Carole J Bufford performs her show Body and Soul at the Crazy Coqs, London until Saturday 11 January.
Now we know why the New York cabaret world is raving about the new kid on the block. Carole J Bufford is very, very special. A standing ovation for her very first gig outside the USA at the Crazy Coqs signalled the London debut of a rare talent.
If you’re very lucky, in a lifetime you stumble across maybe half a dozen performers who hit you right between the eyes, or send a shiver down your spine almost as soon as they open their mouths.
For me, it happened first with Joan Baez in the early 1960s, then magical Barbra Streisand when I bought her first album and felt the warming glow of ‘A Taste of Honey’ and ‘A Sleepin’ Bee’. And 20 years ago, at the much-missed venue Pizza On the Park, Ann Hampton Callaway left me and everyone else open-mouthed at the beauty of her voice as well as the brilliance of her songwriting.
For others, it will have been Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli, two icons who greatly influenced the young Bufford as she was growing up in Lincolnton, Georgia. But she has a huskier, sharper-edged bluesiness about her voice which is entirely her own, although if you shut your eyes as she is finishing off with ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’ (in a perfect French accent), you might think it was Piaf herself.
A tiny, elfin-faced, latter-day flapper with a look of that lovely 1970s French singer, Mireille Mathieu, about her, she takes 17 songs, many of which we thought we knew, and puts a new meaning into every one.
Accompanied by the superb Nathan Martin on piano, Bufford covers an entire century, from the 1919 ‘Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home’ to the 2012 ‘Fade Into You’ (an absolute cracker of a ballad), and gives us a fascinating panorama of songs and singing styles, belting some out, caressing others, raunchy now and again, and showing a likeable sense of humour with the wittier ones.
Witty becomes almost bawdy as she uses the entire floor to work the audience with the hilarious ‘The Good-Time Girl’, from the 1974 musical Over Here! which starred a young John Travolta and, would you believe, two of the Andrews Sisters. Later called ‘The V.D. Polka’, the song includes the unforgettable couplet: ‘Though she may look like Venus… she might not be the cleanest’. And to think that ten years earlier the same songwriters, Richard and Robert Sherman, had penned the squeaky-clean Mary Poppins!
‘Songs of lust, longing, anger, sorrow, obsession, even bitter hatred’ it said on the tin and that’s what we got. Introducing the 1953 Arthur Hamilton classic ‘Cry Me a River’, made famous by Julie London and Streisand, “there’s nothing more satisfying than having a lover who dumped you come crawling back… and nothing says it better than this one,” said Bufford before extracting every last gram of drama from the lyrics.
The fusion of standards such as ‘Body and Soul’ (quite wonderfully performed, not just voice and inflection but with perfect use of expressive arms), Cole Porter’s ‘What is This Thing Called Love?’ and that Show Boat showstopper ‘Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man’ with lesser-known material such as an early Randy Newman ‘Suzanne’, the wistful ‘A Cottage For Sale’ and ‘Fade Into You’, the last two written 83 years apart but both ageless in her hands, makes for a truly riveting hour in the company of a lady surely destined for greatness.
Those who were there to witness her UK debut will forever be able to dine out on being the first to catch a rising star so gifted that the New York Times called her “an earthier, more acerbic, 21st century Streisand”. For me, rather more Liza than Barbra, but it matters not, because one day Carole Judith Bufford will be up there with both. You read it here first.