Lorraine Feather: The Girl With the Lazy Eye

Carl L. Hager By

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To the Manner Born

Once the Feathers had settled in Los Angeles, they enrolled young Lorraine in school, and a little later, in a jazz dance class, which led to a 15-year infatuation with terpsichore.

"I started taking jazz dance when I was 12. It was my mother's idea. I had no friends and I think she assumed it would be some kind of social event. It wasn't, but it completely changed me, because I was a very dorky child who couldn't stand up on skates or anything. Even though I didn't have great talent as a dancer, it helped me to kind of get outside of my own head, become active, much more fit, more confident. I learned what it was to work really hard, and mostly for art alone. Most of the dancers who were deeply serious, and did have serious talent, took class all day long, all week long, when they weren't auditioning. It's a more punishing career than acting, even, because even if you become successful the performing years are short for most. When I studied jazz dancing, often with just a conga player playing, I started to feel the groove! My first teacher was the late Carlton Johnson, who was also a Motown fanatic. Sometimes I'd play the 45 of 'Nowhere to Run,' by Martha and the Vandellas, for an hour straight in my room. My parents were tolerant.

"In ninth grade, I went to a Catholic girls' school for a year—my best friend was going there—before switching to the freewheeling world of Hollywood High. During the year at Corvallis I stepped in for an ill classmate who had been cast in the lead role for the school's production of Euripides' Electra. I only got the call because I'm good at memorizing, but was officially bitten by the acting bug by show time. I started thinking about going back to New York on my own to act, and after a couple of years at LA City College in the theatre department, got a partial scholarship to the Circle in the Square school and returned to Manhattan at 18.

"As far as music goes, I can't honestly pinpoint when I drifted back into jazz. I started to appreciate [Miles Davis'] Sketches of Spain (Columbia, 1960) and [Dizzy Gillespie's] Gillespiana (Verve, 1961) when they had been out for a while and I was in my mid-teens, and continued to play them and certain other key albums when I moved back to New York on my own and everyone my age was into Big Brother and the Holding Company. I also got my first waitressing job at the Village Gate then, so I heard artists like Nina Simone downstairs, and pianists like Mose Allison, Bill Evans, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Horace Silver upstairs where I worked. The music was familiar and friendly to me because I'd grown up with it... not that you'd call Nina Simone 'friendly,' but she was riveting onstage. My musical tastes were growing more eclectic. I didn't get The Beatles at first, but started to come on board with Revolver (Capitol, 1967), then one night after my shift at the Gate I heard the Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Capitol, 1968) album, which blew my mind along with millions of other minds that year."

But Feather had returned to New York to pursue stage acting, not dance.

"When I studied acting at the H.B. Studio in New York, I found that I did have something of a gift for it. I learned what it was like to be 'in the zone,' when something else takes over. It's not dissimilar to performing a song. I also read many plays, and getting to know some of the great playwrights that way was exciting, the beauty of their words.

"I used to practice singing a song or two for theatre chorus auditions in New York. My then-boyfriend, who was a musician, told me that he thought I had a certain je ne sais quoi and ought to think about being a singer. I auditioned for a group called Farmer Brown, a jazz/rock band that had a gig at the Village Gate. Later I did club gigs in the Bronx, the Jersey Shore, Pennsylvania. It took me quite a while to get good, to feel comfortable singing on stage—and later still, to get comfortable in the studio. In those days, the main thing I had to offer was my ability to learn countless Top 40 songs in record time."

One of her early singing/acting jobs was fortuitous and kept her rent paid for some time.

." . . I was in [Jesus Christ] Superstar on the road, then a year on Broadway till it closed—running around in the two-piece loincloth, waving the palm frond, making like a leper... For one scene, there were headdresses so heavy that you had to hold your head super-straight for fear your neck would snap if you tilted it too far. We got hazard pay because the stage opened and closed. There were three women who came down in a giant butterfly to sing 'Jesus Christ, Superstar' at the end of the show, and if any of the three were out sick, I got to be one of them. Those were wild days and it was terrific to be employed, plus New York State was giving out a lot of unemployment benefit extensions in those days, so the show supported me for years."

Looking for ways to make grocery money during these lean times, she began landing singing gigs here and there, like with pop singer Petula Clark.

"The Petula gig was only for a couple of weeks but. . . it was glamorous and fun. The other two singers and I were given cool outfits, there was a great orchestra, I was excited to be in Vegas and making money. Petula was sweet. The other singers were Margaret Dorn, a very talented singer who still lives in New York, and my later-to-be-best-girlfriend Linda Lawley, who is no longer with us. I wrote the lyrics for "Two Desperate Women" [on the Ages CD] about her, again with some exaggerations and fiction thrown in. The only scary thing about the Petula gig was that there was some misconception about my sight-reading, which borders on the nonexistent. I got by, lagging a microsecond behind the other two.

"I also toured with Grand Funk Railroad. Shortly after I met Tony [drummer Tony Morales, Feather's husband since 1983] he came across a picture of me in a rock magazine called Circus, dancing behind GFR in a leotard, net pantyhose and a multicolored Afro wig. But I had gone to New York to act and I was only hired as a singer/dancer, when I worked at all."

These hungry years in New York are the subject of one of the hardest swinging tunes on Ages, "Old at 18/Dog Bowl," written with Eddie Arkin and inspired by her years as a struggling actress. Opening with a groove that her husband Tony began playing one day on a metal dog bowl, the cold predawn atmosphere in an actress' small Manhattan walk-up is captured in all its chilly pathos and wistful glory.

The Lyricist

"I had written a few lyrics in my late 20s, but the first serious writing I did was when I got hired for the vocal trio Full Swing. It was me, Steve March [Mel Torme's son] and Charlotte Crossley [Motormouth Mabel in the recent Broadway production of Hairspray]. Richard Perry was the producer and it was his concept.

From Left: Steve March, Lorraine Feather, Charlotte ("Charlo") Crossley

The first recording the group did was called Swing (1982) for Perry's record label, Planet Records, then later reissued as The Good Times Are Back. "Richard wanted us to record a song that was an instrumental written by composer/tenor saxophonist Tommy Newsom. He was thinking of calling in a lyricist to work on it and I nominated myself. I wrote the lyrics to Tommy's swing tune... the rhythms were a bit complicated... and sang them in one of our meetings. Richard didn't like them at all. He told me what the song should be about, the vibe it should create. I rewrote the lyrics and he accepted them. My version was called 'The Trocadero Ballroom.' I wound up doing lyrics for several songs for the album, including Horace Henderson's 'Big John's Special,' which I called 'Big Bucks'—it was in the movie Swing Shift with Goldie Hawn, briefly—and Charlie Barnet}}'s 'The Right Idea.'

"What was significant about that experience for me was that writing words to fast, tricky music with a lot of syncopations came to me more easily than anything else I had ever tried to do. I find fault with some of the writing I did back then—for one thing, I believe in the perfect rhyme now for that kind of song—but it came so naturally, and I didn't discover it till I was in my early 30s. It was also my first experience flinging myself into creating words for a song and having to get it approved, getting shot down and doing it all over again. I've done a lot of lyrics for animation, much of it with Mark Watters, and a lot of rewriting. Sometimes you do take it personally, but experience teaches you there's always another idea."

Full Swing meant performing work, including tours of Japan and Brazil, a TV special with Barry Manilow, and appearances at the Monterey and Playboy Jazz Festivals, along with two more albums: In Full Swing (Cypress,1987) and End of the Sky (Cypress,1989)—unfortunately, now out of print.

From Left: Charlo Crossley, Lorraine Feather, Bette Midler, Augie Johnson

Though not Full Swing's creator, as the only original member from beginning to end, Feather was the de facto curator for a band that a employed an impressive array of musical talent, including Grant Geissman, Russ Freeman, David Benoit, producers Morgan Ames and Tony Morales and recordist Geoff Gillette, her engineer to this day. Many talented male singers were employed after March exited the band to pursue a solo career— Bruce Scott, Arnold McCuller, Augie Johnson, Tim Stone. And after Crossley had left, Angel Rogers took her place.

"So that group went on in different forms for eight years and did two more albums. I wrote lyrics for a lot of material the group sang and recorded, including two Ellington pieces. My parents loved bebop... I appreciated it but it was and is kind of over my head. Lyrically speaking, I gravitated more toward pre-bop when it came to tackling existing material. I liked music you could dance to."

The Collaborationist

First and foremost Lorraine Feather is a lyricist, a writer. She is also a gifted singer who has continued to develop her considerable natural skills over the years.

But as a lyricist and singer who relies on musical composers, she has had to master a third and very difficult skill, which, because it is so all-encompassing, is quite invisible: she is one of the music world's most accomplished practitioners of the delicate act of collaboration. Her embrace of this fine art is key to understanding the artist. Even the most educated of listeners is only vaguely cognizant that it is Ira Gershwin's words they are hearing in their head when they hum "I've Got Rhythm," or Oscar Hammerstein's when they hum "The Sound of Music." But because collaborations are team efforts, it is the team ("Rodgers-and-Hammerstein" is spoken these days as a single word) that gets the spotlight. Unless, as was the case with the great Johnny Mercer, and is the case with Lorraine Feather, the lyricist is also the singer.

The Body Remembers (Bean Bag, 1997) is a solo album that was a collaboration with several composers, principally Feather's husband, drummer/producer Tony Morales. "[It] was essentially conceived in Tony's studio in our first, wee home in La Crescenta [California] on our old 4-track machine. It's dated now because of all the electronics, but it was a blast to do. 'Five' was based on a weird sliding thing Tony's old BassMan bass machine started doing when the batteries were wearing out. He made it into a groove. I don't overdub my own voice anymore because it's not often appropriate on an acoustic jazz recording, but I did it a lot on that CD and I love doing it. Janis Siegel later sang 'Indigo Sky,' which Eddie Arkin and I wrote for TBR, with Bruce Lofgren. Joe Curiale and Yutaka Yokokura wrote the beautiful music for 'Bleecker Street,' dedicated to my friend Cliff, who had died of AIDS. Terry Sampson, Tony and I wrote 'Where Are My Keys,' which I recorded later for Language, and is one of the most played tunes of mine on radio.

"I also worked with Don Grusin for the first time on that CD. Besides being a fantastic player and writer, he gave me a lot of good musician's advice that helped me as a singer. 'Touchy' was written with John Capek, who had hits with Rod Stewart, Toto and Heart ... we later wrote a song called 'Why Did She Come In with You?' that Patti Austin recorded... it was a strange tune with a kind of yuppie rap section that included the word 'quesadillas.'

Feather Composer/Collaborators, From Left: Dick Hyman Eddie Arkin, Russell Ferrante

"In 1999, five years after my dad passed away, I was going through some CDs with my mom and borrowed Fats Waller's Turn on the Heat (Bluebird/RCA, 1991). I hadn't heard much of his music growing up. I became smitten with it. I wrote lyrics to a Fats piece for fun, recorded it with the original piano and live musicians. I sent it to Dick Hyman because I thought he might get a kick out of it. He called me and suggested I do a whole Fats album. 'It's like Lambert, Hendricks and Ross but with much older music!' he said. 'I'll help you decide on the material and I'll play on it.' A few days after he called, my mother had a stroke. She died within a couple of weeks. Dick told me that he thought it would be good for me to keep working through that sad time, and it was. I could never have done the album without him, musically or otherwise.

During the writing period, Mike Lang worked with me in L.A. As well as being a fine, fine player, he knows a lot about jazz history and helped me expand my knowledge of the Fats repertoire— did hip arrangements of 'Blue Black Bottom' ("Too Good Lookin"), 'Viper's Drag' ("Timeless Rag") and 'Numb Fumblin' ("In Living Black and White").

"I remember, vividly, the first time Dick Hyman played Fats Waller's 'The Minor Drag' for me, in David Abell's piano store. I thought it was the most entertaining piece of music I'd ever heard." So inspired was she, that it became "You're Outa Here," the opening track on New York City Drag (Rhombus, 2001), her CD of Waller pieces for which she daringly wrote the classic tunes' first-ever lyrics. As it turned out, this collaborative album with Hyman and Mike Lang (and Waller) was a watershed moment in her career.



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