By ROB LESTER****It isn’t every day that a singer I interview casually says, “Judy Garland was always very nice to me,” or lets me see a telegram that Frank Sinatra sent her. But Tennie Leonard isn’t your every-day singer. She’s making her comeback this month, reminiscing about people she’s crossed paths with, reuniting with, been influenced by. (Garland and Sinatra knew something about comebacks, too.) Tennie will be at Don’t Tell Mama on Manhattan’s Restaurant Row, at 343 West 46 Street, for three December slots, starting this Tuesday, the 5th. Until last week, I hadn’t met her in person. She was just a vocalist I’d heard about, heard on my CD player (her album is called From My Heart), and heard was planning a return to the spotlight. “I called Sidney Myer of Don’t Tell Mama to tell him I was thinking of singing again and asked him where he thought I should go. And he said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it here? You were here back at the beginning.’” She was. Several other places in the city where she’d performed in the past weren’t options because they are gone: Tennie had headlined at the prestigious Algonquin Oak Room, Tavern on the Green’s Chestnut Room, 88’s, The Living Room, Judys’ and the venue that had been actively cabaret-centric across the street from Don’t Tell Mama, Danny’s Skylight Room.
The delightful Tennie was a pleasure to get to know one recent morning over coffee and croissants, tea and sympathy, memories and scrapbooks in the tony Tennie Upper East Side home. She speaks of her earlier career with a warm, appreciative tone, matter-of-fact about musical matters that matter and the facts that would be boasts by others. Back in the day, she’d been in posh in her own shows on both coasts, was featured in revues of two iconic composer-lyricists (Cole Porter and Jerry Herman), appeared on TV programs such as The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson,The Merv Griffin Show, The Joe Franklin Show and was “I was managed by Jilly” —that’s Jilly Rizzo, the infamous Sinatra pal, who owned a nightclub bearing his name. She worked in lots of the “joints” of yore. “I didn’t know that clubs were run by the Mob. Jilly got me this big 300-pound bodyguard who went everywhere with me.”
She shrugs off the recollection of what was a way of daily life. Show biz had long been the world she wanted and lived in. She’d been on the famous “Ted Mack’s Amateur Hour” as a kid performer (much like Sinatra had been with “Major Bowes” on radio when he was still part of the vocal group, The Hoboken Four). As a teen she studied opera, then focused on the Great American Songbook standards she’ll again be singing in the return she is excited and, admittedly and naturally, a little nervous about. But that comes with the territory as no one with a professional attitude and legit experience would slough off a return after several years. There’s no question that she’s a pro. Call her “a pro with a glow,” as her face lights up when Tennie Leonard the otherwise mellow, understated interviewee bursts into song to demonstrate a point or recall a musical memory. And the lovably loquacious Leonard wears music like a second skin, comfortable in her own, whether that way of all flesh involves crooning “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” which reviewers Scott and Barbara Siegel once mentioned as a highlight of her show in which she was “never boring” or another epidermis-related number, “(Can’t Get Into) Last Year’s Bikini,” which she recorded as a single record in the 1960s. Wander around YouTube and you can find other 45 rpm discs from her early days: “Poor Girl” and “Look at Me” were two sides of a record that viewed young love from two sides of the proverbial lovers’ lane. “Poor Girl” is the sympathetic clucking of friends commiserating about a dumpee and the idealized plea to “‘Look at Me’ with love in your eyes” drips off honey-soaked hopes and promises. It’s also redolent of its time’s attitudes and expectations: lovers who will never, ever part and the squirm-worthy offer ”And I’ll be your possession.”
The music bible Billboard once described Tennie Leonard as “a perky redhead with a bubbling vocal approach and a personality to match.” The issue was the first one in June 1964 when the publications famous list of top records had its top 10 albums included two by The Beatles, an early Barbra Streisand album and the Funny Girl cast LP she dominated, and the albums featuring the year’s big song that’s back in the Broadway air ye
Well, hello, Tennie.
There are many of us here who burn for your return.
You’ve still got zing, Tennie, that you bring, Tennie.
It’s in anything you sing, which we’re remembering.
A brand new start, Tennie, “From Your Heart,” Tennie,
The audience will sense your joy immense, and so, oh,
Sing for them, Tennie, you’re the gem of D.T.M., Tennie.
Here and Now it is that you belong
When you grace this venue with each song
Tennie, anyone can see you can’t go wrong.”
But it’s a different Mr. Herman who will be providing music for her act Here and Now; she is now paired with pianist Ian Herman. That is much too her pleasure, as it reuniting with director Scott Barnes.
An old Cabaret Scenes Magazine review praised the Leonard “great phrasing and beautifully held notes” and notes her “honeyed tones,” and the BackStage “Bistro Bits” column from another December (1996) commented on her “sweet way with ballads,” while a “bittersweet, knowing air” was in the air when the Drama-Logue of Hollywood reporter was moved by her version of “For All We Know.” “For all we know, we never meet again…” goes the lyric of this standard, but Miss Leonard and her audience will be glad they ARE meeting again. We have her grown daughter to thank, the singer tells me. “Lauren encouraged me. She said, ‘Mom, it’s important to you.’ I had a big birthday coming up and so she thought this was the time,” Tennie explains, with a “If not now, when?” sensibility. There’s a kind of bookend of motivating factors to factor in, if you will, because Lauren was the reason Tennie put her early career aside the first time around. Many years ago, as her star with rising, she became a young widow with a child to raise alone and she made the decision to go into a more reliable field, rather than be an entertainer going from gig to gig and being on the road. She found she had a business head and was a natural in putting together incentive programs for corporations. Her natural class and organizational instincts, business smarts and people skills made her a quick success in setting up and running programs, commanding an attractive salary.
Tennie stayed in the business world before returning to show business. She got back into performing with a local theatre group, playing major roles in classic musicals. An actor’s sensibilities and involvement are evident in the way she sings. One example is on YouTube where she presents a full-bodied, involved sailing through a rendition of “My Ship.”
You can even find audio of her old 1960s records there, but Here and Now you can see Tennie Leonard in person at Don’t Tell Mama at 7:00 PM on either December 5 or 13 or an afternoon show on Sunday, December 10 at 4:30 PM. Tennie Leonard’s act is directed by Scott Barnes, with Ian Herman as her musical director. Don’t Tell Mama is at 343 West 46 Street in NYC and online reservations are athttp://donttellmamanyc.com/shows/main/tennie-leonard-here-and-now-12-10