Brit pop icon Lulu’s New York debut may have come nearly 50 years after her breakthrough hit cover of The Isley Brothers’ R&B classic “Shout” (it was Top 10 in the U.K. in 1964), but she couldn’t have done a better show then than she did Saturday night at B.B. King’s.
Of course, she did have as good a band as can be had in the city, what with the Fab Faux’s Jimmy Vivino (bandleader/guitarist for the Conan show band), Will Lee (bassist for Late Show With David Letterman) and drummer Rich Pagano, buttressed by Letterman bandleader/keyboardist Paul Shaffer and backing vocalists Elaine Caswell, Nicki Richards, James "D-Train" Williams and Jimmy Smith.
Indeed, she opened with a super-soulful take on Ray Charles’ “Unchain My Heart,” then explained how she had idolized the late soul pioneer. The rest of her concert rep likewise relied heavily on American blues and R&B and included Otis Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” and “Try A Little Tenderness,” Solomon Burke’s “Cry To Me” (she invoked its songwriter/producer Bert Berns, with whom she worked in London), Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me,” Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles,” Inez and Charlie Foxx’s “Mockingbird” (sung in tandem here with Williams) and her closer, “Shout.”
So blues-knowledgeable was Lulu, in fact, that she distinguished between the genre’s three Kings—B.B., Albert and Freddie—in covering Freddie King’s hit “I’m Tore Down,” also providing Vivino a great venue to display his blues guitar prowess. Noting her recording work in the U.S. in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s with legendary R&B producers Jerry Wexler, Tom Dowd and Arif Mardin, she delivered her 1970 hit "Oh Me Oh My (I'm a Fool for You Baby),” then Derek and the Dominos’ Dowd-produced “Bell Bottom Blues.”
But Lulu’s own co-written hit for Tina Turner, “I Don't Want to Fight,” was truly magnificent, thanks largely to Shaffer’s Hammond organ work and Lulu’s amazing vocal control. On the British Invasion front, she offered The Beatles “In My Life” and “You Can’t Do That”—both immaculately done—having earlier noted that on England’s hit rock TV show Ready Steady Go!, John and Paul had agreed on-camera that “Shout” was their favorite song that week.
Still, the show’s high point was bound to be “To Sir With Love.” Her version here came from Al Green’s cover arrangement, which simmered with its Memphis soul underpinning here prominently featuring the Lee/Pagano rhythm section. She included the third verse of the unforgettable theme from the 1967 film classic, which she sang in the film but not on her signature hit single.
When she was finished, her entire band joined with the standing room in reverent applause.
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