Ask Maxine Weldon what her favorite music is and she'll surprise you by answering "Country."
A woman known as a jazz and blues singer of quality and distinction loves country music?
"I've been listening to it forever," she said, laughing. "My father loved it. When I was growing up in Holdenville, Okla., and then later in Bakersfield, it was what we heard on the radio. We used to listen to 'The Grand Ole Opry' and people like Red Foley, Roy Acuff and Hank Williams. I thought it was wonderful."
She still does. Weldon, who appears tonight at the Cafe Lido in Newport Beach, always includes some country tunes--along with jazz, blues and standards numbers--in her repertoire. One of her current choices is Willie Nelson's "Always on My Mind." She sings it at the same delicious slow tempo as the composer's version, which reached No. 5 on Billboard pop chart in 1982. She also likes Kris Kristofferson's "For the Good Times."
Such songs that tell tales of passion and romance really speak to Weldon. "They're the best, those heart-tuggers," she said in a phone conversation from her home in Beverly Hills. "I love those tear-jerkers. There's a beauty in that kind of music that's part of me and I can't get rid of--don't even want to."
While Weldon said she's long been a fan of such jazz singers as Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole, it's country singer George Jones who ranks as her favorite. "There's nothing like putting on a George Jones record, getting a bottle of wine and feeling sorry for yourself," she said, laughing uproariously.
Though country has always figured into her own shows, Weldon, who possesses a luxurious and powerful voice, doesn't sound like Dolly Parton or Wynonna Judd when she sings. In fact, her country selections come off with a strong blues flavor.
"There's a very thin line between country and blues," she said. "I know that a lot of country singers and musicians were influenced by black musicians, so I feel that country is just an extension of blues and black music."
The sister of singer-actress Ann Weldon, Maxine began her professional career in 1961 in Hawaii. She worked singing blues and standards in nightclubs in Honolulu, where she decided to move after visiting a friend on vacation. Two years later, she moved to Japan, where she lived and worked for five years, singing in clubs that required her to do half her tunes in Japanese.
Weldon returned to the States in 1969, settling in Los Angeles in the early '70s. She honed her act during a five-year, six-nights-a-week engagement at the now-defunct Etc. club in Beverly Hills, where she said she really got a handle on her country material.
When she left that club, her first booking was at the Parisian Room, a Los Angeles nightspot, also now-defunct, that was noted for its top-flight jazz and blues entertainment. Weldon arrived there with a full-fledged country band, including a backup singer and a steel-guitar player, and the Parisian's musical director, saxophonist Red Holloway, was unhappy, to say the least.
"He almost had a stroke," said Weldon. "He said, 'Maxine, you've got to change your show.' But we were sounding good and I did it anyway, and I proved there that I could really sing country. The people liked it."
Well, some did, some didn't. One detractor was Times jazz critic Leonard Feather, who reviewed Weldon at the Playboy Club in Century City shortly after the Parisian engagement. "He said my voice was lovely and that I looked good. But when it came to my country material, he said it had the depth of the Los Angeles river." At this last remark, Weldon again broke into robust laughter.
Though Weldon said she might like to be the female Charley Pride--country music's only black superstar--her life is just fine as it is. "My father gave me good advice," she said. "He told me . . . to attain something in life. Find a career and make something of yourself. I have. I like what I do and I'm happy with myself."
Maxine Weldon performs tonight and May 29 at 9 p.m. at Cafe Lido, 501 30th St., Newport Beach. $5. (714) 675-2968.