Iris Williams OBE

Joe Regan

NOV 19, 2013

  • Welsh Iris Williams at the Metropolitan Room

    Iris WilliamsIris Williams, the Wales born lush contralto whose last New York appearance was years ago at the Algonquin’s Oak Room, made a sensational return to a capacity crowd at the Metropolitan Room October 5. Her New York musicians were top-rate: Art Weiss, her music director on piano, Tom Hubbard on bass, and Jeff Pillinger on percussion and drums. Clad in a stunning tight red dress all she had to do was enter and the crowd, which included Morgan Freeman, went crazy. Her opening number was a jazzy “Just In Time.”

    She gave us a bit of her history. She was born in Wales and is one of the Wales natives to receive the O.B.E. (Order of British Empire.) Others are Anthony Hopkins and Tom Jones. She began singing in church choirs. She was given the O.B.E. by Queen Elizabeth II. She got a big laugh by prolonging a pause before she said “the second.” She discussed how, when she was booked to sing on a cruise ship run by natives of India, the receptionist on the ship thought her name was Williams-Obe. When she tried to correct her, the lady said oh, it stands for “on board entertainer!”

    Her second number was a complete version of Rodgers & Hart’s “Bewitched” and one wondered if she had ever played that part on the stage. Her acting and vocal phrasing were superb!

    She recalled her last engagement at the Oak Room when cabaret great Sylvia Sims would come every night and order her how to improve her act. Sims ordered her to sing a song! She learned it: “Like Someone In Love.”

    One of the special attractions of the act is a series of Nat King Cole songs. It begins with “Unforgettable” with special lyrics referring to Cole, and then she does a stunning and moving “Nature Boy.” After a bouncing version of “Paper Moon” she tells us about a movie song that was rejected by Vic Damone, Tony Martin, and Perry Como. Nat King Cole had the taste to record it and it won the Academy Award. Her version of “Mona Lisa” was a magnificent! The last Cole selection was “Straighten Up and Fly Right” which she rocked into a sing-along with the audience on the chorus.

    Williams’ contact with her audience is extraordinary…she sings directly to several members and has a wonderful way of conversing with them between sets, joking about drinks and where they come from. She discusses her marriages, both disasters, but she does have a wonderful son from one union. Then she sang a song she sang for Prince Charles at the opening of a rehearsal hall at her alma mater The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama. It was a gorgeous version of “The Rose.” Her next ballad was “Sophisticated Lady” and her voice glided over that Ellington, again giving a full acting performance embracing every word and note of that sad standard. Immediately she swung into one great chorus of “I’m Gonna Live Till I Die” which she told us was written as a serious ballad!

    The love theme from the Academy Award winning “Deer Hunter” movie, “He Was Beautiful,” was written by Cleo Laine and Stanley Myers but Williams’ recording of it was the biggest hit in the UK and led her to perform at 14 Royal Performances. I don’t remember this song but I expect it was the background theme during the great romantic scene between Meryl Streep and Robert DiNero when they were walking and she was looking at him with amazing emotions of love on her face. Williams’ version tonight was a thing of beauty. This is a forgotten treasure.

    A Piaf section began with a beautiful “Under the Bridges of Paris” sung in impeccable French. Then, with only Weiss’ simple piano behind her, she wistfully sang “La Vie en Rose” first in French, then in English and only on the last chorus did the rest of the band join her for a big finish!

    She did a surprising rock version of “Ol’ Man River” but then, standing in the crook of the piano, a tender and moving “Bill” again causing one to wonder if she had ever played Julie in “Show Boat.”

    In 2000 she was selected to perform at the White House celebration of its anniversary and Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip were honored guests. There was an amusing anecdote about an unexpected sight during the tour which was in the Ford letter she was selected to read. And the payoff was when President Ford was doing the first dance with the Queen. The band played “The Lady Is A Tramp!” Of course, Williams sang that number equaling Lena Horne’s classic version!

    During “If I Ruled the World” she acknowledged her thanks to everyone including Freeman and her technicians. But the crowd wouldn’t let her leave so she returned for a tribute song to Mabel Mercer. In 2002 in UK a BBC television special starring Williams was broadcast: “Iris Williams Echoes the Life of Mabel Mercer. Williams’ song was a very sensitive “My Shining Hour.”

    Iris Williams is all class and you owe it to yourself to see this great lady who has lost not a bit of her voice which was championed by Stephen Holden and Rex Reed when she played the Algonquin over 20 years ago. Williams’ spontaneous patter is rare on the cabaret stage and you‘ll find yourself loving her for it!

    Iris Williams repeats at the Metropolitan Room, 34 West 22 Street, October 20 at 9:30 PM. Phone (212) 206-0440. Given the sold out crowd reservations are a must!