True Blues
True blues
Chanteuse Nalley pays homage Saturday to jazz icon Billie Holiday

When Bay Area jazz singer Kim Nalley takes the stage Saturday for an evening of Billie Holiday songs, she plans to do more than just hit the right notes.

She aims to set the record straight.

"I was a history major at Cal, so I am more than qualified to go to the library and research this stuff," Nalley said. "I noticed when I was doing productions with other people about famous singers, they'd get the facts all wrong."

So the audience at Rohnert Park's Spreckels Performing Arts Center will not only hear Nalley nail such Holiday standards as "God Bless the Child" and "Strange Fruit," they'll hear Nalley tell some true stories about the singer, too.

While not every tribute singer takes what Nalley calls her "historiographical concert" approach, Northern California performers find a willing public for salutes to some of the great women singers of the past.

Charismatic, and often tragic, vocalists such as Holiday, French cabaret chanteuse Edith Piaf and country music star Patsy Cline remain fascinating, even decades after their deaths.

"Part of why these singers stay so popular and so meaningful in people's minds is that they embody the whole spirit," said Elly Lichenstein of Petaluma's Cinnabar Theater, which staged a Piaf tribute in 2005 and plans a Cline show next New Year's Eve.

"They were extremely giving as performers," Lichenstein said. "They'd collapse onstage because they were giving so much and in their private lives they're extremely selfish. It's the only way they can survive the hard knocks they've had. People love that fragile/strong dichotomy."

Holiday, in particular, is as well-known for her tragic back story as she is for her groundbreaking vocal work. By her own account, she was raped in her youth and worked as a prostitute. After struggling with drug and alcohol addiction and abusive men for decades, and serving time in jail, she died of liver disease in 1959 at age 44.

Nalley's search for a well-rounded portrait of the singer took her well beyond just reading about Holiday.

"I've heard stories from people who knew Billie Holiday," Nalley said. "I've worked with musicians who played with her." Among them were pianist Frank Jackson and trumpet player Allen Smith.

The 1972 film "Lady Sings the Blues," starring Diana Ross as Holiday, focused on the singer as a frail victim, but there was another side to the story, Nalley said.

"Everybody thinks of her getting beat up by her man," Nalley said, "but Billie was a pretty big girl. She was about 5-foot-7, and she had a penchant for dating guys that were maybe one-third her size, so she beat some ass, too."

While Nalley does wear a gardenia in her hair, one of Holiday's trademarks, she doesn't attempt to become the famous singer onstage.

"I'm not an impersonator," Nalley said. "People say that I look like Billie Holiday anyway, but I take her songs and sing them my way."

Holiday isn't the only jazz star Nalley has brought to the stage. She has put together tribute shows to Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald. Nalley also writes some of her own music and performs Gershwin tunes and other standards.

Nalley has appeared previously in Rohnert Park, singing classic jazz songs with a big band, but Saturday marks her first time performing the Holiday tribute there.

"When you sing with a big band, you have to powerhouse every song," she said. "This is a chance for people to hear me in a more intimate setting."

Since she created the show last year, she has taken it from New York to Los Angeles.

"People seem to really like it," Nalley said. "Maybe it's my singing, or maybe it's because of the research, or maybe it's just because of the songs."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or
Posted on: Saturday March 01, 2008 PST