Issue 540 : February 2-8, 2006

Top live show
Danny’s Skylight Room; Fri 3, Feb 10, 17

Photo: William Eddy

Until Beatlemania exploded in 1964, Manhattan nightlife was a cabaret, and promising songbirds were taking flight in even the smokiest cellars. Around 1961, a buzz formed around two newcomers, Barbra Streisand and Joanne Beretta. A San Franciscan transplanted to Greenwich Village, Beretta was earth-motherly austere—black dress, folded hands—as she sang an arty repertoire in her burnished mezzo. The concentration she poured into such ballads as “One Hand, One Heart” (which she accompanied with sign language) was spellbinding; she could also turn unexpectedly goofy, as when she sang the French chanson “Les feuilles mortes” in a Bronx accent. At the Showplace, Beretta’s Village headquarters, coat- check girl Cass Elliot (the future Mama Cass) would sneak off to hear her; Carmen McRae, Johnny Mathis and Maureen Stapleton were fans too.

Beretta’s quiet allure lay closer to Mabel Mercer’s than to the fireworks of Streisand, and no breakthrough came. By the ’80s she was doing full-time design work for crafts magazines and seldom singing. But last summer she agreed to sit in with her Showplace pianist, John Wallowitch, during his run at Danny’s. Her magic and the response to it were undimmed. For three Fridays in February, Beretta will return to play her first engagement in 30 years. At the piano will be Franklin Underwood, who appeared with her on an unfindable album from 1967. Expect Beretta to probe the songbooks of Kurt Weill, the Beatles and Joni Mitchell with hypnotic intensity. She’s one of cabaret’s true enchantresses, and this is the comeback of the season.—James Gavin