When Nancy LaMott died in 1995, her friends and colleagues, myself among them, swore they’d never let her be forgotten. It was a promise more easily made than kept. I wrote a long essay about her for Commentary (the one collected in the Teachout Reader), and Jonathan Schwartz continued to play her records on his various radio shows, but once Nancy’s albums disappeared into limbo, there wasn’t a whole lot more we could do to keep her memory green. Though she was well known in the tight little world of New York cabaret, she had only just begun to make an impression outside it, and within a couple of years of her death it had faded almost beyond recognition. I tried on occasion to interest newspaper and magazine editors in a piece about her, but the answer was always the same: why would anyone care about a half-forgotten cabaret singer whose records were out of print?
So when Midder Music announced that it would be releasing Live at Tavern on the Green, Nancy’s first live album, and reissuing her other recordings, I knew the time had come for me to try to keep my promise. I wasn’t optimistic. She’d been dead for nine years, and though the circumstances of her death were intrinsically interesting, even romantic, I had no reason to suppose that very many people would now be interested in reading about her. Still, I was determined to give it a shot, and Eric Gibson, my editor at The Wall Street Journal, agreed to give me enough space to tell the tale as best I could. I sat down first thing Monday morning, wrote “An Encore for Nancy LaMott,” sent it off to Eric, and held my breath.
The piece ran in Wednesday’s Journal, and no sooner did people start reading the paper than Live at Tavern on the Green started climbing up the amazon.com music chart. On Tuesday night it had been hovering around #300. Twenty-four hours later it had settled at #8, right behind Green Day’s American Idiot, Tina Turner’s All the Best, and U2’s How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb, and just ahead of Norah Jones’ Come Away With Me. I’m amazed, and not a little humbled. Grateful, too, for it wouldn’t have happened had Eric not been willing to trust my judgment and lend me a prime chunk of real estate in the Journal so that I could write a few heartfelt words about an old friend who was also a great artist.
I don’t know what the future holds in store for Live at Tavern on the Green. My hope, of course, is that the ripples from my piece will continue to spread. But even if this is as good as it gets, I’ll always have the satisfaction of knowing that hundreds of thousands of people read about Nancy LaMott yesterday, and that what I wrote moved some of them to buy one or more of her albums. That’s good enough for me.
If you didn’t see my piece in Wednesday’s Journal, here’s part of what I wrote:
Everything was going Nancy LaMott’s way in 1995. She was appearing regularly at Manhattan’s fanciest nightspots, from the Oak Room of the Algonquin Hotel on down. Her heartfelt, irresistibly appealing versions of such standards as “How Deep Is the Ocean” and “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was” had started to catch the media’s ear. She made her Carnegie Hall debut and recorded her first album with an orchestra, “Listen to My Heart.” She even sang at the White House. Then the clock ran out. Nancy died of uterine cancer that December, leaving behind a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of bookings she didn’t live to fulfill, six records that quickly went out of print and a grieving husband whom she married in her hospital room, an hour and a half before she died. She was just 43 years old.
It’s a tale almost too sad to tell–but now, at long last, it has something like a happy ending. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, Midder Music, Nancy’s record label, has brought out “Live at Tavern on the Green,” her first CD to be released since 1997, and reissued her earlier albums, which became caught up in a legal dispute shortly after her death and have since been unavailable….
I won’t pretend to be objective about Nancy–we were too close for that–but I was hardly the only critic to know her for what she was. John Simon, one of the toughest customers in New York, said that “she fully fathoms what a song is about, and then, rather than merely singing it, lives it.” Stephen Holden put it a different way in her New York Times obituary: “She brought to everything she sang a clean, clear sense of line, impeccable enunciation and a deep understanding of how a good song could convey a lifetime’s experience.” All this is on “Live at Tavern on the Green,” along with a special quality I tried to put in words when I wrote in the New York Daily News that she sounded “sincere and sensuous at the same time, as if the girl next door had snuck out at two a.m. to make a little whoopee with her steady boyfriend.”
I’ve often tried to imagine what might have happened to Nancy had she lived even a little longer. A few months after her death, the listening public discovered Diana Krall’s equally appealing way with a standard, and she began her fast climb to well-deserved fame. Would Nancy have caught the same wave of nostalgia for the romantic ballads of yesteryear, and become a full-fledged star? I think so, and with the release of “Live at Tavern on the Green” and the reissue of her other albums (my favorite of which is “Come Rain or Come Shine: The Songs of Johnny Mercer”), she has a second, posthumous chance to reach all the people who might have fallen in love with her singing a decade ago if they’d only known about it.
At the end of Nancy’s shows, she would leave the bandstand for a moment, then come straight back, grin at the audience and tell them, “Relax, this is cabaret–there’s always an encore.” She trots out that surefire line at the end of “Live at Tavern on the Green,” and it tugged at my heart to hear her speak those well-remembered words again. Now, nine years later, Nancy LaMott has finally come back for an encore. It’s about time.
If you haven’t yet climbed aboard the bandwagon, go here, order one of Nancy’s CDs, and find out what those of us lucky enough to have known and loved her have been missing all these years.