September 01, 2009

Swinging With Lea DeLaria...

In a career spanning more than 25 years, Lea DeLaria has been entertaining the masses with her irreverent comedy and numerous film, stage, and television appearances. She has also been wowing audiences as a self described “chick singer with balls”, tearing her way through the jazz music scene and putting her own distinctive twist on the genre.

In the midst of a world tour promoting her latest CD (her third), Lea took some time out of her schedule to chat with me about her music and whether her focus on her musical endeavors means we’ve seen the last of the funny lady’s signature over-the-top humor.

Robby Morris: People see you with lots of different hats. Some people think of you as an actress. Some people think of as a jazz singer. I think of you as a lesbian icon. And obviously, there’s your stand-up comedy. How do you describe yourself?

Leah DeLaria: I always say I’m exactly like Sammy Davis Jr. except that I’m white and have both of my eyes (laughs).

Basically, all I mean by that is that I’m an old school entertainer. I do everything. And I do it well. In the old days, that’s what you had to do. Everything you just said about me you could have said about Judy Garland. It’s not that I’m comparing myself to Judy Garland, but I’m comparing myself to the thought that made a Judy Garland.

In my mind, you should be good at everything and you should do it all. So yeah, I am a stand-up. I’m sorry if I’m sounding immodest, but I’m a really good stand-up. There’s a reason why I was the first gay comic to be on television. There were a lot of gay comics in 1993, I assure you. There’s a reason why I was the one, and of all of them no one thought it would be me because I also happen to be an extremely dirty, foul mouthed comic (laughs). And you don’t get to be the leads in Broadway musicals by not being able to sing. You might do it once, but you certainly won’t do it three times like I have. You have to be a good singer.

I can belt a D sharp. There aren’t a lot of girls out there who can. And you don’t become the featured vocalist for the Newport Jazz Festival’s 50th Anniversary by just being a pretty girl with a pleasant voice. You must be a really good jazz singer. So yeah, I do all these things. And then I incorporate them on stage just like my idols did. Just like Judy did, just like Sammy Davis Jr. did, just like all the really old school entertainers, these people that I have emulated and worshiped since I was a kid. That’s why I wear so many hats.

RM: At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to sing?

LD: The singing I did first. Before I was even a stand-up, I’ve been singing my whole life. My father is a jazz musician. The first thing I actually ever did professionally was sing with my father at this club where I grew up.

RM: Have you always been inspired by jazz music?

LD: Yeah, that was without a doubt my first love. Jazz is what brought me to the diva singers. It was through jazz that I heard Billie Holiday, who was probably my first big diva singer. And Billie Holiday, believe it or not, took me to Judy Garland. And then from there it was just a progression where I’ve fallen in love with these great empathetic singers. Nina Simone, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Edith Piaf, even Marlene Dietrich; the people that pierce your heart when they sing. It was jazz that took me there.

RM: It’s interesting that you brought up Judy Garland because one of the songs I love on your last CD is your version of “Come Rain or Come Shine”, which I think is phenomenal.

LD: Well, thank you very much.

RM: Of all the songs you’ve put your own personal stamp on, do you have a favorite?

LD: It’s either “I Can Cook, Too” or “The Ballad of Sweeney Todd”. It’s really hard for me to decide which one I like better. I sing them both all the time. Those are the ones everybody wants to hear (laughs).

RM: With your most current CD, The Live Smoke Sessions, you’ve gone back into the Great American Songbook. What made you go in that direction and how hard was it to choose the music you chose?

LD: It was so hard to choose that music. Once you say you’re going to do the American Songbook, even if you tackle only the five big ones, Cole Porter, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers, Jerome Kern, there are thousands of songs to choose from! Its crazy (laughs)! And Harold Arlen? Forget about it. Harold Arlen practically wrote the entire American songbook!

Some of the songs were just songs that I love and have always loved. “Night and Day” has always been one of my favorite songs. “Come Rain or Come Shine” has always been up there on my list. Others were songs that came to me. I was asked to sing at the hundredth anniversary of Harold Arlen’s birth at Carnegie Hall.

This was this big concert that had God and everybody in it, and I was one of the everybodys (laughs). They asked me to do “Devil And the Deep Blue Sea”, so me and Jeannette Mason, who produced the record and did quite a few of the arrangements, sat down and hatched out that arrangement. It brought the house down at Carnegie Hall, that arrangement! So that was automatically on the record.

What made me want to do a standards album was that it just seemed like it was time. I had done two trick pony records that were unusual, unique albums that make you stand out as a singer, so it was time for me to do some standards.

RM: Who is more demanding, straight audiences or gay audiences? Do you even look at it that way?

LD: I don’t really look at it that much anymore. The reason is so easily divided with me these days. I find the majority of my jazz audience is straight. When I’m doing something else, the majority of my audience tends to be gay. Always gay men, very rarely is it a lesbian audience. I find that the lesbians tend to be more demanding (laughs). There’s a shock (more laughter)!

But you know, whoever’s sitting in front of me is going to get the best show I can possibly do. If it’s a tired audience, an audience that’s not responding, I will make them respond. I will wake them up. It’s just a thing that I have. I don’t know what it is. Maybe a drive? But there’s no way that I’m going to leave the stage and not have every single person in that audience say, “That was the best show I’ve ever seen!” That’s really important to me. I never just go out half assed and go “it doesn’t matter.” It always matters.

RM: How important is it to you to get the gay community involved in the kind of music you do?

LD: In my mind, jazz is the one true art form that has come out of America. I would just love to get Americans involved in it. It’s odd to me that we as a people have somehow let the one thing we have given to the world kind of fall by the wayside.

We all like to dance and we all like pop music. We all love American Idol. But somewhere along the line we don’t seem to have any time for jazz anymore. So it isn’t just gay people that I want to get involved in my music, I want to get everyone involved. But gay people to me have very discerning taste. We’re always at the forefront of what’s going to be in and hip and now. In that respect, I’d love to get the gay boys out to see what I’m doing music wise and get them involved, because they’ll spread it out to everyone else.

RM: I know with your appearances on tour you’re promoting your music, but is stand-up still…?

LD: Oh, do you mean will I be funny? Absolutely! Always, honey! I never walk on stage and am not funny. Don’t you worry about that!


Originally published in the June 2009 issue of The Empty Closet, New York State's Oldest Continuously-Published LGBT Newspaper, since 1973, through The Gay Alliance of Genesee Valley.