Late bloomer, Jim Speake, sings a pleasant program celebrating his new CD release



By Joel Benjamin


By his own admission, Jim Speake was a late bloomer—a very late bloomer—starting voice lessons in his forties and turning professional at sixty. Now seventy, he is celebrating a reasonably successful cabaret career with Sweet Life the Show, based on his most recent CD release.


Speake is a pleasant guy, a transplanted Southerner, who surrounds himself with first rate musicians. His set list was generous and well-rounded including a good combination of modern standards with arrangements by his fabulous music director, Steven Ray Watkins that imaginatively rethought songs you thought you knew well, like “I Hear a Symphony” (Holland/Dozier/Holland).   Deftly using Speake’s great backup singers—Lennie Watts, Wendy Russell and Rachel Hanser—“Symphony” became a quiet contemplation, a pleasant change from the well-known upbeat version by the Supremes.


A few of the songs were ill-chosen, stretching either Speake’s vocal resources or his interpretative ability. He’s not the most physically involved singer, so upbeat numbers, particularly those with a Latin beat made him look stiff.   Numbers that ended in emotionally laden long notes made only so-so impacts because of his passive body language.


He does best with soft, contemplative ballads: The bittersweet “The Rules of the Road” (Coleman/Leigh), the quietly joyful “It Amazes Me” (Coleman/Leigh), the hopeful “It Might Be You” (Grusin/Bergmans), the depressing “A Lonely Christmas in New York” (Sedaka), the optimistic “The Colors of My Life” (Coleman/Stewart) and his encore, the teary “Here’s to Life” (Butler/Molinary). These songs brought out a range of quiet emotions which Speake handled with skill.


Speake doesn’t possess a powerful instrument, but has learned to use it with subtlety and wit. His voice warmed up as the show progressed taking on more colors and layers, helped by a very appreciative, sold-out house full of admirers and cabaret celebrities.


He sprinkled the show with autobiographical vignettes that helped connect the numbers.


The show, directed by Lennie Watts, moved swiftly making the most of Speake’s genteel personality.


The band, directed by Watkins, was completed by three fine musicians: Donna Kelly on drums, Matt Scharfglass on bass and Peter Calo on guitar.


Jim Speake- Sweet Life the Show (October 8, 2016)

Don’t Tell Mama   343 West 46th Street, between 8th & 9th Avenues New York, NY
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