She was one of the most in-your-face confident female vocalists of her time, yet somehow, Lulu is nervous as her big club date in NY approaches.
Then again, she didn’t much play the U.S. back in her 1960s heyday, though she did enjoy a string of hits, including “Shout,” “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)” and of course, her No. 1 “To Sir, With Love,” the theme song from the 1967 film starring Sidney Poitier in which she also starred—and which was originally a B-side, she says, until disc jockey’s in the U.S. turned the official single over and played it.
In fact, when Lulu takes the stage at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill on Feb. 16, it will be her first concert ever in New York.
“I never really did much touring,” says Lulu, who is now 64, on the phone from the U.K.
“When ‘To Sir, With Love’ was huge I was very, very busy on television with my own TV series featuring amazing guests,” she explains, and sure enough, her numerous series for the BBC featured artists including Jimi Hendrix; she also worked with everyone from Johnny Cash and The Beatles to Elton John, Sting, David Bowie and Paul McCartney, and in 1972 was invited to appear on the BBC’s anniversary show Fifty Years Of Music.
Yet she never played New York.
“I was a 15-year-old girl when I did ‘Shout,’” she says of her 1964 hit cover of the Isley Brothers classic (recorded as Lulu and the Luvvers). “That’s where my roots are, and while my career went in different ways, I’m going back to my roots—with great musicians, as I’ve done continuously.”
At B.B. King’s, she’ll be backed by the illustrious likes of bassist Will Lee, guitarist Jimmy Vivino and drummer Rich Pagano–who all play in the Fab Faux and similarly backed fellow ‘60s legend Johnny Rivers at the club–and Late Show With David Letterman bandleader/keyboardist Paul Shaffer (Lee also serves in the Letterman band, while Vivino leads the Conan show band).
“I’m going back to small clubs and doing songs that are a little more bluesy,” she says, “and not to eliminate all the songs I had success with, but some of them I wouldn’t sing today as a 64-year-old woman!”
Rest assured that Lulu will perform “To Sir, With Love,” using the celebrated arrangement Barry Manilow did for her a few years back when she appeared as a mentor on American Idol.
“If I had to do it the way I did at 16 I think I’d shoot myself!” she jokes, adding that “Shout” is also in the set, same with her 1969 hit “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool for You Baby)”—which was memorably covered by the likes of Aretha Franklin and Buster Poindexter.
“There’s also a lot of what I’d call old R&B: great old songs I love like Ann Peebles’ ‘I Pity The Fool,’” she continues. She’ll also perform Tina Turner’s 1993 hit “I Don’t Want To Fight,” which Lulu co-wrote and is the name of her 2002 autobiography.
“I’ve had a really long career and it hasn’t stopped,” says Lulu, who was born Marie McDonald McLaughlin Lawrie in Glasgow. “I’ve gone from being a Scottish girl who liked American music, particularly American black music–gospel to R&B and blues and rock ‘n’ roll. I became a successful pop singer, then entertainer-turned-celebrity, with all that goes with it [including] being married to [late Bee Gees brother] Maurice Gibb and another marriage, which kept me in the country–because they weren’t moving to America.”
But her absence from the American stage hardly held Lulu back.
“I’ve had a very varied career,” she says. “Besides the ‘60s hits, I had TV series for years and years and worked with all sorts of amazing people. I did two albums in America in the ‘70s with Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin. In the ‘90s I had a No. 1 hit with boy band Take That [‘Relight My Fire’], did more TV [including memorable guest appearances on Absolutely Fabulous] and theater. I’ve reinvented myself several times.”
But she keeps coming back to American R&B. She was showcased in the 2003 Mike Figgis/Martin Scorsese documentary Red, White and Blues along with other British artists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, who were likewise influenced by the genre.
“So I’m trying to get back to my roots,” she says, “but I’m also nervous about doing this. I told Elton I was going back to doing clubs. He’s like a brother to me, and said, ‘That’s the best thing I’ve heard you say in years! Singing is what makes you tick. It’s how you became successful in the first place.’ And then the pressure begins to live up to your reputation—‘Oh, my God! You better be good, Lu!’–but I’m doing what I love.”
Lulu’s also nervous about playing with new musicians, and is bringing a couple players of her band over with her. But she knows how good their American counterparts are—and how excited they are to be playing with her.
“As a young musician, my family and I watched To Sir, With Love on TV and when the title song was performed, it was an awakening for me of great songwriting and how a great song can be even better with a perfect voice like Lulu’s,” says Pagano.
Notes Vivino: “Lulu possesses one of the voices that jumped out of my radio and grabbed me and never let go. A chance to work with her is a chance to fulfill an artistic and schoolboy crush. Really, I never would have dreamed of this actually happening!”
Adds Lee: “New York will be blessed to finally hear one of England’s most revered soul voices in person at this long-awaited event!”
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