It’s always fascinating to find the singular sensation that is Nellie McKay — risk-taking vocalist/composer in a contemporary pop/jazz vein, Bernie Sanders supporter, dog lover, one-time Poconos native — elbows-deep in one of her several character-driven, live showcases.
“It’s nice getting lost sometimes,” she said from her home in New York City.
The soft-spoken McKay has, so far, written and portrayed the stories of sly murderess Barbara Graham (in the musical cabaret “I Want to Live!”) and environmental activist Rachel Carson (in “It’s Not Nice to Fool Mother Nature”), each with confident assurance and actor-ish Wiles.
“These women, these characters, they definitely choose me to portray them, rather than the other way around,” McKay said. “This is kismet. I’m like the mom to these shows being my kids.”
For our purposes, however, it’s nice that McKay is again focusing her attentions upon legendary jazz pianist, band leader and vocalist Billy Tipton (her first time was 2014). McKay interprets/extrapolates/becomes him in “A Girl Named Bill,” a program she’s executing with her small ensemble April 8 at the Rrazz Room in New Hope and April 9 at the Rrazz Room at the Prince Theater.
For the uninitiated, Tipton was a post-vaudevillian who worked primarily throughout the late ’30s into the early ’60s before becoming a talent agent. He also led jazz trios and swing bands, composed for the likes of Fletcher Henderson and was known for his humorous, loud stage patter and his imitations of celebs such as Elvis and Liberace.
“Billy’s story is fascinating. He was really something, a musical whiz kid,” said McKay. She should know a thing or two about whiz kids; she was a member of the Young Persons Poconos Orchestra as a child and was mentored by the likes of jazzbo saxophonist Phil Woods and crooner/”Schoolhouse Rock” composer Bob Dorough before she made her first album at 22. “Get Away from Me” made her the first woman to release a double album as her debut.
After his death at age 74, in 1989, it was discovered that Tipton was originally Dorothy Lucille Tipton from Oklahoma City, Okla., a woman who lived and worked as a man by binding her breasts and padding her pants. Tipton married women, adopted children and existed mostly as a man — save for two close female cousins privy to his secret.
“I have no idea how he could deal with binding his breasts and such. I tried to do it for the few performances and couldn’t breathe. No way,” McKay said. “I could handle it maybe an hour, but he did it all the time. So uncomfortable. It’s like having your hair in a ponytail that you can’t take out. I dress up in a suit and such, sure, but I feel as if I inhabit his spirit more than just those trousers.”
It’s not so much as if McKay is becoming Tipton, but rather channeling all the cheery show-biz and hidden nuances of all that the Midwestern pianist/singer was — mostly according to the testimony of family members and old friends, as well as the text of “Suits Me: The Double Life of Billy Tipton.” That McKay has managed to do this without an ounce of kitsch or camp in her work is smartly illustrative of the thoughtful, wise and provocative artist that she is sans character.
“I appreciate your faith in me,” she laughed, “but I don’t think I could do kitsch if I tried. “I’m not good at creating any sort of kitsch and make it an art form — corny stuff, maybe, but not camp; I’m too much of a slob and a hobo. Besides, Billy wasn’t camp, he was a mensch.”
Along with performing signature Tipton tunes from his repertoire such as “Willow Weep for Me,” McKay has even penned a few Tipton-like tunes such as “I’m in the Luckiest Mood,” where “channeling” the man, woman and their shared moment was crucial.
“You have to live in those shoes for a bit. We tried to be true to Billy, so anything you write or do has to be upbeat — have joie de vivre. Being a cynic myself, I have to put aside the pessimism for 90 minutes. He’s such a pleasure to play.”
Asked about remaking “A Girl Named Bill” for the currency of trans identity issues and policy-making, the always-political McKay said Tipton was a pioneer whose story should be witnessed.
“He braved great dangers for the cause. And he did it with a twinkle in his eye.”
Nellie McKay performs “A Girl Named Bill” 8 p.m. April 8 at the Rrazz Room, 6426 Lower York Road in New Hope, and 8 p.m. April 9 at Rrazz Room at the Prince Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. For more information or tickets, visit www.therrazzroom.com.
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