Singer-songwriter Ann Hampton Callaway has a career - and
personality - that are brimming with contradictions.
Although she’s a critically acclaimed jazz vocalist, Callaway gets immediate recognition from regular folk for the theme song she wrote and sang for the CBS sitcom, "The Nanny." ("She’s the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan/The flashy girl from Flushing/the nanny named Fran!")
Critics have acclaimed Callaway for her electric performances and versatility - singing pop and jazz - as well as what New York Observer critic Rex Reed called her "supersonic range and intonation"
She has an infectious, witty humor, but a diva’s fearsome persona when awakened at 7 am for an interview ("I’m NEEEE-VER up this early," she huskily rebukes.)
"I’m a jazz singer for people who hate jazz," said Callaway, in a phone interview Friday from Tucson, Ariz., where her tour had taken her. "They don’t know a woman singing a great song in a spotlight can be jazz."
She began her singing career in New York over 20 years ago playing smoky piano bars, but she credits her "very powerful relationship with God" for her talent.
Among Callaway’s fans are her colleagues, including Brooklyn’s own Barbra Streisand, who has recorded Callaway’s "I’ve Dreamed of You," "At the Same Time" and "A Christmas Lullaby." (Streisand even sang "I’ve Dreamed of You" to actor James Brolin on their wedding day.)
Skitch Henderson, conductor of the New York Pops, told GO Brooklyn, "I stand in line as a super fan [of Callaway], because of her taste and credibility both in her performance and the music she selects."
Callaway sang with the Pops at Carnegie Hall in 1997. About working with her, the Pops conductor said, "If you know what you’re doing, it’s easy."
"If not, watch out!" he said with a laugh, because the 40-something Callaway is an artist who takes her craft, for which she was nominated for a Tony, very seriously.
Callaway will perform in Brooklyn for the first time on March 16. "I’m looking forward to the accents," she says with a laugh. "It’s my maiden voyage. Tell everyone to be nice and gentle with me. I’m a virgin."
Callaway will perform with what she calls her "strong, powerful jazz trio" - Ted Rosenthal at piano, Dennis Irwin on bass and Matt Wilson on drums.
Callaway explained that her Brooklyn Center performance would be divided into two acts.
The first half to feature songs from her latest CD, "Signature" (N-Coded Music/After Nine Records) which contains signature songs of the great jazz legends of the 20th century including Nat King Cole ("Route 66"), Billie Holiday ("Good Morning Heartache"), Ella Fitzgerald ("Mr. Paganini"), Frank Sinatra ("In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning") and Tony Bennett ("The Best is Yet to Come"), whom she calls "my heroes."
The second half of her act will be all about Callaway - songs she’s made her own, such as Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s "Blues in the Night" which she sang in the Broadway revue, "Swing." And she said she’ll close the second set, a jazz and "straight ahead pop" combo, with her song "I Believe in America" which she wrote immediately after Sept. 11.
Callaway promises that not even the 2,400-seat Walt Whitman Theater at Brooklyn College can daunt her. Though she’s been known to set critics’ hearts aflutter in intimate cabaret rooms, she’s also played Carnegie Hall and will have little trouble filling the Whitman theater with her persona and Broadway-sized voice. Callaway was as memorable for her vocals as for her tall stage presence (she’s 5-foot-10) when in "Swing."
"I’m basically very personal with my audience," she said, "whether it’s a concert hall or jazz room. I use the space more dramatically [in a concert hall]. I cut loose a little bit more. I learned from Bette Midler, who I saw perform at the Metropolitan Opera House for an AIDS benefit. She made the place seem like a smoky club. That’s the magic of what we do. My personal style will be the same, but since the Broadway musical, I’ve learned to sing my guts out."
(Callaway garnered a 2000 Tony nomination for singing her guts out in "Swing.")
She makes it a point in every show, she said, to get to know the audience by improvising a song on the spot from the suggestions the audience throws out to her while she’s on stage.
"Tony Bennet came to one of my performances at Feinstein’s [in Manhattan]. He said nobody does anything different anymore, and he thought it was so refreshing to see something new," Callaway said, explaining that her years of songwriting are all the experience she needs for the risky schtick. "I trust my instincts. It’s a way for me to get to know the audience. After all, they’ve been hearing me speak and I’m pouring my guts out."
Callaway admits that these improvs have proven to be popular. Unfortunately, she often forgets them after the performance. (She’s now trying to tape them.)
Another telling measure of her talent is the high-caliber talent that performs with her. Wynton Marsalis has played trumpet on her albums, including on "Signature," and pianist Cyrus Chestnut has toured with the singer. And she’s even earned the respect of the ultimate diva.
"The first time I spoke with [Streisand] I was hyperventilating," Callaway said, explaining that the only instructions she was given was to write lyrics for a "positive love song." Streisand came back with the critique, "This is too literal."
Callaway said working with great artists is "the best way to grow. Ella Fitzgerald constantly surrounded herself with the best people. Over the years, I’ve really been able to meet the best people, and I feel like I can do that for the next generation. A way to say thank you."
Callaway rewrote her lyrics for Streisand’s song, after "succumbing, like all partly Irish girls, to alcohol at Dobbs Ferry." After consuming two wine spritzers, she had her song.
"She loved it," said Callaway of Streisand’s reaction. "She said, ’I’m having a pahty, make a demo.’" That’s the story, replete with a dead-on impersonation of Babs, of the making of "I’ve Dreamed of You." Streisand, according to Callaway, "was spontaneous and sang it on her day of days. She’s included it in her live concerts and won an Emmy for it. She’s included it on her last five CDs, including ’Essential Barbara’ - a really great honor to be one of her essential works."
Callaway will sing "I’ve Dreamed of You" in Act II, as well.
Born and raised in Chicago, her father is John Callaway, a former CBS News correspondent and host of the PBS show, "Chicago Tonight." Her mother, Shirley Callaway, is a Broadway vocal coach.
Callaway now resides in Manhattan - when she’s not touring. She is currently collaborating on a national variety television show that she hopes will be confirmed by the time she arrives in Brooklyn.
"I feel particularly responsible as an artist in a very dark, uncertain time," said Callaway. "Music can help bring people together. It’s such a powerful thing. It can open people up, heal people with illnesses and help people to forgive and to fall in love.
"It’s a tremendous honor to participate in an art form that has an effect on the heart," she said. "During a show, a room full of strangers becomes a room full of friends. You can’t feel alone at the end of the night. You’ve laughed and cried with these people. It’s an experience that brings you together."
Ann Hampton Callaway will perform as part of Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts’ "Sensational Saturdays" series at Brooklyn College’s Walt Whitman Theater, one block from the junction of Flatbush and Nostrand avenues, on March 16 at 8 pm. Tickets are $35 and $30. To order, call (718) 951-4500.