DEL MAR — Ten years ago, when she was just 18, Kevyn Lettau began singing for her supper on a Del Mar street corner, sharing whatever money passers-by gave her with a pair of other hungry young jazz musicians.
"I was cleaning house for this woman in Del Mar, and one day while I was singing away in the bathroom, she walked in and said, 'Wow, was that you?' " Lettau said.
"She offered to pay for my voice lessons, so I started studying with a couple of local voice instructors. A few months later, another musician, Tripp Sprague, heard me sing in my high school talent show and introduced me to his brother, Peter.
"We were all three just starting out. In the evenings, I would go to Peter's house, and he and Tripp would teach me all these old jazz standards. Then, on Sundays, we would play on some street corner, for anyone who would listen."
Today, Lettau is no longer hungry--nor is she singing for her supper on the streets. Thanks to a rangy soprano and a vocal style that combines the sultry dignity of Sarah Vaughan with the improvisational bravado of Anita O'Day, she is feasting on a lavish four-course musical meal in nightclubs, concert halls and recording studios all over the world.
Lettau's aperitif is singing vintage jazz and pop songs like Ray Henderson's "Bye Bye Blackbird" and Hoagy Carmichael's "Skylark," mostly around town, with a band fronted by her mentor, Peter Sprague.
The critically acclaimed guitarist recruited Lettau for his first local club act, the Dance of the Universe Orchestra, the summer after she graduated from high school, back in 1977. They've been performing together, off and on, ever since.
"Singing with Peter is so comfortable," Lettau said. "He gave me my start in music, and whenever we perform together we have this understanding, this bond, that you just don't find very often in this business."
Lettau's appetizer is leading her own ensemble through a selection of contemporary Brazilian pop pieces by composers like Djavan, as well as some of her own songs, in Los Angeles and San Diego nightclubs.
Among them is the Bella Via in Cardiff, where Lettau and her band will perform tonight and Saturday.
"Lately, I've been getting more and more into Brazilian music, sort of like a fish is drawn to water," she said. "I've always loved the beat, and in many ways it's like jazz--there's a lot of room to play around with the melody and the timing."
Lettau's entree is touring the world with Sergio Mendes and Brasil '88, for whom she and another female vocalist belt out such international hits as "The Look of Love" and "Going Out of My Head."
"It's a real challenge, staying on top of all the vocal and instrumental blendings," she said. "In addition, I have to coordinate my singing with my dancing--which makes things even more interesting."
And for dessert, Lettau occasionally ventures into the recording studio with such jazz luminaries as Lee Ritenour, on whose latest GRP album, "Portraits," she sings backups on "Windmills."
"Lee came in to hear me sing with Peter one night in Los Angeles, and the next day he called me, just out of the blue, and asked me to be on his next record," Lettau said.
Other recent recording projects include the theme song to "Chameleon," a television sitcom starring Madeline Kahn; three songs on the NBC soap opera "Santa Barbara," including an on-camera duet with Marilyn McCoo; and a half-dozen jingles for a Los Angeles radio station.
A native of Massachusetts, Lettau moved with her mother to Germany when she was 7 and returned to the United States eight years later to live with her father in Del Mar.
After hooking up with the Sprague brothers in 1977, she sang exclusively with the Dance of the Universe Orchestra until 1981, when she began performing around town with various other local jazz musicians, including Butch Lacy, Art Resnick, Ron Satterfield and Carl Evans.
"I worked with tons and tons of people in every San Diego jazz nightclub, but the entire time I never stopped singing with Peter," Lettau said.
"Even today, my musical life doesn't feel complete unless I'm doing other things. But it also doesn't feel complete unless I'm singing with Peter, you know?"
In 1984, Lettau was introduced to Mendes--and to Brazilian music--through a mutual acquaintance and promptly landed a spot with his live band. Since then, when not making several hundred concert appearances, she has performed with Mendes on Italian and Australian TV and at a private birthday party for King Hussein of Jordan.
Also in 1984, Lettau and a few other members of Mendes' band put together their own Brazilian combo, L.A. Samba, to play in Los Angeles and San Diego nightclubs.
"Eventually, I'd like to create my own niche by doing some sort of cross between Brazilian music and soul, as well as more of my own songs," Lettau said.
"But even if I do make it big on my own, I'll never give up jazz, or Peter, entirely. It's always nice to come home."