The quintessential diva is not usually a very happy lady. Once upon a time, the term was reserved for spectacular vocal gems with tragic personal flaws. Thanks to VH1, the word has devolved into a corporate catch phrase applied to any slinky pop princess who can carry a tune and boast a broken nail.
Divas for Life is not really about any of that. This is a story about six talented singers from Vancouver who organized a little jazz benefit concert last February that grew beyond anyone's wildest expectations and is now taking on a life of its own with a live-recorded CD to be released Aug. 7 and plans for a national tour. It's a happy story -- so happy, some might say it's corny. And it's a story that restores a certain dignity to the word diva.
But the story has a sad beginning. In April, 2000, Stevie Vallance went to New York to visit her best friend, Jane, who was rapidly dying of cancer. Vallance -- a Vancouver-based actress and vocalist you might remember as Louise Vallance from back in the eighties when she was a regular character on TV series such as Night Heat, Knot's Landing, The Ropers -- returned home a few weeks later feeling hopeless and frustrated by the lack of adequate hospice care available to her friend.
She went straight from the airport to the Sutton Place hotel, where Vancouver Lifestyles magazine was staging a photo shoot for a cover story profiling some of the city's great jazz singers. Most of the women, a mix of established fixtures on the scene and up-and-coming standouts that included Dee Daniels, Kate Hammett-Vaughan, Vallance, Karin Plato, Laura Crema and Tammy Weis, were meeting for the first time.
"Six jazz singers in the same room," recalls writer Jim Gordon, shaking his head. "It could have gone either way." As it turned out, the divas hit it off fabulously and took over the hotel with all the enthusiasm of six giggling girls at their first slumber party.
"I couldn't stop laughing all day," Vallance remembers. "I was in stitches, crying with laughter. It reminded me of the way Jane and I used to laugh."
At one point, Hammet-Vaughan and Vallance were waiting their turn in the lobby, all dolled up in their sequined diva drag, when Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly sauntering by, looking very Hugh Hefner-esque in his slippers and a purple robe, with a stogie hanging out of his mouth. He walked up right behind Hammett-Vaughan, who was gabbing away in her typically animated fashion, and started playing around as if he had a camera in his hand.
"Kate turned around," Vallance explains, still cracking up at the memory, "and without missing a beat, said 'Oh, hi Arnie,' as if it were the most natural thing in the world. And then she just turned right back around and went on with her story. It was so hysterical. And then he says to us, 'Looking good,' and wandered away. That's the kind of day it was."
The others agree. "I hope this doesn't sound corny, but there was a loving sort of energy happening," says Daniels, a full-bodied singer with a four-octave range that the Los Angeles Times has lauded as "the cream of mainstream jazz."
After the shoot was over, they retreated to the bar for martinis. "We've got to sing together," Vallance declared. "It was so clear." Someone suggested Friends for Life (FFL), a drop-in wellness centre in downtown Vancouver for people facing life-threatening illnesses. And the Divas were born.
"There was no hesitation on anybody's part," says Daniels. "We were very sincere. But then we all went off in six different directions. It was Stevie who really got it off the ground and made it happen. She's a little dynamo."
"I was on a mission," says Vallance, who was determined to do something in honour of her friend. She arranged a meeting with the FFL staff and rocked in with all these grand ideas about renting the Vogue Theatre and putting on a big concert.
"I was mildly interested," recalls Craig Reisinger, FFL director of development and co-ordination. "The more we talked, the more I knew she meant business." Reisinger told her they were in, if she agreed to rent the theatre. The Vogue Theatre, a beautifully restored art deco building on Granville Street, donated the space for Feb. 3 and a damage deposit was set at $2,500, refundable only if 400 seats were sold.
"I freaked out," says Vallance. "I mean, come on. I'm a singer and an actress and a cartoon director. I've never done any of this behind-the-scenes stuff."
Vallance didn't back out, as her therapist advised. For the next year, she "busted her butt," says Plato, recruiting corporate sponsors, a music director (Michael Creber), a stage manager (Ed Oleksiuk), musicians (Graham Boyle on drums, Steve Holy on bass and Tom Keenlyside on sax and flute), a makeup artist and volunteers to design the Web site and posters. With the help of Friends for Life, she organized meetings with the other singers, who plastered the city with postcards and leaned on friends in the media to spread the word.
Two weeks before the show, only 250 seats had been sold. "Vancouver is a very last-minute town," explains Paul Grant, host of the CBC program Hot Air, who emceed the evening with Jurgen Gothe and Gordon. And, as Grant predicted, by the day of the concert, all 1,140 tickets had sold out, people were being turned away and inside the theatre -- decorated with fresh white lilies and washed in the glow of six huge donated candelabras -- it was standing room only.
"Everyone thought it must have been so catty backstage," says Plato. "But there was none of that. It was a big party in the dressing room. We gave each other little gifts and everyone was so supportive," especially to poor Crema, trembling under a raincoat, sipping tea and trying to recover from a nasty cold. "And then she went on stage first and just let it rip. We were all hugging each other and cheering each other on. It was a hoot."
The Divas raised more than $30,000 that night. Vallance later got permission to make a CD from the live recording, which aired on the CBC. And after some nightmarish 11th-hour wrangling over mechanical licensing -- which had Vallance pleading with songwriter Phyllis Molinary to get out of bed and fax a letter waiving her publishing rights to the Diva's rendition of Here's to Life -- the CD was pressed just in time for The Vancouver International Jazz Festival last month, during which some of the original Divas and a few new ones raised another $8,000 through a series of acoustic cabaret shows at Zev's Restaurant.
And now, if all works out, the Divas will join forces with singers across the country and hit the road with a five-city national tour next spring.
"When I think of divas," says Grant. "I think of Cecilia Bartoli or Maureen Forrester. These women lived up to the idea of someone who rises to the bigness of the music. Diva used to have a perjorative connotation. This kind of gave it a nice shine."