STEVE INSKEEP, host:
In this part of the program we're going to learn about the singer Robin McKelle. She took classical voice training. She sang with the Boston Pops Orchestra. She appeared with an R & B band called Nick and the Nice Guys, and she performed at several Super Bowls. She's 30. So, what's left? NPR's special correspondent Susan Stamberg says now there's an album.
SUSAN STAMBERG reporting:
Pop it into your car CD player and Introducing Robin McKelle brightens the ride.
Ms. ROBIN MCKELLE (Singer): (Singing) When an irrepressible smile such as yours warms an old implacable heart such as mine. Don't say no because I insist, somewhere, somehow, someone's gonna get kissed...
STAMBERG: She brings new ideas to the great old songs. She sings them with immense confidence, brio even, and sometimes Robin McKelle sounds absolutely fearless.
Ms. MCKELLE: (Singing) I'll try hard ignoring those lips I adore. But how long can anyone try...
STAMBERG: Robin McKelle was just six when she started piano lessons in Rochester, New York. Her mother was director of music for the choir for the services at their Catholic church. At home there were some pop albums and lots of Latin music. Her dad worked for Kodak and traveled often to Brazil. So, Robin didn't grow up hearing jazz at home. But at the age of 13 she switched from classical to jazz piano.
Ms. MCKELLE: When I first heard the harmony of jazz, I was very intrigued. I used to try to figure out what it was on the piano. I play by ear and everything and so then I kind of figured out, oh, you know, hey Mom, can I just take jazz piano lessons. So, I did that and sure enough, that's what the sound was that I was hearing that I liked.
STAMBERG: All this while, Robin McKelle was singing.
Ms. MCKELLE: I grew up singing really pop music and then when I was 14 I studied classical repertoire. Although on the weekends I would still sing with this R & B band. So, I'd be singing the Aretha Franklin stuff on the weekends and then coming to school and go to my lessons and sing my classical arias and, you know, I had a double life.
STAMBERG: No recordings exist of that musical duplicity, but now on her first CD, Robin McKelle sings music that came into her life just 10 years ago when she was an old lady of 20.
Ms. MCKELLE: (Singing) For all we know this may only be a dream. We come and we go like the ripple on a stream...
STAMBERG: Two years ago, Robin McKelle won third place in the Thelonious Monk Vocal Jazz Competition at the Kennedy Center. In Washington she sang tunes from the American songbook, Match, and again, for her album, she and her producer, trumpet player Willie Mario(ph), dipped back several decades for songs to record. Call it retro swing.
Ms. MCKELLE: Willie and I wanted to really stay true to, stylistically, that 30s and 40s sound. You know, I think it's very important to preserve the integrity of the music and to continue to perform this style music because it is classic and it is timeless and it will be around forever. Pop music of today, some of it will come and go, but you can't forget people like Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and singing these just timeless songs.
Mr. FRANK SINATRA (Singer, Actor): (Singing) I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow...
STAMBERG: Robin finds Frank Sinatra so unforgettable that she uses an updated re-orchestrated Nelson Riddle arrangement of this Old Blue Eyes classic.
Ms. MCKELLE: I love listening to those versions of Sinatra and who doesn't. You go, anywhere you go, you hear that and we thought, let's put a little, a new take on it. I sing it completely different than he would approach it.
(Singing) I've got the world on a string, sittin' on a rainbow, got that string around my finger. What a world, what a life, I'm in love. I've got songs that I sing...
STAMBERG: It is possible that if Frank Sinatra heard Robin McKelle bouncing that string, he would decide he had to record it.
Ms. MCKELLE: (Singing) ...dream when you're feeling blue. Dream, that's the thing to do...
STAMBERG: Can these lyrics mean anything to you? All that stuff about dreaming and mooning and all of that? It's so lovely but it's very old-fashioned. Those are not today's sentiments, Robin.
Ms. MCKELLE: No, it's not today's at all which is actually unfortunate. It's very romantic music. I mean, I'm a dreamer. I think there's a lot of us out there that are.
(Singing) When the day is through, dream and they might come true...
STAMBERG: You're an old-fashioned girl?
Ms. MCKELLE: Mm hmm. Yeah, well, I think I should have grown up in, maybe, the 20s or the 30s.
STAMBERG: (Laughs) Well, you know, in a way it's good you didn't because you're bringing ‘em back to us now.
Ms. MCKELLE: Well, thanks, I hope so.
(Singing) Can't you hear the pitter-pitter pat and that happy tune is your step. Life can be complete on the sunny side of the street...
STAMBERG: The debut CD is called Introducing Robin McKelle and it does. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News.
Ms. MCKELLE: (Singing) ...those blues on parade. But I'm not afraid. This rover's crossed over. If I never, never have a chance, I'd be rich as Rockefeller. Gold dust at my feet, on the sunny, sunny side of the street.
INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.
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