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Singing Praises of the Past

Janet Klein prefers 'obscure, naughty and lovely' tunes, many pre-1938

July 04, 2002|SUSAN CARPENTER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Janet Klein probably should have been born at the beginning of the 20th century, when the "obscure, naughty and lovely" songs she sings were popular. It's the era in which she feels most comfortable, and whose spirit and style she so successfully re-creates with her music.

The L.A.-based singer not only lives in the present day, but is also recording and performing a vast repertoire of long-forgotten material--songs from the 1910s, '20s and '30s that few people even know exist.

Klein, who prefers venues where she can "make a time-warp," recently played to a packed house at the Silent Movie Theater in the Fairfax district with her nine-piece jazz band, the Parlor Boys. Dressed in a vintage floor-length, black-and-gold gown, she strummed the ukulele and smiled her way through sweet and sexually suggestive ditties in a vocal style that was both coy and come-hither. The Parlor Boys, only seven of whom could fit on stage, backed her up with a lighthearted liveliness and enthusiasm that can only come from a true love of the genre.

"People think this music is corny, but it's not.... A lot of it is really full of life and really bawdy and cool," says Klein, a bobbed brunet who dresses in period even when she's not on stage. "Some of it's more frank than stuff today."

Her hourlong set at the Silent Movie Theater included the songs "Hurry on Down to My House Honey, There Ain't Nobody Home but Me," which was banned from radio in the '30s, and "Yiddish Hula Boy," about a man who leaves his wife for "a girl with a dress of shredded wheat ... and doughnuts on her feet."

Most of Klein's material derives from obscure 78 rpm recordings and sheet music she and her bandmates collect. Some of the songs are from vaudeville acts that were recorded for film. All of it is incredibly rare.

"I can't believe how much material I come across that's just astoundingly great," says Klein, who gives her age as "around 40."

"The period between the turn of the century and 1938 is an amazingly fruitful time in American music. It's shocking that it's so buried."

Klein herself took a long time unearthing the treasures she now performs. Though attracted to early 20th century aesthetics since she was a child, it wasn't until the '80s, when she was studying for an art degree at UCLA, that she haunted the library and began learning about songwriters and musicians such as Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Josephine Baker.

After placing an ad in a publication that posts requests for information on various topics, she started receiving cassettes filled with everything from ragtime music to tunes by country musician Charlie Pool and blues singers Georgia White and Edith Wilson.

It was several years before she worked up the nerve to sing them in public. In the interim, Klein, who is also a poet, read her own work at poetry readings. Eventually, she wanted to add a musical component and learned the ukulele.

"I like to think small," says Klein. "Ukulele was just kind of a simple thing. I thought it would be a nice, little, charming accompaniment and be about the right size for a little poem."

That accompaniment soon grew to include a pianist, bass player and percussionist, all of whom played with her between poems at various poetry readings. Then Klein decided to sing the songs she'd been collecting and the group began performing as a musical act in 1996.

Today, six additional musicians have joined the band, including two members of famed underground cartoonist R. Crumb's Cheap Suit Serenaders, Tom Marion and Robert Armstrong. Also on board is veteran musician-author-historian Ian Whitcomb, who preceded Klein as a champion of the period's music.

Klein's day job is with a commercial printer in Santa Monica, which is where she prints the fliers, postcards and CD jackets for her band--all of them based on designs from the first third of the 1900s.

Klein has released two CDs on her own Coeur de Jeanette Productions label--"Come Into My Parlor" (1998), a solo record on which Klein sings and plays ukulele, and "Paradise Wobble" (2000), where Klein performs with her full band. Her next record, "Put a Flavor to Love," will be released at the end of August.

Klein's music goes beyond entertainment--it's also a history lesson, a means of keeping old music alive for a new audience, which encompasses everyone from goth girls and rock fans to people who grew up with the music.

"This past show, so many people were coming up to me requesting specific tunes," says Klein. "It gives me such a kick because they know them through me. Other than that, they've been dead and buried. Suddenly, people act like it's the latest tune. It's great."

*

Janet Klein performs Friday and Saturday at the Silent Movie Theater, 611 N. Fairfax Ave., L.A. 8 p.m. $12. (323) 655-2520.

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