It was one of those stormy evenings, the kind of weather that could make people think twice about venturing out into the elements. But “The Divine One”, the legendary Sarah Vaugan, was set to perform at the Blue Note.
Founder and owner Danny Bensusan’s business policy was well known: book big-name acts into a classy place with an elegant atmosphere and great food and the place would be packed night after night. That’s exactly what he managed to do and the Blue Note soon became the city’s premier jazz club.
I’d been working as a coat check girl at the Blue Note for a couple of months when I was “discovered”, if one could even call it that. The crew was cleaning up after the final show, me in the “Lost and Found” section of the coat room. It always amazed me how people could leave behind such things as mink coats and solid gold cigarette lighters! Were they that drunk or was money no object for the elite slumming it in “The Village”?
Well, there I was, stashing a forgotten cashmere scarf into the bin, absentmindedly singing ‘Misty’, when I heard a friendly voice behind me.
“Hey, you been holding out on me, kid? You’re singing like an angel back here!” It was Danny. “What’s your name, sweetheart?” he asked.
“Michelle” I replied, tapping my name tag with long red fingernails. “Michelle Grant.”
Pointing his index finger and winking, Danny clicked his tongue at me as if we were in cahoots over some kind of secret pact and walked off.
About two weeks later I got called into Danny’s office – something that never happened. I thought for sure I was getting canned but that wasn’t the case. Danny offered me a singing gig as a member of the group that performed with the house band. It was nothing special – just singing ballads while the people danced and dined – but it got me out of the coat check room and on stage. I also got a nice little increase in my paycheck and the clientele started recognizing me as one of the singers. I got to hang out with some pretty big names back then: Lionel Hampton, Carmen McRae, Oscar Peterson and the one-and-only Ray Charles who Danny booked for a full week every year.
So there we were on this particularly nasty night, ears glued to the weather report on the radio, hoping people would still come out in this February snowstorm ….. and we were not disappointed. Slowly the house filled up with fans eager to hear Sarah Vaughan. Danny was beaming, grinning from ear to ear. This was going to be a night to remember. There was just one little hiccup: Sarah Vaughan was nowhere in sight.
Danny kept pacing back and forth, checking his watch every minute. I could see him starting to sweat. Then the call came in: “The Divine One” and her crew were stuck in snow on the FDR Drive! They said they’d get there “as soon as they could” but who knew when that would be?
By now the natives were getting restless and calling out for the show to begin. Danny grabbed me by the elbow and said “It’s up to you, kid. Stall ’em as long as you can. Just get out there, sing something and act like everything’s okay.” Before I could object, Danny shoved me onto the stage; hundreds of eyes stared at me like “Who the hell is this chick?”
I stared back like a deer in headlights; you could hear a pin drop. Even the waiters stopped working. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Danny gesturing for me to get the show started.
I walked up to the mike with feigned confidence and in a hushed tone that got everyone’s attention said “Good evening and welcome to the Blue Note. I’m Michelle Grant and this is ‘Misty’.”
The audience gasped; that was Sarah Vaughan’s signature song. Even Danny and the piano man, Erwin “Sweetness” Brown, looked up in stunned disbelief. I sang the all-too-familiar first three words, “Look at me”, a cappella and “Sweetness” joined in just like we planned it that way.
I sang like my life depended on it and I guess, in a way, it did. When I was done the place was silent, then all hell broke loose, everyone standing on their feet cheering and applauding. I was floored, thrilled that they liked me that much! I twirled around in delight and that’s when I saw “The Divine One” standing about 10 feet behind me. Reality slapped me in the face; the people weren’t applauding for me; they were cheering the arrival of Sarah Vaughan.
I wanted to get off that stage as fast as I could but Sarah took my hands in hers and smiled broadly. She hugged me like a proud mama on her daughter’s wedding day and whispered in my ear “Nice job, honey – but you do know ‘Misty’ is MY song, don’t you? And you ain’t ever gonna sing it again, except maybe in the privacy of your shower! Ain’t that right, sugar?”
I nodded mutely.
“Now, what’s your name, honey?” Sarah asked.
I whispered my name and before I had a chance to scramble off the stage, Sarah turned me around to face the audience and raised my arm up in the air like a champion. “How about showing some love to my protégé, Michelle Grant? She took a pretty big leap of faith tonight by jumping into my shoes. That takes guts and I admire her.”
And the people went wild but this time they were clapping for me!
NAR © 2023