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Singer Pat Steel, undated. Courtesy of the Family

Pat Steel was a well-known jazz singer in the Regina society scene who serenaded a dance-happy generation. She died of cancer at age 86 on Jan. 1.Courtesy of the Family

Pat Steel’s first audience was in a stable, in her youth singing Lo! Hear the Gentle Lark to her mare and foal. Years later, as a professional singer, it was not uncommon for her to encounter a horse’s behind.

With her second husband, Bob Moyer, Ms. Steel ran the Regina-based Bob Moyer Big Band. During one performance, an inebriated fellow shouted song request after song request. All were dutifully honoured, as the band’s patience and repertoire were deep. During a set break, as band members grumbled among themselves about the command performance, Ms. Steel amiably chatted with the loud-mouthed man, settling him easily.

“She was savvy and classy,” trumpeter Brent Ghiglione remembered. “She could win over anybody.”

A begowned blonde with a sultry alto voice and a disarming smile that could calm a tornado, Patricia Steel Moyer (who worked professionally as Pat Steel) died of cancer on Jan. 1, at age 86.

She was a jazz singer on the Regina society scene who serenaded a dance-happy generation. With her bandleader husband, the singer nurtured musicians who passed through the big band for decades. She was a vocalist of the Peggy Lee kind, with a sophisticated style that belied her lack of formal training. Ms. Steel’s Fever was done at only the coolest temperatures; her It Could Happen to You was persuasively delivered. A ninja with the maracas, she excited the cha-cha-cha crowd.

Ms. Steel also did the necessary work off-stage, whether herding band members, cutting them cheques or making them chili for lunch. “She looked after the business, and she put on a show,” trumpet player Al Muirhead said.

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Regina-based singer Pat Steel, 1960s publicity still. Credit: Alexander

Ms Steel, pictured in the 1960s, may not have had a large public profile outside Saskatchewan, but she rubbed elbows with big names in the entertainment business through her musical career.Alexander/Courtesy of the Family

Though relatively unknown outside Saskatchewan, Ms. Steel rubbed shoulders with showbiz giants. She once performed with comedian Rich Little – “he was very nice to get along with, but his manager wasn’t,” she said later – and made an impression on comedic pianist Victor Borge.

She interviewed him (and, on other occasions, Count Basie and Chet Atkins) while working as a freelance broadcaster for CBC Radio. Despite the insistence of Mr. Borge’s handler that the international entertainer would only be available for a three-minute spot, the exchange lasted nearly a half-hour. “His manager had to practically drag him away,” Ms. Steel recalled. “Mr. Borge and I had such a good rapport that we both laughed throughout the whole interview.”

Anyone witnessing her elegant demeanour in the 1960s with pianist Gerry Caunter at Hy’s Steak Loft in the Regina Inn, or with the Bob Moyer Big Band at Expo ‘86 in Vancouver, or in the 1990s at the venerable Danceland in Manitou Beach, Sask., would have never sensed that Ms. Steel suffered from stage fright her whole career.

“It has impeded my joy in performing,” she wrote in a letter in 2011. “I have an anxiety attack prior to the engagement but it subsides during the actual performance. It’s a curse some artists seem to have to live with.”

One of Ms. Steel’s favourite performances took place in 1966, at the opening of the Casa Terrace Room in Regina’s Vagabond Motor Inn, where searchlights crisscrossed the building Hollywood-style on a Saturday night. She wore a loose gown to disguise her advanced pregnancy. The next day, Mother’s Day, she gave birth to Carle, a daughter with her first husband.

“I sometimes joke that it was my last performance as a singer,” Carle Steel said to The Globe and Mail.

Her mother had come of age in a toe-tapping time when swing still meant a thing. People Lindy hopped and jittered like bugs in the dance halls and hotel ballrooms of a nation. Toronto’s Palais Royale, Vancouver’s White Rose and Regina’s Trianon were typical nighttime playgrounds in the cities, while summer resort areas and amusement parks had dance pavilions in season.

The Winnipeg native sang in public for the first time at Clear Lake Danceland, in Wasagaming, Man. It was 1952, she was 16 years old, and she was scared to death, later remarking that she “probably sounded like a sick Minnie Mouse.”

In 1958, she married an older man, John Krause, and moved to Regina. Speaking to Michael Bell for a cover story in the Regina Leader-Post’s QC magazine in 2012, Ms. Steel said she “fell in love with love.”

A chance meeting in 1960 was a life-changing moment for an untried singer. At a boat club on Willow Island on Wascana Lake, Sask., she heard a Bob Moyer-led quintet perform and came away highly impressed. She contacted Mr. Moyer – her future second husband – to ask for an audition. She passed the test and got the gig as the group’s vocalist.

(Ms. Steel divorced her first husband in 1969; she married her professional partner, Mr. Moyer, five years later.)

“She was inexperienced, but she knew how to perform,” said Mr. Muirhead, a member of the quintet at the time of the tryout. “You can be a great singer, but no one is going to pay attention to you if you don’t sell yourself. That wasn’t a problem with Pat. She had that built into her.”

Patricia Anne Steel was born Nov. 14, 1936. Her mother, Edna Steel (née Ryan), was an entrepreneurial sort who was involved in real estate and restaurant ownership. Her father, James Steel, had played tenor sax in an RCAF band before becoming a stationary engineer at St. Charles Country Club, a private establishment in Winnipeg.

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Pianist-comedian Victor Borge and Canadian singer Pat Steel.

Pianist-comedian Victor Borge and Steel. When Steel interviewed Borge for CBC, it was supposed to last for only three minutes, but the pair had such a strong rapport the interview stretched for 30 minutes.Courtesy of the Family

“Growing up as a staff child on a golf course informed her world view,” her daughter Carle Steel said. “Later, singing for politicians and business leaders, she considered herself a court jester. She was among them, but she was never one of them.”

A passion for horses led her to a job patrolling the golf course on horseback once during an international tournament, where she was responsible for shooing away non-paying spectators. When the event was over, she was paid less than promised. Her dad protested and said he would resign if the situation wasn’t made right. His daughter got the money.

“He was a pretty terrific dad,” she later told QC magazine.

Armed with an 18-year-old’s footloose audacity and a secretarial course certificate, Ms. Steel took off for Los Angeles after graduating from high school in hopes of starting a singing career. Caution was thrown to the wind, but she blew back into Winnipeg after an unsuccessful year. “I don’t think she had a clear idea of herself as a musician at that point,” Carle Steel said.

Moving to Regina, Ms. Steel began her career and raised a family simultaneously. Singing in Mr. Moyer’s band, she averaged a job per week early on: A YMCA dance on Valentine’s Day paid her $10; a gig at the Wascana Country Club, twice as much.

As the sixties progressed, her work picked up. She could be found with Mr. Moyer and sidemen in the major nightclubs and dining rooms in Regina, sometimes Saskatoon. She also performed in the Ranch Room in the Hotel Saskatchewan with the Ken Jefferson Trio.

After her divorce from her first husband, Ms. Steel and Mr. Moyer lived and worked together, eventually marrying in 1974. The houses they lived in were devoted to music, with studio space and rehearsal rooms. The times were high. They drove a ‘69 Pontiac Parisienne convertible (on one occasion listening to an Oscar Peterson tape with the smiling piano legend himself in the back seat).

After one concert, members of the touring Count Basie Orchestra dropped by for an all-night jam session. “We played until 9 o’clock in the morning,” Mr. Muirhead recalled.

In the days of leopard-print wallpaper and martini occasions, Ms. Steel’s daughter recalls Fred Davis of Front Page Challenge and singer-actress Dinah Christie dropping by. “I’d wake up in the middle of the night and there would be all these smart, beautiful, articulate people playing music,” Carle Steel said.

In 1980, Ms. Steel wrote the lyrics to her husband’s music for a song marking a province’s 75th anniversary. Celebrate Saskatchewan was the winning entry in a province-wide competition.

Her husband died in 2005. Two years later, Ms. Steel was presented with the SaskTel Jazz Festival’s Special Recognition award. “I’m the first woman to receive it, which is a real breakthrough,” Ms. Steel told the Regina Leader-Post at the time. “I’m not just a girl singer. This means I’m classed as a musician.”

In her later years, Ms. Steel no longer sang. Years of du Maurier Special Milds and exposure to second-hand smoke in nightclubs damaged her lungs.

She leaves her daughter, Carle Steel; son James Steel; stepchildren, Bill Moyer, Doug Moyer and Karen Dross; and seven grandchildren.

She appeared on only one recorded album, 2001′s Bob Moyer Big Band, which included standards Fever, Makin’ Whoopee and New York, New York. She and her husband did little touring. “Regina was their oyster,” Carle Steel said. “There wasn’t anything they couldn’t do there.”

Although she had stopped singing, Ms. Steel continued to play the maracas her whole life, whether sitting in with a street band in Cuba a few years ago on a vacation or performing bossa nova at the very end.

“I played The Girl from Ipanema on my iPhone,” Carle Steel said, “and she played along on her maracas for the nurses in the hospital.”

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