It was one of those stormy evenings, the kind of weather that could make people think twice about going out. But “The Divine One”, the legendary Sarah Vaugan, was set to perform at the Blue Note.
Founder and owner Danny Bensusan’s policy was well known: if he brought big acts into a comfortable environment with great food, he could pack the house night after night. He managed to do exactly that and the place 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” cubicle of the coat room. It always amazed me how people could leave behind such things as mink coats and diamond-studded cigarette lighters! Were they that drunk or was money no object for the elite slumming it on West 3rd Street in “The Village”?
Well, there I was, stashing a forgotten très chic cashmere scarf in the bin, absentmindedly singing ‘Misty’, when I heard a familiar voice behind me.
“Hey, you been holding out on me, kid? You got a great set of pipes!” 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 as if in cahoots with me over some kind of secret and walked off.
About two weeks later I got called into Danny’s office – something that never happened. I thought for sure I was gonna get canned but that wasn’t the case. Danny offered me a singing gig as part of the group that performed with the house band. It was nothing special – just singing ballads while the patrons dined and danced – but it got me out of the coat check room and in front of people. I also got a nice little increase in my paycheck and the clientele started recognizing me as one of the singers. Plus 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, ears glued to the weather report on the radio, hoping people would still come out in this September nor’easter. We were not disappointed. Slowly but surely 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 fifteen seconds. I could see him starting to sweat. Then the call came in: “The Divine One” and her crew were stranded on the flooded FDR Drive. 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 and smile and act like everything’s fine.” 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. 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 said “Good evening and welcome to the Blue Note. I’m Michelle Grant and this is ‘Misty’.”
The audience gasped in unison; 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 it had been planned.
I sang like my life depended on it. 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 as I spun I saw “The Divine One” standing behind me. That’s when reality slapped me in the face – the crowd wasn’t applauding for me; the people were cheering the arrival of Sarah Vaughan.
I wanted to disappear. Sarah took my hands in hers and whispered in my ear “Nice job, honey – but you do know ‘Misty’ is MY song, don’t you? And you ain’t ever singing again, ‘cept maybe in the shower!”
I nodded mutely and started walking of the stage but she stopped me and said to the audience “How about a round of applause for my protégé, Michelle Grant?”
And this time they were clapping for me!