Elizabeth Sullivan: My Song

A bird doesn’t sing because it has an answer. A bird sings because it has a song. Chinese proverb

Every year on her birthday, Elizabeth Sullivan, matriarch of the formidably musical family, flies to New York from Oklahoma for a blow out party. The tree from which these talented apples fall not far is herself a songwriter and vocalist. Sullivans from all over gather at a local club-Sunday it was the packed-to-the-gills Metropolitan Room, to share their talents with friends, fans and each other. It’s a love fest.

Ever elegant, Elizabeth, who turned 86 this year and looks well over ten years younger, begins with a group of her own compositions. “You Are the Reason I Sing My Song”/You are the why of it all/Without you listening, it would go so wrong… It drifts down with utter warmth and sincerity. We sway.

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Stacy Sullivan, Robin Brooks Sullivan, Elizabeth Sullivan, KT Sullivan

Songs are brief, poetic, personal. If you didn’t know her you might imagine Elizabeth a good actress. The truth is that every lyric grows from her heart like a flower. She seems authentic because she is. Communication and sensitivity more than make up for a wavering word or note not quite reached. ‘Om puttin’ things on the back burner/ Serving up what’s good tonight/’Om thinking soon or maybe later/I’ll hear a tune and get a rhyme…(“Back Burner”) emerges riding a kick-back-and-rock-on-the-porch two step.

Where there never was a box/Then there never was a limit… (“Out of the Box”) is wise yet light. Elizabeth’s voice rises like an upward sigh, a feather on a breeze. She performs  “Without a Song” (Vincent Youmans and Edward Eliscu) with depth of investment that makes it feel as if she were the author. For “Song of the Chimes,” (her own) the performer is joined by 6 year-old granddaughter Layla Elizabeth Sullivan, bending down to duet with the very pretty girl at her own level. Some of it is stage-whispered adding to delicacy. They make quite a picture.

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Elizabeth Sullivan and Layla Elizabeth Sullivan; Montana Sullivan

KT Sullivan, Artistic Director of The Mabel Mercer Foundation and Elizabeth’s daughter in law, Robin Brooks Sullivan, share one of the writer’s signature songs, “As Long As We Sing.” Written in honor of Mabel Mercer, the number is a moving, cabaret anthem. The ladies harmonize.

KT then offers Elizabeth’s “How Were We To Know?” inspired by her unexpected meeting of husband-to-be, Stephen Downey. (It’s a charming story.) Despite his opening salvo, including somewhat daunting references to his mother and five children, both apparently “knew.” How could we miss/The promise of that thrill/Spinning in our bliss/ Above a world gone still…Lovely. Robin returns on guitar and vocal for Bobby Troup’s “Route 66” which arrives with pith, spit and lively, country twang.

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KT Sullivan

The Sullivans have each chosen his or her own musical path/genre. Robin’s son, young Montana Sullivan, offers “Soul”, a classically tinted piano solo of his own composition. I hear insistence, fluency, spirit…a stream, creek, river, waterfall, the ocean…unstoppable momentum with pauses preparing waves. The piece is evocative and well played.

Granddaughter Savannah Elizabeth Brown who has recently embarked upon her own singing/acting career, has chosen the charming “Bubbly” (Colbie Caillat/Jason Reeves.) “The song is about a lover, but I’m gonna bring it back to my grandma because I think I had my boyfriend sold when I showed him what I’d look like at 86.” Guitar in hand, with backup by her mother, vocalist Stacy Sullivan, and Montana on piano, Savannah exhibits vocal qualities like Elizabeth and Stacy-she can float a melody. Harmony is appealing, the song diaphanous.

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Savannah Elizabeth Brown and Stacy Sullivan

Stacy then takes center stage for “Lullaby of Birdland” (George Shearing/B.Y. Foster) accompanied by Jon Weber’s up, UP-tempo jazz piano and Tom Hubbard’s fast-as-hummingbirds’-wings-bass. A performer able to successfully embrace many genres, she delivers both percussive and lyrical verses with finesse. Stacy, Robin, KT and Elizabeth then share the nostalgic “Where My Picture Hangs on the Wall” (Elizabeth Sullivan), a song about home Dorothy Gale (The Wizard of Oz) would’ve treasured.

Elizabeth closes with more of her own material including one of my favorites, the deeply romantic “Not Tonight”, written for her husband’s 70th birthday (Mr. Sullivan passed.) There may be a time when I’ll not want you/But not tonight, not tonight… The room then joins in “Friends” whose partial lyrics adorn a flyer left on tables. Singing or not, every soul in the room feels the love.

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The Family (Tom Hubbard on bass-background)

This evening’s concert was accompanied by the superb Tom Hubbard on bass and Musical Director Dennis Buck on piano. Mr. Buck, with whom I am unfamiliar, subtly tailors arrangements in service of both composition and artist. He plays with terrific finesse and an ear to wind change.

Sunday May 22, 2016

Photos by Maryann Lopinto
Opening: Elizabeth Sullivan

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.