By: George Varga
With her bigger-than-life voice and a personality to match, Liza Minnelli never has been regarded as laid-back.
In a career that began with her Broadway debut at age 3 in 1949 and has since seen her win an Oscar, a Grammy, an Emmy, several Tony Awards and a “worst actress” Razzie, she always has seemed like an indomitable force of nature.
Whether making an indelible impression as the brassy star of the iconic musical “Cabaret” in 1972 or during her recent cameo in this summer’s “Sex and the City 2” movie, which finds her belting out Beyonce’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” with steamrollerlike intensity, Minnelli fills a room, movie theater or concert hall as if it were her birthright.
And it may well be, considering that she is the daughter of two Hollywood legends, singer-actress Judy Garland and film director Vincente Minnelli (of, respectively, “The Wizard of Oz” and “An American in Paris” fame).
But when it came time to record her new album, “Confessions,” Minnelli got as laid-back as any singer could while still remaining fully conscious, albeit only partially upright.
“I made it in my bedroom!” chirped the veteran singer and actress.
“I had to have knee replacement surgery, and I go nuts with nothing to do because I have so much energy,” she continued, speaking from New York. “So it was perfect. I did part of the album before the operation and part of it after. I started off singing in bed, and then, as I got better, I moved into a director’s chair. There was no other way to do it because I couldn’t walk.”
Now 64, Minnelli shows no sign of slowing down soon, despite the knee replacement (it was at least her third knee operation), two earlier hip replacement surgeries, three divorces and a number of drug- and alcohol-fueled stays in various rehab clinics.
On “Confessions,” which she recorded with veteran pianist Billy Stritch, she sings in a far more intimate and understated style than is usually associated with her name. Though some of the songs, such as “At Last” and “All the Way,” are weathered standards, many are obscurer, such as “Moments Like This,” “You Fascinate Me So” and the finger-snapping Peggy Lee chestnut “He’s a Tramp.” At their best, which is on about half of the 14 songs she performs on the album, Minnelli and Stritch come close to evoking Minnelli’s longtime friend Tony Bennett’s two splendid releases with jazz piano great Bill Evans in the mid-1970s.
“These songs are very personal and private to me, and my singing on the album is not a performance,” she said. “It’s so personal that I had to be talked into doing it,” she said.
But the album, due out Sept. 28 on Decca Records, also takes Minnelli back to her childhood in Hollywood.
On many a night as she was growing up, such American music icons as Irving Berlin, Oscar Levant and Ira Gershwin (her godfather) would drop by to socialize. On other nights, the Minnellis would go visit Berlin, Gershwin and other pioneering songwriters. Invariably, they would take turns singing and playing a few songs, while a little girl named Liza would sprawl under the grand piano and listen intently.
“To me, they were the neighbors,” she recalled of her family’s famous friends. “Our home was like a coal mine in town, and everybody knew everybody who worked in the mines. The songs on my new album are the songs I heard sitting under pianos all over Hollywood.”
In 1964, when she was still a teenager, Minnelli famously recorded a live album in London with her mother, who would die five years later of an accidental drug overdose at the age of 47.
Yet even though she now pointedly credits all of her musical acumen to her godmother, Kay Thompson, Minnelli allows that appearing onstage with her mother in London was a major turning point for both of them.
“I was scared to death, but I was determined,” she recalled. “I asked my mom, ‘Why don’t you do this with Frank Sinatra or Peggy Lee?’ She said, ‘No, I want you.’ And I thought, ‘Oh, my God!'”
In 1967, Minnelli co-starred opposite Albert Finney in “Charlie Bubbles.” It was her first movie since 1949, when she briefly appeared in a scene with her mother at the conclusion of “In the Good Old Summertime,” and it marked the launch of a lengthy film career. Today she credits her many roles on Broadway and the inspiration of French singing institution Charles Aznavour for forming her actorlike approach to interpreting the lyrics she performs onstage.
“I always loved music,” she said. “But I didn’t really get into it until I saw Charles perform, and he influenced me. How? It was the acting, how he could take you to different places when he sang; it was like God (was) acting. I asked him if he would be my mentor, and he said yes. But I know so much music because I was a shy little girl and the songs said what I couldn’t say.
“If you are singing 20 songs in concert, each song has to have a character breakdown. Who is this woman (in the song)? What does she look like? Where is she? The country? The top floor of a penthouse? It’s almost like I am the character, so each song is different. But none of that is happening on my new album — which is me just sitting there singing.”
Though Minnelli has long been a Broadway favorite, her fans also include rock singer Pat Benatar, Crowded House band leader Neil Finn and the members of Queen, Pet Shop Boys and My Chemical Romance, all three of whom she has collaborated with.
Asked whether she or the all-male members of the guyliner-fueled My Chemical Romance wore more makeup in the recording studio, she laughed with delight.
“I don’t know who had more on, but we were sure wearing a lot!” said Minnelli, who, for a short period in the 1980s, was managed by Kiss bassist-singer Gene Simmons.
Through all her ups and downs — and there have been many of both — she has charged (or sometimes limped) forward, determined to do her best whatever the circumstances. Though her reputation as a diva is not undeserved, she maintains that “it’s easier to treat people nicely.”
Ultimately, Minnelli said, “when people remember me, I want them to say, ‘She did a good job.'”
To find out more about George Varga and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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