Holy Cow, Denzal Sinclaire Can Sing! Johnny Mathis, Too, But Dang, Denzal!
Who in the blue heck is Denzal Sinclaire, and where can I buy his records? That's what I was thinking about 10 seconds after he started singing his tribute to Nat King Cole as part of Mr. Cole's induction into the Great American Songbook Hall of Fame Saturday night at The Palladium in Carmel. More on that later, as I was knocked out several times during the show lovingly put together by the de facto leader of the Songbook's preservation, Michael Feinstein.
Prior to the show, it was a privilege to spend a few mintues with Johnny Mathis - that sentence should actually read, "holy crap, it's Johnny Mathis!" I was afraid to tell him prior to our brief talk that the first time I heard "Chances Are", I was seven years old; it was the "WKRP In Cincinnati" episode where ace newsman Les Nessman plays it for his 'groupie.' I shouldn't have worried. Mr. Mathis found that hilarious, then told a story about one of the actors on the show. He also apologized for rambling while we talked. Some performers are the first to tell you how good they are. Johnny Mathis seemed almost apologetic for the attention he has earned since "Chances Are" was number one 57 years ago.
Natalie Cole seemed to want to be anywhere but where we were at the time we spoke - in front of smoking hot TV lights in The Palladium's backstage interview room. Natalie had just endured a longer-than-expected interview with a local TV crew. So, I began by admitting that I had purchased a copy of her cover of Bruce Springsteen's 'Pink Cadillac' - I didn't mention it was 26 years ago - when you couldn't get the video for the song off MTV except during the late Saturday night 'Headbanger's Ball' show. Natalie seemed to relax, which led us into talk of our mutual love for her father's piano playing. It was better than his singing, in my opinion, and his singing was some of the finest ever recorded.
"Well, I'm going to go 'do my thing'," Mr. Feinstein told my wife and I after a brief chat before the show. His 'thing' could have been fronting a big band in the 1930's and 40's had he been born in the era he loves, as he proves every time he is on stage with a big band. He opened the show with "Without A Song", written in 1929, and he performed it as I have heard him perform many songs - ballad-style, piano only for the first chorus, followed by a reprise (which Michael, Sinatra-style, pronounces re-PREES) that swings. I personally prefer the swinging version - it's reminiscent of the arrangment sung by Billy Eckstine with his Las Vegas band on the early 60's album "No Cover, No Limit."
The loaded bill included Tony nominee Laura Osnes, American Idol finalist Jessica Sanchez and the energetic (and surprisingly tall) Peter Cincotti. But in addition to Michael, Julia Goodwin and Mr. Sinclaire owned the stage. Goodwin, the reigning Great American Songbook High School Ambassador, is only 16, and before winning last year's competition, she told me she had not heard much of the Songbook prior to entering. Her performance of Irving Berlin's "Blue Skies" proved that Julia is a quick study.
Much of the crowd obviously didn't know what to expect when Denzal Sinclaire was introduced by Michael to sing a tribute to Mr. Cole. When the slender singer with Billy Strayhorn's glasses and Billy Blanks's haircut sang the first note of a Cole medley, a gasp went up from many of those sitting near us in the lower level. Mr. Cole was clearly an influence, but Mr. Sinclaire is also obviously his own singer, and his and the band's transitions between snippets of some of the songs that made Cole a star - "Unforgettable", "Nature Boy", "Walkin' My Baby Back Home" "Too Young". "L.O.V.E." - were as smooth as whipped butter and honey. Other than the Hall of Fame honorees, Mr. Sinclaire got the longest and loudest ovation, and he proved that sometimes, Canadians are the best interpreters of great American songs.
Shirley Jones, Mr. Mathis and Miss Cole all received standing ovations while accepting their awards; Michael accepted Linda Ronstadt's award on her behalf, as she hasn't traveled much since her Parkinson's diagnosis. Mrs. Jones was especially fun, both at the show and when I got to speak to her just over a week ago. Michael closed the show with a rousing arrangment of the Gershwin's "Strike Up The Band"; the 17-piece orchestra, comprised entirely of Indiana musicians, sounded twice as large, and Michael must breathe with hidden gills to have been able to hold the last note of the night for what seemed like half a minute.
After the show, we told the soft-spoken Mr. Sinclaire how much we enjoyed his performance, adding that I hoped he was back in the area soon. "Be careful. You might get what you wish for," he told me. I sure as heck hope so.