Atlanta singer Libby Whittemore was prepping for her usual spring show at Actor’s Express last April when COVID-19 entered, canceling it. Instead, borrowing an idea from a couple of New York pals — jazz artist Billy Stritch and actor-singer Linda Lavin — Whittemore and longtime musical director Robert Strickland did the show from her Buckhead home. On Facebook.
Thus was born Living Room Cabaret, which last week streamed live for the 44th time. The musical partners have found a niche and a worldwide audience of 300 to 1,000 viewers per week. Whittemore is surprised.
“Actually, I was thinking of it as a one-off,” she says. “That shows you what I know.”
Almost every week since, she and Strickland have done a 30- to 40-minute set that starts at 7:30 p.m. Thursday. They do pop standards, Broadway classics, country tunes, and many of the ’60s and ’70s oldies that Whittemore hears on SiriusXM’s ’60s on 6 radio station. She unleashes her full-throated voice on hits from Motown, Dionne Warwick, Brenda Lee, Rita Coolidge, Johnny Mercer, the McGuire Sisters, K.T. Oslin, Adele, Jule Styne, the Righteous Brothers and many, many others.
Each Living Room Cabaret stays on Facebook for weeks, if not months, for those who want to catch up or hear a favorite again.
Her viewers come from around the country and beyond — including Brazil, Canada, the U.K. and one gentleman from a Slavic country. Fifty percent of her viewers are people she’s never met.
They don’t just listen, either. They flood the right side of the screen with floating emojis — mostly hearts, thumbs-ups and applause — and use the comments section to talk with Whittemore, Strickland and one another.
“Thank you both so very much! I always thoroughly look forward to y’all and your amazing talent,” one viewer said, “but right now the LRC is a by-gosh lifeline for me.”
“You’re both such lights,” commented another. “Thank you for doing this for us.”
“I’m singing harmony right now, and we sound GREAT!”
“The response we got was sort of overwhelming,” Whittemore says. “It’s really helped keep me stay sane through all of this. It gives me something to focus on. It gives me a purpose. I have a schedule I have to stick with, and it gives me an outlet for my creativity. I’d love to say it’s completely altruistic, but it’s helping me and Robert as much as it helps anybody out there.”
Sips of Remy Martin cognac — with a water chaser — don’t hurt either (Strickland’s strictly a Coca-Cola guy).
Before COVID and the advent of the Living Room Cabaret, Whittemore did annual Christmas and spring shows at Actor’s Express and an occasional gig with the DeKalb Symphony. Previously — from 2000 to 2006 — she was the namesake, proprietor and headliner at Libby’s, A Cabaret in Buckhead, a sort of Camelot for lovers of certain kinds of music. The supper club also hosted such New York-based Broadway and cabaret artists as Christine Andreas, Jim Caruso, Karen Mason, Margaret Whiting and Julie Wilson, as well as Atlanta performers.
Whittemore, who’s been performing for more than 40 years, often is called “the Queen of Atlanta Cabaret,” a soubriquet that dates to the city’s cabaret heyday from the late 1970s to the 1990s. She became a regular in the Della’s Diner shows — musical soap-opera spoofs written by Tom Edwards and set in the teeny-tiny fictional town of Morning Glory Mountain, Tennessee. Whittemore originated the character of Connie Sue Day, the 31st Lady of Country Music.
Della’s Diner is long gone, but Connie Sue survives. Whittemore floofs Connie Sue’s Dynel wig, affixes her tiara and brings her back to hilarious big-haired, loud-mouthed life every Christmas season, at her club, then at Actor’s Express and this year via the Living Room Cabaret.
Whittemore also has stage and screen credits and recorded six CDs between 1998 and 2010. Some of those same songs make their way into a Living Room Cabaret.
There’s no rhyme or reason as to what makes each week’s songlist, says Whittemore who, you might be surpised to learn, doesn’t read music. She does keep a Living Room Cabaret list in her phone, ready to add a tune she hears while driving, and she takes requests.
Whittemore and piano man Strickland take Fridays off. On Saturdays, she starts compiling a playlist for the next week and sends it to him. He responds with a list of recordings he needs, then has Sunday and Monday to work on the charts. On Tuesday, they get together for a few hours of rehearsal. Then it’s Thursday, and time for another LRC as they call it.
“We’ve been working together since the dawn of time,” Whittemore says of her musical director, “so luckily we know each other very well, and he knows my voice.” Strickland who, in normal times, is a much-in-demand musician, has been with Whittemore for 30 years, give or take.
Whittemore, who says simply, “I have an income,” does request tips for Strickland via Venmo (@Robert-Strickland-13) and PayPal ([email protected]). She guarantees him at least $200 per show.
The Living Room Cabaret has had its challenges. There were technical coughs early on, and the two have missed four weeks for various reasons, including when both were exposed to COVID-19 and had to quarantine. Neither got sick. Other than that, the beat goes on. At least for now.
“People have said in their comments that even when all of this is over, ‘I hope you’ll keep doing this.’ I don’t know how many people will be interested once they can go back to their lives. And Robert gets really busy.”
Each evening wraps with the same song. It begins, “What the world needs now is love, sweet love.”