As a child, Debby Boone remembers walking through the lobbies of Las Vegas hotels with her father, singer Pat Boone, as he got ready to headline another show. It was the desert town's golden era -- a time when Frank, Sammy, Dino and other Rat Packers ruled the roost -- and as she strolled past rows of clanking slot machines, the eight-year-old girl couldn't help but steal a glance through the curtains of the hotels' darkened lounges.
"I'd look into those rooms and I'd see a woman standing by a piano singing a beautiful torchy ballad," Boone recalls with wonder. "And I said to myself: How do you get to do that?"
Today, some five decades later, Boone has it pretty well figured out. In her new cabaret act, "Swing This," now playing through Saturday at Cafe Carlyle in Manhattan, she channels the excitement of those long-gone lounges, where singers, comics and other entertainers would crank out 4-5 high-energy shows a night. The mood could shift in a heartbeat from jazzy exuberance to boozy introspection, and Boone's 14-song set evokes those smoky rooms with a smart selection of ballads and upbeat standards plucked from the heart of the Great American Songbook.
Reader's alert: There is nothing wrong with your computer screen. This is the same Debby Boone who topped the Billboard charts in 1977 for 10 straight weeks with "You Light Up My Life." The same singer who went on to record hit country and contemporary Christian albums, performed in musicals like The Sound of Music and is now seen on a TV infomercial praising "Lifestyle Lift," a company offering facial and neck cosmetic procedures.
How did she travel such a road to top billing in one of Manhattan's classiest cabaret rooms -- and with material that, at first glance, would seem to be at odds with the bulk of her musical career?
To hear Boone tell it, the focus on classic American pop songs in her new act is a natural outgrowth of a lifelong fascination with these tunes, and a musical pedigree second to none. As a child she listened to Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald while other kids were into rock and roll. And when she tied the knot in 1979 with her husband, Gabriel Ferrer -- the son of legendary singer Rosemary Clooney -- she married into music royalty.
"I couldn't help but be amazed by Rosemary's incredible gifts, and I learned so much from her, both as a singer and a performer," Boone said. "I performed with her, and she had a profound impact on me. So much of what I'm doing now is a reflection of that."
She's carrying on Clooney's legacy in more ways than one. In a set that includes classics like "More than You Know," "It Never Entered My Mind," "Mack the Knife," "That Old Black Magic," "You and the Night and the Music" and "Cry Me a River," Boone is backed by a swinging nine-piece band under the direction of the incomparable John Oddo, one of the most gifted and respected musicians in the business today. Oddo worked for years with Clooney and tours extensively with Boone, with whom he's recording a new album. He's been a musical director for Michael Feinstein and Christine Ebersole, and has worked with Woody Herman, Tony Bennett, Ray Charles, Stan Getz, John Pizzarelli, David Hyde Pierce and Linda Ronstadt, to name a few.
"Swing This" is driven by Boone's confident, engaging performance, and her appealing, pop-friendly voice glides comfortably from higher notes down to warm, lower registers. She's knowledgeable about her material, and it doesn't hurt that she's a knockout in a floor-length gown. A good storyteller, Boone offers wry tales about Sammy Davis Jr. (he built a huge, floor-to-ceiling shower in his home so he could watch his wife bathe) and Dean Martin (he kidded her dad about his tee-totaling, once saying that after shaking Pat's hand "my entire right side sobered up").
The band lifts her even higher. Oddo's A-List lineup, featuring two trumpets, trombone, alto, tenor and baritone saxes, bass, drums and piano, powers the set with a lush, exhilarating sound that is unusual in intimate clubs. "Sway" becomes a mambo extravaganza; "Round Midnight" wraps Boone's straight-ahead vocal in shades of dissonance; "I'm Waiting Just for You," the standout number, builds to a surging crescendo.
Give the boys their due: Besides Oddo on piano, the band includes Tony Kadleck and George Rabbai on trumpet; John Fedchock on trombone; Lawrence Feldman on Alto Sax, Aaron Heick on Tenor Sax, Ron Jannelli on Baritone Sax, David Finck on Bass and Jim Saporito on drums. During an 80-minute set, they deliver a tight, driving sound that would have made their Vegas forbears proud.
"Swing This" ends on a soft note, with Boone standing at the piano, her hand resting affectionately on Oddo's shoulder, as they perform Irving Berlin's classic "Be Careful It's My Heart." The words have special meaning for the wide-eyed kid who once dreamed about singing in Las Vegas. And they remind us that the act of reaching out bestows a special responsibility -- not only on a performer, but on those who sit in the dark and listen:
"Remember, it's my heart
The heart with which so willingly I part
It's yours to take, to keep or break
But please before you start
Be careful, it's my heart."