniversary of our first date. He has my back. That doesn't mean he always tells me what I want to hear, but he's honest and he doesn't want to hurt me, he wants to help me.
During the Robert Flack show, you mentioned that you sometimes get political
(Laughing) Yes! And by that I mean always.
What does that look like?
As I always say "I am a black woman in America, so breathing is political". It's not so much a choice as it is a means of survival. I know there are people who don't love it, and that's ok. We all like different things. But I wouldn't know how to be myself if I wasn't fully myself. One of my earliest memories is my mother taking me with her to campaign for my godfather when he ran for Mayor of Los Angeles when I was a kid. She reasoned that people would be more willing to open the door if there was an adorable toddler waving at them. He won, and I took full credit for it. I found my birth father this past year and discovered that he, too, is quite the political creature. He's a senior VP of the NAACP and a complete and total radical. It's a piece of who I am, and I liked hearing that. I know that people come to see a show to be entertained so it's not a lecture, I'm not yelling at them. I do hope that people understand a point of view that maybe the didn't before, or in the case of people who share my point of view or similar life experiences (they) recognize themselves. I think it's really important for all of us, and I think it's part of why we go to the theater and movies and television -- we need to see ourselves. We need to see pieces of ourselves and say "Oh! Yes! I know that! I feel that! I lived through that!" It is doing a disservice to your fellow human beings if you refuse to present a complete picture of yourself as a human. If you keep some of that hidden. Most of the artists I admire were also activists, so I can't fairly tribute them if I keep that part of them hidden or that part of me hidden.
Exactly! I was at Barbra's show, and I still don't get it when people come see Barbra Streisand and begin to yell at her when she speaks her mind about our current political state. "Shut up and sing!" First of all, this woman is your Nana! Stop! Don't talk to her like that! Laugh. Have some respect for the legend! Second of all, it's not a secret. On the screen at Madison Square Garden, she flashed a picture of her campaigning with Bella Abzug. She's been like this forever. She talks about what she believes in and she fights for what she believes in, and you have to know it if you like music. So you either put your disagreement about that aside when you come see her or don't come see her! It's fine to not come see her, but if you get there and yell at her, then I don't get you!
So here it is, the big question: Your first year of Tributes was four shows, the second was six, and this year you chose to do ten.
Are you ready to be committed to the booby hatch?
(Laughing) No! Not Quite! (Laughing) I'm doing well! There was a day last month when I ran into a friend I hadn't seen in a while and he said "How are you" and just as my mouth was about to say "I'm fine" what came out was "I'm TIRED!" because one of the things that suffers sometimes is sleep. I'm actually SO happy and SO thrilled -- I've been singing since I was four, and I've been working as a singer/actor for thirty years to try to be this busy. So I'm certainly not going to complain about a monthly residency in a club I adore in New York City, my home, a club that is legendary. And the fact that part of the rest of the month, when I'm not working on that show, I'm traveling and singing in other cities and other countries. It's the dream. I'm thrilled, and not crazy... well, just the usual amount of crazy I guess I should say. No crazier than I was before!
Natalie Douglas plays SAMMY in Norwalk CT on August 17, MUSIC OF THE KNIGHTS in New York at Feinstein's/54 Below on August 28, THE FIRST TIME in San Francisco at Feinstein's at the Nikko on September 6 &7, and returns to Birdland on September 23 with TRIBUTES: MISS Nancy Wilson.
To follow Natalie's schedule and social media see Natalie Douglas Website