Seven years ago, Libby Whittemore stocked videos and checked out customers at the Blockbuster on Howell Mill Road. The longtime cabaret singer couldn't find work, even though she had performed for more than 15 years at some of the city's most well-known cabarets. The reason? Cabaret in Atlanta was dead.
In the 1980s, cabaret -- often considered the keeper of golden-age tunes -- thrived in Atlanta. Whittemore performed nightly at the popular Upstairs at Gene and Gabe's, and Manhattan Yellow Pages in Midtown. But little by little, the clubs dwindled as cabaret became passé. "There was no place to go if you were over a certain age and didn't want to end up in a bar for the evening," Libby says.
But that changed.
With a financial backer, Whittemore opened her own cabaret -- the only one in Atlanta today -- in June 2000. She started simple, starring as the primary performer and belting out such tunes as "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "I Got Rhythm." Soon, word traveled that cabaret in Atlanta could be found. Fresh-faced talent, eager to find a place to perform, came to Libby to find out how to nab professional engagements. And seasoned local performers, such as Francine Reed and Bernadine Mitchell (who's performing through the end of May at Libby's), have made a point of taking the stage whenever they are in town.
On a recent Thursday night, Mitchell -- the diva who has graced the stages of Alliance Theatre and Theatre in the Square -- filled the dimly lit room at Libby's, which resembles a 1950s supper club. Umbrella-shaped lights hang above small tables accented by petite lamps and draped with light pink cloths. Mitchell, clad in a lacy synthetic black top and long slacks, balanced herself on a stool as her low, rich voice cooed "Let's Fall in Love."
After the tune, she smiled wide and said she had just gotten back to Atlanta. "There is no place like home," she said. "I couldn't find a grit between here and Toronto."
Just back from touring in Canada, Mitchell drew cheers as she belted out the Victoria Spivey classic, "My Handy Man (Ain't Handy No More)," a sultry blues tune. The crowd cackled when she crooned, "Why, he shakes my ashes, greases my griddle/Churns my butter and he strokes my fiddle."
The audience, mostly forty- and fiftysomething couples and friends, warmly applauded Mitchell and pianist Robert Strickland. At their tables, they sipped wine and nibbled on coconut shrimp and fresh fruit. Some couples loosely held hands. "One of the greatest things is seeing couples who've been together for 25 years reach out and hold hands during a song," Whittemore says. "These were the Top 40 songs when they were dating and it brings back fond memories."
The enticement of cabaret comes from the intimate, conversational setting with the audience. Instead of performing at a smoky, loud and overcrowded bar like so many singers, performers at Libby's receive the undivided attention of the audience, who only whisper the occasional side comment during the show. "They respect the space," Whittemore says.
She adds that cabaret is, in a way, the lone bastion of honest craft. Singers must reveal their true selves and voices when the only props on stage are a microphone and a piano. Mediocre voices can't hide behind high-tech tweaking as they can in a gleaming studio or a stage full of loud instruments.
But the fanfare of Libby's hasn't come without hardship. To date, her cabaret, which turns 6 in June, has yet to break even. When she opened, performances ran Tuesday through Saturday. Now, Libby's opens its doors only three nights a week.
Each day, Whittemore struggles to keep cabaret alive in Atlanta as liquor and food costs continually creep up, making tickets -- $30 without dinner, $60 with -- pricey for some customers who'd like to come on a more regular basis. But at the same time, at least one loyal patron thanks her after the show for preserving the timeless art.
Whittemore just wrapped up "Hollywood or Bust," a show that featured movie soundtrack favorites including "Moon River" from Breakfast at Tiffany's and "Do Not Forsake Me Oh My Darlin'" from High Noon. Starting in June, Libby, along with Lisa Paige and Connie Sue Day, will perform a sixth-anniversary show. And in August, she'll reunite with some of her most trustworthy divas for "Let's Hear It for the Girls," which will pay tribute to such female singers as Billie Holiday, Patsy Cline, Janis Joplin and Ella Fitzgerald.
For Whittemore, owning a club is about keeping the flame of cabaret burning in Atlanta. "I'm a performer, not a businesswoman," she says. "Perhaps I should've closed the door years ago. But the brilliant lyrics of composers and the realness of the shows keeps me going."
Atlanta's music scene, while overshadowed by hip-hop, goes a lot deeper than what you hear on the radio. Want to hear some old-school tunes? Here are a few recommendations:
Every Friday and Saturday night at Swallow at the Hollow, three established Nashville songwriters come in for "In the Round," for what those in the know refer to as a "guitar pull." In other words, they rotate playing the songs they wrote that others made famous.1072 Green St., Roswell. 678-352-1975. www.theswallowatthehollow.com
Since 1970, the decidedly quaint Everett Brothers Music Barn has hosted the best of regional and national bluegrass bands. The Everett Brothers themselves are the house band, and they usually open the shows before giving up the stage for the headliner. The barn seats 170 people on church pews, just like the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. 4065 Stoneycypher Road, Suwanee 770-945-5628. www.everettbrothers.com
One of the best things going is the Atlanta Cajun Dance Association, which not only brings in the hottest Cajun bands but offers dance classes for beginners before the concerts. 2620 Buford Highway. www.mindspring.com/%7Eatlcajundance
Northside Tavern is a classic dive, in the best sense of the word. While Blind Willie's is an Atlanta icon that draws the national blues acts, Northside Tavern offers the best of the local blues artists such as Mudcat and Cora Mae Bryant. 1058 Howell Mill Road. 404-874-8745.
-- Scott Freeman
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