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Natalie Douglas: The Right Girl at the Right Time

Brian Scott Lipton spends some quality time with NATALIE DOUGLAS, the beloved piano bar diva who's now packing the room at the FireBird Café.

By New York City

Natalie Douglas may call her company Wrong Black Girl Productions (she'll be glad to tell you why), but 2000 is turning out to be the right year for this ultra-talented cabaret singer.

Having endured her fair share of twists and turns on the roller-coaster of life during the '90s, Douglas has--in just the past few months--fully recovered from emergency surgery, married her sweetheart of eight years, Billy Jo Young ("It was kind of a Nathan and Adelaide thing," she jokes of their long engagement), made a successful debut at the posh Caviarteria in the Soho Grand (she hopes to return in October), and is now packing the room at the tony FireBird Café, where she has the coveted Saturday at 9pm slot through August 26.

While the show is called Not That Different in honor of the self-produced CD she released last fall just before becoming ill, it showcases just how different Douglas is from the lesser ranks of would-be divas. Whether she's singing Ira Gershwin or Abbey Lincoln or Don Henley, she concentrates as much on the emotional honesty of the songs as on vocal pyrotechnics.

"It's always the same with me and songs," says Douglas, a California native who has been performing since age four and who has won two MAC awards and a Back Stage Bistro Award for her New York engagements. "I fall in love with a lyric because there's some moment of conflict or climax that excites me as an actor; but, musically, there has to be something that makes the song a pleasure to sing, And I always love singing something new."

That explains why only three of the songs from her CD--the title cut, a gorgeous pop paean to the universality of human feeling; Rodgers & Hart's classic "Bewitched"; and her de facto signature tune, the Mercer-Arlen-Harburg rouser "Satan's Little Lamb"--are part of the Firebird show. "I didn't realize it at the time, but it's so important when you do a CD to choose songs you don't get tired of," says Douglas. "Believe me, if anyone requested any of those 13 songs, I'd be happy to sing them!"

Today, though, she's enthusiastic about the new additions to her repertoire: Amanda McBroom's moving ode to her mother, "The Portrait"; Bobbi Cryner's country anthem "Real Live Woman" (recently recorded by Tricia Yearwood); the Gershwins' "Clap Yo' Hands" ("The first time I heard it was in the movie Funny Face. Fred Astaire and Kay Thompson were just so bohemian in that. I loved it!"); Don Henley's "The Heart of the Matter" ("I heard it again on his recent A&E special and I immediately wondered if it was singable without a band behind it--and without his incredible tenor"); and Maltby & Shire's "I've Been Here Before" ("It's an amazingly beautiful song about so much pain").

Douglas is equally thrilled with the reception her CD has gotten, even though distribution has been limited to small stores like Footlight and Colony. ("The big chains in New York like Tower and HMV refuse to deal with independent artists," she notes.) You can also get the disc through amazon.com. And, yes, it may be purchased after each of Douglas' personal appearances at the FireBird and elsewhere.

"People I don't even know have been sending me e-mail telling me they've bought three copies for their family and friends," says the singer. "It's so nice to know it's about the product, and not just someone I know being nice to me by buying the record. Not that I don't like people being nice to me," she hastens to add.

Having her CD sold over the Internet and having her own website has provided Douglas with some interesting communiqués. "My favorite letter was from a guy in Toronto who said he's going to lip-synch to my recording of 'Satan's Little Lamb' in his drag show and hoped I wouldn't be horrified," she relates. "I just hope he's pretty!"

No matter how famous Douglas becomes, you will still probably find her every Tuesday and Wednesday night at Brandy's, the popular Upper East Side piano bar. "I know it's kind of unusual to do that and play the FireBird, but I've had the same shift there for 12 years and I have a built-in following," she explains. "It gives me the chance to sing songs I could never, would never, sing in a cabaret show--and that's really fun. If someone at Brandy's asks me to sing 'The Way We Were' because it's their wedding song, I can find a way to do it. I would never try that at the Firebird; it's too Barbra.

"I have a master's degree in psychology [from UCLA], and I spent four years in marketing at NBC, so there are plenty of jobs I can do to pay the rent," Douglas says. "But I think of Brandy's as a day job that lets me sing. And that's so cool."


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