Getting Intimate from a Supper Club Stage
by Aaron Howard
Jeanie Brandes works the room. As the piano plays the introduction to "My Funny Valentine" her eyes scan the crowd, meet one gray-haired gentleman, then lock in. As she begins to sing, she extends her left arm in an arc as if trying to touch the man. When she begins & "Someone to Watch Over Me," she sits on the edge of the stage, her head and shoulders hunched forward. She goes into the audience on "That Old Black Magic." Her hand lightly strokes the shoulder of a woman sitting on the aisle. At times in her act, every fiber of her body seems to be straining out to touch the audience. Brandes is a supper club singer. Her 1940s material, the black gown that hangs in simple lines down to her high-heeled shoes and her silky voice suggest the elegance and mature sensuality of a bygone era.
Today, there are few real supper clubs or cabarets in this country. Around 1910, the cabaret became a vital part of urban life. It was a place where women mixed with men and various classes of society in a public setting. The cabaret's seats brushed up against each other. The stage was low and close. The couples held hands, flirted and pressed their bodies closely when they danced. The cabaret was intimate, exciting, and naughty. In order to distinguish themselves from the lower classes, the society crowd went out in supper clubs. Amid the spendor of well-appointed rooms and expensive clothing, the swells eliminated the excesses of the lower class cabarets. The music and dance steps were toned down. Excesses were eliminated. The refined sensuality of Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rodger and Hart appears as the antitheses of today's rap and heavy metal music. This is Brandes' territory. "I'm a lyricist. I'm attracted to the theme of love. I don't think anyone expresses it better that (George) Gershwin, (Stephen) Sondheim and Hank Mancini, and Leslie Bricusse, who did "Two for the Road."
That's what my cabaret is about," According to Brandes, the secret to successful club singing is to choose the proper material, the right songs that go with the artist. "One of my favorite songs is 'I Remember Sky' from a little-known Sondheim musical, 'Evening Primrose.' His lyrics express exactly the way I felt," says Brandes. "I try to nurture the songwriter's lyrics in order to get the point across to the audience. You have to sing from your heart of hearts, from your feet. The reason you like Pavarotti so much is that he sings from his toes. It's the same place a good cabaret singer sings from."
Brandes is classified as MOR or easy listening on radio formats. It's the radio programming kiss of death. That means no audiences under 55 years old are supposed to be listening. Yet, she was profiled on Houston's soft jazz station, KHYS- 98.5 FM. She compares herself to Tony Bennet. "Bennet has been singing essentially the same kind of music all his life," says Brandes. "It was his hook on MTV. All of a sudden, he's doing unplugged sessions. It was great packaging. He's passed over the MOR genre. It's a perfect example of how labels cloud the idea of good music." Jeanie developed a taste for cabaret when she became an adult. "It was the lyrics, the saxophone, the mood, the sensuality of the arrangements," says Brandes. "'Yeoman of the Guard' wasn't as attractive as 'Two for the Road.' You fall into things that move your soul and turn you on." Brandes divides her time between California and Houston, doing the supper club and Las Vegas circuit. Although she wouldn't mind hitting it as big as Tony Bennet, Brandes says it doesn't matter whether she is singing for an audience of 60 in a club, or 60,000 in the Astrodome. (She has sung the National Anthem at the start of ten Oilers games.) "I'm trying to touch each and every person in the audience. I want them to feel the music like I do." (Brandes' CD, "Love in the World I Remember," a collection of cabaret tunes, is available in area record stores.)