October 26, 2021
Back in the Swing of Things with Elena Bennett and Fred Barton
John Amodeo READ TIME: 12 MIN.
"I felt like James Mason in 'A Star is Born.' That's what it was like finding Elena singing at the piano [at the legendary but long since closed Greenwich Village piano bar Eighty Eights] that night," mused her musical director Fred Barton, a singer, songwriter, playwright, author, conductor, arranger, pianist and all-around entertainer himself. "You know that scene, where a dejected-feeling Mason is walking the streets of LA and hears from an upstairs bar Judy Garland's Esther Blodgett jamming with her band long after the bar has closed? He goes up and hears her sing 'The Man That Got Away,' and is mesmerized. It was just like that when I walked into Eighty Eights one late night, sat by myself at the bar with my scotch and soda, not really listening to the music until I heard this soaring voice singing, 'I'll Tell the Man in the Street' (Rodgers/Hart), and I thought 'Who the hell is this? Where did she come from and why haven't I heard her before?'"
Some time later, Eighty Eights called Barton to be one of their bar room pianists, but he didn't want to do it until he asked who would be working the bar on his nights, and they told him Elena Bennett. "I instantly said, 'I'll do it,'" Barton recalled. "She knew 5000 songs, and I knew 4,999, and she taught me the one I didn't know."
Bennett recalls it very much the same way, though added that it came at a cost. She had been working in New York with a longtime pianist Scott Traudt. "He was one of my best friends in the world, but I lost him to AIDS during those dark years," laments Bennett. "I'm very particular about my pianists. In order to work a long shift, it's important for me to be with someone I get along with humor-wise, artistically, and who I like being with. After Scott died, all the good pianists I worked with that fit that description, like Bobby Peaco, John McMahon, Jason Robert Brown, Joel Silberman and Paul Chamlin all had other commitments that kept pulling them away."
Watch this video of "The Lady From 29 Palms," recorded by Elena Bennett and the Fred Barton Orchestra for the album "A Wrinkle In Swingtime."
But on that night in 1994 when Barton stumbled into Eighty Eights, Chamlin told Bennett there was this guy at the bar who was really paying attention to her, and Jay Rogers, another singing bartender, and bar owner Rochelle Sheldon told her it was Fred Barton, and they waxed eloquent about his playing. "They asked him to come to the piano and play, and he did," remarked Bennett. "He started playing some Ella Fitzgerald songs that I knew, and it just grew from that. It was one of the most rewarding experiences." They became a regular duo at Eighty Eights and amassed a following. They even had a running joke they would make in front of the crowd. "If we did a song particularly well and were very pleased with ourselves, we would turn to each other and say out loud 'That's going on the album,'" giggled Bennett.
Four years later, Bennett came into some money from her grandmother, and the prospect of making the album she always heard in her head suddenly became possible. In early 1999, they released their CD, "A Wrinkle in Swingtime" to universal acclaim. Backstage's John Hoglund proclaimed, "After years of being a fixture on the Village piano-bar scene, brassy-voiced Elena Bennett has made her first recording, 'A Wrinkle in Swingtime.' This gal possesses all the potent vocal ingredients that made the likes of Doris Day, Ruth Etting, Ella Fitzgerald, and, yes, Judy Garland, a star. She's that good. Gifted music director Fred Barton's lush arrangements are in a league with Harry James and Nelson Riddle. He's that good. Together they are lethal on a magical toe-tapping big-band album that soars." Bennett and Barton join forces again, more than 20 years after making the recording, to bring that same magic to Club Café's Napoleon Room on Tuesday, November 2 with "Back in the Swing of Things!"
"I approached Fred with a proposal to do an album but not just with a combo, but with an orchestra," Bennett noted. Barton was excited. "Elena's album was my first big experience with doing orchestral arrangements," explains Barton. "All my life, even at 13, I wanted to sound like the orchestra when I was playing the piano." Barton has often been referred to by the media and in cabaret circles as a 10-finger orchestra.
With her newfound largess, Bennett reserved the best recording studio she could find, and Barton connected Bennett with the late Mel Rodnon, one of the great Broadway contractors, to hire a 27-piece orchestra replete with harp, strings, reeds, horns and percussion for that big band sound, and two days later, they had 13 songs in the can. Barton had done all the arrangements in collaboration with Bennett, while Bennett had conceived of the environmentally-friendly 3-panel fold out card-board sleeve packaging and the art deco inspired cover art with caricatures by Robert Risko, who had been an illustrator for Vanity Fair and done all the covers for the 'Capitol Sings' record collection, giving the whole recording the look and feel of one of those 1940s big band vocal albums, the kind you might hear June Christy on, one of Bennett's early influences.
In addition to Judy Garland, who was a major influence, Bennett was drawn to and influenced by the jazz and swing era singers like Dakota Staton, Ethel Ennis, Hazel Scott and Christy. "Dakota Staton, her voice is extraordinary, her phrasing is flawless, and her scatting is second to none," declared Bennett. "Far more important to me was she put such weight in lyrics. Her intelligence, awareness and emotions were always heightened, which is exceptional in jazz singing." One of the album's big numbers, "Hold Me, Hold Me, Hold Me," draws comparisons with Dolores Gray who introduced the song in the Broadway musical "Two on the Aisle," (Jule Styne/Betty Comden and Adolph Green) in 1951. "I didn't know Dolores Gray growing up. She wasn't one of my top 30 influences," admitted Bennett. "But I'm smitten with her now."
She was lucky enough to see other idols, like Sarah Vaughn and Nancy Wilson, in concert.. "I got to meet and talk to them, and what a gift that was," gushed Bennett, then half-seriously continued, "I will resent my parents for my entire life for not taking me to see Josephine Baker at Carnegie Hall." But growing up in Riverdale, a part of the Bronx along the Hudson River, she had easy access to theater. "'Annie Get Your Gun' was the first musical I ever saw, so I wore cowboy boots my entire youth, when I wasn't wearing high heels," quipped Bennett.
Barton, whose career has focused on Broadway, swing, and the Great American Songbook, says Bennett can sing just about anything. "She sings more styles than I can play: jazz, R&B, country," marveled Barton. "Thank goodness we overlap on swing and standards."
Bennett, whose career has been based in New York most of her adult life, does have strong New England roots. She spent summers in Woods Hole growing up and often visited relatives in Belmont. Attending Connecticut College in New London, she performed with a close harmony singing group called the ConnChords at Faneuil Hall and formed a jazz trio that had gigs all around New England.
Barton's local roots run even deeper. Born and raised in Lexington, MA, he attended Harvard College, where one of his roommates was Andy Borowitz (the Borowitz Report). While at school, they collaborated on the 130th Hasty Pudding Show, "A Thousand Clones," book and lyrics by Borowitz with music by Barton. One can only imagine the hilarious dorm room conversations that occurred between these two comic wordsmiths.
Barton's Tom Lehrer-like wordsmith talents became a local-then- national sensation when he wrote, produced, and performed his one man show, "Miss Gulch Returns" in 1984, which led to a live recording of the show (1986) that captured a formidable cult following. Tim Kutzmark, then a DJ for Standing Room Only, the Broadway program on the student-run Emerson College radio station, WERS, weekly featured on his radio show one of "Miss Gulch Returns'" most hilarious songs, "Pour Me a Man," rife with colorful innuendo and witty word play, which fast became one of the station's most requested songs. Shortly after, Kutzmark brought Barton up to Boston to perform "Miss Gulch Returns" as part of a gala cabaret fundraiser, which then led to Barton doing a two-week run at the then-newly opened Club Cabaret at Club Café (now the Moonshine Room).
For those not familiar with "Miss Gulch Returns," Barton plays himself meeting the titular character at a bar, she in her later years, a lonely, bitter spinster. Then during the opening song, Barton transforms himself into Miss Gulch, who proceeds to tell her life story in song. Barton conceived of the show while performing the role of Almira Gulch/Witch in a production of "The Wizard of Oz" at Theater-by-the-Sea in South Kingston, RI shortly after college. After the show, he would hang around playing the piano for friends in the cast, often playing an original song from another show he'd written in college called "Oh No, No Net," which he produced and performed at the Harvard Agassiz Theater. The song, "I'm a Bitch," was written for the leading lady. While playing "I'm a Bitch" at those "Wizard of Oz" apres-theater gatherings, often still in costume as the Witch, Barton realized there was a show there, and the song became Almira's hilarious opening number in "Miss Gulch Returns."
Just before launching "Miss Gulch Returns," Barton was busy as the musical director for the original Off-Broadway production of "Forbidden Broadway," which, after opening in 1982 in New York, opened a second production in Boston in 1984, running for 7 years in the Park Plaza's Terrace Room, initially with Barton at the piano. Barton also got to play the Colonial Theater when he toured as a conductor in the pit for the Broadway revival of "Cabaret" starring Joel Grey. "Little did I know that when I was a 13-year old coming to see Donna McKechnie starring in 'On the Town' at the Colonial Theater that I would be back there not that many years later playing in the pit," says Barton, almost incredulously. "When they say, 'You can't go home again,' I say you can!"
Bennett and Barton had instantly bonded when they first met, were a team for many years, but then professional pursuits and opportunities took them in different directions. But the pandemic gave them each a chance to reflect on their careers, and they realized they needed to sing together again. Performing at Manhattan's West Bank Café earlier this year, they felt the old magic returning. Because they are so comfortable with one another, and have so much material solidly under their belt, they won't know what the show will be until they perform it. "The show will include most of the songs from 'A Wrinkle in Swingtime,' but this is a casual," remarks Bennett. "Fred and I get to sing as long as anyone will let us. At our last show at the West Bank Café, we did a little over two hours, and Charles Busch requested two songs from the album we hadn't done yet and we absolutely did them. But we'll go with the flow of the room. I will sing whatever I feel like singing and Fred will too."
And if we are lucky, they'll sing them all and we'll stay all night.
Elena Bennett and Fred Barton will perform "Back in the Swing of Things!" on Tuesday, November 2, 2021, 7 PM at the Napoleon Room, Club Café, 209 Columbus Avenue, Boston, MA 02116. No cover. For reservations, visit: https://www.clubcafe.com/club-events/bennett-barton/
John Amodeo is a free lance writer living in the Boston streetcar suburb of Dorchester with his husband of 23 years. He has covered cabaret for Bay Windows and Theatermania.com, and is the Boston correspondent for Cabaret Scenes Magazine.