At 84, Barbara Cook Is 'Still A Work In Progress'

Legendary singer Barbara Cook has just turned 84. She received a 2011 Kennedy Center Honor, has a new CD: You Make Me Feel So Young and is doing her annual holiday cabaret show with singer Michael Feinstein.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

This has been a great year for cabaret artist and Tony Award-winning Broadway star Barbara Cook. At the age of 84, the singer has just released a new CD titled "You Make Me Feel So Young." She's also a recipient of this year's Kennedy Center Honors and CBS will broadcast the ceremony tonight.

Jeff Lunden profiled Barbara Cook nine years ago and recently returned to her Manhattan apartment to take a look back - and forward.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: When I first spoke with Barbara Cook, the then-septuagenarian was direct about her quest for self-improvement as an artist.

BARBARA COOK: I think my approach to a song has gotten deeper and deeper and deeper. I think I sing a song better now than I did five years ago. And I think I'll sing a song better five years from now than I do now. Because I'm really a work in progress, there's no question. This ain't the finished product here.

LUNDEN: Nine years later...

COOK: I still feel that way. I do, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ARE YOU HAVIN' ANY FUN?")

COOK: (Singing) Better have a little fun. You ain't going to live forever. Before you're old and gray, still OK, have yourself some fun, son. Have a little fun, hon. Better have some fun.

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

LUNDEN: Barbara Cook is definitely still having fun. Her new CD documents her most recent cabaret act and it mixes swinging up-tempo tunes with the heart-breaking ballads that are her trademark. What makes this combination of songs different is that most of them are new to her.

COOK: Thirteen of these I've never done before. I knew the songs, sometimes, like "I've Grown Accustomed to His Face." Of course, everybody knows that song, but I'd never sung it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GROWN ACCUSTOMED TO HIS FACE")

COOK: (Singing) I've grown accustomed to his face. He almost makes the day begin. I've grown accustomed to the tune he whistles night and noon. His smiles, his frowns, his ups, his downs are second nature to me now...

STEPHEN HOLDEN: More than almost any singer her age, she is not afraid to do the new. Not afraid of the new at all.

LUNDEN: New York Times critic Stephen Holden has been following Cook's cabaret and concert career since the 1970s. He says while she can no longer hit the flashy high Cs she used to sing, she more than compensates in her interpretations.

HOLDEN: Her voice having gone from a soprano to an alto, really - cause she's scaled down all her keys - helps her, because high voices really don't express much. They're just beautiful and phenomenal. And it's low voices that you can really get into the dark side of things, or whatever you want to call it. And she goes there and puts all of her life into what she sings.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'VE GOT YOU UNDER MY SKIN")

COOK: (Singing) I tried so not to give in. I said to myself this affair never will go so well. But why should I try to resist when, darling, I know so well I've got you under my skin. I'd sacrifice anything come what might for the sake of having you near, in spite of a warning voice that comes in the night and repeats in my ear. Don't you know, little fool, you never can win...

LUNDEN: Over the years, Barbara Cook has developed her own philosophy and approach to performance, something she now teaches in master classes.

COOK: I think it's absolutely, totally important for a person, first of all, to hopefully know who they are as a performer and to choose songs that illuminate that person. And then, to be present; to really, really be present, to be there; and to not, you know, say, oh well, last Thursday I did it great. Let me try to do it like last Thursday. No, you've got to do it like today. Like this minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHAT DID I HAVE THAT I DON'T HAVE?")

COOK: (Singing) What did I have that I don't have? What did he like that I lost track of? What did I do that I don't do the way I did before...

LUNDEN: Barbara Cook is appearing in a cabaret show right now with singer Michael Feinstein.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONGS, "TEA FOR TWO" AND "THE VERY THOUGHT OF YOU")

COOK: (Singing) The mere idea of you.

MICHAEL FEINSTEIN: (Singing) Day will break and I'll wake...

COOK: (Singing) The longing here for you.

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) ...and start to bake a sugar cake...

COOK: (Singing) You'll never know how slow the moments go till I'm near to you.

FEINSTEIN: (Singing) ...for you to take for all the boys to see...

LUNDEN: He says he learns every time her performs with her.

FEINSTEIN: Barbara is meticulous; there is not one syllable or note that is not examined by her in the preparation of a song. That doesn't mean that she takes it apart with a microscope because I feel that, at this point, a lot of her process is now organic, because of so many years of singing with a certain approach. It has become simply her way of life in interpreting these songs.

LUNDEN: Remarkably, Cook's voice has remained healthy through the years.

COOK: I've never been one to do exercises and scales and things, never. I'm very, very fortunate. The voice is just usually there, knock on wood. I've never had any big vocal problems. And I had a wonderful teacher who gave me, obviously, gave me a very good technique I've been using all these years. And, you know, if it hurts, I don't do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONGS, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG")

COOK: (Singing) You make me feel so young. You make feel so spring has sprung...

LUNDEN: Cook says all of the songs on her new CD have something in common n addition to being new to her.

COOK: It does have a kind of theme in a way about life and getting older and I choose things that I want to say. And this is where I am in life and this is what I want to say right now.

LUNDEN: And, with any luck, we'll hear where she is in another nine years.

For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden, in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONGS, "YOU MAKE ME FEEL SO YOUNG")

COOK: (Singing) You and I are just like a couple of tots...

INSKEEP: Just like a couple of tots on MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.