Sebastian spoke on the telephone earlier this week with “ singer, pianist, composer, lyricist, arranger, actress, educator, TV host, producer” and “one of the leading champions of the great American Songbook”, ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY.
Ann Hampton Callaway will be at Crazy Coqs for 8th to 12th April (8pm starts), making a welcome and very long overdue return to London, with a solo show called Diva Power. She will, she says, through the songs performed, not only give the audience “portraits of trailblazing people “ but also “put my own stamp on their songs.”
It’s been a while, she agreed, in fact over fifteen years. In the 1990s she was a regular visitor to London. I remember one occasion when, in the early 1990s, the legendary Barbara Cook – whose theatre was dark because of a power cut – popped down to Pizza on the Park and sat in at her gig. AHC’s last visit here was with her younger sister Liz Callaway, when they inaugurated the long-running Divas at the Donmar series in 1998.
I asked if she enjoyed solo performance: “ I like to play for myself, play the room be as intimate and personal as possible”. This enjoyment of working on the small scale is readily understandable. AHC has performed as guest with Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, with Keith Lockhart and the Boston Pops, notably on a highly popular symphony show “The Streisand Songbook” and – according to the website – with “more than thirty of the world’s top orchestras and big bands”. She has even sung “Yes, Virginia” for that ultimate American “e pluribus kitsch” moment, the Christmas Parade at Macy’s (ON VIDEO).
Her solo shows end with an invitation to the audience to suggest unlikely words for her to put into an extemporised love song. She remembers London audiences back in the day as being more reticent than New Yorkers to come forward with ideas. I suspect we may have changed…
AHC has a dozen solo and duo albums to her name. The latest “At Last” is on Telarc. The next album will be “The Sarah Vaughan Project: Live at Dizzy’s.”
Alongside the interpretations of American songs, perhaps the most astonishing thing about AHC is the fact that she has stepped in as collaborator to write not only words for other people’s tunes, but also the tunes for other people’s words; and that she has done both at an unsurpassably high level.“I think of the words and the tune at the same time,” she says.
For example, writing words for tunes has led her to a unique assertion in her biography: that she is “the only composer to have collaborated with Cole Porter”. I asked her how that came about. Bradshaw Smith had discovered the lyrics by Cole Porter which “It never entered my Head” and “I gaze in your eyes”.For Callaway to perform her compositions, and to record the latter on as the first song on her first solo CD, she needed approval of Porter estate. The head of the estate Robert Townsend loved her song, and so this uniquely legitimized collaboration was allowed to happen with the estate’s full blessing. The story didn’t end there. Performing “I Gaze in Your Eyes” led her to meet the First World War veteran to whom Cole Porter had dedicated the words. He loved the song too, and told her how moved he had been to hear it.
Writing tunes for words has led her to other unique, high-profile situations. Barbra Streisand (one of the divas to be celebrated, and whom AHC mimics hilariously – from [5:08] on the video) asked AHC to write words for a melody by Rolf Løvland of Secret Garden. The song is called “I’ve Dreamed of You”. Barbra Streisand sang it for the first time on the day she married James Brolin, and, and it has become a staple for her performances and anthologies ever since.
I couldn’t help asking her the ultimate trivia question, whether there is any link to the Callaway Golf Company. The simple answer is no, she is not related. But the question acted as a spur for quickfire quip and anecdote. AHC told me she was once approached by the company’s founder and President Eli Callaway Jr., who asked her : “Young lady, do you golf?”, a conversation which could easily have ended with AHC endorsing the brand. She also quite likes the idea that the opening couplet of Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that swing)” is a maxim “which can apply equally to both music and golf”.
I also asked her about heritage of her eminent journalist father John Callaway, the recipient of no fewer than fourteen Emmy awards and ten honorary doctorates. She made a remark which seemed to spring from a deep well, and to explain something her determination, energy motivation, which in turn explain the scale of what she has achieved : “You couldn’t be my father’s daughter if you didn’t try”.
And since the New York Times has described her as having: “a voice so rich, flexible and extravagantly gorgeous that it hardly matters what use she puts it to,” this show has to be a coup for Crazy Coqs. I’m looking forward to it.
Jeremy Chapman, who describes himself as a 'long-time Ann Hampton Callaway groupie in London', writes by email:
Just read your piece on my beloved Ann and I have to tell you her memory is playing tricks on her. She says her last London appearance was with Liz at the Donmar in 1998 but she did a two-week residency at the Pizza on the Park long after that, in July- August 2001.