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Doing It Her Way : Early in her career, Pinky Winters was inspired to approach singing in a modern manner, putting her own spin on a tune's melody and rhythm.

September 02, 1994|ZAN STEWART | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Zan Stewart writes regularly about jazz for The Times.

TARZANA — For singer Pinky Winters, the first time she heard the great Sarah Vaughan was one of those indelible moments.

"I can remember it as clearly as if it were yesterday," she says. As a teen-ager, Winters had been "in Michigan City, Ind., at the home of Fred Sherwood, who played trombone in the band I was in, and he played a record of Sarah singing 'Lover Man.' It really blew me away. It was so wonderful and different. I could hardly think of anything else after that."

Inspired by Vaughan to approach singing in a decidedly modern manner, Winters embarked on an off-and-on four-decade career that has rewarded her with four albums and engagements throughout the United States and Europe. Saturday she performs with pianist Joanne Grauer at Monteleone's West in Tarzana.

Winters happily reports that she had the opportunity to tell Vaughan of her influence.

"I saw her at Alfonse's," Winters says, referring to the Toluca Lake nightspot that is now known as M.K.'s P.O.V. "She was sitting alone, and I sat down with her--we had talked once before--and after we talked about various things, I said, 'I'd really like to tell you what you meant to me when I first heard you sing. It meant everything.'

"I got tears in my eyes, and she said"--Winters' light, breezy voice remains warm but becomes sterner--" 'OK, that's enough.' I said, 'Well, I wanted you to know.' "

Winters says she was thrilled to just sit and talk performing nuts and bolts. "I asked her if she planned her sets with her piano player," Winters says, "and she said, 'Are you kidding? No, you pick your stuff, you do what you want to do.' She was giving me license to do things my way."

Winters, a singer who takes liberties with a tune's melody and rhythm, can be called a jazz singer. "I tend to fit into that category," she says, "though there are so many interpretations of what a jazz singer is."

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Winters usually works with pianist Lou Levy, with whom she shares her life. But she has often performed with Grauer, who is a regular at Monteleone's. "Joanne's great. I feel very relaxed with her," says Winters from her home in North Hollywood. "We do a lot of ballads, like Oscar Levant's 'Blame It on My Youth.' And we do bossa novas. She's well-rounded, and we do not lack for material."

Tom Monteleone, owner of the supper club that bears his name, heard Winters sing with pianist Arlette Budwig and wanted the vocalist to work his room. "When she appeared with Arlette, she had a nice, warm way with the audience and sang some great songs," he says. "I was honored to have her there, and I said, 'Gee, we've got to do this again.' "

An early starter, Winters, who was born in Michigan City, took up piano at age 4 1/2 and played her first recital at 5. Describing herself as an "OK classical pianist," she admits that she still has some medals from teen-age competitions "that I haven't thrown out."

Jazz and good pop music arrived in Winters' life when she was a teen-ager, and she played in bands in Indiana until 1953, when she moved to Denver. She settled in Los Angeles in 1955, worked regularly, made two albums--"Pinky" and "Lonely One"--before dropping out to become a mother--she has two daughters.

"That meant a lot to me," she says of her family. "Gosh, yes, are you kidding?"

Winters became more active in the late '70s, and by the mid-'80s was appearing steadily at such places as the now-defunct North Hollywood club Donte's. In 1992 she performed with the 52-piece Dutch Radio Orchestra in Hilversum, the Netherlands. "That was the heights of music, absolutely," she says.

Earlier this year, she recorded her first major-label album, a session that will be released on Verve Records in early 1995.

"It was frightening, and it was wonderful," Winters says. "Do you understand how grateful and happy I am? This is something I never dreamed would happen. I'm a lucky person."

WHERE AND WHEN

Who: Pinky Winters.

Location: Monteleone's West, 19337 Ventura Blvd., Tarzana.

Hours: 9 p.m. to 1:30 a.m. Saturday.

Price: No cover; without dinner, a two-drink minimum.

Call: (818) 996-0662.

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