THE PRIME OF MS. KAREN WYMAN!
The year was 1969. Karen Wyman was just a wide-eyed 16-year old girl from the Bronx when she appeared on national television with entertainment legend Dean Martin. Wyman wowed both Martin and the masses with her larger-than-life voice. Many more TV appearances followed– as did club gigs, seven albums, and enough celebrity stories to fill a week-long special on the E! Network. Needless to say, Karen’s youth wasn’t what you’d call “ordinary”! How many teenage girls, after all, can brag about having Johnny Carson swim past them in the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel during an earthquake? Wyman took some time away from show business to have a family and to do some self-discovery. Now, in 2014, she’s ready to make people take notice of that amazing voice again. Wyman may be older and (much) wiser, but her vocal talents remain as unblemished as ever. She launched her comeback at New York City’s cabaret hotspot The Metropolitan Room in March with a show named, appropriately enough, “The Second Time Around”. Next up was a highly acclaimed performance at New York City’s envied Symphony Space in May. As a singer with a now-adult perspective on her career, some of her songs have found renewed meanings. Wyman brings up a musical favorite which she performed as a teenager, and then sang again recently as an adult: “Why Can’t I Walk Away”. Like its title suggests, is about being a relationship that you can’t walk away from. On doing that song as an adult, Karen tells me, “I sang that song intuitively. Of course, now I understand what it means. Everybody responds to it. If I can’t relate to a song, I can’t do it. I listen to a lot of beautiful songs, but I don’t know if I want to do them. I choose songs that I can sink my teeth into, that mean something to me. One of my particularly favorites is ‘Where Do You Start?’ It’s a very heavy, dramatic song… and when I sing it, it’s almost like I’m talking. I am asking ‘Where do you start? How do you separate the present from the past? How do you deal with all the thing you thought would last, that didn’t last; With bits of memories scattered here and there, I look around and don’t know where to start…’ At 16 years old, I couldn’t have sang that song… It would have sounded ridiculous. So, in my head, I think I needed to grow up. I felt that I was missing a lot of things. It all happened so fast. I think in my own way, I rebelled: I got married young to rebel, and I had a child very young– which makes you grow up very fast! I was divorced at a young age, and remarried. Unfortunately, I divorced again.” She laughs and adds, “I’m not a professional ‘marry-er’! Today I tell everyone, ‘You’re never gonna get married just once. Figure it’s gonna be twice!” But anyway, I needed to grow up. I didn’t know who I was. Even though I was on TV, I was shy. I was insecure, and never thought of myself as ‘Karen Wyman, young music star’– or took it too seriously. I was always very down to earth.”
The down to earth and lovely singer met me in New York City to discuss her plans for the next big phase of her career… starting with this Monday June 16th at The 4th Annual Night of 1000 Judys, a comedy/variety show honoring Judy Garland. (Here’s an interesting bit of trivia: Wyman actually played Dorothy at the Municipal Opera House in 1975 in St. Louis, starring with the original Wicked Witch of the West, Margaret Hamilton!)
JR: Hi, Karen! Thanks for speaking with me! So, how does it feel to be performing again?
KW: It feels great. It’s a real high, it’s euphoric, it’s… it’s the best thing that ever happened! When I perform, I feel like I’m in love; like I’m walking on air. That’s how it feels!
JR: Wow! That’s great to hear. So, when you first started out in the business as a teenager, what was your most rewarding or most memorable moment?
KW: To tell the truth, it was meeting Dean Martin. It was the first thing that I ever did professionally. He was the first star that I ever met in my life. He was a major star, and meeting him made a major impression on me. It was really like a fairy tale. And, of course, there was meeting Ed Sullivan. When I worked with Carol Burnett and all the other major stars, it was great! I didn’t get “jaded”– I still felt “up there”. But the first impact of meeting Dean Martin and Ed Sullivan was major. I can’t believe that a little girl from the Bronx met a major Hollywood star. It was mind blowing. I think my mouth was hanging wide open. I mean, I was a kid, and even at that age I knew how good-looking he was! You know who else I met? Cary Grant.
JR: Wow! I’d rather have met Clark Gable myself, but why not?
KW: (Laughs) I met him at a Faberge party… It was a big gala. At that point he had the white hair, you know…! But I just stood there, again with my mouth wide open, and was like, “Hel-lo!”. I also met Fred Astaire, Burt Lancaster, Lucille Ball, Fred MacMurray…
JR: Was there anyone who you met which was NOT a pleasant experience or happy memory?
KW: You know, there wasn’t. You know who else I met? I was on the lot of Universal or one of those… I was a kid and I had my sheet music in my hand. My manager and the agent were talking, and this big tall man comes up to me and asks, “What have you got there?” I was like 16 and a half and I said, “That’s my sheet music.” He went on to ask, “What song is it?” I was talking to him about my music, and then I realized that the tall man was Clint Eastwood! He just started talking to me. He was very sweet and nice. I guess he felt sorry for me, a kid in the middle of all these adults! He probably would never remember me now! I used to hang out with Victor Garber. We had the same manager, Kenny Greengrass. He was in a singing group at the time. I remember him when he had that big Afro! I hadn’t seen him in like 100 years, and then I saw him a few years ago at a restaurant on the Upper West Side. He remembered me. So, I was really around a lot of stars. And I must add that Carol Burnett was one of the nicest ladies on the planet. She made me feel so welcome. She’s just a beautiful human being.
JR: Too bad you were too young to get into trouble!
JR: So, let’s fast forward to 2014… and since you’ve started performing again, what has been the most rewarding moment lately?
KW: The most exciting thing was performing at Symphony Space. I had already gotten my feet back on the ground, and when I did Symphony Space it was like I knew who I was again. The “Second Time Around” shows at the Metropolitan Room were great and exciting, but I was still finding myself. They were like rehearsals: you just keep getting better and better and more comfortable. But when I sang in front of the 800 people, it felt really, really good. I just felt wonderful. I’d like to do more of those.
JR: Eight hundred people. Wow!
KW: Twenty, forty. eighty, one hundred, eight hundred… That never bothered me!
JR: Damn! So, you mentioned to me that you’d like to move into a different musical direction…
KW: I think that I am definitely “The American Songbook”, but I’d also like to sing songs from my generation: the 70’s, the 80’s… which would be The Beatles, Billy Joel… They are MY age group, and I could do it in MY genre. I know that people my age are gonna say, “Hey, I know that song!” The old songs are wonderful, and even people our age still want to hear the great songs from the 20’s, 30’s, et cetera… but they also want to hear the songs they grew up with. So, I want to take another approach with the new act. I would start listening to maybe Neil Diamond, and maybe Jimmy Webb… These were MY time. I’m always gonna stick with the classics. They are timeless. My comeback show “The Second Time Around” had a theme. But I’m back now! I don’t have to keep repeating myself. I don’t know what the next show will be. It might just be great songs put in a great lineup. It doesn’t have to have a theme. It can just flow: different styles, different tempos… like a collage. Maybe I’ll even put a Spanish song in there. I’ve been thinking about that. I think I could do well in the Spanish market!
JR: Have you ever done a Spanish song?
KW: Yes, I sang “Besame Mucho”… phonetically! (Laughs) Even Harry Connick Jr. did that one! My father is from Brasil. Maybe I’d do a Portuguese song… just to show another side of me. Like I said, the first show was about me coming back. But now, I’m back!
JR: While we’re on that subject: A lot of people will want to ask you a question along the lines of “Where have you been?” or “Why have you been gone so long?” Do you ever get tired of answering that question, or feel that it’s not really that important?
KW: (Laughs) No, I feel that it’s important. I even notice that on YouTube, people make comments like, “Whatever happened to her?” My life just took a different path. I don’t know if it was meant to be. Maybe it is a blueprint: Maybe it’s SUPPOSED to be a certain way in your life: like, I was supposed to have my two children, and I was supposed to go through “stuff”… My career came very fast and very easily, which doesn’t happen. People work and struggle for years to be an “overnight sensation”… and I didn’t. It just happened. It can be very confusing for a young girl, because you miss your teenage life, and you miss your friends…You miss growing up. That’s what it is. I think that’s what happened to me: I needed to grow up. I felt that I didn’t deserve to be a star. In my head I was just “Karen from the block”. I was the first one! (Laughs) When the music industry started to change in the 70’s, I tried to do contemporary things… but it was hard. I didn’t fight it through, so I just decided to take another path. I got married early and I had my son right away, and sixteen years later I had my daughter. I really believe that I was supposed to have my daughter– that theory of the “blueprint” again! If the universe wants to take you on a path, then maybe it’s for the better. A few years ago I said to myself, “Well, now my daughter is grown. But what happened to Karen Wyman?” Because Karen Wyman, the singer, has been inside me all along. I just buried her, to raise my family. I woke up one morning and said, “I want to sing!” I had no clue how to go about it, or what I was going to do, or how to make it happen. No clue. So I just started to imagine myself singing– like daydreaming. I made little steps. I called up a friend and he said, “Why don’t you sing at the Open Mic at Birdland?” That’s how it started. I did “Why Can’t I Walk Away?” Lainie Kazan was there. She said, “Why aren’t you singing?” I said, “Well, I just did!” (Laughs) I met her for lunch. Then I got on the phone and connected with my drummer Eddie Caccavale, who was also Lainie’s drummer. We met, and he said, “I’m gonna get you singing again!” And, he did. This was all about two years ago. So, that’s how it started. I started feeling my way around with arrangements, and then I got together with John Oddo. He’s played for the best. I always worked with the best musicians… I was spoiled! We fit like a glove. John “got” me. For “The Second Time Around”, every song was about my journey. Every song said something. Now it’s time for the next big thing.
JR: Speaking of the next big thing…! So, your next gig will be at The Night of 1,000 Judys. Judy has been a gay icon for decades. What does her legacy mean to you as an artist?
KW: She’s one of my favorites. She was an emotional singer who makes you cry. Judy Garland is timeless. She had that…vibrato! That “old” style may be dated, but it still gets to people. It’s like when Shirley Bassey did “Goldfinger” at the Academy Awards. She blew it away. That audience just all stood up like they were stuck in the hiney… and it wasn’t just out of respect. The woman hit the notes! It just goes to show you that no matter what your age or musical style, “If you’re good, you’re always gonna be good!”
JR: Well, you should know!
Karen Wyman will appear next at “Night of 1,000 Judys”, a benefit for The Ali Forney Center, on Monday, June 16th at the Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Center, 129 West 67th St, NYC. Other performers include Sierra Boggess, Jane Monheit, Austin Scarlett, Jackie Hoffman, Sarah Dash, Allison Fraser, Julia Murney, Rory O’Malley, Erin McKeown, and Aaron Weinstein. Visit www.AliForneyCenter.org/Judys for more info and tickets. See and hear more Karen Wyman at www.KarenWymanMusic.com.