How A Sixties Pop Singer Became One of Today's Finest Vocalists

by David Hajdu | December 7, 2012

Few sons have the chance Bill Charlap has had, a chance to watch his mother grow up. Charlap, the jazz pianist, is appropriately revered as an interpretive musician of rare taste and sensitivity. On and off since 2005, he has performed and recorded with Sandy Stewart, the veteran singer of popular standards—who is also one of Charlap’s parents. (The other was Moose Charlap, the late Broadway composer best known for writing the musical Peter Pan with the lyricist Carolyn Leigh.) When Bill Charlap was a kid in the early 1960’s, and I was a kid, too, his mom was a chirpy, pixie-ish presence on the TV variety shows that seemed, invariably, sponsored by Kellogg’s cornflakes and indistinguishable from their contents. My own mother liked Sandy Stewart, in part because she mistook her for Italian. After my mom and her sisters found out that Connie Francis was Calabrese, they presumed that every talented and pretty young female singer was secretly Italian.

Sandy Stewart's own secret was that she had the stuff—the voice, the skill, the intelligence, the heart, and the will—to become much more than a chirping pixie. She has developed over the decades since the ’60s to become not only one of the finest singers of our time, but one of the best in the history of her tradition. I have seen her several times in the past few years, most recently in her new nightclub show, “Something to Remember,” with Charlap and the bassist Peter Washington (who plays regularly in Charlap’s trio, with the drummer Kenny Washington) at Feinstein’s in New York. To watch Sandy Stewart singing today is to see something done as well as it has ever been done.

“Something to Remember,” the show, was connected to a new CD of the same title by Stewart and Charlap, though the song selections were not identical. Stewart, in the opening-night performance I saw, took the established theme of reflection deeply to heart, and sang so intimately that she seemed not to realize that an audience was there. There was no show biz, no pandering, no glitz. Stewart hardly said a word—not even “Good evening” or “Thank you” after applause. She spoke only once in the course of the 80-minute performance, to credit one of the songs, “I Was Telling Him About You,” to its composer, Moose Charlap, and its lyricist, Don George.

Stewart sang with subtle mastery and creative intelligence. On Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s “September Song,” for instance, she lingered on the consonant “m” in “September,” as if she were purring over a treasured memory. On “Why Did I Choose You,” the bittersweet lament by Mickey Leonard and Herb Martin, she bled the lines of the lyric, one into the next, as if she were dizzy from the vagaries of choice and fate. She parceled her resources for expressive purposes, at several points (most notably in Burton Lane and Ralph Freed’s “How About You?”) hanging on the bottom of a note, a microtone shy of going flat, for dramatic impact. Stewart’s mastery as a singer is such that the singers in the club (among them, two of the most artful I know, Joyce Breach and Eric Comstock) should have paid tuition.

At the age of 26 in 1963, Sandy Stewart had the closest she would come to a hit with the sock-hop slow-dance ballad “My Coloring Book.” At 75 today, she is using a palette of quiet tonal colors to make a very grown-up kind of art. 

Editor's note: This column has been updated to correct a misattribution. "September Song" was written by Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson, not Weill and Brecht. We regret the error.

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