SPENCERTOWN, NY – For 15 years, music fans in the Berkshire area have gathered in droves to hear Wanda Houston sing. They’ll have another chance on December 4, when she appears with The Wanda Houston Band at the Spencertown Academy Arts Center, performing lively covers of popular songs from Ella Fitzgerald’s hit “A Tisket, A Tasket” at Al Green.
“There isn’t just one genre of music,” she writes in her program, “it’s jazz, rhythm & blues, rock, adult music – it’s the soundtrack of our lives, the music we grew up listening to. “
But how well do audiences know about this high octane headliner with a dynamic voice and far reaching repertoire?
For starters, the versatile singer is part of three ensembles: her eponymous group, with keyboardist Rob Kelly, Jeff Stevens on brass and drummer Jay Bradley; Connecticut-based HBH Band – Scott Heth on keyboard, Bradley & Houston – and the Big & Bigger duo with singer-songwriter guitarist Jeff Gonzales, who have resided at Lion’s Den for a decade.
She also sings with many bands from Vermont to Connecticut, including New Orleans-inspired Rejuvenators, and hosts many dance floors for weddings and parties.
“I’ve been singing my whole life – literally,” Houston said in a telephone interview from her home in Sheffield, citing influences from Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand to Leontyne Price and Mahalia Jackson.
Born in an amphitheater at a Chicago teaching hospital, she said, “I screamed, they clapped, and it’s been happening ever since.”
She grew up “doing theater with my parents” – her father ran a company – and singing in church from the age of three.
“My mother was a choir director, we had a Gospel singing group called the Houston Singers that went from church to church.”
Studying chemistry in college to become a lab technician – “I really like science,” she said – halfway through, she changed her major to opera.
When she applied to Juilliard she felt she was not ready for New York, so instead she studied opera at the University of Southern California on a scholarship. In Los Angeles, she was drawn to musical theater – it’s not the best place to do it, she observed. But in his case, it was.
For two decades she performed, sang, danced, recorded and directed films. In 1996, she toured Europe and Australia as a half-sister in the Black Cinderella-themed musical “Sisterella”, produced by Michael Jackson. “The show made me see the world,” she said.
When her 1999 musical “A Good Swift Kick” moved to New York City, New York Times critic Ben Brantley criticized her, but called Houston’s performance “awesome.”
From 2001 to 2006, she performed and sang in New York City and appeared on shows such as “Hello, Dolly!” at a friend’s theater, Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut. She was also a soloist on Broadway’s Grammy-nominated Great Joy album Inspirational Voices.
Her Broadway debut was in 2005 as a singer in Roundabout Theater’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly at Studio 54. “It was amazing to perform in this space,” recalls- her, “It gave me my Broadway ‘credibility.’
“I achieved what I always wanted to do,” she thought.
In 2006, Sharon Playhouse drummer Jay Bradley suggested Houston spend more time upstate. “He took me to Egremont Inn, and I was amazed at what I saw – the people, the stage, the dancing, a live band playing.”
They formed a group with keyboardist Heff and became regular performers there – the first of many such gigs for Houston at locations in Connecticut and Berkshire County, Firefly Gastropub and Castle Street Café (now number 10) to the summer jazz series The Mount and Lilac Park.
With its “rich artistic culture,” moving to the Berkshires “is probably the best decision I could have made,” she said. “I worked a lot more here than I ever could in New York.”
The end of the pandemic has hit full force. Supported by grants, generous donations, and a church choir salary, she taught singing students from distance to Japan.
Gradually, live concerts resumed, first outdoors and then indoors when the vaccines arrived.
“People were hungry for live music,” she observed. Hearing applause again “was a relief, I think the musicians realized how much we need the audience”.
Over the years, Houston has shared the stage with superstars Streisand, Celine Dion, Martha and the Vandellas and more, at legendary venues like Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall.
These days, in addition to performing, Houston is the music minister at First Baptist Church in Pittsfield and collaborates with Music in Common’s Black Legacy Project.
Her distinctive long curls are now silver, at 62 she says, “I’ve been here for a while – but I’m not done yet!”
Spencertown Academy Music Committee member and jazz trumpeter Rob Fisch has known Houston for 20 years.
“She’s such a fantastic performer, she has a pretty wide range of music,” he said over the phone. “Everyone in their band, they’re all great musicians, I always love to hear them.”
“This is our first live performance since the pandemic,” Fisch said. “[Houston] has such a good rapport with the audience, people can not fail to have a good time. It’s going to be a great success.