During much of the 20th century, mezzo soprano (some say contralto) Kate Smith (1907-1986) had millions of ardent popular music fans. Two among them were mezzo soprano Stephanie Blythe and myself. A third was my dad, a Trenton, New Jersey physician, who was wowed by Smith when he was an undergraduate at Yale and she came through New Haven singing and dancing in the Broadway-bound Flying High. For the rest of his life he talked about her dazzling effect on him and the entire audience.
Those are a few reasons why when the beloved Metropolitan Opera House fixture reprised her warmly thrilling "We'll Meet Again -- The Songs of Kate Smith" in the Jazz at Lincoln Center's Allen Room, I made sure I was there -- wondering as I entered how I'd missed the 2011 appearance.
No matter. I was present this time and was rewarded with exactly what I came for, starting when Blythe greeted the audience with Kate Smith's signature greeting (and the title of her 1933 flick), "Hello, everybody!" What I'd figured would be true was true: Blythe -- not just because, at 43, she's a big-boned woman like the beloved entertainer she honors -- but because she possesses the same clarion voice Smith had and never allowed to diminish throughout her long career.
More than that, Blythe has the same friendly appeal and sense of humor Smith possessed. She exudes the same integrity and love, not only of the people for whom she's singing, but of the country in which she's singing. In another vocalist, this could come across as jingoistic. It doesn't with Blythe, as it never did with Smith.
"What you've all been waiting for," Blythe said as she introduced the first of her two beg-off encore numbers. Accompanied by totally-in-synch-with-her Craig Terry at the piano, she then hurled herself into "God Bless America" with every ounce of Smith's fervor and much, too, of Smith's coloration. This is the song, most ticket buyers knew, that Irving Berlin gave Smith in 1938 to introduce on her radio show. Instantly, she turned it into the land's unofficial national anthem.
(What many in the adoring crowd may not have known is that having pulled the tune from his 1918 Yip Yip Yaphank score to retool for Smith, Berlin then channeled all royalties for it in perpetuity to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America -- as did Smith.)
"God Bless America," which Smith sang thousands of times subsequently, is -- for those who don't know -- one of three songs Smith made her own (and Blythe has now made hers). She opened with "When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain," which Smith sang on the March 17, 1931 debut of her first radio show. She ended the main section with "We'll Meet Again."
Incidentally, both "We'll Meet Again" and "The White Cliffs of Dover," which she delivered earlier in the set to sustained applause, are songs she sang after Vera Lynn established them as highly successful British World War II buck-up ditties. Not that Smith was a piker at introducing songs herself. Telling a good deal of Smith's story -- the 50-50 revenue deal with star-making manager Ted Collins, for example -- Blythe noted that over her radio and television years Smith sent out something like 600 songs over the airwaves for the first time.
With those to choose from and the hundreds and hundreds of others Smith sang into the '70s (see YouTube for the Beatles medley she shared with Cher and Tina Turner), Blythe only gets to a small percentage: 15. Nevertheless, in the 75-plus minutes that fly by, she makes each selection a vocal and emotional gem. Why wouldn't she? One of the cherished Met regulars, she not only fills the gigundo house with her voice but fills the house's seats with her reputation?
Her tribute to Kate Smith, which she'll be touring later in the year, is an unqualified triumph -- with an emphasis on the oomph.
Personal addendum: As I said, my father carried on about Smith's Flying High scene-stealing but never mentioned the songs she sang. Nor did I ever think to ask what they were. Turns out there were two, and Blythe only sang one, the Ray Henderson-Buddy DeSylva-Lew Brown "Without Love." When she did, I realized I was hearing for the first time a song my father heard for the first time over eighty years ago. What this meant to me I don't think I can put into words.
For the record: New York City-born, Nevada-based Pia Zadora performed a circa-1987 Las Vegas lounge act at Manhattan's Metropolitan Room for four nights last week. On this return to the stage after a 15-year hiatus, she often disdained pitch on the standards she attacked. In two blazing Bob Mackie outfits, she repeatedly pointed at audience members with manufactured cheer. And she made numerous references to opening for Frank Sinatra back in the day.
Doing all this, she wasn't what you'd go so far as to call good. But whatever she was mightn't have been terribly disturbing as background diversion between trips to the Golden Nugget gambling tables.
What was profoundly disgraceful about the show was her back-handed treatment of a tip-top band that included longtime Sinatra pianist Vinnie Falcone, Joe Lano on guitar, Ronnie Zito on drums, Jay Leonhart on bass and Ned Ginsberg on keyboards. Denigrating them immediately on entering -- an opening-night kick-off glitch of hers for which she tried to divert blame -- she kept the insults zinging their way throughout.
Zadora may have thought she was being amusing at their expense, but what she really did was reveal herself to be someone with whom you wouldn't want to spend more time than was absolutely necessary.