Pamela Rose presents Wild Women of Song is a captivating showpiece celebrating the lives, times and music of the Women songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley era. With dramatic projected images, and superb storytelling, Rose artfully delivers a cultural retrospective while treating the audience to a wonderful live jazz and blues concert.
I had the wonderful chance to interview Pamela on the phone. Let us hear her story.
Tell me about your show – Wild Women of Song Jazz Concert on Saturday Feb 7, 2015 at 8 pm)
The show is called Pamela Rose Presents Wild Women of Song, and it is a theatrical, multimedia, live concert. For the last five years, we have celebrated women composers in early jazz and blues by simultaneously projecting photo archives, telling their stories, and performing their music. We have a phenomenal live band that is mostly women. The Wild Women we celebrate wrote really famous songs, but their names are hardly ever recognized—it’s an interesting little cultural amnesia we have about the role that women played in that era of music. Our performances remind people that these women were there, and also celebrate jazz and blues in general. We take people on a trip, starting with minstrel show days, working our way through Memphis and blues, and finishing in Hollywood with Peggy Lee.
When did you start singing, and when did you first consider it as a career? Did you always know it was something you wanted to get into?
Not at all! I always loved music, but I was pretty shy. I liked to write songs, which is why I think I’m so interested in the song writers. I found myself in this situation where I was always hanging out with the musicians, and I would give them songs that I had written, and then they would ask me to sing them. It consistently happened so I finally reached the point where I decided to try it for a while. My parents were horrified at the idea that I would go into the music business, but I just asked them to let me see if I could actually make a living doing this while I’m young. Let’s give this five years, I said. I really worked my tail off and at some point I was able to quit my day job and it’s now what I do. It takes a lot. Most musicians I know do everything: teach, lecture, and put on shows. I do this show, and I am also hired to speak all over the country about women in early jazz and blues, I do private parties, weddings, and jazz and blues festivals.
As far as writing versus singing, is there one that you find more enjoyable?
Writing music is an enormous thrill because it puts together so many pieces. I wrote this piece basically as a play. It sounds like something I could say talking naturally, but it’s timed entirely to what is going on with the images. That incorporates a whole new type of writing I had never done before. The challenge is presenting the history without making it sound like a lecture. And making it be fun, but also have weight. Culturally, these women were really phenomenal. They were feisty; they were really strong willed; and they were operating entirely in a man’s world. It was extraordinary what they did. I like to impart some of their spirit in the songs. With that being said, singing is complete release and really fun. I can’t say I like any part of it more than the other. Writing is terrible. It takes forever and I hit my head against the wall a million times, but when it all comes together it feels so good.
How did you go about gaining recognition and attracting audiences in the beginning of your career?
In the beginning, I was hired onto other national touring acts, which led me to some small amount of recognition. But I would say I am not very famous!
When I travel with the Wild Women of Song show, which we do internationally, it’s not marketed using my name, and rather, it’s the spirit and the fun of the show and the historical significance. We reach out to women’s groups because they have been our bread and butter. Also, art colleges and jazz societies are a large part of the audience. Women’s business organizations come behind it a lot, too, because the overall message is about not letting your fire go out.
One of the most amazing songwriters we cover is Doris Fisher who wrote many famous songs. She did this for many years, got married, retired, and started raising her family. When I started doing this project, I couldn’t find any information about her online. I started asking around, and was finally introduced to a man who had befriended her in Los Angeles near the end of her career. He knew who she was, and she was so thrilled that she gave him this enormous trunk, filled to the brim with photographs, press clippings, even a family biography. It was all there.
The day that she died, he called her children to tell them about the chest and told them that they were going to want it for their children. But they said they didn’t want any of it, and without consulting anyone, they sold off her enormous catalog of songs the day she died.
The takeaway I get from that is that they didn’t really know who she was and why anyone would care. I can only believe that it was because women were taught not to blow their own horns. You weren’t supposed to brag about your accomplishments. She probably never really mentioned it to her children, and they just weren’t aware that their mother was phenomenal.
The reason we know about the male writers is because there was often a wife or widow who was constantly lobbying to get her husband’s name mentioned. You hear that story all the time, but you never hear from husbands and children about how extraordinary the women were. I think that was just a sign of the times. It was sadly the way we lived. Stories like this are the reason why women’s business groups do like our performances.
Who is your musical inspiration?
I listen to everything and I grew up listening to everything. In terms of singers, I listened to Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, and The Staples Singers. I like the soul singers a lot. Those are the musicians I really loved, the ones who were brave and didn’t care about popularity. They just did what was in their hearts.
What do you do to prepare for a performance?
Practice, practice, practice! This show, even if I know the music, has so many cues that every time I do it, which is a couple times a month, I spend a couple days running lines and going through the music. When I’m getting ready for a big concert, I do a lot more vocal strength training. I always tell my students to practice it until they are completely sick of the song, do it three times more, and then let it go! On the day of the show, I really don’t practice because the way jazz works, if you over prepare, you’re doing it exactly like you did it the last time, which is against the nature of what great improvised music is about. So I try to clear my brain and let it come out of me. Before I start, I always have a little spiritual prayer I do—I hope that if there’s value in what I am doing, then I can give it to the audience and I hope that they have a good time. I want everyone to have a really good time. It takes so much to get people to come out these days because everything is at home, so if they are going to come out, I want them to go home and say they just had the best time and had tons of fun.
What do you find most rewarding about singing, and what do you find most challenging?
The most rewarding thing is connecting with the audience. I absolutely love it, and I build things into my show to get people singing along and being a part of it. You want the audience to feel like they are a part of what you are creating, and in the best performances, they really are.
As far as what I don’t like, I hate having to book and publicize myself. As a musician, you are constantly hustling gigs. It’s really tiring and hard to talk about yourself. But you’re always doing it; there’s no way around it.
If you could go back to the start of your career, what, if anything, would you change?
I would have studied music more, because I didn’t really. I have had to go back later in life and learn a lot about music composition and theory. I would also have loved to have spent the time to become much better at playing an instrument; that way, the things I hear in my head would be better expressed. In general, I would definitely appreciate a more sophisticated musical education.
Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I am right now writing a whole new show about the history of women in the blues, which is a much more involved piece. All the Performing Arts Centers who have hosted the current show are waiting for this next one. I want to do more of the writing and less of the singing for this Blues Show, and share the singing and narration with the musicians around me. Part of that is because this is really the story of African Americans, and I’m a white woman, so I want to be respectful of the fact it’s not entirely my story. I grew up listening to these blues women, and they were my inspirations when I was growing up because they had such great messages of finding your strengths and freedom. That’s the show I’m hoping to be doing for the next few years.
I also teach clinics at the Jazz School in Berkeley, and I love them because they are about getting people who don’t normally sing to get up and sing. That’s a completely joyful experience for me, so I hope I’ll be doing a lot more of that. Just getting people to sing.
What advice would you give to up and coming singers?
It’s a hard life, so do it because you really love it. You have to believe in yourself, and know what it is that you are offering that others can’t get around the corner from anyone else. Believe in that with all your heart, and that’s what you give away.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Shannon Galiotto is a senior at St. Francis High School in Mountain View, CA. She enjoys creative writing, mathematics, photography, video editing, as well as watching, playing, and reading about sports. In her free time, she volunteers at the local Senior Center’s Technology Center or helps elementary students learn the value of money, etc.