Friday, January 21, 2011
Julie, Julie, Julie
With yesterday’s forecast promising yet another overnight snow storm I decided to get while the getting was good and escape my house, desk and piano while the sun was still shining. I turned off my phone (gasp), and let myself wander aimlessly a bit. Of course, I wandered right into my favorite used bookstore. Santa brought me a Kindle for Christmas, so perhaps I was feeling some subconscious guilt for abandoning paper and ink. Wandering soon turned to browsing which turned to buying. I came away with a slightly lighter wallet and a great book called American Singers: 27 Portraits in Song by Whitney Balliett. Making a stop at the cupcake bakery I went home fortified and ready to hunker down.
Settling in with my cupcake, diet coke (I know, it makes NO sense) and book I dove into the profile of Julie Wilson. I have known Julie for many years, and it always makes me very happy when I find someone has written about her. She is a consummate performer but more than that she is a genuine and thoughtful human being. She is unfailingly supportive of singers, trekking out to see them whenever she can. I had a gig at the Metropolitan Room last winter during the worst snow storm of the year. I figured no one would possibly come out in such ridiculous weather to see me, but a small but mighty house gathered, including Miss. Julie sitting in a booth with some other friends. She has come to every show I’ve ever done in the city, and every time I see her or hear her urging me on from the audience I am touched.
When we were still living in Washington, DC Julie came to town to do a show and I had a small party for her at our condo. I had been a whirling dervish of cleaning trying to get the house ready and make sure everything was presentable and ready. Everything that was in the way or couldn't be dealt with neatly was hidden away in my bedroom with my two cats. At some point during the evening I mentioned the cats and Julie’s ears perked right up. She just had to see the cats. I stood there for a minute thinking of the state of my bedroom and wondering how fast I could make it as perfect as the rest of the apartment, but Julie would not wait. Within minutes one of the most elegant women I have ever met was on her hands and knees under my unmade bed trying to coax my kitties to come out and see her. Of course, they did, who could refuse her? We bonded over our mutual love of animals and family. Whenever I see Julie she always asks about my cats, my husband and son.
In Balliett’s profile Julie tells the story of being fired from a night club in Miami Beach because the producer wanted his girlfriend to have Julie’s place in the show. She said I was only twenty-three, but I had already learned that it’s not so much what is done to you as the way it is done-that people should have the guts to be square with you. This is the Julie Wilson I know. She speaks honestly but tempers it with kindness and grace. She has a great gift for making you feel like you’re the most important person in the room. A pretty neat trick if you’ve ever seen her perform for a packed house of people, all of whom feel she’s singing directly to them.
She told Mr. Balliett that the only singer who ever influenced her was Billie Holiday. She wears a Gardenia in her hair whenever she performs to honor Holiday’s memory. She says I used to listen to her on Fifty-second Street when I was with Johnny Long’s band, and I finally met her and had dinner with her just a year before she died. No singer has ever moved me so much. No one has ever had such pain and emotion in her singing. There have been many better singers, but none as moving. She taught me that when you sing a song like Irving Berlin’s Supper Time, which has to do with a woman whose husband has just been lynched, you picture him hanging, you think of what must be going through her mind, you think of her children and what she can possibly say to them. You keep all that in your mind while you’re singing and it will come out in the words, in your voice, in your face – and people will listen. This is a lesson she mastered, few performers can match Julie’s grasp of the subtext of a song, you can see every moment of the story in her face.
She told me that she really didn’t start out to be a singer she wanted to be a serious actress and it shows. She approaches every song as an actor approaches a script, but loses none of the musicality. You always believe what Julie Wilson is singing to you.
She continues to be an example of grace and perseverance to me. To watch her on-stage is a master class in inhabiting a lyric. She will always be one of my heroes.
Posted by Wendy Lane Bailey at 2:29 PM