Libby Whittemore is Atlanta’s “queen of cabaret,” a singer who has crafted a 40-year career singing the standards, starring in stage musicals and, for a time, as the owner of her own nightclub.
Whittemore will join the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra for their season-closing summer pops concert this Friday, July 17 at 8 p.m. at the Marvin Cole Auditorium at Georgia Perimeter College in Clarkston.
A native Atlantan, Whittemore originated the role of Connie Sue Day in the local hit musical series, Della’s Diner. She has also performed in feature films and television. In 2000, she opened “Libby’s — A Cabaret.” After it closed in 2006, Whittemore began producing and performing in three cabaret shows a year in collaboration with Actor’s Express.
ArtsATL recently caught up with Whittemore to chat about her music and life in advance of Friday’s show with the DSO, which also features the Robert Strickland Trio.
ArtsATL: Tell us about your upcoming performance with the DeKalb Symphony Orchestra. What kinds of repertoire will you be singing?
Libby Whittemore: It’s going to be a mixture of Broadway and standards and some ’50s and ’60s maybe, a little country maybe, but mostly standards and Broadway stuff. It’s the sixth time we’ve been with the DeKalb Symphony, and love it.
ArtsATL: All your song arrangements and orchestrations are by Robert Strickland, your musical director and pianist. You’ve worked together for a long time.
Whittemore: A very long time. The first time I worked with Robert, he actually subbed for another piano player. As far as him becoming my musical director, that happened in the late ’80s, early ’90s, but I’ve known him forever, because the cabaret circuit in Atlanta was very small and very tight. Everybody knew everybody.
ArtsATL: Atlanta’s cabaret scene wound down in the 1990s, then you opened “Libby’s — A Cabaret” in 2000. What has happened since its closure in 2006?
Whittemore: I moved in with my mom in 2005. After the club closed, Freddie Ashley [artistic director] at Actor’s Express approached me and said that he always wanted to do a cabaret series in connection with the theater. He asked me in 2007 if I would do my Christmas show there. So I said sure. It went well.
It got to a point that I was doing three shows a year at Actor’s Express and taking private gigs here and there. After running a club for six years, that was a gracious plenty. My mom had begun to develop dementia. I really began to have to take care of her and that became the focus of my life. Mom passed away almost a year ago, on July 28, so it’s been a very difficult year.
ArtsATL: This is a seriously transitional time for you.
Whittemore: Very much so.
ArtsATL: What’s been consistent for you across your career?
Whittemore: The thing I’ve been most lucky about is the following I’ve had in Atlanta. That’s sort of surprised me because there was a big chunk of time in the ’90s, after all the clubs closed, when I was not singing anywhere and yet people would know who I was. I was so amazed at that, just flabbergasted. But it’s allowed me to keep working for 40 years.
ArtsATL: It also shows what kind of impact you’ve had on your audience.
Whittemore: I had something happen very early on, during one of the first one-woman shows I ever did at Gene and Gabe’s, like 1980, 1981. When a show is over, you come out and some people are still hanging around. You chat and it’s lovely. This one lady came over to me and said, “Would you mind coming over to my table? My mom’s here and I would love for you to meet her.” As we were walking over she told me, “My father passed away six weeks ago. This is the first time my mother has been out since then, and it’s the first time I’ve seen her smile since my dad passed away.”
I thought, “You know what? When you’re on that stage and you’re doing a show that you’ve done a hundred times, you never know how much somebody [out there] may need to be entertained.” Lucky for me, I had that happen very early on and I’ll never forgot it.
ArtsATL: Your background was musical theater where there is a direct relationship between acting and singing. It feels like with a lot of your repertoire there’s an intrinsic tie-in between the two skills even if the song is a standard that is not originally part of a musical, per se.
Whittemore: Well, I think the good singers are [both]. There are a lot of singers who don’t do that. They’re very well known and that’s great. Beautiful singers, great on a CD, but not so great in person because they don’t give anything. It’s all in their voice. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, that’s just a way of doing the material.
My early influences were Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand. Now, most people would think of Barbra Streisand as just a voice, but one of the first albums I ever had was A Happening in Central Park, which was a live performance where she was talking and she was hysterically funny. She gave more than just her voice in a show. Certainly Judy Garland was the epitome of performance singing. When she sang a song she was performing that song. Those were early influences.
It’s funny, people would ask, “Did you ever take voice lessons?” and I would say, “Well, outside of chorus in high school, no, although I did have the two best vocal coaches anybody could ever have: Barbra Streisand and Judy Garland.” Of course, they had no idea that they were my vocal coaches, but that’s where I learned phrasing, breath control, vibrato — where I learned everything, singing along with their albums. I didn’t realize that was what was happening at the time, but I look back on it now and I think, yeah that’s how I learned how to do all of that.
ArtsATL: Acknowledging the demise of cabaret-style clubs around Atlanta in the 1990s, has that been a general trend across the country?
Whittemore: Yes, it is. There are very few clubs left. I think there’s one left in San Francisco and maybe two or three in New York. But some of the most well-known ones have closed and the ones that are still open in New York, like Café Carlyle, are the ones that bring in name people.
ArtsATL: Although the cabaret club circuit is currently out of commission, these kids of songs, classics and standards are hardly going away.
Whittemore: Absolutely. There’s a reason why something that was written in, say, the 1920s is still being performed. It’s great music and everybody finds it eventually. Teenagers who can’t stand to listen to it now, in 20 years will find this music because somebody they like will record it. [Think of] Lady Gaga singing with Tony Bennett, and all of her followers that were introduced to these standards.
There’s a reason why this music is called “classic” and “standards,” why people are still singing Gershwin and Irving Berlin: because it’s good music. Look at all the people who became Sinatra fans long after Sinatra was dead. What did he sing? All standards.
The problem is not the music. The problem is going-out habits have completely changed. There’s so much to keep people home now, so they just don’t go out. [They have] their DVDs and now Netflix, and big-ass televisions where nobody has to go to the movie theater. They can wait till it comes out on DVD and sit at home.
ArtsATL: It seems like this music is finding one safe haven in symphonic pops concerts.
Whittemore: The beauty of doing [a show with] the symphony is that it gives Robert and me an opportunity to do songs that I’ve sung for 30 years with a full orchestra, not just a piano or piano, bass and drums. Streisand and Garland always had these big orchestras. To me, that meant you’ve really made it if you are backed by a full orchestra. It gives me goosebumps just to think about it. And it’s Robert’s arrangements and orchestrations — he does it all.
ArtsATL: Looking back, how do you measure what you’ve accomplished in your career?
Whittemore: I remember when I was a teenager thinking that the signs of success would be I would go to New York and become a big fat Broadway star. I didn’t move to New York. Very early on, probably because I was scared of the unknown, I decided, “Why should I go to New York and become a waitress and be fighting a million other people for a role when I could be here in Atlanta and work?” So I made that choice to stay, and for the longest time I thought I never was successful, because I never did that.
Everything happens for a reason but I now realize that I have been very successful. The fact that I have been performing now for 40 years — my first job was the Harlequin Dinner Theater in 1975 — and I have been able to perform, not steadily, but have been able to keep doing what I love in the city that I love for 40 years; that is success. You know, it really is. And now that I’m about to turn 60, it may not be what I dreamed about as a teenager, but it ain’t nothing to sneeze at either.