Popular star of original M✻A✻S✻H appears tonight with songs from her new CD, “Sally”
By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka
Sally Kellerman’s recently released CD, SALLY, is being warmly received by her fans and musical critics. With one of the most recognizable voices in the world of film, television and voice-over, Sally maintains her signature sound in the recording studio and the result is a richly layered album, mixing jazzy blues and adult standards with a touch of soulful rock. Tonight she appears in The Rrazz Room at San Francisco’s Hotel Nikko. Sally and I recently talked about her new recording and her legendary and Academy Award nominated appearance as “Maj. Margaret (Hot Lips) O’Houlihan”.
Seán: When did you start the recording project?
Sally: A year go January.
Seán: How did you suddenly decide to do a recording?
Sally: Oh, I didn’t suddenly decide. I’ve been working at it all my life. I made my first album in the early ‘70s. I signed with Verve when I was 18. My roots were in jazz. All alongside my film career I turned down movies to go on the road for three months – things like that. Not a great career planner was I, because I could have done both. But, I didn’t know it then. I wanted soul, I wanted to be the real deal. I always needed to be a singer. Over the years I continually put shows together, did lots of half-albums, singles, shows produced by Bobby Womack and Barry Manilow, all kinds of things. Right now I’m most excited about this new album.
Seán: The Rrazz Room is a great place for you.
Sally: I love it! It doesn’t have any poles in it. And it’s comfortable for the audience – they’re sitting right where you’d hope they’d be. It has a beautiful sound system and the lighting’s wonderful.
Seán: Way-back when I was a student, I worked at a theater that was running the film M✻A✻S✻H. I have to tell you that every time your sequences came on, we would open the door and watch. The shower sequence, “My commission, my commission!” and “Frank! Kiss my hot lips!” – so incredibly funny. None of us ever got tired of it. I had a huge dose of you for this extended period in my life. I know this film backwards and forwards because of you. And you almost turned it down!
Sally: Almost did. I’d been guest-starring on television – playing all these hard-bitten drunks, the leading lady, in my Chanel suits – that kind of stuff, always longing to be in the movies. And in the ‘70s that still made sense, you know? I went to this meeting with Bob Altman, whom I’d never met, who said, “I’ll give you the best part in the picture.” And I go outside, like some amateur, looking to see where my part is. I couldn’t even find it! I turned to stone and thought, “I’ll never get into the movies.” I went back home and someone said, “You should really meet with this director, he’s really talented.” So, I read the script again and went back with all my ideas. I got welled-up with tears and said, “I’m not just a WAC, I’m a woman!” And then it was ‘what about this, what about that’ – and he said, “Why not take the chance? You could end up with something or nothing.” I thought, “Who is this guy?” I’d come from TV where you couldn’t change a word without all the suits coming down from the Main Office. After the breakdown sequence, he kept the camera rolling – you know, when I went into the tent all in a flurry. He didn’t say, “Cut!” Remember, I came from TV where you didn’t change a line and you did it exactly like it was. I had worked myself into such a lather (to use the pun) that it just came into my head that I was losing everything that I cared about. “My commission, my commission!” as I backed out of the tent. Then he ran around the tent and said, “I had no idea you were going to do it like that! You can stay in the movie now. You’re vulnerable!” Then he – and along with me, I suppose, just a little bit – just made up the rest of the movie on the spot. It gave me the chance to be something I never would have been.
Seán: And from that comes a nomination for an Academy Award. That must have been a quantum leap experience for you.
Sally: Oh, my god! We were sitting in dailies – Bob liked everybody to come into dailies, anyone on the set, anyone in the area. One day he goes, “I bet you hate yourself there, Sally. I bet you think you look ugly there, Sally.” It was exactly what I was thinking! Then, one of those days, he says, “You know, you’re going to get nominated for an Academy Award for this.” So, it was quite thrilling. And I’m long overdue for another one! You just need one of those good parts and a director that gets me. It really takes that. It takes somebody liking who you are and what you can bring to it. That’s the gift Bob had and why everybody loved to work with him.
Seán: Along with this is a let’s say distinguished career doing voice-overs.
Sally: I have been so blest. It was in the early ‘60s when somebody said ‘you’d be great in voice-overs’. I went in and did the first one and then just worked and worked and worked. Then I kind of didn’t respect it when I started starring in movies. When I married my husband he said, “You idiot. Get your hat and coat and get every nickel and penny until you’ve built yourself an annuity.” So, I started over again – with Nina Nisenholtz who was head of the voice over department of the William Morris Agency.
Seán: The sound of your voice lends credibility to the product or service and on a worldwide perspective. I am most familiar with your work that is aired on PBS.
Sally: I did a lot of narration and things for PBS, including Ken Burns. I’ve a “Milky Way” playing right now.
Seán: I have a Milky Way packed in my gym bag right now!
Sally: I wish I did! The first time, they gave me a whole box of them. Then they picked up my new year and I don’t know whether I told Nina that I’d love to have them or whether I just said, “Hey, help yourself!”
Seán: They are addictive.
Sally: My whole family lived on those. I kept thinking I was going to take them down to the mission, but we just kept eating them.
Seán: How did you choose your musicians for Monday night’s appearance at the Rrazz Room?
Sally: Hal David put me together with Chris Caswell – who did all the keyboards on my album. Do you like the album?
Seán: Yes, especially “I put a spell on you” and “Love Potion #9” – because the songs were appropriated into the musical, Smokey Joe’s Cafe, and my clients occasionally get opportunities to use them. How did you choose your songs?
Sally: In that case I’ve done a lot of work with Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller. They’ve flown my to London to sing “Is That All There Is” and last year they took me to Carnegie Hall to sing with Natalie Cole. At one point I was learning about 22 of their songs – and that’s where that new feel came in. I brought it to Chris Caswell, who is so hot right now. Disney is all over him. He’s a great keyboard guy. I’ve had four spoiling years with him. Out of it has come such freedom. Val Garay, being this great producer that he is – I’m so proud of the album’s quality and sound, the musician, the musical ideas. With Russ Kunkel on drums, Leland Sklar on bass, and guitarist Dean Parks – these guys are world renowned and have been on more hit records than you can count.
Seán: With that kind of ensemble, they will bring out the very best in you.
Sally: Oh, they do! Val won Album of the Year for Kim Carnes’ Bette Davis Eyes. He’s worked with James Taylor, Bonnie Raitt, and Linda Ronstadt. He started coming into my shows. About 18 shows later we went into the studio. He will go to the mat for you with anything. He’s very definite about what he thought was good and what wasn’t. He’s the one that said I had to sing “I Put A Spell On You”. Then Chris started writing for me and we’ve been working them on and off for three years. We work in a little club called Genghis Cohen about once a month. I love the songs and the response has been so good!
Seán: What’s coming up for you after the Rrazz Room and your forthcoming appearances at Teatro ZinZanni?
Sally: Hey, Life! Surprises! I just met with someone today about European distribution, China and Japan. All kinds of miracles are falling in my lap lately. I really mean it. It’s a time in this country and in the world that’s really challenging. Amidst all the challenge, I just see so much love and so much kindness.
Seán: You just have to keep putting yourself forward in times like these. When you were a kid, what jump-started your interest in singing?
Sally: Listen, my mom played the piano and taught piano. At night she’d play something like Claire De Lune and I would fall asleep. But she could play boogie woogie too. I that’s what grabbed me. To tell you the truth – once music gets hold of you, you’re finished. You might say, “How come I kept working it all these years?” I always thought it was a badge of honor that I wanted soul, that I wanted to find it, and I wanted to get free. The fact that it took me so long? I’m just a slow learner, I guess.
Seán: All that matters is that you’re doing it now.
Sally: I couldn’t stop doing it.
Add these recordings by Sally Kellerman to your jazz and film library:
SALLY – Selections include: Nobody’s Perfect, I Put A Spell On You, Sugar In My Bowl, Love Potion #9, and more.
Teatro ZinZanni: The Divas – Sally Kellerman sings “Makin’ Whoopee” and “Damn Your Eyes”.
DVD – M✻A✻S✻H. Featuring Sally Kellerman, Elliot Gould, Donald Sutherland, Tom Skerritt, and Laurence Luckinbill. Directed by Robert Altman, 1970.
Download Carmen Milagro’s BlogTalkRadio interview with Seán Martinfield and jazz composer/pianist Terry Disley: Women and Legends Who Really Rock, 6/12/2009
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Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”, which is being prepared for publication. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: email@example.com.