By Bob Andelman
August 23, 1985
Nell Carter hardly needs a break.
The compact chanteuse made her world debut as a concert headliner at Ruth Eckerd Hall on June 28 with impressive results.
Although Carter is a Tony Award-winning Broadway actress, star of the long-running NBC-TV comedy “Gimme A Break,” and recently completed a stint as opener for Rich Little and George Burns in Las Vegas, the Clearwater concert was her first time as the main attraction in a singing-only role.
Was she nervous?
“No… Yes! That’s a lie,” she said with a laugh in a backstage interview after the show. “It’s amazing how you feel more confident doing something you’ve never done before,” the 35-year-old singer added.
Carter’s 70 minutes began with a clamorous rendition of Patti LaBelle’s recent hit “New Attitude.” She took one like from the song, “from my head to my shoes,” and pronounced “shoes” in a funny sounding way, not unlike Ed Sullivan used to do to “show,” as in “a really GIB shew.”
“If you’re white, you’re black or you;re country, we got you covered tonight,” the singer warned.
The show certainly was a varied one, from the ballads “Mean To Me” and “I Can Let Go Now” to a surprisingly western cover of the old Eagles hit “Desperado,” and on through a roof-shaking gospel medley which included “Lord I Want To Be A Christian,” “Down By The Riverside” and “Operator.”
Two segments of the program – a medley from the Broadway play Ain’t Misbehavin’, which Carter starred in, and the classic chestnut “Stormy Weather,” stole the show. Both numbers, the singer said later, were almost cut before the show began.
Of the Ain’t Misbehavin’ medley, Carter started with “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and wound her way through “Honeysuckle Rose,” “Ain’t Nobody’s Business” and “Keeping’ Outa Mischief.” The medley showed the sultry, steamy side of Carter, the one that won a Tony Award and great acclaim. In the Ain’t Misbehavin’ material, she has a vehicle that makes her as hot and heavy as Tina Turner – without Turner’s legs.
And the elegance of Carter singing “Stormy Weather” was especially a revelation to someone who had never before seen the tune unleashed with all its depth and intensity intact. This woman can really belt out a lyric.
“That was the one song I was going to cut before the show because I figured no one was gonna like it,” Carter said of “Stormy Weather” after the concert. “And the Ain’t Misbehavin’ medley? I was afraid to do it… No one knew what to expect.”
Asked who taught her to control her breathing and vocal expression, Carter shook her head. “I had piano and guitar (lessons) and that was it,” she said. “No vocals. I used to listen to records.”
Carter, who brings a four-piece band and three back-up singers on the road with her and picks up local horns and strings, said she had no trouble choosing the material for her first concert tour, despite the variety she sought and achieved.
“I’m a ‘60s rock kid,” she explained. “I still love rock ‘n’ roll. And I love the ‘40s stuff; I’m just old enough to have grown up with that, too. I was opening (in Las Vegas) with ‘Like A Virgin,’ but I figured the audience (in Clearwater) wouldn’t go for it.”
“Gimme A Break” began taping its fourth season in mid-July. Carter said her first test of the concert waters is to broaden her post-sitcom opportunities. “I want to build up longevity so I will be able to work,” she said.
No problem there. Nell Carter infused her performance with all the personality, sweat, glory and excitement of a rowdy, boisterous and sincere glory music show.