For eight years, Debbi Ebert has belted out Willie Nelson hits in local clubs when what she really wanted was to whisper Billie Holiday's melodic treasures.
Though she admits it's partly her own fault for caving in to local tastes, she now stands firm in her commitment to jazz.
"It's taken me a long time to get to the point where I can say, 'Hey, this is what I'm going to sing.' Now I can just do what I want to do. That's sing jazz and add a little bit of blues," said the 35-year-old Ebert, who lives in Fullerton.
Ebert's jazz talent will be showcased this week when she plays Billie Holiday in the Orange County Black Actors Theatre production of "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill," on South Coast Repertory's Second Stage.
Her portrayal of the jazz legend marks not only the height of Ebert's career, but a turning point as well, the singer said.
"This is it," she said. "I can't really see myself singing any other types of music. . . . I'm a jazz singer, and this kind of confirms it."
The 90-minute show is set in a small bar in south Philadelphia where Holiday sang in the 1950s. It features 15 of Holiday's autobiographical recordings, including "God Bless the Child" and "Tain't Nobody's Bizness If I Do."
Although Ebert is looking forward to the spotlight, she said she's hoping the role also will generate a new appreciation for Holiday, whose stormy life was the basis of the book (and a movie staring Diana Ross), "Lady Sings the Blues."
Ebert's career began at age 4, when the South-Central Los Angeles native began singing on the gospel circuit with her father's band. They toured California and Arizona until she was 9, when the band broke up.
Despite her gospel roots, Ebert says she was drawn early on to the style of jazz artists such as Nancy Wilson and Carmen McRae, and began exploring that passion while singing in local clubs in 1982.
She has also worked with the Black Actors Theatre, singing in two of their early shows, and acting as musical director for the 1989 production, "Ain't Misbehavin'."
Ebert says "Lady Day" may enlighten audiences about what motivated Holiday, who died in 1959 (at age 44) of heart failure and cirrhosis.
"You got to know Lady through her songs," Ebert said. "Those songs were her stories. You're going to hear about why she loved Sonny (Monroe, her first husband). Why she took those drugs."
Likewise, she said the role is a testament to her own life and work. "It means I've accomplished some things. I've arrived at a point. I haven't arrived at the point, but I've done some things. I've worked my craft."
What: "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar & Grill."
When: Saturday, July 6, through July 21. Show times are: Tuesday through Friday at 8:30 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 and 8 p.m.
Where: South Coast Repertory's Second Stage, 455 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa.
Whereabouts: San Diego (405) Freeway to Bristol Avenue exit north. Bristol to Town Center Drive.
Wherewithal: Tickets are $25 to $50.
Where to Call: (714) 957-4033.