A program of first-rate performers entertained the audience at the annual benefit concert June 9, 2015, presented by the Mabel Mercer Foundation at the Weill Recital Hall at Carnegie Hall. The theme was “It’s a Very Good Year,” a centennial celebration honoring a select group of luminaries of the entertainment world born in 1915, including actress Alice Faye, the fabled Billie Holiday, composer-lyricist Bart Howard, legendary Edith Piaf, jazz musician and composer-lyricist Billy Strayhorn, Frank Sinatra and sophisticated pianist Cy Walter.
The event was co-hosted by the Foundation’s artistic director, singer KT Sullivan and critic Rex Reed, a congenial combination. Sullivan, strikingly decked out alternately in two of her by-now-expected fashion statements, including examples of the elaborate hats she wears, in addition to introducing stars of the evening, sang “It Was Worth It” and “Fly Me to the Moon.” Reed is a master raconteur when talking about celebrities he has known, and showed the crowd that he could sing, too, giving a smooth rendition of “No Love, No Nothing,” using phrasing he models after the style of Mel Tormé.
Reed was delightful telling stories, such as when he was a young student with limited money in his pocket and coming to New York dazzled by the idea of going to a place like the Blue Angel, where Harry Belafonte was playing. Reed looked at the prices and was counting his money as he saw a chicken sandwich priced at five dollars, expensive in those days. Then came an announcement that Belafonte couldn’t perform that night. But substituting was a couple he had not heard of. The replacements turned out to be the young Mike Nichols and Elaine May. “They were pretty good,” Reed said.
There’s a kicker to the story. Reed recounted how many years later he was on a program with Belafonte and told that story. Belafonte put five dollars in Reed’s pocket—the price of that chicken sandwich. Reed also told of his friendship that developed with Alice Faye, star of so many movie musicals in the late 1930s and 1940s.
One of the highlights at the benefit was the appearance of Merrill Grant, who conjured up the image of Alice Faye, capturing her singing style and intonation. She sang “You’ll Never Know,” “Slumming on Park Avenue” and “Alexander’s Ragtime Band.”
Another impressive turn came from phenomenal jazz violinist Aaron Weinstein, who dazzled with his complex playing of “This Can’t Be Love,” with pianist Jon Weber getting into the action.
Allan Harris, his voice as rich and velvety as ever, sang “It was a Very Good Year,” which Frank Sinatra so effectively recorded. The late Irvin Drake, who wote the song, gave permission to the Mercer Foundation to use it as the title for the benefit series at the time of its first installment. Harris followed with “Man in the Looking Glass” and “Lush Life.”
The memory of Edith Piaf was summoned in a vibrant performance by Gay Marshall of songs associated with Piaf—“Hymme à l’amour,” “Padam,” and "1Non, Riens de Riens.”
Others taking part in the program included Alexis Cole, Jed Distler, Marcus Simeone, Lumiri Tubo, Bill Zeffiro, Valerie Lemon and Joyce Breach. At Weill Recital Hall, Carnegie Hall complex, 154 West 57th Street. Reviewed June 11, 2015.