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Joanie Sommers Swings From Pop Music to Jazz

May 22, 1992|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Joanie get angry? Not a chance. Ask singer Joanie Sommers about k.d. lang'srecent, satiric cover of Sommers' 1962 hit "Johnny Get Angry," and she'll tell you it's wonderful.

"I'd love to meet her someday," the youthfully voiced Sommers said recently in a phone interview from her Los Angeles home. "She's definitely doing it differently."

Before she scored a Top 10 pop hit in 1962 with "Johnny Get Angry," Sommers was singing jazz. Her first album for Warner Bros. in 1960, "Positively the Most," included such standards as "What's New?" and " 'Round Midnight."

Much the same fare will be on tap when Sommers joins bassist Jim DeJulio's trio tonight and Saturday at Maxwell's in Huntington Beach. The two aren't strangers. They first met at the height of Sommers' popularity in the early '60s when the singer spent a week as guest co-host on "The Mike Douglas Show" and DeJulio was bassist in the house orchestra.

Sommers, 51, said she'll see which side of her career--jazz singer or pop star--goes over best with the Maxwell's audience.

"I'm not going to depend on any one thing," she said. "I'm not afraid to go into a club and just do things off the cuff. A lot of people want to make sure they have it all down. We're not going to rehearse a show. I'll just feel the room out the first time, and if I like it I'll be back."

Sommers, who was born in Buffalo, N.Y., started singing in church choirs and found music was a way to deal with a difficult childhood.

"My whole life was lived through songs," she said. "That's the way I was able to get my emotions out. When I was happy, I sang. When I was sad, I sang. When I was afraid, I sang. It was something I relished, something no one could take away from me."

The vocalist, whose first solo public appearance came at age 10 when she won a local television station's amateur contest singing Hank Williams' "Your Cheatin' Heart," said she had no particular jazz background when she started out.

"I really knew nothing about jazz, other than I sang it. I really didn't know what it meant. I just loved doing it, and it came very easily to me."

After she and her mother moved to Los Angeles, Sommers began singing for Friday night dances while attending Venice High School, and later with the jazz band at Santa Monica City College. Her big break came when a friend took her to a Santa Monica club, and she sang a few tunes with composer-arranger Tommy Oliver's band.

"He let me sing, then he wanted me to sing some more," she said. "We did a demonstration record and took it to Warner Bros. Records, and they signed me."

Sommers' jumped into the limelight when "Johnny Get Angry" climbed to the No. 7 spot on the Billboard chart in 1962. She also sang the popular Pepsi jingle, "For Those Who Think Young" and appeared frequently on television variety shows.

But she set aside her career to raise three children. She was set to jump back into singing when her husband, theatrical agent Jerry Steiner, died in 1972. Again, her career was put on hold.

In 1984, when Frank Sinatra's former musical director, Joe Parnello, asked her to do a date at Monteleone's in the San Fernando Valley, Sommers was hesitant.

"I was scared to death at that point (but) I really respected Joe, so I decided to give it a shot," she said. "Once I got up there, I was in heaven again."

She worked with Parnello for a few years before he died, putting her career in limbo again.

"There's been this series of horrific things," she said. "Just when you get to the point you've found somebody you can work with, suddenly they're not there any more."

But Sommers has found occasional work singing in clubs. She's also done "oldies shows."

"The people who come to those shows are so happy to see you," she said. "They love you before you even get on."

Her latest recording, a collection of Jerome Kern songs, is due out later this year on the Bay Cities label.

Even though the woman who glorified a generation of youth singing "For Those Who Think Young" is now the grandmother of a year-old boy, her enthusiasm hasn't waned, nor has the lively quality of her voice faded.

And, if you ask, she'll probably try "Johnny Get Angry" at Maxwell's, despite the laid-back nature of the appearance.

"Even though its not 'Over the Rainbow,' it's nostalgia for some people, and they get a kick out of it. And I get a kick when they do."

\o7 Joanie Sommers sings with Jim DeJulio trio tonight, Saturday at 8, 9:30 and 11 p.m. at Maxwell's, 317 Pacific Coast Highway, Huntington Beach. $4 cover plus $7 food and drink minimum. (714) 536-2555. \f7

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