The popcorn was ready, and I was settling into my Saturday night routine in our apartment in northern New Jersey. The place was a dump, but, well, you know — be it ever so humble, etc. I don’t remember the line-up but around 9.00 or 10.00 p.m. we would sit down each Saturday night and watch several TV shows we liked, though my wife was usually unconscious by the end of the second. There were several others after that I liked, however, so I would keep watching until 1.00 a.m. or so.
Most of these shows were on a PBS station. I never really completely adapted to life in New Jersey, but one of the benefits was having three PBS stations — one from NYC, one local, and one from Philly — each with their own programming. (This may have changed; this was a time some twenty years ago when PBS was still fully funded.) Those who regularly watch PBS shows know that they can be irregularly timed, often ending at odd intervals like ten minutes before the hour, with the difference made up by a short “filler” piece. Such was the case each Saturday as one show ended at twenty minutes before midnight, when the next show started. To fill in that twenty minutes, the local PBS station did an artist bit where they would have some New Jersey artist come in to the studio and either perform or interview them, with a new artist each week. I often took this slot as the cue to get up and make some popcorn.
So this one week I had just sat down when a new artist got the stage. I wasn’t really paying attention, doing something else with half an ear bent towards the TV, but I distinctly remember her voice immediately grabbing me by the throat and slapping me twice across the face. I was transfixed. For the next twenty minutes my eyes and ears were nailed to the screen. Her voice was sultry, but she exuded sheer, raw emotion. It was just her and a guitarist, both perched on stools, all alone — there were no instruments for her to hide behind. She didn’t need them. Her voice commanded the stage.
I wrote down her name, and went out that week and bought a couple of her CDs. (I own most of her CDs by today.) At some point I learned that she lived only a couple towns over from me, and I had pipe dreams of me bumping into her — “Oh hello, Ms. Wilson; I just happen to have a copy of your latest CD here, would you mind signing it…?” But alas, it was never to be.
This is odd for me. Truth is, I’m rarely impressed by vocalists. Sarah Vaughn, Nat King Cole, his daughter, Dean Martin, the Velvet Fog Mel Torme, Lena Horne, Roy Orbison, Barbara Streisand — all produced good music, and I like a lot of it, but for me, an instrumental is much more interesting.
But to this day, her voice stops me in my tracks. If you get a chance, check out Cassandra Wilson. You may find yourself spending a lot of time lingering in Orange, New Jersey unexpectedly.