Mary Ellen Desmond and Meg Clifton: The Dynamic Philadelphia Songstress Duo
Another experience was when Mary Ellen and I were recently in Kentucky doing a concert. We got out on that stage, and there was a huge TV screen showing us, and there was my head! And all these people! It was a great band, great chemistry. I'd never been in that kind of performance situation! And then Kathryn Crosby came up and shook our hands. It was very surreal.
MED: The enormity of it. The physicality of it. 1200 people in the audience. I had that same moment of looking at the huge TV screen, and seeing myself in that cocktail dress!
AAJ: What was the concert?
MC: It was a benefit concert to raise money for the Russell Theater.
MED: I felt that we came up another notch in exposure and gaining respect from people. Recognition for a job well done.
AAJ: You got that respect for your work.
MED: Yes. I do opera music once a month at a restaurant in South Philadelphia. Aside from keeping my classical voice in shape and learning new material, that's a concert setting, where dinner is served first, and then the audience is quiet, and really listens. That generates a feeling of respect for the music and the musicians. That doesn't happen often in jazz clubs, unfortunately.
AAJ: How did the two of you meet, and what made you decide to work together?
MED: Actually, someone else decided for us. A few years ago, Alan McMahon, the agent, called both of us. It was the year both Rosemary Clooney and Peggy Lee had passed away. He said he'd like us to do a night at Chris' to do a tribute to them.
AAJ: What was your interest in them prior to that?
MED: I always liked and appreciated both of them, but I really became enamored of them once we started this project.
MC: I had some of their recordings, but frankly hadn't listened to them much, but did some heavy listening when we worked on the tribute.
AAJ: What made McMahon contact you?
MED: I think he liked both of us. I know he was a fan of both Peggy Lee and Rosemary Clooney.
MC: He had just planned the one night at Chris', and it was packed! They had to turn people away! So, he became excited about it and said, "We're gonna do an album! You two get together and start to plan songs and arrangements." We only planned that one night, but it mushroomed from there.
AAJ: About the Tribute album, I was surprised that there weren't any duets!
MED: We recorded the tune "Sisters" as a duet, but we didn't like the way it turned out. It didn't fit in with the rest of the material.
AAJ: When you were recording, were you trying to emulate Rosemary's and Peggy's singing styles?
MC: I think we were thinking more of putting our own stamps on the songs, but keeping mind their ideas and their memory.
MED: We're always careful to point out to people that we're not impersonators. We approached the tunes with our own style.
AAJ: How were you affected by the research and listening you did regarding their singing?
MC: My appreciation of Peggy Lee, while I always had it, increased greatly. Her phrasing and the way she approaches the music and lyrics, her diction, is very interesting. Regarding Rosemary Clooney, she went through various changes and aspects over the years. I love it when she sings ballads, because you just never know where she's going to breathe! She keeps you on your toes. I've really expanded my collection of their recordings.
MED: One of the first jazz albums I ever bought was Peggy Lee's "Black Coffee." I love that album I'd take it to that desert island of yours and so my interest goes back a long way. I was grateful for the opportunity to sing "Black Coffee" on the CD.
AAJ: Were either of you supposed to be one or the other of them?
MC: It just sort of evolved that way.
MED: Someone asked us at the beginning, "Who's going to be whom?" My answer was, "Well, that's not the point." Ultimately, though, it fell mostly into Meg doing the Peggy Lee material and I doing the Rosemary Clooney material. And I'm very happy it turned out that way. And I've become a much bigger fan of Rosemary Clooney.
AAJ: On that album, there are some great sidemen: Larry McKenna on saxophone, Mark Kramer, piano, John Swana , trumpet, David Brodie, bass, and Jim Schade, drums. Generally, I'm struck by the quality of the musicians who work with you. Musicians whom I greatly admire. How did you establish rapport with these various fellows? What makes jazz instrumentalists interested in working with vocalists? I do know that some of them refuse to work with singers, while others gravitate towards it.
MED: (Laughs) The challenge of playing in all the different keys they have to adjust to!