Jazz singer once backed René Simard


Melinda Whitaker

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When: Saturday, 8 p.m.

Where: Hermann's Jazz Club

Admission: $25

Today she's a jazz singer. But once upon a time, Melinda Whitaker was a full-fledged Renette.

It was back in the late '70s. Quebec wunderkind René Simard had his own CBC-TV show in Vancouver. For three seasons. Whitaker was a back-up singer and featured soloist.

On YouTube, you can view vintage clips of her on the René Simard Show belting out tunes such as Bonnie Tyler's It's a Heartache.

On Saturday night, the Saanichton vocalist performs pop and jazz tunes at Hermann's Jazz Club, a launch for her new album, Lucky So-And-So! The band is led by the recording's producer, Phil Dwyer.

Whitaker has had a long career that includes six-nights-a-week stints at Gary Taylor's Show Lounge in Vancouver and sharing the stage with Bryan Adams and Jose Feliciano.

And she has fond memories of those early days with Simard. "We were called the Renettes," Whitaker said.

"He was a real sweetheart. He was very talented and very young. We did that show when he was, like, 15. ... He had a chaperone on that show, because some of the dancers tried to put the make on him."

It was Whitaker who approached Dwyer - a Juno-winning musician based in Qualicum Beach - to produce Lucky So-And-So!

He not only agreed to oversee the project, Dwyer wrote arrangements as well as playing piano and soprano, alto and tenor saxophones.

Victoria trombonist Ian McDougall also plays trombone on the disc, recorded in Nanaimo last April.

What makes Lucky So-And-So! is Whitaker's rich, burnished contralto. She brings bona fide warmth and emotional depth to familiar songs such as the title track, as well as My Foolish Heart, The Song is You and Stevie Wonder's Creepin'.

Her heartfelt interpretation of You've Changed, a favourite with generations of pop and jazz singers, is especially compelling.

Whitaker cites Carmen McRae, another jazz contralto, as a seminal influence. She also points to Nancy Wilson and Seattle jazz/blues singer Ernestine Anderson.

"I really listened to them tons and tons," she said.

Whitaker was part of Vancouver's thriving music scene of the 1970s and early '80s, when there was scads of nightclub and studio work for singers and musicians.

After earning an English degree from the University of B.C., she set out with musical friends (including some who'd performed with Cheech and Chong in Vancouver) to play Edmonton's club scene.

She returned to Vancouver, where her future husband, pianist Gerry Caunter, helped land her a regular gig at Gary Taylor's Show Lounge.

That's where Whitaker received her real musical grounding. She not only sang jazz six nights a week, she did weekday lunchtime shows. Such a musical situation is almost impossible to find today. "My heart goes out to musicians of today because there's a dearth of gigs. There's no place to go out and grab it by the ... well, you know," she said.

As well, there was plenty of session work at such Vancouver studios as GGRP, Little Mountain Sound and Mushroom Studios. That's when Whitaker met future rock star Bryan Adams.

"He was just a kid in Vancouver," she said. "We did jingles together."

Whitaker moved to Saanichton from Vancouver seven years ago to look after her elderly parents.

She's become a familiar face on the local scene, having performed for Hermann's, TD Victoria International JazzFest, the Victoria Symphony and with such groups as the Great Ladies of Jazz.

Whitaker is also heard on the recording Daedalus: Poetry by Dorothy Livesay by Victoria pianist Brent Jarvis.

There may be a sequel to Lucky So-And-So! When Whitaker first talked to Dwyer about all the tunes she'd love to record, the list was lengthy.

"He said, 'Well, you're just talking three albums there,' " she said, chuckling. achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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