The Weekend: Bernadette Peters to Muscle Shoals

Bernadette Peters 2
Bernadette Peters has always been just on the edge of my consciousness. I knew what she looked like – flaming red, boisterous, uncontrollable hair, kewpie-doll lips and a dynamite body – but I was never curious about her music. Over the years her picture would catch my eye, but her music never quite caught my ear.

Marilynn, on the other hand, has always been a fan, and when she saw that Ms. Peters was performing with the Seattle Symphony last weekend she wanted to go. She loves Broadway musicals, and knows the songs, stories, and cast members of most of them. Until recently I wouldn’t have given a second thought to seeing her in performance.

What happened to change things, for me, was Sirius XM Radio. Crazy, but true. The change is a long story, but the shortened version is that I needed a new audio system for my old car. Like my awareness of Ms. Peters, I knew about Sirius but never paid much attention to it until I needed a new sound system. I decided to give it a try. 30 day free trial; what’s to lose? Sirius XM is all about controlling audio content, and control is everything now that NSA is watching everything we do – isn’t it? We have so little control over our lives these days. Controlling my radio content sounded like a good thing. I hope the NSA likes my choices.

Sirius offers hundreds of discreet channels devoted to everything from opera to Rush Limbaugh, but one of the options is a channel devoted to Broadway show tunes. It sounded middle-brow to me but Marilynn was excited. I couldn’t imagine listening to a steady diet of Oklahoma and South Pacific, even if they threw in a little Hair and Hairspray. But, I was wrong. I’m hooked on it now. There are dozens of literate, clever, attention getting musicals that I had never heard of but am getting to know.

Ms. Peters comes into this because I hear her frequently on Sirius. She was and is primarily a Broadway musical theater performer, and that’s what I’ve been listening to. She’s not very visible outside that musical category, and even more restrictive is her focus on the repertoire of Stephen Sondheim. Both Sondheim and Peters are acquired tastes and difficult to categorize. West Side Story is the most accessible of his works, but even that is more American opera than mainstream musical theater. Sondheim’s work is edgy, difficult, and more in line with Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess than Oklahoma or South Pacific.

Ms. Peters has a remarkable voice and vocal range, and despite the fact that you don’t leave the theater with one of her songs cycling around in your head, the evening itself is memorable. Sondheim’s songs and her styling do not dish up a menu of hummable tunes. Aside from the songs in West Side Story (music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Sondheim) the only popular Sondheim song I can think of is Send In The Clowns from A Little Night Music, which was made popular by Judy Collins and covered by everyone from Frank Sinatra to Barbra Streisand.

Friday night was a turning point for me. I’m definitely on the bandwagon now. She turned me into a fan. On Saturday morning I watched 8 or 10 of her YouTube videos and was captivated again by her voice and stage presence. You can catch her version of Not A Day Goes By from Merrily We Roll Along on YouTube at:

Time has stood still for her in many ways. She looks just like she did when I first noticed her in the ‘70’s. I’m as surprised at her age (65) as I am at my own (75). She looks a lot better than I do but it’s as if the clock stopped in 1975 as you watch and listen to her. Try this more accessible but rollicking version of Anything You Can Do from Annie Get Your Gun (with Tom Wopat):


Time has not been as kind to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as it has to Bernadette. They look like dueling versions of The Picture of Dorian Gray these days, but, on the upside, they have somehow managed to retain the sound and energy of their early years.

The Rolling Stones are one of the groups featured in a new documentary called Muscle Shoals, about the legendary Alabama town that has attracted dozens of world famous recording artists and where the Stones first recorded Brown Sugar. The film chronicles the life of Rick Hall and FAME Music, the studio he founded in 1959 and where the renowned “Muscle Shoals sound” developed. Check out Mick and Tina on Brown Sugar:

The documentary also features Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge, Aretha Franklin, Paul Simon, Traffic, Clayton Carter, Etta James, Bono, Alicia Keys and others who were drawn to Muscle Shoals by the FAME rhythm section. In interview after interview we hear these blues and rock and roll legends explain how they were attracted by the black musicians with their patented Muscle Shoals’ sound. And we get to glimpse their surprise at discovering that The Swampers, as they came to be known, were a group of 5 local white musicians brought together by Rick Hall to support his recording dream.

The film is history and art. It’s beautifully made with shots of the Tennessee River and local surroundings interspersed with interviews and film of the recording sessions. It also chronicles the split between Rick and the Swampers, who decide to leave FAME in 1967, to pursue their own dream and form their own studio – the Muscle Shoals Sound Studio. It was a contentious divorce but in the end there seemed to be room in Muscle Shoals (population 13,371) for two world class rock and roll recording studios. Both seem to have prospered. Rick has a new group of mostly black musicians in his new rhythm section, and the Swampers have gone on to record other world-class acts like the Allman Brothers, Lynyrd Skynyrd and others. My favorite track in the film is Lynyrd Skynyrd’s Sweet Home Alabama. Check it out:

We managed to slip in a matinee showing of Muscle Shoals on our rainy Sunday afternoon, but in between, on Saturday night, we were able to catch Tweety and the Tomcats at a bar/café next door in Bothell. That’s Tweety, with her sax, in the middle and George, my guitar teacher, on the right.

Tweety and the Tomcats

There’s a lot of music (and talent) around. Don’t miss the opportunity to see and hear it. Manhattan Transfer is at the Triple Door in downtown Seattle tomorrow night. It should be fun. Remember Java Jive? Transfer’s version is a sensational reminder of the Ink Spots original. You can check them out and compare them both on YouTube. Technology has made it an amazing world to live in but there is nothing like a live performance to make you appreciate the art and the artist.


  1. Interesting stuff, but I do confess to going back more than once to check out that picture of Bernadette. Yowzuh!! And by the way, not too long ago I read Keith Richards’ autobiography. I don’t really recommend it. Just skimming it is enough to get you stoned. He’s lucky to be alive.

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