Sunday, December 15, 2002

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 ''three-masted schooner.''

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 publisher.

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 flows.

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 they do.''

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.