After several years on the road playing stadiums she got restless and decided to try show tunes, and auditioned for a Broadway play in 1981, “Pirates of Penzance” with Kevin Kline. She got the role and was nominated for a Tony award, because of course she was.
Then in the mid-80s she got restless and pivoted again — pivot #4 by my count — and recorded some high quality pop/jazz standards with Nelson Riddle and his Orchestra.
Here’s a good example, “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered” from her first such album. Not quite Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughn — very few singers are, of course — but still really good.
“Am I Blue”, the type of song Frank Sinatra made famous, and she’s fantastic on it.
Listening to these two tunes makes it obvious that she had the voice to have made a whole career in that vein, which is saying something, because such songs rely heavily on pure vocal chops.
Very few singers have ever made this transition successfully, after starting in a pop/rock style and being hugely successful there and filling stadiums, rather than starting with gospel/jazz/show tunes — I cannot think of a single one. Can you?
But she was not done pivoting yet — she released country/bluegrass/Americana albums as a trio with Dolly Parton and Emmylou Harris, and traditional Mexican music which was part of her family heritage, and duets with Aaron Neville and Cajun musician and singer Ann Savoy.
She says that everything she sang professionally was something she heard often, and sang with her family, before she was 10 years old.
This tells us that she was authentic to the core, because her entire career was a tribute to her love of singing instilled by her entire family as a young child. Could there be a better better way to create warm lasting memories from childhood than to sing traditional cultural music in harmony with your parents and siblings, and extended family? I cannot imagine one.
Sadly she was diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy after discovering that her voice was deteriorating, sometime in the 2000s. She’s still with us, and can talk, but stopped performing in 2009. She turns 76 this year on July 15.
A very good 2019 documentary “The Sound of My Voice” about her career — and the substantial career risks she took by going solo, then to arena rock, then to Broadway, then to torch songs, then to the trio with Dolly and Emmylou, then to traditional Mexican music — is very much worth watching, and she is immensely likeable in it.
Over these last few weeks as I have learned so much about her, my respect for her has grown quite a lot, as not just an unbelievably great singer but as an artist who refuses to be confined to one style of music and is driven to stretch and take chances, over and over and over again — and yet is somehow nearly perfect at all of it. I really cannot think of anyone else quite like her, male or female.
Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.