CALLAWAY: A CAN-DO JAZZ SINGER
by James Gavin
Photo by Chester Higgins, Jr.
IN 1979, a
21-year-old Ann Hampton Callaway moved from Chicago to New
York to start a singing career -- maybe even to follow in
the path of her idol, Barbra Streisand, who had become a
star at the same age. People compared her extravagantly
rangy and supple voice to Ms. Streisand's, but fate had
different plans for Ms. Callaway. She spent a dozen years
in the noisy world of the piano bars, where she all but
swung from the chandelier to get attention.
Accompanying herself on piano, she made everyone sing her
name to the tune of ''God Bless America''; mimicked the MGM
movie star Kathryn Grayson, breaking a glass with a tinny
soprano high note; improvised songs out of phrases
solicited from the audience, like ''colostomy bag'' and
Sandwiched between the party pieces were ballads, in which
she poured out her heart so nakedly that it was hard not to
be moved. In 1987, she wrote ''At the Same Time,'' a
tearful plea ''to overcome our fears and join to build a
world that loves and understands.'' That summer, she
announced that the song had been sent to Ms. Streisand.
Everyone cheered. And nothing happened.
Not for some time, anyway. Ten years to the day after it
was written, Ms. Streisand recorded her final touch-ups on
a grandiloquent version of ''At the Same Time.'' To Ms.
Callaway, this was a sign that, as she put it, the ''little
voice'' inside her head was right: never give up, and don't
let anyone tell you what you can't do.
The results are impressive, if a bit scattered. In 2000,
she won a Tony nomination as best featured actress in the
long-running musical ''Swing.'' At Ms. Streisand's request,
she wrote ''I've Dreamed of You,'' a confectionary love
song, for the star's wedding to James Brolin, the actor.
Having spoofed herself in the piano bars with ''The 'I'm
Too White to Sing the Blues' Blues,'' Ms. Callaway now
salutes Louis Armstrong, Joe Williams and Billie Holiday in
''Signature,'' her eighth CD. That album, and another,
''This Christmas,'' both on After 9 Records, are the focus
of her six-night run at New York's Jazz Standard, which
starts on Tuesday.
Ms. Callaway is currently billed as a jazz singer. But her
key selling point outside Manhattan is her ditty about
''the blushing girl from Flushing,'' the theme of the hit
television series ''The Nanny,'' which ran six seasons,
ending in 1999. The song made her a fortune. Recently, in
her spacious apartment on the Upper West Side of Manhattan,
she bounded into the living room, tea tray in hand, and
settled onto the sofa to talk. Now 44, Ms. Callaway has
managed to keep one foot in reality and the other in the
clouds; for her, no goal is beyond reach.
''I learned from Picasso,'' she said. ''He had all these
different chapters of his work, but he didn't do them all
at once -- he focused. I do feel that I am essentially a
lover, that I am here to love through my music, and that
every moment is an opportunity to love.''
Well, O.K. But the uninitiated may have trouble figuring
out exactly what she does. The chameleonlike quality that
proved such fun in piano bars has made her hard to market
in the show-business world beyond. ''When I was 10, I
thought, 'Why aren't I with the Beatles?' '' she said.
''Then I wanted to be an opera singer. Then I wanted to be
a jazz singer. Then I wanted to be an actress. Then I
remember when I was a little girl wanting to be president,
because I could make inspirational speeches.''
Ultimately she became known as a cabaret singer, a tag that
spells death at the box office. It took her more than a
decade to get an album released.
For generations of aspiring songbirds, including her, the
fabled overnight stardom of Ms. Streisand set a
disillusioning example. ''The notion was that if you have
talent it will be recognized when you're young,'' Ms.
Callaway said. ''And if you don't turn into a star fairly
young, it probably means you don't have talent.''
She inherited her drive from her father, John Callaway, a
Chicago newscaster who has won nine Emmy Awards, and her
mother, Shirley, a classical vocal coach. In the 70's, Ms.
Callaway majored in acting at the University of Illinois.
Six feet tall in heels and visibly uneasy in her body, she
wasn't anyone's idea of an actress. She often recalls the
day she went to audition for a school production of
Chekhov's ''Three Sisters.'' All the candidates stood in a
circle; one by one they were called to read, except her.
''I didn't get a role or anything in the show,'' she said,
frowning. ''It was another example of, 'no matter what I
do, I'm somehow invisible.' I was devastated.''
Her sister, the theater singer and actress Liz Callaway,
knows her determination: ''She was always very positive.
She had a lot of moxie. I was the shyer one.''
But Liz became a Broadway star at 22, winning a Tony
nomination for the musical ''Baby.'' ''I was very proud of
her and happy for her,'' said Ann, ''but I was also
frustrated, because I didn't have the chance. I was too
tall, too strong, I wasn't an ingénue, and people didn't
know what to do with me.''
Working solo was easier. Playing and singing at the East
53, a gay piano bar with occasional celebrity drop-ins, she
sensed such ''tremendous possibility'' that she kept
leaving invitations at the nearby apartment building of
Greta Garbo, certain she would come.
MS. CALLAWAY recalls the 80's as a mostly joyful time of
making off-the-cuff music and interacting with the public
in club after club. But her persona was blurred. Her flyers
showed her with a dizzying range of looks. She wrote
hundreds of songs in every style and couldn't interest a
Still, audiences adored her. In the early 90's, she began
stepping away from the piano to sing. ''Suddenly I had this
body,'' she said. ''It was terrifying to feel the
vulnerability of what do I do with my hands?'' With her
typical can-do resolve, she took dance classes and
practiced Siddha yoga, which teaches its students to locate
the Godlike place within themselves from which creativity
She got a surprise payoff in 1993, when Fran Drescher, the
comic actress, asked her to submit a theme-song demo for a
television pilot. At first, the singer hesitated. Demos
cost money, and she had already made several for Ms.
Drescher. None of the shows were produced until ''The
Nanny.'' ''I thought, O.K.,'' said Ms. Callaway. ''You do
get rewarded for persistence.''
The singer wears her success with a touch of Streisand-like
defiance. Onstage in clubs and concert halls, she gleefully
calls herself a ''diva'' -- ''and that's always been a
joke,'' she said. The original songs that publishers once
shunned are termed ''Ann-dards'' on her Web site. She
enjoys ''a very lovely professional friendship'' with Ms.
Streisand, she said, and chummier ones with Liza Minnelli
and Barbara Feldon, who played Agent 99 on ''Get Smart,''
the 60's sitcom.
'She's a TV icon to many people,'' said Ms. Callaway, ''and
every now and then I look at her and go, '99!' To me, she's
Barbara. And Barbra Streisand is a human being, and Liza is
a human being. And I love human beings, and I love my
friends, and I love people who are passionate about what
But passion alone hasn't been enough. ''When people look at
me, I think they see someone who's been really lucky,'' she
said, eyes suddenly blazing. ''I don't think they know how
hard I've worked every year of my adult life. Tirelessly.
Many people said, 'You're never going to have a career
doing this.' Natalie Cole's old manager said to me, 'You
will never record albums, you don't have the kind of voice
that will ever come across.' I remember going home and
thinking, 'How dare he tell me what I can't do?' ''
Ann Hampton Callaway
Jazz Standard, 116 East 27th Street.
Tuesday through next Sunday.