"I couldn't believe that in the 1950s, here was a woman who was calling attention not only to the fact there were gay people, but that she was one of them, and that she felt strong enough to get away with doing that. Her audiences were filled with [gay and lesbian people] because they felt comfortable, welcomed and that they were experiencing a big transition in American culture."
That's how jazz virtuoso Terese Genecco describes the legacy of Frances Faye, the cabaret star and gay icon whose six-decade-long career never made her a household name in her native America, but nonetheless inspired a generation. As Genecco -- who recently celebrated her third anniversary at the Iridium nightclub -- gears up to bring "Drunk With Love: A Tribute To Frances Faye" to New York's 54 Below, her enthusiasm for the openly bisexual Faye's work is palpable. During one preview performance, she tore through a rollicking version of "I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate" with equal parts brass and panache.
Of course, "Drunk With Love" is more than just an inspired karaoke act. The Nov. 4 show, which its star has been fine-tuning since its San Francisco debut in 2005, is truly a showcase for Genecco's talents, which recall '50s and '60s "Rat Pack" era Las Vegas. Not only will "Drunk With Love" hit 54 Below in time for what would have been Faye's 100th birthday, but Genecco has also invited Jack "Mr. Bongo" Costanzo, the now 93-year-old bongo player who performed with Faye as well as Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra over 50 years ago, to join her onstage.
Genecco sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about her 54 Below debut and why openly gay female stars like Ellen DeGeneres to Rosie O'Donnell owe a little something to Frances Faye.
The Huffington Post: What is it about Frances Faye that you find so inspiring?
Terese Genecco: She was openly bisexual starting in the 1940s. It wasn't really known in the general population that she was gay…I was shocked, actually, when I first heard "Caught in the Act," which was Faye's live recording from 1959…there's a section where, in the middle of Cole Porter's "Night and Day," she improvises, "I'm Frances Faye, gay, gay, gay…is there another way?"
She's also a hero of mine because she never became a huge star. She wasn't a household name here, but she was in Australia and she was in England…why she wasn't a big, big star in the U.S. is kind of lost on me if it wasn't because she was openly bisexual.
It sounds like it's an incredibly eclectic piece.
That was Frances Faye's M.O., too, because she could play anything at the piano and she could sing pretty much anything -- well, she sort of shouted, she didn't have a real delicate flower of a voice! But she could play anything, and often times in her shows, she would just play whatever came to mind and the band would have to follow her.
When Ricky Ritzel behind the piano, we're going to do a medley of 15 songs in five or six minutes, so I have no idea what he's going to throw at me. We're just going to go back and forth, and he's as versatile at the piano as Frances Faye was. It's a high-energy show; we say it's "going to have a two-drink minimum and a two-ballad maximum."
On a more personal note, how important is it for you to personally address gay themes in your performances?
It was a concern of mine when I first started this tribute show…I didn't think an audience needed to know [I was gay]. But I felt it was a risk I had to take. I can't not be myself -- it would be disrespectful to Frances Faye and her memory to be a closeted entertainer paying tribute to her when one of the things she did that was so groundbreaking was being inclusive and being herself. So I just felt that it was important to be truthful to her sexuality and to mine…if I get work, I get work and if I don't, I'll never know.
Is there one song in the show you're particularly excited to perform?
I think that one out of the two ballads I'm doing in the show sort of speaks to all of this. It's called "Drunk with Love," and it was written in the 1930s by a man named Bruz Fletcher. Poignantly, this was a gay man in the 1930s in Hollywood…he would perform in what they would call "pansy clubs" at the time, totally illegal and raided by the cops…these guys would get up and perform these songs and then get thrown in jail. [Bruz committed suicide at age 35 in 1941]
It's a really touching, beautiful song and we do a gorgeous, lush arrangement of it to call attention to the tragedy of that life that was cut so short.
What is it about cabaret-style performances that makes them so timeless?
I think it's about the intimacy of the spaces that we can perform this material in, and bringing songs that are over 100 years old to new audiences and making them seem fresh, exciting and entertaining. What I do is sort of hybrid of what you'd consider traditional cabaret and nightclub entertainment of the 1950s. If you think "Rat Pack," and the lounges and the supper clubs that were popular in New York, Vegas and Hollywood in the 1940s and 1950s…that's the style that really speaks to me and through me in my arrangements and my instrumentation onstage.
What do you hope the 54 Below audience takes away from your show about Frances Faye?
I think Faye needs to be held onto, rediscovered and her memory needs to be kept alive, especially for those of us who are in the LGBT community. People like Ellen and Rosie -- folks who came out after their careers were established -- owe a little thanks to Frances for making that possible. She had the courage to be herself and was a trailblazer, so I hope that we can pay appropriate homage with the show.
Terese Genecco's "Drunk With Love: A Tribute To Frances Faye" plays New York's 54 Below on Nov. 4. For more information, click here.
Take a look at performances by Terese Genecco and the late Frances Faye below: