Riff Raff

The Way You Wear Your Past

Sexy, sordid myths of starlets past have a habit of landing on bookstore shelves regularly, with the sort of resounding thud that only the detailed ransacking of history can provide. The last six months have seen the release of two tomes pondering Marilyn Monroe -- Adam Victor's The Marilyn Encyclopedia and Joyce Carol Oates' novel Blonde -- while Gerald Clarke's new Get Happy: The Life of Judy Garland follows the actress and singer's life from start to wilted finish. Which says a lot about the peculiar obsession our culture has with fallen idols, particularly the female ones; denouements like Billie Holiday shooting smack and Maria Callas retreating to a miserable cloister are as much a source of fascination as the music those women made, while the ghosts of flaws and failures follow Sinatra and Crosby only in a sideways manner. The great men of stage and screen are elevated into a respected pantheon. The great women are embalmed by neurotic cults.

So maybe it's a good thing that a jazz singer like Faith Winthrop got out of the star machine a long time ago. In the 1950s, starting her career in Boston before moving to Sausalito, Winthrop made a name working nights as the house singer at North Beach's hungry i. It was a different time, when cabaret singing was revered and featured all over the neighborhood -- Johnny Mathis at Ann's 440, Maya Angelou singing and dancing at the Purple Onion, Carmen McRae at El Matador. In other words, it's a time lost to history. "It was really a singer's heaven," says Winthrop, who now lives in San Francisco. "When I think back to all the experience I had in Boston, all the Mafia places I sang in, you can't woodshed or pay your dues in this business the way you could at that point." She interpreted Johnny Mercer, Duke Ellington, the Gershwins, and other standard-bearers across the country, performing in New York and Chicago clubs and getting all the right quotes from the likes of Ralph J. Gleason and Nat Hentoff.

All of this brought Winthrop a measure of fame, but by the early '60s, when that could've translated into a long recording career, she bailed out. "Being a single mother helped," she explains with a laugh. "It used to bother me, earlier in my life, but I've come to believe the way things happen are the way they're supposed to be."

Faith Winthrop.
Faith Winthrop.

Today, few people even harbor cabaret-star ambitions, though the greats of the past sometimes make stabs at the oeuvre. Joni Mitchell, who occasionally convinces herself that she's a jazz singer, released a hammy take on standards earlier this year, Both Sides Now. Confronted with a subtle lyric like "Comes Love," she misses badly -- when she reaches the word "love," which is supposed to carry hints of both joy and dread, she instead opts for drama, stomping on the word like it's a bug she just spotted. But Winthrop's contralto beautifully navigates that song, and many others, from the jokey coquettishness of Irving Berlin's "He Ain't Got Rhythm" to the smoky self-deception of Billy Barnes' "Something Cool." While Winthrop isn't willing to go so far as to say they don't write 'em like they used to, she does know her work is based in a different time. "It's not dot-com-ness, just that the only thing we can be really sure of is change," she says. "Who would've ever dreamed 25 years ago that the Smashing Pumpkins would be the equivalent of something that I would've been listening to?"

Beginning in the late '80s, Winthrop quietly returned to performing, for better or for worse firmly ensconced in the "and also performing ..." ghetto at cabaret performances. But her main career is mainly as a vocal coach with a long history of clients, including the striking local diva Paula West, the late Divine ("A wonderful person, but he did not have a whole lot of confidence in terms of singing"), and middle-of-the-roaders like Ben Vereen and Al Jarreau. That gig stemmed from work at Mills College, where Winthrop taught jazz singing, and also a brief stint in the '70s coaching the Soulful Glide Church Ensemble choir. The whole adds up to enough experiences to form the basis of a show, which is the impetus behind Winthrop's upcoming "All About Faith," running at the Plush Room nightly until May 7 (call 885-2800). The performances will include photos and other remnants from her career, as well as songs, a few of which she's started writing herself. She's already planning a second series of performances with more material. "There's so much more that I could do," she says. "I'm really dealing with the fact that I made a decision to be a singer, but in truth this career really chose me."

Send Bay Area music news, band stories, or petty gripes to Mark.Athitakis@sfweekly.com, or mail them to Riff Raff, c/o SF Weekly.

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