The indomitable singer/songwriter Elizabeth Sullivan is back with songs, poems, and stories for the musical family’s annual celebration of her birthday. Warmth suffuses the room. To many, Elizabeth is a kind of lighthouse, an example of grace, fortitude, and humor under fire, of robust creativity especially at an age when others slow down. And I swear she doesn’t look any older. “If Not Now, When?” she sings.
“I have to say a word about Boggy Depot, don’t I? I really thought I’d still be there milking a cow. I thought we’d be cattle barons…” Elizabeth was very young when she and husband Jim, both city folk, moved with 12 grass-bellied calves to what she calls a shanty in Boggy Depot, Oklahoma. It was the dead of winter, a miracle they survived. “Why should we miss certain bliss not following our hearts,” she sings.
Sparked by Dr. Bradley Jones, whose cabaret act bloomed after years as a practicing therapist, Elizabeth performs “Waiting in The Wings”…I listen for my curtain call…Cause when I get it right, there’s joy I can’t describe…We picture a figure in the shadows, heart pounding, palms wet. Elizabeth’s vocal flutters like an excited bird.
Snippets of songs written for dear friends (who needs greeting cards?) precede the evocative “Not Tonight” honoring her husband’s 70th birthday: There may be a time when I’ll not want you/But not tonight…Her eyes close. The room holds its breath.
KT Sullivan offers a tandem “Sing a Song with Me” (Wally Harper)/ “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy’ (Irving Berlin) replete with a bit of nasal Jolson tone, not easy as a soprano. “My mama taught us all to sing…I think I sang before I talked. It’s hard to imagine, isn’t it?” Upon her daughter’s request, the honoree composed melody for W.B. Yeats’ Cloths of Heaven which KT reads and performs with deep feeling.
“As Long As We Sing,” an anthem tribute to Mabel Mercer et al, is offered by Stacy and KT Sullivan. “I think about quitting this business every day. Then I see my mom and I think I might have a few good years yet,” Stacy sighs. “My mom and dad had something so special…” she continues introducing “My Little World.” Sentiments emerge immensely tender. Stacy seems to conjure her parents rather than her own happy marriage.
We hear a soulful rendition of Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.” then “Beautiful Stranger” by and from country/western artist Robin Brooks Sullivan – also on acoustic guitar. Both are accompanied by Robin’s son, Montana, who plays his own sensitive piano composition, “Yes, You.” The number sounds wistful; can one so young be wistful? Melody flows organically like a brook, feeds into a stream then narrows to rivulets. Montana’s nine year-old sister, Layla, then presents the two-hander “Jumpin’ Jazz Cat” with Elizabeth. Brava.
“I want tell you a little bit about my daddy and my mama,” Elizabeth begins. “He was a mechanic. We used to say if you could put legs on a tin can, he could make it walk. My mama should’ve been on the stage. She was feisty. They were good people and good parents. It’s just that their love fell apart.”
“He Whistled From the Back Porch” describes her parents romantic meeting, as enduring a story to Elizabeth as it was an indelible memory to her mother. Imagine a sweet, black and white movie. Dad became a police officer and fell for another woman on ‘a call.’ “One of mama’s favorite sayings was Turn it around.’ The waltzy song follows. We hear pride, pain and the implication she still loves him.
Apparently Elizabeth’s mom hid beneath a coat in the back seat of her husband’s police car one day, caught the lovers having coffee, “dragged her (the woman) out by her pretty blonde head and beat the hell out of her. She (mom) was wonderful.” Is someone in this family getting these tales on paper?! This is frontier stock. Elizabeth’s backbone is inherited.
Scoring of poems includes Mother to Son by Langston Hughes: Well, son, I’ll tell you: Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair./It’s had tacks in it,/And splinters,/And boards torn up,/ And places with no carpet on the floor—/Bare…Elizabeth might’ve written it.There’s no self pity here, just sharing and solid advice. Her poem Dependable (as calm oceans turn to raging waves…) is almost response.
“Angel, You Can Fly” is Elizabeth Sullivan encouraging loved ones when they falter. The strength of belief is palpable. “Friends” closes the program with a room-sized embrace. Can you feel it?
Unless noted, all songs are by Elizabeth Sullivan.
Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Elizabeth Sullivan and Family:Celebrating her 89th Birthday Special Guests: KT Sullivan, Stacy Sullivan, Robin Brooks Sullivan, Montana Sullivan, Layla Sullivan
Dennis Buck – MD/Piano
The Laurie Beechman Theatre in the West Bank Café
407 West 42nd Street