Whitney Houston Tribute, That Was Lezil’s Old Job
The New York Harlem Singers rolled into Shanghai as part of their winter 2012 Asian tour. Billed as ‘Tribute to Whitney Houston’ I was surprised to see the Shanghai Centre only half full. Admittedly, there wasn’t really much promotion leading up to event and I only heard about it because of a couple of close friends invited us to get a group together to go see the show. Everyone had already got their tickets beforehand expect for Lezil and I. And on the day, the box office only had the higher-end priced tickets left.
But as with most things in China, you can rely on the good old black market to try and pick up a bargain. Accompanied by our friend Sandy from north China’s Dalian, she was confident that we would strike it lucky. I wasn’t so sure. Outside the venue there were only two lone Chinese men fanning tickets in people’s faces. We decided that Sandy would be best suited to haggle for the best price. Originally at RMB 480 (£48) they were asking for RMB 300 (£30). Still way above what we wanted to spend. We had our sights set on a RMB 100 (£10) budget.
The concert was due to start at 7:30pm and it was already 7:25pm. The rest of the group of friends had gone in. It was cold, damp and my patience was wearing thin.A group of 15 very loud middle-aged Chinese ladies walked past and by some miracle I overheard one of them saying they had some extra tickets to hand. I grabbed Sandy by the sleeve and soon we were in the centre of a lot of hand waving and over-expressive chatting. It turned out the ladies were teachers from a local public school which had been allocated some complimentary tickets of which they had a surplus.
Matching their hyped conversation, I expectantly said, “Wo yao san ge!” (I need three). This then spurned off into series of questions of where was I from, what did I do in Shanghai and having to hear their mini life stories. Inside me, I was stomping impatiently with a precious few minutes (and seconds) until kick off. The ladies reconvened and the petitioned three tickets were presented to us. They were good seats officially priced at RMB 280 (£28). “Duo shao qian yi ge?”(How much for one?) I frantically asked them in my messed up Chinese. “Yi bai” (one hundred). Sweet! Bang on budget.There was still one more hurdle to jump over. Fake goods are rife in China and that includes tickets for high-profile concerts. To ensure we weren’t being duped we had to travel with our newfound fan club to the concert hall’s entrance. Handing over the three tickets in question, the door attendant revised them and ripped off the stubs. We were in. Thanking the ladies and handing the money over, we bolted to our seats literally as the lights were dimming for the performance.
As attendance was low that evening, we had a direct view of the stage from our third row balcony seats. The New York Harlem Singers have been going since 1996 with a number of members, coming and going. That night the six singers, one percussionist and a director-cum-piano player entertained us for two hours. The main billing of Whitney Houston songs wasn’t the attention grabbing item I was expecting. All the ballads were there: ‘I Will Always Love You’, ‘Run To You’ and ‘Greatest Love Of All’. Plus extras like ‘Saving All My Love For You’ and ‘Didn’t We Almost Have It All’. But somehow, despite the emotional interpretations by the singers, the crowd was somewhat unresponsive.The artists managed to get more of an audience participation in their Christmas medley of songs, especially on ‘We Wish You A Merry Christmas’ where we suddenly became one mass choir being led by our energetic hosts on stage. There were other musical genres featured with Negro Spirituals and Gospel songs sounding richly vivid with incredible harmonies. There was also an excellent tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on ‘You’ll Have To Swing It (Mr Paganini)’. “Oh Happy” closed out the entire night by which time the majority Chinese crowd had got the hang of clapping gospel style – on the off beat!
The Harlem singers then did a CD signing and photo op. It was great to chat with them in person and I particularly enjoying stealing a few minutes with vocalist Clare Bathe. It turned out this was her first tour with the group, having already carved out a career doing other shows and performing as a solo act in her own right. She exclusively mentioned that she had her first solo album out in January. Which then begged the obvious question: “Do you have a copy with you?” In no time, copies of ‘I Met A Man’ were handed over and signed.
The venue where the Harlem Singers concert took place was a short 15 minutes walk from another musical place – the Penthouse Bar at the Hilton Hotel, otherwise known as Lezil’s old job. So it made perfect sense (pushed by an overwhelming sense of curiosity) to drop a sneaky peek. We hadn’t stepped foot there since Lezil’s very last performance at the end of August.Everything pretty much looked the same when we entered the expansive marble hotel lobby. Getting out of the lift on the 39 floor, the familiar low red lighting from the stage could be seen streaming out of the bar’s doorway. The staff immediately recognised Lezil and I settled us in one of the front window tables by the stage. Three musicians had replaced Lezil and her band mates and the speakers had been taken off their stands and were now firmly fixed to the ceiling.
The three performers were all Shanghainese – a pianist, an electric bassist and a female lead. The sound was completely stripped down with only the grand piano providing the melodies. The lead singer, who we later learned was called Jo Jo, performs at the Hilton four nights a week and one night at another five star hotel The Peninsula Hotel. She had punchy edge to her singing and carried the jazzy numbers well, but of course she was no Lezil!
During the band’s break I had to slip into the conversation that we had recently celebrated a special someone’s birthday and immediately, the next song the band performed was “When I fall in love” (Nat King Cole) which was publicly dedicated to my darling wife. The rest of the Hilton staff got wind of the birthday girl and surprised us with two complimentary glasses of champagne. It was very strange sitting there – being on the ‘other side’. Here was a place where I had admired my wife’s musical talent for more than three years. But somehow it felt like closure as if to confirm that the baton had been passed on. Who knows where 2013 might see Lezil perform once again…