Entertainment » Music

Kevin on Kabaret :: Cold Nights, Warm Clubs

by Kevin Scott Hall
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Friday Jan 4, 2013

Now that all the stress of the holidays is behind you, why not treat yourself to an evening out? There isn't a much better place than the intimacy of a cabaret room to warm up a cold winter night.

In days of yore, cabaret clubs launched dozens of careers in both music and comedy. There are the obvious ones like Barbra Streisand and Joan Rivers and Johnny Mathis and Tony Bennett, but were you aware that Carol Burnett and Woody Allen also got their experience and breaks doing club work? And that Warren Beatty used to tickle the ivories in piano bars between acting gigs? A little research and you will discover that many of our lasting superstars paved the way to their careers in cabaret.

Of course, in those days, television talk shows and variety shows gave those up-and-comers much needed national exposure. Very few shows today feature singers of popular music and so carving out that big career can be daunting-not to mention that the onus of producing the show is now on the performer or, if he or she is lucky, a producer or manager. While cabaret has many successful artists today, we don't have the cabaret star who suddenly becomes a force in theater, television and film.


If one up-and-comer could break that mold, I’d say it’s the fearless Carole J. Bufford. Although she looks as fragile as a porcelain doll with her petite frame and soft, doe-like green eyes, when she takes to the stage she becomes a ferocious blues belter.

Bufford came to New York cabaret via the second MetroStar Challenge at the Metropolitan Room in 2009. I was surprised to learn that Bufford actually entered the contest in 2008 but never got beyond the first round. "Performing that night struck a note-forgive the pun-with me," she told me.

"I realized this was the direction I wanted to go in. I entered again in 2009 and the timing must have been right." Bufford came in third and has been busily playing the clubs, appearing in revues, and even sang at the Mabel Mercer Cabaret Convention, all the while collecting terrific press and scooping up awards. This month, she returns to the Metropolitan Room with a new show, "Body and Soul," and picks up the Nightlife Award at Town Hall on Jan. 14th.

"It does feel like a whirlwind in the best possible way," Bufford said. "The MetroStar contest introduced me to so many people who have helped me, specifically Donald Smith and the Siegels, and it’s been snowballing from there." Bufford told me the story of how Smith, who passed away last year, supported her the first time she sang at the Convention. "He told me to have a pen and paper to get email addresses because people would want to see me again, and then during intermission he escorted me into the lobby to meet people. Things like that mean so much."

Carole J. Bufford hails from the tiny town of Lincolnton, Georgia. "My father grew up there, my mother grew up in the next town over," Bufford said. "The nearest movie theater was an hour and a half away so we had to amuse ourselves." That included playing dress-up and board games, and listening to a lot of music on the Golden Oldies station.

"I got a singing machine when I was eight or nine, and that became the thing to do," she recalled. "My cousin Lee, my sister Joan, and my mom Kaye would sing for hours on that thing! The home videos are hysterical and I’d probably be very embarrassed were they ever to surface!"

Bufford claims she started belting at an early age. "I was a premature baby and the doctors were worried about my lungs collapsing," she said, "But I came out wailing!"

While little Carole listened to Ella, Patsy, Liza and Judy (where, she says, her love for the dramatic and theatrical originated), she discovered the blues when her father gave her a 2-CD set of Bessie Smith for her thirteenth birthday. "Then came Dinah Washington and Della Reese," she remembered. "It was a sound I couldn’t get enough of, and I feel a kind of release singing the blues that I don’t get with any other genre."

Still, she went on to major in Musical Theater at Ithaca College and continued to concentrate on theater for a couple years after college. While she hopes to do more theater, she is also working on a live recording of "speak easy," her show from last year, and wants to do a studio recording before long. "I have about fifteen ideas for different shows milling around in the recesses of my brain that I’ll start considering as soon as ’Body and Soul’ goes up," she said.

As for "Body and Soul," Bufford says producer Scott Siegel approached her about the idea. "The show is a collection of songs fueled by passion," she said. "I have never been crazy over love songs, and these are songs of lust, anger, sorrow, obsession, even bitter hatred-even the happy songs have a bit of an edge." The song list covers a wide span of time and includes Broadway, rock ’n’ roll, pop, country, and, of course, the blues.

The world is quickly discovering the mighty Carole J. Bufford. Why not join the crowds? This month, Carole J. Bufford presents "Body and Soul" at the Metropolitan Room on Jan. 16th and 23rd, with additional dates in February. . . .

New direction

The effervescent Jeff Harnar is back and better than ever at the Laurie Beechman Theatre on the 14th, 21st, and 28th. Harnar was the darling of the cabaret scene among male vocalists from the late ’80s until the 2000s. During that time, he played gigs around the world, won many awards, and recorded a handful of albums.

In recent years, he has made appearances here and there but has been largely absent from the New York club scene. The new show is called "Does This Song Make Me Look Fat?" The amusing title seems to signal a more freewheeling direction for the performer. With great skill and panache, he delivered a couple of numbers at the recent Cabaret Convention. The return appears to be in full swing. I’ll be there . . .

Still pretty in pink

Jazz great Kurt Elling recently earned a Grammy nomination for his latest recording, "The Brill Building Project." Now we can hear it live when he returns to Birdland, Jan. 8-12. This ought to be quite a celebration.

And how about this? Everyone’s favorite Brat Packer, actress Molly Ringwald, comes to 54 Below for two nights only, Jan. 15 and 16. Everybody of a certain age grew up with Molly in "Pretty in Pink," "Sixteen Candles" and "The Breakfast Club." Now she’s gonna sing for her supper. The curiosity factor alone ought to sell the two nights out quickly.

And one more offering from seemingly left field: Peter Marshall, most famous for his many years hosting "Hollywood Squares," comes to the Metropolitan Room, the 11th-14th. Yup, he’s another one who started his career in clubs, then went on to Broadway and even a few films as well as his big TV gig. So now he’s back at the clubs, coming full circle . . . and at the tender age of 86.

Kev’s Faves

And now, Kev’s faves . . . Stacie Perlman returns to the Metropolitan Room with her terrific debut show on the 18th . . . Bistro winner Lauren Fox returns to the same room with her "Ladies of the Canyon" show, the 15th-17th and the 24th . . .Linda Lavin does 54 Below, Jan. 8-12 . . . Dynamo Nicolas King is at Don’t Tell Mama on the 21st and 22nd . . . and the divine Ann Hampton Callaway graces Birdland, the 22nd-26th.

I’d say 2013 is getting off to a smashing start. Until next month, I’ll be out and about . . . I’ll see you over cocktails.

Kevin Scott Hall is the author of Off the Charts! (2010, iUniverse) and the memoir, A Quarter Inch from My Heart (2014, Wisdom Moon).


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