Joanne848

THIS IS the album that Joanne Beretta’s fans thought she might never get around to making. It captures the art of a cabaret singer who touched a lot of hearts in the ‘60s and ‘70s, then vanished from sight. She left behind a couple of obscure live LPs and the memory of her unmistakable voice: a burnished, sweet-and-sour mezzo-soprano, quietly passionate and wise. It hasn’t changed much. To this day she has a knack for drawing a roomful of strangers into moments of such intimacy that time seems to stop. As she sings, key phrases in familiar songs pop out at you as though you’re hearing them for the first time.

Recorded in September 2006,
Love Life capped a year in which Joanne played her first cabaret engagement in three decades. Her run at Danny’s Skylight Room, a homey club in midtown Manhattan, was greeted by a New York Times feature and by sellout audiences that included actors George Grizzard and Kathleen Chalfant, two of her champions. There and in the sessions for this CD, her pianist was Franklin Roosevelt Underwood, an uncommonly sensitive musician with whom she worked in the 1960s. Bassist John Beal accompanied Joanne at Reno Sweeney, an iconic New York cabaret of the ‘70s. Their spacious, attentive playing breathes with her.

“I wanted to do this record before I was too long in the tooth, or off the planet,” explains Joanne. “I wanted to have something I could really be proud of.” She was speaking in the tiny den of the Greenwich Village apartment where she’s lived since 1962, four years after she’d left her native San Francisco and moved to New York. Three of her subsequent headquarters – the Duplex, the Showplace, and the Bon Soir – were within walking distance. History flooded past as she looked over the list of songs on this CD, drawn from a nearly fifty-year career. “My God,” she exclaimed, “it’s the story of my life!”

From the beginning she took the high road, perfecting an art that didn’t offer much hope for fame. “Singing in cabarets is a very, very special art form, and underrated,” she observes. “There’s something wonderful about the feeling you get standing there. You can feel the presence of the people. And feel what they’re feeling.” She has a madcap sense of humor, but onstage she leaned toward cabaret-art songs of high refinement: Weill, Bernstein, John Latouche. When the ‘70s dawned, she embraced the poets of folk-rock – Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan – with a vengeance. At a time when Bette Midler defined a new wave of cabaret, Joanne’s style wasn’t nostalgia or camp; what’s more, she said firmly, “I don’t do an act.” She was applauded by the
Times, gave a recital at Town Hall, and won an Obie for her performance in The Club, an off-Broadway show (directed by Tommy Tune) about seven cross-dressing women in a turn-of-the-century gentlemen’s club.

Musically, though, she grew weary of attempts to make her more commercial. “I didn’t like the pressure I was under,” she says. “If I could just have sung and been left alone …” Admittedly, she adds,
“my song choices were so unusual that a record company would never, I think, have touched what I was doing.”

Around 1976, a parallel career of hers – freelance design work – became her full-time livelihood. Thereafter, she made only guest appearances and appeared in a musical or two. Did she miss singing? “I didn’t think about it all that much,” she claims.

In 2006, the composer and cabaret performer John Wallowitch, her first New York accompanist and longtime friend, invited her to join him for two nights of an engagement at Danny’s. Back onstage, Joanne remembered what she loves most – “to communicate to people and know that they’re genuinely moved, genuinely feeling what I get from these songs.”

Following her own run at the club, she joined Underwood and Beal in a studio, where they made this album in two sessions. There were no isolation booths; Joanne insisted that she and the musicians be close together. You’ll feel their rapport as you listen.

Joanne first sang
Skylark in San Francisco in the late ‘50s, when she was trying her own musical wings. On this track you’ll hear her smiling at the naïve girl she used to be. “I was so in love with love and wanting to find somebody,” she recalls. My Shining Hour and Joey, Joey, Joey date from her Showplace days, when her worldly singing about romance masked her tender years. “Then you start growing up, and the relationships become more real,” she says. My Favorite Year reminds her of “regretting the one I walked away from.” She dedicates If Love Were All to Julie Wilson, Portia Nelson, and every other woman who has devoted her life to singing in cabarets. There in her den, she recites one line – “Night after night, have to look bright/Whether you’re well or ill” – so probingly that she raises goosbumps.

Bob Dylan’s
Just Like a Woman is one of her signature songs. As sung by Dylan on his album Blonde on Blonde (1966), it detailed his tussle with a woman who’s too feisty to be tamed. Joanne recasts it as a defiant feminist cry, full of controlled fire. “It’s a very liberating song,” she says. “It’s saying, yes, I’m this and I’m this and maybe I’m that, but I am strong and I am not gonna be defeated! ‘I fake just like a woman, I make love just like a woman,’ but ultimately, I haven’t lost the softness within me.” She lights up the vivid imagery in Sisters of Mercy, Leonard Cohen’s depiction of the angels that lie within reach when hope seems lost.

Joanne closed her Showplace sets with
The Clock Song, one of the most poignant (and least remembered) World War II-era songs of parting. It appeared on the B-side of a Connee Boswell single that her parents owned. “I was very young, but I loved that song! Of all the 78 records that we had, I saved that. It’s cracked but I still have it.”

The Clock Song may sound like a heartrending goodbye. But to Joanne it’s a thank-you for a beautiful moment, however fleeting. Listening to her own album, she hears a woman who “never loses hope. She never gives up on life. That’s why I love the idea of calling it Love Life. Because it’s not just about a love life, it’s about loving life!” A few decades had to pass before she realized that her world wasn’t complete without singing. It’s good to have her back.

-- James Gavin, New York City, 2006

[James Gavin, the author of
Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret, is writing a biography of Lena Horne.]