Sandy Stewart: Singing the Song and Telling the Story



Sandy Stewart performing at the 29th New York Cabaret Convention on Oct. 9, 2018. Photograph: © 2018 Richard Termine

“Just sing the song and tell the story.” For singer Sandy Stewart, that is the task.

“I’ve been doing this for 70 years. I know what works,” Stewart said, sitting on the red sofa bed in her one-bedroom apartment on the Upper East Side. On Oct. 31, Stewart will receive the Mabel Mercer Award at the 30th Annual New York Cabaret Convention at Jazz at Lincoln Center. The award, presented by the Mabel Mercer Foundation, recognizes one singer each year for her lifetime achievement in cabaret and jazz.

“It really should have been Sandy earlier — it was an oversight, actually,” said KT Sullivan, cabaret singer and artistic director at the Mabel Mercer Foundation, which oversees the four-night concert series that is a convention only in the sense of convening people with common interests. The foundation’s mission is to preserve and celebrate the art of cabaret, and the convention is the foundation’s cornerstone event.

A cabaret performance can take the shape of a high-energy combination of lyrics and leg-kicks and music, or it can take Stewart’s approach. “There’s a simplicity about her,” Sullivan said. “Simplicity doesn’t get people excited, but it’s the hardest thing to do. When she sings, the audience is in the palm of her hand.”

A style that subtle can go unduly unnoticed. Typically, it’s “the people jumping up and down who capture most of our attention,” said James Gavin, journalist and author of a book about the history of cabaret in New York City, as well as biographies of singers Peggy Lee and Lena Horne. “She doesn’t feel the obligation to entertain us,” Gavin said. That doesn’t mean that Stewart doesn’t entertain. Instead, “she’s not into improving the songs or showing she’s better than the songs,” he said.

At 82, Stewart works more subtly than ever, no longer interested in opening her shows with the songs of “Gee it’s all fine and dandy” that she used to belt out when she was the warm-up act for nightclub comedians in the 50s and 60s. She abides by different standards: “Less is more. Loud is not always good.” Stewart shook her head when talking about the show The Voice. “They’re shouting. They’re not really telling a story,” she said.

When Stewart sings, she provides “total immersion in a lyric, treating it as a kind of absolute reality,” said Will Friedwald, author of nine books about the history of jazz and popular singers, including histories on Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett. Friedwald said when Stewart is on stage, she keeps her focus on her songs and rarely speaks to the audience. “She never calls attention to herself. It’s only about the narrative,” he said.

In conversation, Stewart told her own story patiently. The piano was not for her – she wanted to be in front of it – so, at 10 years old, she took a job singing on a weekly radio show in her hometown of Philadelphia. At 16 she moved to New York City to sing regularly on Ernie Kovacs’ live television show. Instead of going to college, Stewart worked and took private voice lessons. She studied opera with Carmine Gagliardi, not because she wanted to be an opera singer, but because she wanted the benefit of formal technique. In 1962, Stewart was nominated for a Grammy for her pop hit “My Coloring Book.” She seemed on the cusp of stardom. Barbra Streisand, singing in a roughly comparable vein, was “just starting to go this way,” Stewart said, gesturing her arm on an incline. “I totally knew what I was doing as a professional.”

But as Stewart knows better than many, plans can be interrupted, as they were often for countless women with career aspirations before the feminist movement. She married composer Morris “Moose” Charlap, who co-wrote the music for the Broadway musical Peter Pan, and decided to step away from her work to raise a family. “I really wanted to have children,” she said, and she saw a household with both parents in show business as untenable. “It’s not fair to a child,” she said. Stewart focused on the children, and did voiceover commercials and provided lyrics to Moose Charlaps’s scores on the side. Then her husband died suddenly in July of 1974. Stewart was a 36-year-old widow with two young children. “I had to go back to work,” she said.

In March of 1975, New York Times jazz critic John S. Wilson noted Stewart’s return to performing “following a long period of retirement.” Stewart eventually married again – trumpeter George Triffon, an earlier boyfriend – and after two decades was widowed once more.

Stewart is warm and wise, yet firm, on stage and off. She does not want to talk about the bed and breakfast she once ran in Southampton or the final years of her marriage with Triffon. Two years ago, she moved from Palm Beach, Florida back to New York City. She chooses her performances carefully, and performs almost exclusively with her son Bill Charlap, the Grammy-winning jazz pianist.

Sandy Stewart and accompanied by her son Bill Charlap, the Grammy-winning jazz pianist, at the 29th Annual New York Cabaret Convention. Photograph: © 2018 Richard Termine

“You’re only as good as your last performance,” Stewart said. “And as you get older, physically it’s harder. Emotionally it’s harder. I have a lot more trepidation going into a performance. Logistically getting onto the stage – will somebody need to hold my hand so I don’t lose my balance or slip?” She thought she was going to stop performing last year, but said Charlap talked her out of it. When asked why it was so important to him that his mother continue to perform, he said “It’s the essence of who she is. And she sings as magnificently as ever.”

Stewart had a different take. “I can’t sing the way I used to,” she said. “But you don’t have to lose breath control. You can still hold a note for a very long time if you know what you’re doing with your breathing, with your vibrato.” Such are the benefits of her opera training.

“She has enviable technique. I wish I had her breath control,” said Joyce Breach, singer, recording artist, and friend.

Despite the pre-performance trepidations, Stewart said she isn’t planning to stop anytime soon. She put it another way: “If you can still mow the lawn, mow the lawn. If you can’t, stop.” Her apartment on the Upper East Side is conveniently lawn-less. “I don’t have any obligations other than me,” Stewart said.  “I can do what I want, with who I want. I’m just a free spirit again, as I was when I was in my 20s,” she said. And so she will continue on, singing the song and telling the story.