What could possibly be the most fascinating aspect of the divine Ms. Valarie Pettiford? Long-recognized as among the fiercest of "triple threats," the lady has all but monopolized musical theater stages, as well as the big and small screens alike.
Would one choose Ms. Pettiford's fiery and imaginative contributions to her first love - dance - having not only worked as Dance Captain under the legendary Bob Fosse in his final productions Dancin' and Big Deal, but co-choreographing (with Barbara Yeager and Gary Chapman) the show-stopper "Dancin' Dan and His Shadows" from Fosse - a show for which she was nominated for a Tony Award?
Would they choose her electrifying stage presence in the Broadway productions Sophisticated Ladies, West Side Story and Grind, in which her dance moves were equally matched to dynamic acting that brought audiences to their feet and a rich alto voice persuasive enough to bring those same audiences to their knees?
On the big screen, she has stretched from ensemble musical adaptations such as Francis Ford Coppola's The Cotton Club and Sidney Lumet & Quincy Jones' The Wiz to her thunder-stealing performance in Glitter playing Mariah Carey's jazz singer mom, "Lillian Frank," and singing
"Lillie's Blue" (composed by Carey with soul-pop producers Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis).
Then there is her television work to consider: from beaming into the homes of millions daily with delicious daytime drama turns on NBC's Another World (as "Detective Courtney Walker") and ABC's One Life To Live (as the indomitable "Sheila Price") to her current prime time residency on the UPN sitcom Half & Half (as "Big Dee Dee Thorne") and the recurring "Gayle Noland" on the CBS crime drama, The District.
One might even convincingly point to her radiant, God-given beauty - a most natural and timeless allure that bedazzles the heart and eye.
However, it is most conceivably arguable that, indeed, the most fascinating aspects of Ms. Valarie Pettiford are the cheerful vivaciousness and appreciation she harbors for exciting new opportunities. In this business of show where many stay too long at one fair, she embraces evolutionary shifts with insatiable hunger and zest. So much so that one accustomed to seeing her excel in one medium would be completely floored to discover what she has also achieved (and is still achieving) in another. This is the revelation of a true star...one ever in the making.
Ms. Pettiford's latest endeavor is, first and foremost, a dream come true: her very first solo CD. Invitingly titled Hear My Soul, the CD is filled from top to bottom with what are - unquestionably - some of the greatest compositions of all time. The album completely mesmerizes the listener, playing like an overview of highlights not only from Ms. Pettiford's distinguished career, but from her very life itself.
"If someone had asked me five years ago which craft was closest to my heart," she states, "I would have said dance. There is nothing like the euphoria you get as a dancer. But because I don't do it often enough, my energies have gone into new avenues. I was first blessed to pursue the avenue of acting. And now I am pursuing singing, which is giving me the same kind of euphoria I had as a dancer. I have always sung - people have encouraged me since I was in grade school - so I have come full circle. And when I am on that stage, I never question it."
Ms. Pettiford's five-star debut seamlessly moves between rip-roaring gems from her Broadway memories such as "I Hear Music" (listen for her trading phrases with the saxophone on the intro), saucy takes on "Them There Eyes" and "Ain't He Sweet," plus a tasty sliver of Ellingtonia, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," to more jazz-tinged pop material such as the torchy, muted-trumpet kissed "Where Do I Find Love" (written by her Musical Director Ron Abel and his partner Chuck Steffan) and an immaculate rendering of the Sinatra standard "All The Way."
The realization of Hear My Soul (over twenty-three truly inspired days) was largely made possible by the blessing of her being a part of the weekly prime time sitcom, Half and Half. This afforded Valarie the funds to record this album herself...her way. The wheels were set in motion beginning with an 'act' she put together to perform at The Gardenia Room, West Hollywood's premier cabaret club. Inspired by the reception she received, Valarie created a more elaborate show for Pepperdine University that integrated her dancing with her singing. This program was appropriately titled Valarie Pettiford: Finding My Voice.
In true That's Entertainment fashion, it was through a series of crucial introductions that Valarie met her Musical Director Ron Abel, with whom she co-produced Hear My Song. She recalls, "My dear friend Sergio Trujillo introduced me to Jack Noseworthy, who encouraged me to do benefits. He introduced me to the brilliant David Galligan, who is now the director of my stage act. He always knows the precise, concise thing to say to get me to achieve what I need to achieve. David also puts on these big benefits for AIDS research called Stage. I performed in one that was a salute to the music of Jerome Kern. Ron Abel was the MD. And from the first note, it was a match made in Heaven! I've only known David and Ron for about 4 years now, but it feels like I've known them my entire life."
The arrangements and musical settings that Ron and Valarie created for this collection are absolutely stunning. They open the album with a classy, bass line-driven slink for "I Can't Give You Anything But Love," getting the party started with horn spikes, drum punches and the proverbial big finish. "Someone To Watch Over Me" showcases Valarie solely accompanied by guitarist Grant Geissman (best known for his buoyant solo on Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good"). "Don't Misunderstand" (originally composed for the `70s sequel Shaft's Big Score by acclaimed African American film director/photographer/renaissance man, Gordon Parks) is given a cocktail quintet rendering of George Shearing-esque piano, vibraphone and sax befitting the bittersweet chestnut's storyline concerning catch-as-catch-can lovers. And then there is their bewitching cover of Maria Muldaur's 1973 hit "Midnight At The Oasis," set to the palm tree sway of a bossa nova beat, a fake-out "Girl From Ipanema" intro, flute obligatos and the tasteful layering of Valarie's voice (via overdubs) on the choruses.
The chemistry between Valarie and Ron is most evident in two numbers, beginning with their heart-stopping rendition of "The Last Time I Saw Paris." Valarie reflects, "I originally sang this song in a Jerome Kern revue where the director arranged it for eight performers to do in a very haunting, poignant way. Each of us had a line to sing couched in beautiful harmonies. It touched me so much that I knew if I ever got a chance to sing it again, I would do it in that way. Now, I have a great ear, but I don't read music. I don't convey things in strict musical terms. I speak in terms of feelings. So I presented this idea to Ron. He sat at the piano, thought for a second and played it...JUST like that." What Valarie does with her voice over Ron's piano and strings arrangement sets a mood for the Kern/Hammerstein gem that is quietly, yet utterly, transfixing.
The other standout Pettiford/Abel collaboration is their relaxed, six minutes and ten seconds rendition of Ann Ronell's ageless "Willow Weep For Me." Here, solely accompanied by Ron at the piano, Valarie works (and we mean WORKS) the entirety of her vocal range in a performance that will have folks applauding their home sound systems. It is clearly a song that Valarie has lived with for decades, stemming back to records her parents played at home. "I loved Dinah Washington's version of 'Willow Weep For Me'," Valarie shares, speaking of one of her vocal heroines. "But I consider Nancy Wilson to be the archetype for the style of singing I am doing today." In tribute to 'Fancy Ms. Nancy,' Valarie does a stellar job with "When Did You Leave Heaven"; a song made famous by one of Nancy's heroes, Little Jimmy Scott, that she later sang...with love. On Hear My Soul, Valarie applies her sultry alto with an impeccably calibrated vibrato, assured tone and immaculate diction, acing the classic for yet another generation.
Valarie Pettiford was born in Queens, New York. She received her first training there at the Bernice Johnson Theatre of the Performing Arts, followed by "famed" Performing Arts High School. With dance as her first love but all-around versatility as her ticket to freedom, Ms. Pettiford swiftly entered her profession with both feet tapping...on Broadway and beyond.
Vocally speaking, Ms. Pettiford is a true alto, through and through. "My money notes," she insists, "are my lower notes...the lower the better. I love singing with the men," she laughs! "I did not grow up in the gospel church, so I don't have the highs like Whitney and Mariah. I'm more of a storyteller. That's where I draw my inspiration and my style. It's been a few years of crashing and burning, getting out of my head and trusting my instrument - gaining confidence."
The first vocal group Ms. Pettiford performed with was the female trio Raw Silk of 1982's "Do It To The Music" fame. Though her voice does not grace the record, she replaced the lead singer shortly after and performed all over New York as well as Europe. Next was the rock band Native Blend, which she joined after meeting leader Kenneth Ard during a Kool & The Gang video shoot for which she was one of the dancers. That was followed by a stint with a unique vocal revue group called The Stingers which had as many as 15 rotating members. The core quintet received an RCA Records contract working with an up-and-coming Desmond Child - and Valarie was one of the 5. Though the album was never released, the group was a crucial training ground for showmanship and spontaneity. "I so wish there had been an American Idol back then," she laments. "The talent in that group was extraordinary...."
All the while Ms. Pettiford continued blossoming on the musical theatre stage, notably in the unforgettable Duke Ellington salute Sophisticated Ladies, in which she was an ensemble girl and the understudy of show star Judith Jamison. The especially amazing cast included the now-late Gregory Hines...and Phyllis Hyman, who introduced her to her idol, Nancy Wilson after one of the shows. Recalling meeting Nancy, Valarie chuckles, "I dropped to my feet, bowed and asked her, 'Do you know who you are?!?!'"
Of Phyllis, Valarie fondly recalls, "She had a huge star dressing room, as she well deserved. Eight of us dancers were sharing a small room upstairs in this old theatre. Phyllis made her way up there one day, said, 'My God, you can't all stay up there,' and promptly opened her dressing room up to four of us. She was funny and had great work ethics. We became great friends. I choreographed two of her shows: one at The Blue Note and one at Carnegie Hall with B.B. King. She opened my eyes to what the business was really about. I adored her."
Ms. Pettiford now lives in Los Angeles. When she is not picking up NAACP and Roby awards for her incomparable performance of the epically tragic "Julie" in Showboat, or making guest appearances on Honey, I Shrunk The Kids, Frasier and any number of television shows, she may be found at the Kennedy Center Honors feting Chita Rivera (Val was "Velma Kelley" opposite Chita in a West End production of Chicago), dancing up a storm with Tom Hanks on "Cell Block Tango" for a cancer benefit, belting her heart out at The Kentucky Derby or sharing a scene at the Geffen Playhouse with Annette Bening, Nancy Travis, Sharon Lawrence, Amy Peete and Dominica Scorsese for another private corporate event.
The bottom line is Ms. Valarie Pettiford stays busy, eagerly embracing new challenges with her *hazel* eyes ever-set on fresh horizons. And she never backs down from working with equal or superior talents. "I always want somebody strong flanking me. It makes me want to do better."
"God bless the child that's got her own," indeed. Real divas never get any better than that.