Martha Raye, one of the funniest ladies alive, is also a great jazz singer

Martha Raye is making her first cabaret appearance here in 25 years, at The Ballroom in Chelsea, and she's making it with a twist. Most of us know her as one of the funniest ladies alive, star of stage, screen, and television (``Call Me Madam,'' ``Annie Get Your Gun,'' ``Everybody Loves Opal,'' ``Four Jills in a Jeep,'' ``Rhythm on the Range,'' the Bob Hope show, and her own TV shows, and more recently ``MacMillan and Wife,'' and ``Alice'' -- to mention just a few). But not many people realize that she's a great jazz singer, too. Greg Dawson, owner of The Ballroom, after a certain amount of cajoling, finally persuaded her to do a s how of songs -- ``Just be yourself, and sing,'' he said.

Jazz vocal stylist Anita O'Day has cited Martha Raye as one of her major influences, and that influence could be clearly heard on Ms. Raye's opening night -- a night that found her admittedly jittery -- (``It's the first time I've ever sung straight songs in a performance!''). She used those jitters as a springboard for some very funny bits, including hysterical body language, some abortive attempts to slide up and sit on top of the piano, and the famous Raye cross-eyed mug.

Dressed to the teeth in red sequins and feather boa (which she tore off and threw on the floor right after her mock-flashy opening number), Raye faced her audience with the tentative excitement one feels upon seeing an old friend after many years. In fact, many in the audience were old friends, or at least longstanding fans.

At one point, on a high note, she practically swallowed the microphone. Then she hauled out a zither and strummed some out-of-tune chords while she sang ``Jimmy Crack Corn.'' But even with all the antics, it was most definitely an evening of song.

With excellent and polished backing by her pianist-arranger Frank Ortega and his group -- John Ray on bass, John Basile on guitar, and Mike Berkowitz on drums -- she presented an hour or so of standards, including a swinging ``Takin' a Chance on Love,'' ``Blues in the Night,'' and several of her favorites -- ``Little Girl Blue,'' ``Happiness is Just a Thing Called Joe,'' ``My Funny Valentine,'' and, of course, her signature tune, ``Mr. Paganini.''

She proved that she's a fine, inventive singer, capable of changing a melody just enough (often with daring and unusual intervals) to make it sound fresh without destroying the composer's intention. The arrangements were perfect for her, too. ``Valentine'' slipped gracefully into a waltz on the second chorus, and ``Joe'' featured a sweet and poignant ending.

Raye, for all of her brash clowning, is really a softie at heart, and, despite some vocal problems which will undoubtedly fade away with her opening night nerves, this side of her was charmingly apparent throughout the evening. She'll be at The Ballroom through Dec. 7.

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