A blizzard is no match for Vivian Reed. When the award-winning vocalist took the stage at Feinstein’s/54 Below earlier this March, mid-town Manhattan glistened like a snow palace. Indeed, a royal air enveloped Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne, a one-woman show that Reed first staged for Horne’s centennial in 2017. Several encores later, the singer is bringing her critically acclaimed tribute to the Green Room 42 on 30 June 2018 in honor of Horne’s 101st birthday. This time, it’s summer in the city and Reed’s primed to make the stage sizzle.
Vivian Reed has held New York audiences spellbound ever since she left Pittsburgh to attend Julliard, the prestigious performing arts conservatory. Before long, she traded Puccini for Carole King, working with the Apollo Theater’s Bobby Schiffman and Honi Coles, who helped secure her contract with Epic Records. Broadway quickly beckoned and she won a starring role in That’s Entertainment (1972), a tribute to the music of Arthur Schwartz and Howard Dietz.
Four years later, Reed stopped the show in Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976) with her singular renditions of “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “God Bless the Child”. After the musical opened on Broadway, Reed garnered a Tony nomination alongside legends Gwen Verdon and Chita Rivera, plus several honors including the Drama Desk Award, the Theatre World Award, and the Outer Critics Circle Award. People Magazine even named her one of the “25 Most Intriguing People of the Year”.
Amidst film roles in Headin’ for Broadway (1980), L’Africain (1983) opposite Catherine Deneuve, and La rumba (1987), she established a prolific performing and recording career in Europe. The press christened her “the new Josephine Baker” while the Prince and Princess of Monaco invited her to perform in Monte Carlo. Upon her return to the U.S., Reed scored another Tony nomination for her turn in The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club (1992), followed by critical acclaim in Marie Christine (1999) (dubbed “the last new Broadway musical of the millennium”) and her portrayal of Lena Horne in the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s production of Indigo in Motion (2000). She also brought her talent to the classroom, creating a vocal performance course at Berklee College of Music and, more recently, joining the distinguished voice faculty at Marymount Manhattan College.
Over the past two years, Reed has continued to build on her impressive body of work. KT Sullivan presented her with the coveted “Mabel Mercer Award” during the Mabel Mercer Foundation’s 28th Cabaret Convention last October. That same year, she released Standards and More (2017), which features Reed’s stunning interpretations of classics by Cole Porter (“Just One of Those Things”), Stephen Sondheim (“Losing My Mind”), and Rodgers & Hart (“My Funny Valentine”). She also recasts some of her signature numbers, including “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “You Can Have My Husband”, and caps the set with “Believe In Yourself”, a highlight from Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne. It’s an essential document of Reed’s vocal brilliance and arguably the strongest studio album she’s ever recorded.
PopMatters visited Reed at her home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan only days after she finished a four-week run in Molière’s Tartuffe at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey. An accomplished designer and photographer, her silk scarves and “glam-ponchos” shrouded the interview in a kaleidoscope of colors. In this candid, far-ranging conversation, Reed explains her unique history with Lena Horne and shares the stories behind a career that’s always flourished in the footlights’ glow.
Congratulations on Tartuffe! I heard the run was extended an entire week. I’d love to know what drew you to the role of Madame Pernelle.
Tartuffe was so much fun with a great cast! I’d done the New Jersey Shakespeare Festival Gala about two years ago. Earlier this year, I received an email from Bonnie Monte (Artistic Director). She wrote, “There’s two things I would like to ask you. Would you please come and perform at the gala again this year? Everybody loved you before.” Then she said, “When I saw you the first time, I sat there thinking, I have got to find something for this woman to do. I think I’ve found the right role for you. It’s Madame Pernelle in Tartuffe.” She attached the script. She said, “Please read it and tell me if you’re interested.”
I said yes to the gala and was certain that I would do Tartuffe as well because I thought she wouldn’t ask me to do something if she didn’t think it was worth my time. I read the script. It’s rhyming couplets and it’s funny. I had never done a play quite like that before, but you know what? I found it easier to memorize than regular scripts. I liked the play.
Madame Pernelle is a grandmother. It’s not a big role, but it is an important role. Bonnie said, “Madame Pernelle is mean mean mean”, so I had no problem with that! [laughs] I felt, later on, that perhaps I had taken her too far in that direction so I asked Bonnie to let me try a few different acting choices. I said, “I’m going to soften her in places.” She said, “But she’s mean!” I said, “She’ll still have that. I just want to give her a few more colors.” When she saw the changes, she said, “Vivian, I love it.” I think it was better for the audience because Madame Pernelle opens the play. Let’s face it, Tartuffe is a comedy. I didn’t want the audience to be led in a different direction by my delivery. Once I found that balance, I think it worked better for me, the play, and the audience.
There’s another recent project that many of us are celebrating, the release of Yours Until Tomorrow: The Epic Years (2016), which compiles all the songs you recorded for Epic Records. The title track was your very first hit before anyone saw you on Broadway. What kind of life has that song had throughout your career?
Well, I went to Europe with Bubbling Brown Sugar. We performed at the Théâtre de Paris and Pierre Cardin was in the audience with his PR person. He spoke very little English so his PR person did all the talking. He said that Mr. Cardin wanted me to perform at his theatre, L’Espace Cardin. I gave them my information and we worked it out.
When I was planning the show for that theatre, I wanted to include “Yours Until Tomorrow”. During that period of time, I was still singing it on and off. This would have been in the early ’80s. I hired Frank Hatchett to do some choreography for the song because I had two fab dancers. I had those boys wearing next to nothing, honey! It was a very sensual number. My show was there for three weeks. I don’t think I’ve sung “Yours Until Tomorrow” since, but I’m putting a new show together called A Little Bit of Soul, A Little Bit of Pop. I might include it.
What’s interesting is that “Yours Until Tomorrow” is a Gerry Goffin-Carole King song and you recorded King’s “I Feel the Earth Move” just a few years later. In fact, Billboard deemed your version of “I Feel the Earth Move” a single of special merit.
I think you know more about my recording career than I do! That’s wonderful to hear.
Melba Moore once told me how, in the early part of her recording career, she felt that producers and record companies sometimes didn’t know whether to take her pop, R&B, or in some other musical direction, because of her strong background in theatre. I’ve often wondered if you had a similar experience when it came to your own albums, given how prolific you were on Broadway.
I definitely understand what Melba was saying. What’s funny is, I never talk about my recordings because I feel that the producers, at that time, didn’t know what to do with my voice. Today, many artists are in charge of their own productions. They take the time to see what works and what doesn’t work for their sound. I think back then, it was, “We like this song and we want you to sing it” with no attention paid to, “Is this song good for her? Is her voice good for it? And, is there a marriage here?”
There are songs that I recorded in Europe for Carrere Records that I enjoy more because I was able to pick the material. These songs would not necessarily work in the U.S. because the songs were for the European market. There are some U.S. recordings of mine I like, but most of them I don’t, mainly because of the material.
I can honestly say today that I chose the right path, meaning theatre. I have said many times that if I could be onstage 365 days of the year performing, I would be very happy. I don’t care about the money because the money’s going to come. I don’t care whether it’s a small show or a big show, it’s about the performance. Yes, records will put your name out there and get you recognized in a much bigger way. I get it. But when the opportunity presented itself to do theatre in the earlier part of my career, I jumped at the chance. I thought it was the best choice for me.
I just thought of this … I remember when Jeff Lane produced an album on me. I was sitting in the corner of this couch in the recording studio. They were playing back one of the tracks and the bass sounded distorted. I said, “You know Jeff, the bass sounds distorted.” He said, “You’re a singer. Sit over there, shut up, and keep quiet.” I was young, so I said nothing, but today I would never let someone speak to me like that. That’s why it’s always best, when possible, to be in charge of your own productions.
We’re sitting just a few blocks from Julliard. What kind of aspirations did you have when you moved here from Pittsburgh to attend Julliard?
I think it was more the aspirations that other people had for me. It was predicted that I would be the next Leontyne Price because of my classical voice. You see, I was born with classical chops. There was no denying that. When my mother took me, at age six, to the Pittsburgh Musical Institute (which doesn’t exist anymore), a teacher, Mrs. Romaine Russell, said, “She’s too young. Bring her back in a couple of years.” When I turned eight years old, my mother took me back there and I started studying with Mrs. Russell. By the time I was thirteen, I could sing in three languages.
Now let me tell you what changed everything. I was eighteen or nineteen. There was this gay club called Pauline’s Interlude. It was located up in Harlem. These two gay guys from the mail room department at Julliard said, “We want to take you to this club up in Harlem. Everybody in there is gay! It’s practically all men, but some women do come and it’s fabulous.”
We arrived at the club. The unique thing about this place was every 20 or 30 minutes everything would stop and the bartenders and the hostess would break out into song … and it was classical music, not jazz. I had never seen anything like this. Don’t forget now, I was green. I was just this little lamb and didn’t wear any makeup. Can you believe it? I knew nothing.
Well, we’re sitting at this table and the singing hostess came over and said, “I hear you’re a singer. Would you like to get up and do something?” All I knew was classical music. I did know “And This is My Beloved” from Kismet and “Summertime”, where I could do all of these crazy classical things with my voice because my range was wide. Child, when I got up on that stage and started singing, they started clapping in the middle of the song! Now, in the Baptist church and for certain genres of music, audiences will do that, but this was unusual. This was my classical sound. Well, when I finished singing the audience went crazy! I was in seventh heaven.
Miss Josephine Cooper, the singing hostess, came over to me and said she was going away on a cruise for a couple of weeks and would I be interested in replacing her. I jumped at the opportunity. They hired me, but I’m thinking you’re supposed to be 21 to work in a club where alcohol is sold. You’re not supposed to be 18. They didn’t know. They didn’t ask and I didn’t tell. My teacher from Julliard found out and it became a big issue. I left Julliard at the end of my third year. At the same time while I was attending Julliard, I was being managed by the owners of the Apollo Theater. They got me a contract with Epic Records and a new path was forged.
How did the owners of the Apollo begin managing you?
A woman heard me sing at some concert. She came up to me and said, “Young lady, I’m going to take you to the Apollo and see if I can get you work.” Now, I didn’t know much about the Apollo, but I did know they weren’t up there singing arias from operas, okay? [laughs] We went there and I met Bobby Schiffman. He and his family owned the Apollo. Honi Coles was also there. I think I sang “And This is My Beloved” and “Summertime”. Afterwards, they said to me, “Well, we don’t quite do that kind of music, but give us your number.” One day, I received a call from Bobby informing me that he and Honi wanted to manage me.
Let’s fast-forward. My re-entrance to the business was at 54 Below in 2013. That show was called An Evening with Vivian Reed. Before I did the show, I called Bobby, who’s now in his eighties. I said, “Bobby, I will be talking about you and Honi in this show. Tell me, what was it about this skinny black child with this classical voice that made you and Honi want to become my manager?” He said, “Vivian, you had something. It wasn’t our kind of music, but there was something about you and your talent and we wanted to help you nourish it.” When I wasn’t in school, they made me watch all the shows at the Apollo. What a performance education!
What sort of performances did you do when you were first starting out at the Apollo?
Bobby didn’t put me on the Apollo stage right away. In fact, a couple of years went by. I think one of the first shows I was on at the Apollo was Bill Cosby’s show. Now, let me say this … He never touched me. He never did none of that stuff, child! He was a gentleman. Anyway, the classical sound was still part of my voice, but I was getting to the point where I could manipulate my voice a bit with some commercial riffs. I sang songs like “Who Can I Turn To?” from The Roar of the Greasepaint —The Smell of the Crowd (1965). It was what I did to the song, vocally, that made the audience really love it.
I saw your show at 54 Below back in March. I loved the story you told about how Lena Horne’s uncle was the accountant at the Apollo and Bobby Schiffman asked him if Lena had any gowns for a young up-and-coming singer — you! Take us back to the moment when you walked into Bobby’s office and saw the trunk of clothes she sent over for you.
There was a big brown trunk in Bobby’s office. I said, “What is this?” Bobby said, “Open it up.” Inside were beautiful gowns. I remember there was a black satin gown with lace overlay and a shocking pink cummerbund inset. It was close-fitting and strapless. Absolutely drop-dead gorgeous! I wore that black gown and one or two others for quite some time. Out of the three gowns, it was about that black one!
When did Lena Horne first make an impression on you?
At the time when she sent over the gowns, I didn’t know much about her. It was strictly me and the classical music, so to speak. As I got older, I started reading about her life, but when I created Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne, I did serious research and much more reading. She was on TV all the time, so I watched many of her interviews. She was feisty and strong-willed. Watching her and listening to what she had to say about everything she had endured is what impressed me.
Recently, in the last few years, Stephen Holden (New York Times) reviewed me several times. One phrase stands out in my mind, “Vivian Reed has the firepower of a Lena Horne.” He would make such comparisons with different phrases in his reviews of me. I thought, Why does he keep writing that? I went to YouTube and I watched her Broadway show from 1981 (The Lady and Her Music). I looked at the entire concert and I thought, He’s right. I do get down when I’m onstage. I’m very direct, in-your-face with what I have to say and I am intense when it comes to delivering the message of a song. Lena performed exactly the same way. It became very clear to me why Stephen wrote what he wrote. His reviews were based in fact. These were compliments.
Years before staging Vivian Reed Sings Lena Horne, you actually portrayed her in the Pittsburgh Ballet Company’s Indigo In Motion (2000). What was the genesis of your involvement with that piece?
Indigo in Motion was comprised of three acts with three choreographers. Dwight Rhoden was one of them. He’s fabulous. He’s a fantastic choreographer. Kevin O’Day was another choreographer for one of the acts who did wonderful work, and Lynne Taylor-Corbett directed and choreographed More Than a Song, the act in which I was involved. Lynne wanted to do something around Lena Horne. She called me and said, “Vivian I have a project that I would like for you to do. It’s on Lena Horne. There’s dialogue and songs. I will send you the script. Tell me what you think.” I had done several musicals under Lynne’s direction. I would say yes to her for anything. I love her work.
I knew I would do it because Pittsburgh is my hometown. Lynne choreographed some movements for me to do with the ballet company along with dialogue and several songs. It was very well-done. The reviews were wonderful.
I recently saw an interview where you talked about how Rodgers & Hart’s “A Lady Must Live” is one of your favorite songs that Lena sang. What is the significance of that song to you, in particular?
It’s the only song that has a funky kind of groove in my show. That’s the song that I use to introduce the band and also to play with the audience. “A Lady Must Live” is basically saying that a lady has to do her thing just like guys. Don’t judge us. We want to have a good time, too. More than the lyrics, I just enjoy the groove of the song because there’s nothing else in the show quite like it.
At one point in the show, you touch on Lena’s work as an activist. When did you become aware of her activism?
Years ago, she had a very long interview on The Dick Cavett Show and they talked about her involvement as an activist. The thing that I learned about Lena is that she didn’t just fight for the rights of her people, she fought for the rights of all people. That impressed me. I think she blazed many trails for African Americans in and out of show business.
In putting this show together, I didn’t want to get too heavy, but I knew I wanted to talk about her activism. I had to find the right song. I couldn’t just put together this segment of the show that speaks to her activism and then not have the right song. I went through about 150 songs and I dwindled them down to maybe 20 or 30, but when I heard (sings) “Now is the moment …” I thought, Okay, where is this song going? Then when I heard, “Open up your history books …” I said, “There it is! Thank you Jesus!” I was so happy because she had no other song where the lyrics came close to what I wanted to convey. “Now!” has the melody of “Hava Nagila”. I did change the arrangement, but that’s me. I’m known for that. I change everything!
“Now!” still has the feel of how she did it, but my version, as one critic put it, is much more intense than Lena’s because of how I set the dialogue beforehand. My version is very dramatic. The “Now!” segment ties into the two songs that follow, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to His Face”, where she starts to lose the four important men in her life, and then “Stormy Weather”. These three songs with dramatic narrative are the most dramatic part of my show. I wanted all of the other segments to be light but still informative. I didn’t want to drown the audience with too much heavy drama.
When you mentioned “Stormy Weather” just now, I was reminded of how Lena Horne introduced that song in The Lady and Her Music. She said it took her a lot of years to grow into it.
I don’t know if you know this, and I don’t talk about this in the show, but she never considered herself a singer when she was young. In fact, there were a few people who actually told her she couldn’t sing. Early on when she was young, she would watch performers like Ethel Waters and learn from them.
People consider that I have a great voice, and I thank God for it, but like I tell my students, you do not have to be a great singer to be a great performer. To me, being a great performer is far greater than being a great singer. Why? I have heard great singers who couldn’t make my toe move, okay? Let’s be clear here. It’s the same with dancing, which I studied for about 25 years. You can do a slow développé or any difficult dance movement but if there is nothing behind it, if it’s not coming from a real place from inside, then you have nothing but movement.
Sometimes my students get a little intimidated when they hear my voice. I say to them, “Listen sweetheart, if you’re going to get intimidated by my voice, leave. It is not about my voice. You came here for me to teach you and that’s what I’m going to do.” Earlier on when I would go to auditions and I would hear some singers hitting all kinds of high notes, I didn’t pay them any attention! I may not have had those high notes that they hit, but I knew one thing — I was going to sell my song. That’s what it’s about and that’s what Lena did. It was about her performance skills and telling the story, getting the message across. To me, that should be the name of the game for any performer who goes onstage. Communicate with your audience.
I’d like to ask you about another Lena … the Lena in That’s Entertainment (1972).
That was my first show! That was how I got my Equity card. It was at the Edison Theatre.
How did you get the part?
I think it was Danny Holgate who told me that they were auditioning for that show. It was either that or I looked in one of the trade papers. Anyway, my big song of the day, that used to get me all of those jobs, was “You’re Gonna Hear from Me” from Inside Daisy Clover (1965). Great song! It’s about the making of a star. You have to sing that song when you’re young, honey! [laughs] You can’t sing it when you’re older. I had a great arrangement with a big ending. They hired me.
Now, here’s where I got into trouble. Larry Fuller was the choreographer. He asked, “Do you tap?” I said (exclaims), “Oh yeah! I tap!” Child, I didn’t know a slap from a flap from a shuffle. I knew nothing about tap dancing. Of course, when they started teaching us the choreography, Larry saw — immediately — that I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. He came over to me and said, “You lied to me. You’ve never tapped at all.” I said, “Listen, do you know who Honi Coles is?” He said, “Of course I know who Honi Coles is.” I said, “Well, he’s my manager. I can have him come here and see what the choreography is and then he’ll teach it to me.”
Larry asked me for Honi’s number. They spoke and Honi said that he would come by the rehearsals. That’s how I learned the choreography. Honi learned it and then taught it to me at the Apollo in a small room over several evenings. When we opened, I looked as good as the rest of the dancers, but Larry never forgave me for the lie I told in order to get hired.
Now let’s get real for a moment and discuss what has gotten my butt in trouble down through the years with different shows. I did not know anything about reviews when I first started in theater, didn’t read them. Child, I’m sitting on the train and a guy was going through the newspaper. I said, “Wait a minute. That looks like my picture.” There was a big newsstand on 50th and Broadway. As soon as I exited, I went to the stand and said, “Mister, can I just open the paper and take a look? I think my picture’s inside. I don’t want to buy it. I just want to take a look.” He said, “Okay young lady. Go ahead.” I opened up the paper and there it was. My picture. The caption under the photo said “By Herself”.
Wow, the caption was like a sly nod to “By Myself”, which you performed in the show!
Yes! Then I read the review. They didn’t like anybody in the show but me. When I went into the dressing room, one of the girls said, “You want to do this show by yourself?” Oh, it was nasty. Then we went to have lunch at some point. Dickie (Damon) Evans, who later played Lionel on The Jeffersons, was doing Lost in the Stars (1972) right across the street in another theatre. He came over to our table and congratulated me on my reviews. Before I could say “thank you”, some of the other cast members sitting at the table said, “Well, the director told us not to sing so much and then she goes out there and sings sings sings …” That’s when I lost it. I slammed my fist down on the table and said, “Look, I can only do what I do” and then I left.
The show had a short life. That was the beginning of me seeing that kind of ugly jealousy. I experienced that with several shows. The reviews would come and the critics would single me out. Then some of the cast would stop speaking to me. I used to cry a lot. But believe me when I tell you, I don’t cry anymore. That has long since passed.
Looking back at the reviews of That’s Entertainment, the critics were almost unanimous in their praise of your performance. Douglas Watt described you as the revue’s “best performer” in his piece for the New York Daily News. Leonard Harris (WCBS-TV) even said that the show would have been better had you performed every number.
I do understand that I’m a strong performer, but I can’t be less than who and how I am as a performer onstage. I can’t sing less. I can’t act less. My thing is to give the best performance I possibly can. Does that mean that some directors won’t want to cast strong performers like me because we might stand out? Yes, and I get it. I understand it. I accept it. Life goes on …
I tell performers who’ve experienced this kind of jealousy and who are considered powerhouses, to embrace what they have, power and everything. If it means that you don’t get hired much because you’re too strong, then that’s when you have to go about creating your own project, whether it’s a nightclub act or a one-person play, etc. The end result, ultimately, should be a piece that connects you to that audience.
Cynthia Erivo may be the one singer/performer who’s come along in eons and thrown me for a loop. I’m talking about her performance skills. When I saw her in The Color Purple, I thought I would go out of my mind! I jumped up in the middle of her song and yes, she received a well-deserved standing ovation. She has an incredible voice, but it transcends that. When I was watching her, she was consumed with the message of that song and that’s what I like to see. She was breathtaking.
And so were you as Young Irene in Bubbling Brown Sugar (1976)! What was the premise of that character?
When I was hired, there was no role, so I created one. I chose the songs I wanted to sing as well as suggesting that “Sweet Georgia Brown” become a song and dance number.
Older Irene, who was played by Josephine Premice, reminisces with John Sage (Avon Long) and Checkers Clark (Joseph Attles) and they go back in time. When they’re daydreaming and talking about what it was like back then, that’s when Young John Sage (Lonnie McNeil), Young Checkers Clark (Newton Winters), and Young Irene (me) come to life and do “Sweet Georgia Brown”.
There was some dialogue written for Young Irene, which I never really cared for. I was also the fourth dancer. After eleven months on tour, we returned to New York and I didn’t want to be the fourth dancer anymore. I didn’t want to do anything that was not special, like doing dialogue that made no sense. Bubbling was not known for its book, let’s be clear! Billy Wilson (choreographer) said, “Okay, if you don’t want to be the fourth dancer, then you have to teach the choreography to the dancer who replaces you. I said, “Okay, no problem.” When Karen Grannum came into the show, I took the time out and taught her the choreography.
When all was said and done, the audience didn’t see me until Young Irene came up the stairs out of the subway in a cape with a red gown underneath just before “Sweet Georgia Brown”. My next entrance was a doo wop with four men (“Solitude”) and then “God Bless the Child” in the white tuxedo. Afterwards, I led the big tap finale at the end of the show. Here again, it was not about quantity. It was about quality.
What did you draw from to deliver “God Bless the Child” at that point in your life?
It’s funny because I didn’t want to sing “God Bless the Child”. I said, “I ain’t singing that song!” Danny Holgate (Musical Director) said, “Why not? You can sing it anyway you want.” I said, “Really? I can change the chords and everything?” He said, “Vivian, as long as you keep the integrity of the song with the melody, we can do it however you want.” Basically, my version of “God Bless the Child’ went in a direction that had never been done. A lot of the older jazz purists were not happy at all. Years ago, I heard a young girl sing my exact arrangement on The Jeffersons. She was beautiful and it was lovely to hear.
What did I draw from to sing that song? Being young at that time, I had some life experiences but I hadn’t really lived yet. I think when you pick a song, and you’re young and you don’t have many experiences from which to pull, it then becomes about you and the lyrics. Let the lyrics speak to you, get into you, so that you can deliver the song from an acting point of view. Years ago when I started singing “God Bless the Child”, people loved it and I was in it, but is there more depth and meaning to the song when I sing it now? You better believe it!
Along that continuum, I loved how you created a medley of “Take the A Train” and “Sweet Georgia Brown” on your Standards and More album. What did “Sweet Georgia Brown” mean to you when you first performed it in Bubbling Brown Sugar, and what does it mean to you all these years later?
There’s a story behind “Sweet Georgia Brown”. Fred Benjamin was the original choreographer when we did the showcase at the AMAS Repertory Theatre. His “Sweet Georgia Brown” was more artsy, whereas Billy Wilson’s “Sweet Georgia Brown” was camp. Was it a smart change? I think so because it was something that the audience could identify with. They didn’t need a dance class to understand what it was.
I can’t say that “Sweet Georgia Brown” means anything more to me today than it did years ago because it is what it is. It’s a camp number about a girl who comes to town and drives all the boys crazy. That’s it. You could be ten years old, honey, and drive your little boyfriend crazy! Now, when you sing songs like “God Bless the Child” and other serious ballads like “Believe in Yourself” from The Wiz, then that’s a conversation, but songs like “Sweet Georgia Brown” … it’s sexy and flirtatious. That’s all it is.
I’ve always enjoyed the number because I think that Billy Wilson did such a fabulous job choreographing it. I performed it at Rose Hall (Jazz at Lincoln Center) for the Cabaret Convention two or three years ago with four dancers. I don’t do it as fast as I used to, but it still moves and the audience really enjoyed it. In fact, there were several audience members who said, “You finished ‘Georgia Brown’ and then you turned around and did a ballad after that!” There were quite a few people who asked me how I did that. Simple answer … you have to build stamina!
Of the ballads on Standards and More, “Losing My Mind” is my favorite. What is it about that song that you relate to?
What did Stephen Holden say? “I’ve seen ‘Losing My Mind’ sung many times, but I’ve never seen it performed as a madwoman!” I forget the exact phrasing he used. He wasn’t criticizing me, but again he has said, “Vivian Reed does things differently. She puts a different slant on everything.”
Phil Geoffrey Bond used to do Sondheim Unplugged at 54 Below. He asked me to come and do one of their shows. I wanted to sing a ballad and I wanted something that wasn’t so crazy. When I heard “Losing My Mind”, I thought, This is the one I’ll sing. Let me tell you what Geoffrey said at the rehearsal: “Finally, somebody comes in here and just deals with the lyrics of that song instead of trying to reinvent it.” I kept it simple both in delivery and arrangement.
Elsewhere on Standards and More, you also revisit “You Can Have My Husband” from The High Rollers Social and Pleasure Club (1992).
That was a very short-lived show!
For those of us who didn’t get to see the show, set the scene for that number.
The scene took place in a nightclub and I found my man, honey, up and close to one of those young-ies! So I went over to the girl and set her straight with “You Can Have My Husband, But Don’t Mess with My Man”. I was sort of a chameleon in that show because every time I was on stage, I was different. The show was composed of little vignettes. There was no through line. It was a revue.
I had a love interest that appeared throughout, Michael McElroy. He’s now teaching at NYU. Some of the other songs that I sang were “Lady Marmalade” and this great ballad (“We All Need Love”) by Allen Toussaint, who was the Musical Director. He’s the one who found “You Can Have My Husband”.
If you could go back and tell yourself one thing during Bubbling Brown Sugar, what would it be?
I haven’t made too many mistakes, but there were two beauties that if I could go back and do them over, I definitely would. One of them is about Bubbling Brown Sugar in London.
I was so sick of Bubbling Brown Sugar [laughs]. Lord! I had been with it since the beginning. I did it in Paris for two months and then came back to New York. Then they wanted me to do it in London and stay there for four to six months. I only wanted to do two months. The producers thought there would be a problem if I pulled out of the show because I was so identified with Bubbling Brown Sugar. Neither one of us would relent so I passed on London. That was such a big mistake because London’s a huge market. I think I would probably be doing my one-woman show over there today, had I established myself in that market years ago.
Another mistake I made was with Universal Studios. They wanted to sign me to a seven-year contract to create shows around me for television. I turned Universal down because at the time, I just wanted to do films. It was a choice I made and I have to live with it. My name probably would be much bigger today. I can’t dwell on that, but it was a big mistake.
Well, I expect that nothing but standing ovations will greet your upcoming show at the Green Room 42.
I’m so looking forward to the Green Room 42. I think the first show I saw there was Lillias White. I love the room. I had a long talk with Daniel Dunlow (Artistic Director) the other day because, unlike many artists, I like to explore everything that helps to make my show work, like the lights and the sound. I know New York clubs don’t have the extensive lights that you find in theaters. I understand that, but I want to use what they do have. Daniel explained that they have much more lighting than I had seen. I’m happy to say that I am going to explore everything they have.
I think the Green Room 42 is going to be the perfect room for my next show, A Little Bit of Soul, A Little Bit of Pop because of the atmosphere of the club. That will be for 2019. After this Lena Horne show, I’ll chill for a moment!