Singer/songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway used to sing--and write--the blues, but she seems to have developed a much sunnier disposition in recent years. And it suits her well.
Witness, as we did at her FireBird Café debut, the premiere of a brand new song called "It's Hip to be Happy." The tune has the delightful lyric, "You're overdressed with a chip on your shoulder." No hidden messages there, no undercurrent of irony; Callaway is a happy cabaret camper now that she's starring in the long-running Broadway musical Swing!--and the songwriting's not going too badly, either. She is apparently the only composer in the world to have ever collaborated with Cole Porter (okay, he was dead at the time), having set a Porter poem to music and thereby having come up with the gently romantic "I Gaze in Your Eyes." Her other recent accomplishments include writing the lyrics to Barbra Streisand's wedding song, "I Dreamed of You" (music by Rolf Luvlund), which Babs sang to Mr. Brolin at their nuptials. And, on the Sunday night we saw her perform as part of the hugely successful ASCAP Songwriter's Series at the FireBird, Callaway was rushing off to sing for former President Jimmy Carter at a benefit at Avery Fisher Hall. No wonder she's in such good spirits. During the course of her bravura show at the FireBird, she had the audience in very good spirits as well.
Callaway opened with "I Got Music," performed to an exuberant samba beat. She only occasionally laid claim to a bluesy, broken-hearted background during the evening, as in "You Were Never Really Mine to Lose" (lyrics by Lindy Robbins), delivered with a withering emotional intensity. Most of her other songs made sport with sadness--like "I Want to Be Moody in Paris," in which she struck a wonderful, black comic attitude. She also toyed with her unofficial title of "Ballad Bondage Mistress" as she put over the cheeky "I'm-Too-White-To-Sing-The-Blues Blues."
Callaway's voice is like a Vegamatic: It can do anything--slice, dice, and julienne any note, any phrase, any style. Hers is an extraordinary instrument. But, unlike some other gifted singers, she doesn't waste it by merely singing pretty notes. Perhaps because she's a songwriter as well, Callaway interprets with real feeling, as in her rendition of "You Can't Rush Spring." Or she can be deliciously sly, playfully cutting up in "To Be Or Not To Bee-Bop." Except for occasionally referring to herself in the third person--an off-putting habit--she mostly shrouds her accomplishments in self-deprecating jokes. For instance, she introduced "a medley of my hit," then sang the theme song to the TV show The Nanny. ("My accountant," she noted, "calls it my finest work to date.")
Callaway ends each of her shows with a song created on the spot, improvised from words and phrases offered by the audience. It's always a wildly funny tour de force in which she shows off her quick wit, her creative flair, and her chutzpah.
[Ann Hampton Callaway will be performing at the FireBird Café for one more ASCAP evening on September 17. Click here for details.]