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The Jennifer Lauletta Story
Adventures with Moritz, the Duke, Tiny and a Blues-Playing Insult Comic
(Or, How a Hometown Chanteuse Rubbed Shoulders With a Few Big Time Show-Biz Folk)
By Tim Roberts
"It's a very freaky business, you know?"
-Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse,
All That Jazz
In Reno, her name was on a marquee at a club called Harold's, right next to (and maybe sometimes confused with) Harrah's. The Smothers Brothers were headlining at Harrah's at the same time she performed next door. If you stood at a certain place in front of both establishments and looked toward them, the marquees blended so that it looked like she was appearing second bill to Tommy and Dick. She has a picture to prove it.
As a teenager she was onced-over by the founder and director of the Kentucky Opera, a man who had taught at Princeton, who had directed Beverly Sills in a production of Mozart's Der Schauspieldirektor at the New York City Opera in the 1950s. She was recommended to replace the boy soprano whose voice had changed weeks before the production was to start. The director had little choice.
In the late 1970s, she's asked to go to a hotel and pick up a pop culture figure who peaked and burned out in the 1960s, whose marriage was televised live on the Tonight Show, who had entranced an easily amused audience with a falsetto singing voice and a ukulele. Who now was playing a club in a medium-sized town during a time when the laughter he got bordered on ridicule. She noted how weary he looked.
Earlier that same decade, she got to sit in on a song with one of the nation's cultural giants, a composer and conductor whose name and influence ranks with Gershwin and Copeland and Porter.
She played a gig in Las Vegas with her singing partner. Money suddenly got tight and they were abruptly evicted from the apartment where they lived. The landlord took everything they had. Clothes, too.
Life on the road (at home, too) as a performer is a catalogue of experiences like that: bitter and sweet, frightening and exuberant, tearful and bladder-loosening funny. And throughout it all, as the quips from Irving Berlin and Freddie Mercury declare, The Show Goes On.
It must. Louisville's Jennifer Lauletta knows it. And she wants anyone else who thinks they've got the stuff to live in the limelight to know it as well.
"You just have to take your foot in your hand, as my mother would say and face the fact that you may flop and do it anyway. I flopped two or three times before I got the understanding that I had to be totally in control of everything. That's what I try to tell singers. A lot of girls will come to me for instruction. Before it's over with, they're disenchanted with the idea because they want to be Britney Whatsherface."
Good advice from someone who has done more than just sing with a band on a stage somewhere. She's someone who has been, for most of her adult life, in show business. The business that's like no business you know. Who knows about the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd. And vice-versa.
Lauletta is probably among the last of the Floor Show performers: singers, dancers, bawdy comedians ("Yeah, you can tell she's my favorite waitress because of her big tips") and bands who played the show clubs, where the stage was in the center of a large room and dining tables on risers surrounded it. Almost every city had one. In some places, it was as close as you could get to a Broadway or Vegas show and still get home early enough to watch the 11 news and fall into a deep sleep in your recliner (and have the station's 20 kilohertz sign-off tone stab into your ears, a fuzzy test pattern glowing gray in the living room darkness). In Louisville, two of the best known were the Arch Club and the Merry-Go-Round Show Bar, cattycornered from each other at Seventh Street Road and Berry Boulevard. One is now a strip club. The other was razed to make room for a used car lot.
"I did a lot of Judy Garland," Lauletta said of her years as a floor-show chanteuse. "And Striesand. It was more popular standards, but stuff that was very showy, stuff with a lot of strength to it, because it was different that being up on the stage where you're more of a background. When you're out there on that floor, you are it. And you had to keep everybody's attention."
"It was a terrific audition. Just stay in line!"
-Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse,
All That Jazz
Born in Mobile, Alabama, Lauletta and her family moved to Louisville when she was eight years old. A few years later, her brother showed her how to play three chords on a guitar. Once she understood what could be done from that simple lesson, she kept practicing until she was able to accompany her own singing.
"This was back in the mid-Sixties when coffee houses were big," she said. "I would go to the Oval Door Coffee House on Chestnut Street. It used to be in the old YWCA. It was one of those showcase places where it didn't matter if you were good or bad. If you wanted to get up and give it a try, you could."
In junior high school, she met Susan O'Neil (featured as the cover story in the August, 2006 LMN). Lauletta had taught her the harmonies to a number of folk songs and the two performed together.
It was also during her years as a folkie that she sang in the chorus of the Kentucky Opera, where she found herself unexpectedly cast in a production of Mozart's The Magic Flute as one of three magical sprites, only because a boy soprano's voice had changed.
"They were using three very talented little singers," Lauletta recalled. "And the boy who had the soprano part, his voice started changing two weeks before the production. Somebody had said, 'Well, what about Jennifer? She knows the part.'"
The production was being directed by Kentucky Opera founder Moritz Von Bomhard. Spittle would fling from his mouth as he talked when he was nervous about something. The unexpected stumble into puberty by one of his male sopranos was one of those times.
Lauletta continued. "He just looked at me and said, 'Stand up!' And you did whatever Moritz Von Bomhard said. So I stood up and he said, 'She'll have to be bound.' They took linen and wrapped me. I could hardly get a breath to hit the high note. Then I had only two weeks to learn the part."
Within the time when most young people her age were hanging around Burger Chef and fretting over their supply of Clearasil, Lauletta had already performed for small crowds in a coffee house who dug her sounds and large audiences in an auditorium who were entranced by her trained soprano voice. A couple of years after graduating from high school, she vaulted directly into the show business and all of its glories and hard realities.
"I hit the road when I was 19. And I was gone for seven years."
"It's showtime, folks!"
-Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse
All That Jazz
A bowling alley isn't the ideal place to find a mentor.
But that's where Frank Link was performing before he and Jennifer Lauletta began their seven-year road tour.
"He was a powerhouse entertainer," Lauletta said. "He was a huge draw here in town, actually. He sang blues and did comedy along the lines of Don Rickles: insult type stuff. People either thought it was funny or they were offended. You either liked him or you hated him."
Link was working at the Rose Bowl Lanes on Goldsmith Lane when Lauletta met him. Already a veteran of the floor show circuit, he had the professional experience as a performer and a songwriter that young people entering the business could learn from. A stage-experienced guru with a sharp tongue and blues licks that could cook meat from 20 feet away.
"He taught me a great deal over that seven-year period," said Lauletta, "about how to present myself in front of people. How to develop my voice so that it could carry those types of tunes when you're out in the middle of a floor instead of up on the stage with a band with monitors and all that. And really show yourself off."
Lauletta got a chance to show herself off in a big way, with a big figure in American culture, when she and Link went to Al Hirt's club in New Orleans where Duke Ellington and his orchestra were playing. Link had written a song called "Let Me Take You to See the Circus," which Ellington and his band were interested in recording.
What Lauletta didn't know was that Link had secretly arranged for her to sit in with Ellington and his band. After more than 30 years, Lauletta's eyes still glisten with the memory.
"In the middle of the show, Mr. Ellington comes out and he's all dapper, fantastic, so talented and all that musical history. You just sit there with your mouth hanging open to be that close to him. So then he called me up on stage. The long and short of it is I did get up because I'm such a ham. He asked me to sing. So I had the honor of singing 'My Funny Valentine' with Duke Ellington accompanying me on piano, along with all the other excellent old musicians that had been with him for years in his orchestra. I was thrilled. I was 21 or 22 years old at the time. But I don't think I realized at the time what an honor that was."
She added, "A lot of the people in this town who are fantastic never go a chance to work with Duke Ellington. It was just a one-song sit in. But it's one of my favorite memories."
After the show was finished and Lauletta and Link met Ellington backstage, Link had him give her the famous Four Kisses. "Frank had been telling me about them," she said, "and he wouldn't tell me what they were. We went backstage and he said, 'Duke, I want you to give Jennifer the Four Kisses.' He turns around and takes my by the shoulders and kisses me," Lauletta demonstrated by tapping each cheek, left-right, left-right and making a kiss noise for each tap, "and he says, 'That's one kiss for each cheek.'
"He was 72 or 73 years old, with those beautiful baggy eyes and that hangdog look on his face. If he'd asked me, I'd have gone anywhere with him."
The Ellington orchestra had already laid down the tracks for Link's song. The only part needed was Link's vocals. He never heard from the group. Calls weren't returned. Then came the news that Ellington was dying. His life ended in 1974.
Lauletta and Link had met other starts during their run as a team. They performed at Joan Rivers' Ye Little Club in Los Angeles, where Lauletta met Roddy McDowell, June Allyson and Dick Powell. In Las Vegas, they worked the Lion's Den at the MGM Grand with Lou Rawls.
"I don't make the claim that I really associated with any of them," she said. "I was exposed to some really fantastic names and talent early on. That's why I say during those seven years I really learned a lot. But it was rough, too. We stayed in a garage apartment that had a dirt floor for about a month. The sewage backed up in the little shower stall. When we were living in Las Vegas, we couldn't pay the rent so the landlord took all of our belongings. Even our clothes. It was just terribly humbling. There's nothing really glamorous about it."
Lauletta and Link eventually dissolved the act toward the end of the 1970s. Link died of lung cancer in on New Years Eve, 1982. He had been entertainment director for one of the major casinos (Lauletta does not remember which one) and became a good friend of Bill Cosby. As he was dying, his hospital room in Vegas was filled with flowers. One was from Cosby. On the note, he had written, "If you die before the flowers do, send them back."
Back in Louisville, Lauletta got a job playing in the lounge at the Holiday Inn on Fern Valley Road. There she met a young drummer named Joe.
Two years later, they got married.
"To be on the wire is life. The rest is just waiting."
-Robert Alan Arthur and Bob Fosse (based on a quote by Karl Wallenda)
All That Jazz
Joe and Jennifer Lauletta met and were married in a time when pop music was going through one of its regular convulsive fits of transformation: disco had moved up from the clubs and all over the airwaves, while new wave slunk along the bottom, awaiting its time to raise its periscope, arm its torpedoes and put the colorful, bloated dreadnaught of disco in its sights.
Jennifer and Joe Lauletta, meanwhile, kept their distance from the tumult by performing the music they liked, always remembering that that the show must go on but that it sometimes gets adapted to a different kind of stage. In this case, the stage was at the Toy Tiger, the Vegas-style nightclub that went from being a show bar to, in its final days, the only venue where you could hear heavy metal.
During her time playing at the Toy Tiger, she met another performer known throughout the culture, but who was on a long, slow slide into obscurity with short stops at ridicule.
"We put together a rock group and did the Toy Tiger," Lauletta said. "Tiny Tim came in to headline. That was in 1977 or 78. They asked me to go pick him up at his hotel."
Tiny Tim's popularity had peaked in the early 1970s, after his breakout appearance on Rowan & Martin's Laugh In in 1969 and getting married on The Tonight Show. Known best and always for a falsetto rendition of "Tiptoe Through the Tulips," he also did critically appreciated renditions of old American pop standards (but not in a voice that sounded like his undershorts were three sizes too small). His career got a long-awaited second wind in the 1990s before he did in 1996.
Lauletta continued. "He had been on the Carson show five years before, now he was at the Toy Tiger in Louisville. And he knew it. He had become an old man. You could see he was weary. And I wanted to baby him. I got him talking. He was a very shy man, a very pleasant, sweet person. I felt sorry for him.
"We played two weeks there. I was glad to get out," she added with a chuckle.
Two years after Lauletta was married, she became pregnant. She had the abrupt realization that the child needed to be brought up correctly. And that ended her nightclub years.
She also decided the child would need to be brought up in some kind of faith, so she joined a church that frowned upon her small desire to still perform a couple nights a week. It was hard, she discovered, to purge nearly a decade of show business out of your life.
"I met a lot of people who were very good to me," she said. "They were helpful. It was just a very legalistic atmosphere, even though they didn't think it was. I fell into that mindset, too. I spent 20 years trying to save myself. And finally realized it was making me crazy. I had to leave."
She did sing Gospel music during her time in the church with a trio, finding it fulfilling and took it as another opportunity to learn another aspect of performing.
"I had been a lead singer all my life," she said. "Now I had to listen to other singers and I had to match tones. That was a great learning experience. But I never could stay in one place musically. I like things with a lot of rhythm and swing and lots of expression."
As she and her husband raised their son, Nicholas, she also went to college and became a paralegal. But the need to perform something other than one type of music still churned.
Three Louisville musicians helped get her back on stage and, once again, in front of more people: her schoolmate Susan O'Neil and guitarist Greg Walker and his vocal partner Jeanette Kays.
"I owe so much to those three people," she said. "When Jeanette found out I wanted to get back in, she said to come on over to Clifton's Pizza where they play. And she let me sit in. Musicians who take their presence seriously don't ask a lot of people to sit in, so I was very flattered that they would allow me to get up."
It led to a monthly gig for Lauletta at Clifton's that she has maintained for nearly three years.
Susan O'Neil did something similar for Lauletta, inviting her on stage to sing with her band. Lauletta had also written some blues songs, one of which appeared on O'Neil's Don't Blame the Blues CD in 2006. She also co-wrote several of the songs with O'Neil and did background vocals.
Lauletta also involved herself with the Louisville Jazz Society (LJS) and works as the managing editor for its newsletter. During an LJS fundraiser, she approached pianist Steve Crewes to help her with a group she was putting together. He accepted and along with bassist Ron "Butch" Neeld (who played with Crewes in Soundchaser) and her husband as drummer, Lauletta formed a quartet and recorded her debut CD Things We Said Today, a collection of jazz standards.
Among them, a slow, steamy romantic ballad called "Circus," the shortened-name version of the song Frank Link wrote and was to perform with Duke Ellington and his Orchestra. With the history this song has, a sadness hides in the melody, of what it could have been if Ellington had been able to record it. Yet is also has the same timeless quality of a jazz standard, one that was simply an overlooked gem in the American pop standard songbook. The one it seemed singers kept missing because the pages were stuck together.
Lauletta and her quartet (without Crewes, who now plays at the Park Place restaurant at Slugger Field) still regularly perform at Clifton's and at the River Bend Winery in Indiana. Her grown son writes Christian rap lyrics and is working on a record deal. He became engaged this past Christmas Day.
Being a professional musician requires an intuition that is either trained-in after years of experience or hardwired from the day a performer takes the stage for the first time. The intuition is one that combines what the audience wants and what the performer's bandmates need to know to make a show work. Fortunately for Lauletta, she had both kinds.
"Early on I trained myself. I watched how others constructed their charts. That's why I emphasize this kind of thing to young singers who want to get into the business. You need to train yourself to understand how that whole thing is organized. That makes it a whole lot easier."
Especially if you can't find your mentor in a bowling alley.
Jennifer Lauletta & Co. will perform at the Jazz Factory on Tuesday, February 27, with Steve Crewes on piano, for two sets, at 7:30 and 9:30. Call the Jazz Factory at 992-3242 for more information. She will also play at the Oldham County Arts Center in Crestwood on Saturday, March 24.
More gigs and lots more of the show biz life are at www.jenniferlauletta.com.