Lady sings the blues, sort of
Sing like Billie Holliday!
It's easier than you think.
After giggling hysterically at a recording of writer David Sedaris doing an amazing imitation of Lady Day herself, I wondered just how tricky it might be to create such a sound. I mean, Ms. Holliday's vocal quality bears an uncanny resemblance to Grover on Sesame Street, if you listen very closely. So earlier tonight, while stuck in crawling traffic along I-35 on my rainy commute home, I had nothing better to do than try it, if only for my own amusement. After about ten minutes I figured out how to get my voice on a little spot just between the back of my throat and the nasal passages. It worked! I cracked myself up. I hadn't had so much vocal fun since taking Kate to an audition for The Miracle Worker.
A few years ago, Kate was asked to audition for the role of Helen Keller in a local college production. The deal breaker was being able to make young Helen's hideous, guttural, primal vocal sound. (Who'd have though landing the part of Helen Keller would require a kid to nail one syllable?)
"Arghhhhhhh!" said my talented child.
"Mmmm, not quite there, dear," the prim, bearded director told her. "More from the chest, I think. Lower, with more bass."
"Urggggggggggg," said Kate, like a tiny Frankenstein.
"Hmmm. Not quite what I'm thinking, but that's very good."
Actually, poor Kate lost this part not because she couldn't vocalize like a deaf girl, but because although she was petite at 12, there was a new pipsqueak in town. Sadly, Kate was too big. The actress who had already been cast as Anne Sullivan came into the audition for the stage combat portion of the tryout. This woman was barely five feet tall in heels. She and Kate were asked to recreate the famous breakfast table incident, in which Helen is forced to eat her overturned scrambled eggs from the floor while being restrained by her new teacher.
Director to Kate: "Give me a real effort, sweetheart. Feel free to give Anne a true struggle. Let's see some anguish, no holds barred. And go —"
Well, Kate must have taken this to heart because she gave that adult actress something of a — well, an ass whooping. The scene ended with "Anne Sullivan" screaming "Yeeeeeoowwwww!," blinking back tears and massaging her wrist.
"That was amazing," she told Kate through clenched teeth, "but I think you broke my arm."
Anyway, after hearing the words "Thank you" in that lilting tone actors hear that means "Not this time," Kate wasn't in the best of moods as we drove home. Even at the tender age of 12, she had auditioned enough to know how to handle rejection, but on this occasion she seemed especially annoyed. The car was quiet.
"Nnnnnnnnngh," I said to myself, eyeing the road.
"Nnnnnnnnngh. That's the sound Helen Keller makes. No vowels."
Kate's hands flew to her ears. "MOM! Oh my gosh, PLEASE stop making that sound!"
"It's kind of fun. Try it! Nnnnnghhhh..."
To this day, if I ever want to make myself laugh and give my daughter a raving fit, all I have to do is make The Helen Keller Sound and she will do anything to get me to stop.
So tonight when I tried out my new Billie Holliday voice, the reaction was much the same.
"Straaaaange fruit...mmm mmm..."
"OH MY GOD, MOMMMMMM! That's even worse than your stupid Helen Keller sound!"
Who says it's hard to get a teenager's attention?