When Sally Ann Denmead strummed her "Can-O-Lele" and sang pre-swing era jazz standards in her former home, New York City, she used the name "Brooklyn Sal," but a move to Pittsburgh last January (with husband, poet Jonah Winter) necessitated a change of monikers, and an old riverboat song "Monongahela Gal," provided a perfect cue. Denmead, a classically trained soprano/alto, also performs at weddings, funerals and religious services, and the occasional Gilbert & Sullivan operetta. Starting Oct. 1, she can be found singing in the Pittsburgh Savoyards' production of Ruddigore at the Carnegie Free Library Music Hall in Carnegie.
How'd you get into the crooning game?
We're all singers, the whole family. I grew up singing in church and in various choirs. My mom is still the director of the church choir where I grew up and also has a major wedding and funeral concession in North Jersey; if someone's getting hitched or dying, they call Maria Denmead.
Who are some of the singers whose work you do?
Josephine Baker, Annette Hanshaw and Ethel Waters are the main ones. Ethel Waters was born in 1894 and was singing professionally by the time she was in her teens. When she would sing a new number, she'd put such a signature stamp on it that it would become hers and her diction was impeccable. She was the person to really make "Am I Blue" famous. We do her songs "Sugar" and "True Blue Lou."
"True Blue Lou" is so different from today's pop songs. What about that song do you think endures for a contemporary audience?
That song is told in the third person and there may have been a little more of that [style of songwriting] back then. Songs weren't quite as confessional; you were talking about somebody else, as in that song "Miss Otis Regrets." Those songs endure because they are telling a story and doing it from a narrator's perspective, so there's pathos involved and someone else's opinion on top of that.
How did you settle on the era of the '20s and '30s?
The music of that time was just coming out of the music hall, which was just coming out of opera. I've got a more operatic voice than you generally hear in jazz music, so I thought that maybe I should use that as a way to enter this earlier era, where the voice could be a little higher, a little more trained.
Audiophile friends of ours would send us recordings that they felt we had to hear. My husband plays clarinet, which was commonly used at that time, and I picked up the ukulele, which was another very popular instrument then, because it was so simple to learn and inexpensive to own. Over the years it's evolved into a kind of romantic fascination with that time. It's almost as if some hand, some greater cosmic design, was involved in finding this persona for me.
Tell me about your Can-O-Lele.
A friend of ours, Dave Ardito, an instrument-maker from Providence, Rhode Island, made it for me. He makes violins and guitars and "real" stringed instruments, but a few years ago, he got the idea to make instruments from found resonators, such as detergent bottles, frying pans, saucepans, anything that will create a space for strings to reverberate and be amplified. My instrument is an olive oil can for which he made the fret board and the neck. It's a real beauty. He'll even let you choose the can. He goes overboard with everything he makes.
What's the difference between being Brooklyn Sal and being Monongahela Sal?
There's such a relaxed, inclusive mood here, whereas in New York, any one position is so hard to get to because you have to wade through thousands of people or else get really lucky. And here, I go to something and it's packed! People show up and are excited and they're not there to be seen or to further their career or as a favor to someone; they're there because they want to be there! I've performed more in the eight months I've been here than I did for the last two years in New York and I tell ya, it's really refreshing.
Plus, in our old apartment, the bathroom was so small that you had to sit sideways on the toilet! When we got here and bought our house, we spent a lot of time yelling out the bathroom door, "I'm sitting straightforward on the john! This is great!"