Hit-maker Desmond Child has probably never thought of himself as a savior, but he and top-flight musicians like him bear that potential when it comes to the legacy of the American Songbook and popular music. Child’s recent appearance at Feinstein’s/54 Below was an eye-opener of possibility. His success has been largely in rock n’ roll. He’s written big top-40 hits for Kiss, Aerosmith, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, Bon Jovi and others—not the kind of sound that usually finds play in cabaret rooms. Yet, take away the elements that define full-out rock—huge stadium spaces, pyrotechnics, mega-amplification and a specific kind of orchestration—and the music works. Reduced to melody and lyric, surprisingly, rock n’ roll not only adapts well to the intimacy of a cabaret room, but can be an important factor in how the art form of cabaret succeeds into the future.
Tunes like Child’s, arranged for small venues, with reassessed instrumentation and focused on the vocalists’ craft, can stand with their predecessors of the American Songbook. There’s power and substance in this music. Already, cabaret artists such as Carole J. Bufford and Lauren Fox have demonstrated that the Songbook is ever-growing, isn’t stagnant and isn’t the exclusive domain of the classic songwriters of the pre-World War II era. The key, of course, is quality. As long as the bar remains high, excellence in harmonic composition and the intelligence of the lyric will keep the greatness of American song flowing.
Such is the personal legacy of Desmond Child. He knows whose shoulders he stands upon and gratefully acknowledges his debt to those who came before. Proving the point, he opened his set with the work of a master storyteller, the late songwriter, Laura Nyro (for whom one of his twin sons is named). Nyro’s “The Man Who Sends Me Home,” performed with reverence and authenticity with Child at the piano, was the perfect package of solid music sung and played artfully. It was this song and Nyro who inspired a young Child to seek formal musical education and pursue his career.
He began as a club performer in the 1970’s, at venues such as Reno Sweeney and The Bottom Line, principally with the group Rouge (Myriam Valle, Maria Vidal and Diana Grasselli). His path lead him to retire from performing to write for the aforementioned top bands of his generation. The fruits of Child’s boundless creativity (played during the set) included “Livin’ On a Prayer” (for Bon Jovi), “I Was Made for Loving You” (with Paul Stanley and Vini Poncia for Kiss) and a number of tunes for Ricky Martin: “The Cup of Life,” La Vida Loca, ”She Bangs.” Each are musically sound. The structure is based on complex chord changes. There’s a melody. And most often the lyrics tell a dramatic story, as with “I Hate Myself for Loving You” (with Joan Jett) and “How Can We Be Lovers” (with Michael Bolton and Diane Warren). To celebrate his return to the stage, Child reassembled Rouge for a few tunes, including their hit, “Our Love is Insane.” Coming full circle, Child ended the show with another Laura Nyro number with Rouge, “Christmas in My Soul,” plus an encore of his poetic “Ray of Hope.”
Child’s discography is impressive, yet there’s more to his output than Billboard hits. He’s been working on a musical, Cuba Libre, inspired by his Cuban mother, the late songwriter Elena Casals. Cuba Libre, written with Davitt Sigerson, is being produced by Dodger Theatricals, to be directed by George C. Wolfe, with a Broadway opening in its line of sight. Child debuted the evocative “Where Do I Go from You” from the show. The number is further proof of Child’s solid musical chops and why he’s a 2008 inductee into The Songwriters Hall of Fame. (He also co-founded the Latin Songwriters Hall of Fame with fellow Cuban-American composer, Rudy Perez, in 2013).
With songwriters such as Child, the American Songbook will continue to add standards to its roster. He and other musical saviors have the potential to attract young audiences to an art form that some say is dying. The fact is that cabaret (and the entire music business) is in transition. With fewer and fewer outlets in which to practice the craft (no more TV variety shows, a limited number of venues) and with genre lines blurring, recognizing the work of Desmond Child and other modern songwriters may well be a salvation. The art form of cabaret may even not only endure, but could possibly see a whole new renaissance.
Backing up Child were ace singers Chaz Shepherd, Tabitha Fair and Markem Slade. Music Director and keyboardist was Clay Perry, with Bette Sussman (additional piano), Doug Yowell (drums), Ben Butler (guitar) and Richard Hammond (bass guitar). Smooth and expert direction was by Richard Jay-Alexander.
Desmond Child appeared at Feinstein;s/54 Below on March 1-3, 2018. Original Article