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Live at Sambuca by Rita Graham

Rita Graham is a sensitive and attentive singer of quality songs. In a day and age when a sizable canon of the American popular idiom is seldom sung at all and its lyrics spill more venom than a king cobra, Graham's honest interpretation of her heartfelt repertoire becomes more than simply appreciable. It becomes important.

Beyond the obvious deterioration of basic pop, what has become of the modern day singer of jazz and standard songs? Perhaps it is only the sentiment of a jaded jazz critic that announces enough is enough. Subtle no longer seems descriptive of the contemporary genre, evidenced as a quantity of wailing and screaming "jazz singers" attempt individualization with a modus operandi dependent entirely upon hyperbole. And then there's the other camp, oft described as smoky. But what is smoke if there is no fire? A happy medium would be nice.

If you are not already acquainted, please allow me to introduce Rita Graham. She exemplifies today's skilled, professional vocalist by approaching every song sensibly. In thoroughly honest fashion, Rita sidesteps the unnecessary (albeit highly fashionable), overly dramatic forays of some of today’s poll-winning jazz vocalists. When presenting a melody, Rita's lovely, resonant alto takes the listener inside each song’s meaning--without abusing her vocal chords. Using subtle nuance, she breathes new life into vintage airs.

Rita's formative years were spent in Detroit, where she received a wealth of musical stimuli. Her mother is a studied classical and jazz pianist. But her father, a barber by trade, may have had an even more profound effect on young Rita. "My father had the juke box of life in his shop," Rita says. "It was loaded with everything imaginable--from what used to be called ‘race records’ (dirty blues, etc.), right on up through Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Dinah Washington, and Ella. It held an amazing array of music."

Although Rita cites no prevailing influence from church music, she remembers standing outside New Bethel Baptist Church (that's Reverend Franklin's.... Aretha's father's church) listening in awe to the music that came pouring out. "My father's barber shop was right down the street. My mother said I couldn't go down there because they were playing rock 'n' roll at that church," Rita laughs. "But they were doing tremendous music, some very beautiful songs."

The Graham family moved to Los Angeles when Rita was in her teens and there she began singing in small clubs with local musicians. When on tour with a band in Sydney, Australia, Rita met Ray Charles, who not only produced her first album, "Rita Graham Vibrations," but invited the early-20s singer to join the Raylettes vocal group--part of his touring act. "My love for music was solidified at that point," recalls Rita. "Ray's band was exciting and always right on the money. He had a tremendous sense of showmanship. It was a wonderful experience and I learned a great deal."

After a year with Charles, Rita spent several months on the road opening for Oscar Peterson, Redd Foxx, and George Kirby, and then joined the Harry James Band for a stay of over three years. "It was a busy time," she says. "I was singing 'You Made Me Love You' by night and recording country rock with composer Mike Post by day. I was very happy, and I knew something was going to click. I knew it was going to blossom into something big, but it didn't. I was too young to realize that in order for my career to succeed, I needed to seek out and hire professional management."

Rita's career continued with various low and high-profile engagements, including stage work off-Broadway, singing in the casinos of Los Vegas, a notable duo stint with famed jazz guitarist Kenny Burrell, and as a feature act in the Moscow Jazz Festival. She moved with her family to Atlanta in 1990, and has been busy ever since. "L.A. was not what I wanted any more," she says of the migration. "I had a three year-old daughter and I was feeling the need for a change in lifestyle."

Since May of 1999, Rita has held a steady Sunday night engagement at Atlanta's Sambuca Café. Typically, she and her talented band pack the house with an enamored audience expecting great songs such as those heard here. "I'm so grateful for the musicians around Atlanta," she says in typically unassuming fashion. "To be able to tap into the wonderful musicianship of people like Jez Graham (no relation), Jackie Pickett, Mike Nepote and all the rest is such a thrill for me. They play so beautifully that it's always a joy to be on stage with them."

"Singing with Ray Charles while in my 20s was a tremendous boost to my self-confidence," Rita remembers. "I was a kid. I didn't know whether or not I could sing. And for him to say, 'Wow!' still means so much to me. After that, there were so many years when there was no real public interest in jazz that I had to draw on those memories to keep myself together--to keep my musical ideals in perspective. "Having the opportunity to sing the music I love is something I'll never take for granted," she sums up. "This live session was great fun, but I knew I wasn’t going to get an impeccable recording. There’s only so much you can do, but I’m pleased with certain moments--like Jez’s piano solo on ‘My One and Only Love,’ Stan’s alto on ‘Polka Dots and Moonbeams, Steve's soprano solo on 'Rio de Janeiro Blues.... .'" and Rita Graham’s voice on everything.

James Rozzi

Atlanta, Georgia

March, 2001

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Rita Graham
  • CD Title: Live at Sambuca
  • Genre: Other
  • Year Released: 2001
  • Record Label: Unknown
  • Rating: Four Stars
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