Last fall, a Portland singer named Shirley Nanette took the stage at the Alberta Rose Theatre. Wearing gold lamé gloves, complete with rhinestone buttons, she clutched a silk shawl around her shoulders. After warming up the audience a bit—chatting with the front row, waving at those in the back—Nanette turned away from the room. She and the drummer counted off—and then Nanette let her shawl drop to the floor, revealing a fabulous, form-fitting gold sequined dress. The crowd lost it.
“I’ve never been that dramatic!” squeals Nanette, drumming her fingers against the table at a North Portland coffee shop. (Catch the moment around the 2:00-minute mark in the video below.) “That was just kind of”—she snaps her fingers—“spontaneous.”
Spontaneous, maybe, but Nanette has always been, by her own description, good at reading a room. The 71-year-old is probably best known as a fixture of Portland’s jazz scene, but she’s also been a frequent guest with the Oregon Symphony, won the first season of Star Search in 1983 (more on that later), and, in 1973, released a soul album called Never Coming Back. Recorded in one day at Ripcord Studios in Vancouver, Washington, with a slew of other local musicians, the 10-track LP is a little rough, a little loose. But Nanette’s clarion, expressive voice carries the songs, which touch on love and the importance of understanding.
This Saturday, April 13, Nanette will perform Never Coming Back in its entirety at Holocene: a rare opportunity to see one of Portland’s finest (and longest-working) vocalists in action.
Nanette grew up in North Portland, at a time when jazz clubs lined North Williams Avenue. She credits an elementary school teacher with recognizing her talent and teaching her how to breathe while singing. “I would stay after school, and she’d teach me the songs,” recalls Nanette, who in conversation will often croon a few favorite lines. “Afterwards she would take me out to get a little chocolate milkshake, and then I would walk on home.”
By her early teens, she was singing in talent shows at the Elks Lodge—her repertoire included Ike and Tina Turner’s “I Idolize You” and Etta James’s “All I Could Do Was Cry.” Once she hit her 20s, she was performing, she says, “all the time, everywhere, in and out of town, almost every night.”
Among the venues Nanette frequented: the Upstairs Lounge on what’s now NE MLK, downtown’s Jazz Quarry, and the Keyhole (“you know where Car Toys is, in Gateway? That used to be a place called the Keyhole”). She sang backup in a group that opened for Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. “We had these gold dresses on,” she says. “We were cute, oooh, girl!”
After her early soul days, she slid into the jazz scene, and in 1981 made her debut with the Oregon Symphony. (Oregonian stories from the time credit then-associate conductor Norman Leyden with “discovering” Nanette, even though she was by that point a veteran of the West Coast jazz circuit.) She had no vocal training aside from those informal elementary school lessons. “I always wanted to do something with strings and stuff, but I was so intimidated,” she says. “I thought I was maybe too old to get classical training.” Nanette, then 33, began her first Oregon Symphony concert accompanied only by the harp, singing the African-American spiritual “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
“Until I got to the bridge of the song, it was just me and the harp,” she remembers. “Then the orchestra came in. It was just magical. I never could’ve imagined.”
She went on to tour widely with the Oregon Symphony and to perform with other orchestras around the country.
And then, in 1983, came Star Search. The show, then called Fantasy Star Search, was about to launch its first season, and Nanette’s beautician urged her to apply. She was skeptical, but submitted a cassette tape two hours before the deadline. “I’m thinking, you’re going to win a thing on AM Northwest and a mug,” she says.
Flash forward, she’s in a TV studio in Burbank, brushing shoulders with Robin Williams (“All I could say to him was ‘nanu nanu!’" she laughs) and watching Johnny Carson from the wings. She performed her song—the lush and jazzy “Where Am I Going?” from the musical Sweet Charity—in a black, glittery, one-shoulder gown. She recalls being stunned at her victory: “I was just grinning. I was just laughing. I didn't know what to do!”
She won a weeklong engagement at Las Vegas’s Tropicana Hotel, as well as a trip to Hawaii, luggage, stereo system, and wardrobe. Also? A 1984 periwinkle blue Pontiac T1000, which she still owns: “It's so funny, because I said, I'm going to keep this car. I'mma drive it till the wheels come off, you know?"
For Nanette, this weekend’s concert is a way to reconnect with her past—her best friend and frequent musical collaborator, Hank Swarn, died last September, shortly before Nanette performed at the Alberta Rose. The two worked together closely on Never Coming Back, and Swarn played guitar on the album. (At Holocene, Nanette's daughter Tracy will be one of two backup singers.) Music, Nanette says, can help us find a way through difficulty. She sings a line from one of the album's songs: “Sometimes I feel like I'm living in a dream world, so many things I don't understand..."
She pauses. “A lot of people don't understand things that are happening now,” she says. “It's just so many things coming at us as a society, and we just have to try to get through it together.”
9 p.m. Sat, Apr 13, Holocene, $15–20