By Andew Poretz . . .
Take a bit of Betty Boop, a dash of Cindy Lauper, a sprinkling of Maria Muldaur with some prohibition gin, and you have Roberta Donnay, a jazz and pop singer who spent a dozen years touring and recording as one of Dan Hicks’ “Hot Licks.” She returned to Birdland Theater nearly three years after her debut upstairs. She performs in this band as a character based on “Jazz Age” female singers of the 1920s and influenced by film noir gun molls. Roberta had “mob” nicknames for her musicians: “The Lip” on trumpet, “Sticks” on the drums, and “Knuckle Sandwich” on piano.
Donnay took the stage, on November 17, wearing a floor-length, form-fitting black gown with translucent beads and a black feather boa. The band’s charts, primarily written by bassist Sam Bevan, were of Tin Pan Alley songs written between 1911 and 1938, many of which are now in the public domain.
The bountiful 13-song set had some terrific pieces. “Mama’s Gone Goodbye” (Sippie Wallace), had a “St. Louis Blues” feel. Now holding a black feather fan, she sang about a woman looking for a man who will treat her right. The trumpet and trombone played off one another, and Bevan was on fire in his solo. Bevan “doubles” when he plays, scatting identical notes an octave higher. Bevan’s creative arranging and the band’s tight playing gave them the sound of a much larger group.
The clever, vaguely naughty “That Sugar Baby of Mine” was a treat, with lines like:
Because he’s sweeter than chocolate candy to me
Louis Armstrong’s “I’m In the Market for You” had clever lyrics, like “Call my broker, ‘cos I’m in the market for you.” The song was featured on her 2018 Armstrong tribute album, “My Heart Belongs to Satchmo.” Donnay peppered her patter with funny jokes and asides. She could not help herself from telling a musician’s joke. “What’s the difference between a pizza and a band? A pizza could feed a family of four.” Referencing Eddie Cantor singing without musicians, she said, “He sings Acapulco.” Later, we learned that Hoagy Carmichael was named “Hoagland” after “The Hoaglands,” a circus troupe, stayed with his family during her mother’s pregnancy. Donnay, in character, told a fanciful story of being left as a baby on a Canarsie doorstop. (She is, in fact, from Washington, D.C.)
The band used a modern beat for “You Go to My Head” (Haven Gillespie/J. Fred Coots), using the bridge as a verse. This 1938 song, with more of a bebop than Jazz Age feel, was the “newest” in the set.
Out of character, Donnay acknowledged the late Dan Hicks and her days on the road with him, before singing “Ol’ Man Mose” (LeRoy Holmes/Louis Armstrong) also from Donnay’s “Satchmo” album, which was a hoot. Using Armstrong’s original call-and-response lyrics (where he would sing a line and his musicians would respond), she taught the audience the responses for them to call out along with the quintet.
For the bolero-style “Boulevard of Broken Dreams” (Harry Warren/Al Dubin), Donnay invited Bay Area jazz singer and former belly dancer, Kay Andreas Kostopoulos, to dance with castanets while Donnay sang. In a fun promotion of her latest album, she called out various 1920s slang expressions for a trivia contest. It took several attempts to find a winner.
The very suggestive “Need a Little Sugar in My Bowl” (Clarence Williams, J. Tim Brymn, and Dally Small), first recorded by Bessie Smith in 1931, is considered one of the best double entendre songs of all time. Donnay here pleaded with her “hard papa” for “a little hot dog between my rolls.” In a somewhat similar vein, the final song of the set, “One Monkey Don’t Stop The Show,” was about a “lady of the evening.” Donnay spoke much of the song, in a sassy and sexy manner.
A fine singer whether in character or as herself, Roberta Donnay and the Prohibition Mob Band make for a very entertaining act. There is talk of a future New York residency. Let’s hope it happens, or “Knuckle Sandwich” might get upset.
Prohibition Mob Band members
Drums – Dave Gibson
Bass – Sam Bevan
Piano – Marcus Persiani
Trumpet – Darren Johnson
Trombone – Ric Becker
Arrangements: Sam Bevan
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