Carole J Bufford – Roar! Music of the Roaring Twenties and Beyond continues at Live At Zedel, London until 8 October.
Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
London should hang its head in shame for allowing the magnificent Carole Bufford to perform to a half-empty room on the opening night of her third visit to what used to be called the Crazy Coqs and is now rebranded as Live At Zedel.
Great is a much overused word in this business, but this elfin-faced charmer with the powerhouse jazz-inflected voice that belies her petiteness is GREAT with a capital G.
She has been compared with Streisand, Minnelli and Garland, but she doesn’t need any comparisons. She is Carole Judith Bufford with a huskier, sharper-edged bluesiness all of her own, a fascinating repertoire of familiar with unfamiliar, soulful ballads interweaved with bar-room naughtiness and a keenly polished wit that tells tales, spoken and sung, entrancingly.
It doesn’t hurt that this vivacious little lady from a one-horse town in Georgia looks a million dollars to start with and when she comes on in flapper mode with sparkly black frilled dress, silver headband and matching earrings, the scene immediately evokes the era she is going to sing about.
And she clearly has a passion for every one of the 17 songs which comprises her Jazz Age set, a new show debuting in Piccadilly with just the excellent piano of Jamie Safir (they met for the first time only the day before!) for support, before launching with full orchestra at Feinstein’s/54 Below in New York later in the month.
She tells good stories too: how, for example, ‘Ten Cents a Dance’ came to become the torch song that made Ruth Etting’s name in the 1930 Rodgers and Hart musical Simple Simon.
When Lee Morse, the far-from-sober singer due to perform it, fell into the orchestra pit in rehearsals and got the sack, mobster Moe The Gimp told producer Florenz Ziegfeld it might be in his best interests if Moe’s girl Ruth got the part…
How ‘The Man I Love’’, which the Gershwins had written years earlier but had been axed from three shows, was turned into the golden standard of the decade by that iconic singer of the 1920s, Helen Morgan.
How ‘All of Me’, first recorded by ragtime singer Belle Baker, became a hit after her husband died and record buyers could hear the pain in her voice when it played on the radio. We felt the pain in Bufford’s voice too in this slower-than-usual treatment.
And how the Bessie Smith double album Bufford was given for her birthday by her father – “quite an odd gift for a 13-year-old when you think of some of the naughtier material!” – had inspired a passion for the songs that remarkable woman sang and the way she sang them.
Smith’s ‘Gimme a Pigfoot (And a Bottle of Beer)’ received the full Bufford treatment, while another in similar vein, ‘You’ve Got the Right Key (But the Wrong Keyhole)’ is pure filth but very funny with it. How did they get away with such innuendo almost a hundred years ago?
“One day I’m going to do a whole evening of inappropriate songs,” she said cheekily. And we want to be there to hear them!
From ‘Boulevard of Broken Dreams’ to ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’ and a storming ‘St James Infirmary’ finale, this was a triumph of a show, the only fault being that, at bang on an hour, it is too short, yet still a steal at £15. Bargains don’t come more attractively packaged…