It's a scene played a thousand times: An intoxicated nightclub patron asks the piano bar performer to sing "Melancholy Baby." But when fate played it out for pianist/singer Shirley Horn, the event provided her with a new career.
Horn was a 17-year-old Howard University student--"I lied about my age"--working nights at the prestigious Merryland Club, a supper club in her hometown of Washington, D.C. "I was just playing the piano at first," she said recently. "I was classically trained, but I knew tunes.
"Then one night, a man came in," Horn continued. "He was kinda drunk. He'd been in many times before, and he had a huge teddy bear with him, and he asked me to sing 'Melancholy Baby.' I did, and he gave me the teddy bear. Then the owner said, 'Oh, you can sing.' "
She pursued her vocal muse, and before long she was working in "every hole in Washington," plying her dusky, emotionally charged renderings, backed by what eventually became deft, jazz-influenced piano shadings. "I knew nothing about jazz music at first," she said, "but after I joined the union, I tried to sit in wherever I could. Nobody'd ask me; I'd have to beg," she said with a raucous laugh.
Horn, who last performed in Los Angeles in 1964 and who will play at Vine St. Bar & Grill on Sunday, Tuesday and Wednesday, polished her skills while working at Olivia's Patio Lounge in Washington during the mid-'50s. There, she was the opening act to Oscar Peterson and the Clifford Brown-Max Roach Quintet with Harold Land, among others. "My mouth was open the whole time I worked there," Horn said. "I met so many wonderful musicians. It was amazement every night."
The tables turned and soon it was her multitude of talents that impressed powerful musical figures like Quincy Jones.
Jones became her producer at Mercury Records, where the singer made three LPs in the early '60s. The first one, "Only the Lonely," was rough going at first, even with an all-star cast--"I had everyone I wanted--(pianists) Hank Jones and Bobby Scott, (bassist) Milt Hinton, (reedman) Frank Wess, all the bad guys.
"It was a trip, because I was scared to go into the studio," she said. "Then they put me in a little booth. You know, I play and sing--I'm always accompanying myself--so it took a little time to get accustomed to it. I'd never stood up and sung before. But it got good after I stopped shaking."
Her association with Jones culminated in 1968, when she sang the themes to two films for which he wrote sound tracks--Daniel Mann's "For Love of Ivy," starring Sidney Poitier and Abbey Lincoln, and Anthony Mann's "A Dandy in Aspic," starring Lawrence Harvey and Mia Farrow.
Horn's voice, but not her name, got wide exposure when she sang a commercial for Cheseborough-Pond's Groom & Clean cleansing product in 1963. That was both the beginning and the end of her jingles career. "I haven't been able to get a commercial since," she said.
Horn, who began piano studies at age 4 ("I don't know what life without music is like"), has based her career on concert and club engagements mostly in the Washington area. Why hasn't the pianist/singer, who will record a live album during her Vine St. engagement, worked in Los Angeles for more than 20 years? "Nobody asked me," she said, with a burst of laughter.