News Column

Sandy Stewart's; She walked away from show biz, outlived two husbands and now singsabout loss and love as only one who's lived it can.

July 21, 2013


Sandy Stewart was almost there.

"There" was what she'd wanted since she first stood on a stage as akid, at a benefit at a fancy Philadelphia hotel and belted out asong that made the people applaud and she thought: "I am going tobe a famous singer some day."

"There" was what she was looking for when she left Philly and herclose-knit family behind to live in a women's hotel in New YorkCity and finish her studies while working the best after-school jobimaginable -- a five-day-a-week gig on Ernie Kovacs' CBS show inthe '50s, replacing Edie Adams.

"There" was the place she'd carefully carved for herself with everynote, with every TV appearance through the early '60s with PerryComo, Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson, plus nights in Vegas and dayson the set of her first co-starring role in a genuine Hollywoodfilm.

"There" was that long-worked-for moment when she had her own hitrecord, a song that climbed the charts and put her close ... sovery close, to everything she had imagined.

And then, she stepped away.

"My agent was hysterical," Stewart says wryly, all these yearslater, surrounded by the photos and sounds and memories of the lifeshe chose instead in this neatly decorated Manalapan condo stepsaway from the ocean she loves.

It's not that she went away. "I never stopped singing," saysStewart, whose sentimental single "My Coloring Book" spent fiveweeks in the Billboard Top 40 in 1963, topping at No. 20.

She married the two loves of her life, "Peter Pan" composer MooseCharlap and then trumpeter George Triffon, had seven kids betweenthem and devoted most, but not all, of her life to raising afamily.

She also did voice work, dubbing the singing for movie stars andrecording some of the most memorable commercial jingles of ageneration, including ads for Bain De Soleil, Enjoli cologne ("'Ican bring home the bacon. Fry it up in a pan ... 'Cause I'm awoman") and Easy Spirit tennis shoes (Looks like a pump, feels likea sneaker, remember?)

But she did take that step away from the path of girl singerstardom.

"Do I regret it? On occasion. But not really," says Stewart, 75,currently enjoying the best reviews of her long career, thanks inpart to "Something To Remember," her thoughtfully melancholy set ofstandards recorded with her son, celebrated jazz pianist BillCharlap, 47.

Described by the New York Times as a "pop-jazz Mona Lisa" for herunderstated, thoughtful way with a well-worn classic, she findsherself on the road, supporting a dream that was not so muchrestarted as re-imagined. And she does it in a way that only aveteran, informed by experience, loss and a profound appreciationfor a life well-lived, can do it.

"Sandy Stewart is truly a real pro," says Rob Russell, manager ofthe Royal Room Cabaret at the Colony Hotel, where Stewart hasperformed. "She takes you to a place in a song that few singersdo."

It started back when she was a kid singing for her family, who paidfor singing lessons and helped the then-fourteen-year-old stuff herbra to win a beauty contest sponsored by a local brewery.

"I had an aunt who had wanted to be a professional singer and neverdid," Stewart says. "Everyone helped out."

They had enough faith to encourage her to leave Philly at 16, "thefirst person to get out," and set up residence at the BarbizonHotel For Women, whose equally driven alumni include Grace Kellyand, later, Cybill Shepherd. While she finished high school, sheworked on Kovacs' show, and soon was doing guest appearances on"The Tonight Show" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," and appearing withComo and Benny Goodman.

It was through Como that she met fellow girl singer and lifelongfriend Kaye Ballard, who would not only become the namesake fordaughter Katherine, now 49, but literally handed Stewart her onlyhit.

"Kander and Ebb (the duo that would eventually write 'Chicago')were writing for Kaye, and I came into a rehearsal ... where wewere getting paid to laugh and eat" and sit around with celebritieslike Don Adams and Paul Lynde, she says. The writers "ran in andsaid 'Kaye! We have a hit song for you, but she looked at thelyrics and said 'Give it to Sandy.'~HOA~128~128~"

Those lyrics liken the telegraphing of the narrator's sad lovestory to the colors that fill in the lines of a coloring book, andwere affecting enough to send it to Number 20. (It was also a hitfor Barbra Streisand).

At the time, Dick Robinson was a DJ in New England who remembers"playing the hell out of it." And the Connecticut School ofBroadcasting founder, North Palm Beach resident and syndicated hostof "Classics By The Sea" still plays it, along with her work withCharlap, whom he deems "a genius.

"And she does a hell of a job. Together, they're killer. They dothe kind of music we want to preserve."

As things started to happen for Stewart, her training on live TVmade her a natural, "because when that red light comes on, you hadto do it right the first time. You didn't have tape," she says.

She even appeared in a movie, "Go Johnny Go," co-starring ChuckBerry and Ritchie Valens, and was to sign a long-term contract. Andthen love happened -- a couple of loves. Stewart actually wasdating both Charlap and Triffon, who played at the famousCopacabana and with Goodman, "but I had to make a choice," shesays, winking.

And that choice was Charlap, already at the time the father of twoyoung kids, Anne, now 57, and Tom, now 55, and who with "Peter Pan"wrote the music for evergreens such as "I Won't Grow Up" and "IGotta Crow."

"Richard Rodgers heard it and said 'My boy, you haven't written ashow. You've written an annuity,' " she says of "Peter Pan."

There's no coincidence, she says, that her two true loves were alsoin love with music, because "I've never believed in oppositesattracting. I've had two great men in my life."

It was around the time of her first marriage that she made thedecision that freaked out her agent: "taking a hiatus from being infront of the business. It was important to me to be there for thechildren," she says.

After Charlap's death of a heart attack in 1974, at the age of 42,she grieved, and then, with the encouragement of friends likesinger Corky Hale, the wife of legendary rock composer MikeStoller, she started doing small club dates "in clubs that don'texist anymore."

She later found inspiration in her kids. She and sons Tom and Billrecorded an album together in 1993, and then Bill, "a real prodigy"who began playing piano at three, became her sole collaborator.

"I don't work with anyone but Bill," she says. "The umbilical cordis a very powerful cord."

Love is also a powerful cord, one not easily severed by time oreven the choice to set it aside for a while. In 1986, Stewartmarried old boyfriend George Triffon, with whom she bought herManalapan apartment, sharing both a love of music and swimming inthe ocean (Triffon was even a Delray Beach lifeguard when he wasn'tperforming).

"Who says you can't step into the same river twice!" she says,laughing.

Like the New York Times alluded to, the self-proclaimed "formerbelter" has honed a signature style that's less showiness, and morestudied telling. Absent are exaggerated runs and glory notesbecause "loud is not necessarily good," Stewart says. "If you'renot paying attention to the lyrics, it doesn't make any sense. Iapproach the songs the way I feel them."

It's been noted that many of those songs, like "Smoke Gets In YourEyes" and "Where Or When," are sad ones, which she fills with anauthentic yearning that's only earned with tears and loss.

"The first time I performed ("Smoke") was shortly after Georgedied, and I remember saying 'I can't sing any happy songs,' " shesays softly. "We were playing live, and we got to 'In the Wee SmallHours,' and I lost it. Bill kept playing. People said to me, 'Youmake me want to cry,' and you can't fake that. I knew major loss ata very young age. Moose died two days before my 37th birthday, andGeorge had a stroke right before my 70th."

She pauses.

"I'm not very happy on my birthday."

There's nothing you can do to stop loss. All you can do is use it,which Stewart does, choosing "to tell a story with your heart. Whenyou do that makes an impact," she says. "Sometimes the room getsextremely quiet, and it feels like nobody's there. Then after abouta minute, somebody will do this (she claps softly) and that's thebest compliment. Unless I'm bombing."

Bombing isn't something Stewart does very often, if ever. And so,more than 50 years into this career that went places she didn'timagine, she finds herself again on the road.

"I don't love the traveling. I never did. I was the only girl inthe band full of hard-smoking, hard-drinking men," she says.

But she loves the work, and the music. And she loves this pathshe's found herself on.

"This music lasts because it tells a story. It's life," she says."And life goes on." Twitter: @LeslieStreeter


~HOA~128~128~ "My Coloring Book":

~HOA~128~128~ "Heavenly Father" from "Go, Johnny, Go":

~HOA~128~128~ "I Concentrate On You":

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