Volume 22, Issue 5
Volume 22, Issue 5
On the Beat: Shirley Nanette - Woman of Many Voices
Paula M. Walker/Volunteer Announcer
When you first hear Shirley Nanette sing, you might think
of Nancy Wilson or another singer with a lush, silky sound.
Louis Armstrong or Ethel Merman don't immediately leap to
mind. Yet if you went to the Jazz Quarry in the 1980s, you
might have seen Shirley channel Louis in "Ain't Misbehavin,"
followed by Sarah Vaughan, with a bridge by Billie Holiday
and finale by Esther Phillips. Talk about getting your money's
Nanette has long been fascinated by the voices of other
singers. Even her singing "debut" at the age of 7—
"Tennessee Waltz" over the intercom in her doctor's
office—paid tribute to one of her childhood idols, Patti
Paige. When she was about 15, she got her first paying gig
at Van's Olympic Room at N. Vancouver and Fremont
"I was nervous, but excited at the same time" says
Nanette, recalling the songs that launched her career. "I
probably sang some blues, and I sang "Leave My Kitten
Alone," the Ike and Tina Turner song "I Idolize You" and Etta
James' "All I Can Do Is Cry."
From that modest start, Nanette has gone on to sing with
symphony orchestras throughout the country, opened for
numerous singers ranging from Billy Eckstine to Frankie Valli
and the Four Seasons. From uncut diamond to jazz gem,
Nanette has become a jazz treasure in Oregon and beyond.
Nanette likes the structure of singing with symphonies.
"You have a captive audience," she said. "They're not
doing anything but coming there to see the show. There are
no bartenders mixing drinks etc."
She is equally elated by singing jazz with small groups in a
"On the other hand there is
something about having an
intimate audience with a trio
that's very satisfying," she said.
"You can stretch out musically.
You can ad lib and talk to them
as if they are family. I like to tell
people sometimes that when
they come to see me, they're in
my living room. I can just be me."
Shirley's vocal talents caught the attention of the nation in
the 1980s. She beat out thousands of contestants to win a
national talent show on the NBC television show "Fantasy,"
a precursor to "American Idol." Although she was seen by
over 20 million viewers and won a host of prizes, including a
trip to Hawaii and a week-long gig at the Tropicana in Las
Vegas, the competition failed to make Shirley Nanette a
Her success on the show resulted in a few unexpected
Portland links. She played the Tropicana gig with Mel
Brown, George Mitchell and Phil Baker. When Shirley was
in Burbank, she watched the taping of the Tonight Show
"When it aired, there I was standing in the wings with a
Jazz Society of Oregon T-Shirt on," she said laughing. "So I
DID make it on Johnny Carson!"
Nanette has embraced every experience she's had, both
good and bad. "I've learned a lot from both," she says.
"They were great teachers in showing me what to do and
what not to do." "American Idol" wannabees could learn
from her advice.
"Work hard at your craft," she says. "Be YOU in your
music. Make it your song. Don't worry about being like
someone else. Persevere and be persistent."
Shirley has a loyal following in Oregon. But she said the
number of venues for jazz vocalists has shrunk in Portland
since the 1980s. KMHD will sponsor a concert featuring
Shirley at the Old Church on Sunday, November 26. She
will perform with Ron Steen, Tony Pacini, Brian Ward and
Kevin Deitz. KMHD will produce a CD from the concert.
KMHD supporters can get tickets to the concert with a
buffet and the resulting CD with a $150 pledge to the
station during its fall pledge drive. Stay tuned to KMHD for
more information or log onto kmhd.fm.
Shirley Nanette with KMHD
Station Manager, Doug Sweet