March 20, 2011
Sounds of Pensacola: The Seductive Stylings of Songstress
Shelton taught me a lesson about the evils of preconceived
notions. Holly is a very
well known singer in Pensacola. I'd heard of her; I knew she
was a regular performer at the free, two day JazzFest
we have every year in Pensacola (April 2 and 3 this year).
So I thought of Holly Shelton as a jazz singer, and I don't like
Aside from our breathtakingly beautiful beach,
the nicest thing about Pensacola is the sheer amount of free entertainment
we have. One of the biggest festivals is the Great
Gulfcoast Arts Festival
(Nov. 4, 5 & 6, 2011). One of the sayings about the
music scene is that you hear the same 20 bands over and over again.
To a large extent that's true. And, sad to
of the bands aren't very good and a few of them just out and out stink.
The Great Gulfcoast Arts Festival (GGAF) is one of the few
to have a stage line-up of regional
talent rather than relying on just local talent. That meant
be hearing new groups and (I discovered when I looked at their website)
Holly Shelton. I wasn't too pleased to see Holly's name on
list of performers. The local symphony orchestra I didn't
they're a decent orchestra and I enjoy classical music. But
I wasn't looking forward to because I figured it would be an entire set
of the dreaded jazz.
the Arts Festival I was more interested in the music than the
on display at the booths. I didn't need any ceramics or
or jewelry or anything else that was on sale. So Saturday
I got myself to the festival bright and early to claim a seat in the
front row for the
opening act. Not difficult to do because at that hour on a
(okay....cold for Florida) November day, there was hardly anyone there.
the people who were there half of them seemed to be related to the band
based on the conversations I was overhearing. My intent was
stay there all day. There were five bands playing that day.
The band I was eagerly anticipating was the one who was
last, the now Grammy nominated Feufollet.
Feufollet is a Cajun band; I may not like jazz, but I adore
and zydeco music. When people speak of New Orleans and music,
most people think "jazz"; I think "zydeco and Cajun."
Shelton was performing before Feufollet. She was scheduled for 2 PM,
and I was seriously thinking to myself that it might be a nice time to
take a nap while she was on stage since I knew I wasn't going to enjoy
her set. All day I'd watched the crowds come and go.
rolls around and I can't help but notice that there's quite a crowd
forming already. By 2:00 it was the biggest crowd I'd seen
day. There might have been a few seats left at the back, but
front was standing room only and there were plenty of people who were
doing just that: standing off to the sides and some who were even
sitting on the grass in front of the chairs. Every last one
them had come to see Holly Shelton. I couldn't help but be
impressed by how devoted Holly's fans were even if I were irritated
they had spoiled my plans to stretch out and take a nap.
Shelton you notice in a crowd. Even in flats she's six feet
with legs that reach the sky, a thick fall of silver-blonde, shoulder
length hair and looks to make you think that, in her younger days,
when Holly walked into a room she faded every other
wallpaper. And then there's her voice. Even her
speaking voice is
Kathleen Turner with a Southern drawl: deep, rich and guaranteed to
up any man's spine.
came down from the stage where her band had been setting up and I'll
be damned if she didn't seem to know every one of the fans ---
greeted them by name. Then she went back up on the stage,
after more preparation (Holly's a perfectionist when it comes to her
sound and equipment) the show began............
What I was
expecting was a jazz singer. What I got was a total
Holly didn't sing her songs; she lived them, breathed
them.........embodied them. With many singers, it's about
singing, what shows off their voice the best, and too many singers
the answer is volume, lots of it. Holly changed her
whatever worked best for each song. Holly Shelton is
from soft and sensual to infusing her songs with comedic asides that
got the audience laughing, Holly makes you live each song, and those
songs covered a spectrum.
Yes, there was some jazz ---- straight
out of New Orleans. But there was a lot more than just the
Here was a song that made me feel like I was watching a RKO
musical from the 1930s; after the song I almost expected someone to
announce that Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers would be taking the stage
next. There were torch songs that evoked images of a smoked
filled bar, a singer draped across the top of a piano. Her
rendition of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" was performed in a
classical style so pure it put tears in my eyes.
got it. There's a hint of bluegrass with her Memphis
She even sang pop, and Holly Shelton can sing Carole King
than Carole King. Holly is one of those singers, that when
sings a song, she makes it her own.
But I said Holly Shelton was a total
performer and I meant it. I have rarely seen anyone with such
rapport with their audience. Some singers are almost afraid
their audience, too shy to even look at them. Some sing to
us, but keep themselves at a distance. That's definitely not
Holly. Holly rejoices
in her audience. She brings you up on the stage with her.
or old, she knows how to interact with an audience; a lifetime of
singing has perfected her gift for making that connection.
And Holly is one of those singers who believes in going out
in the audience. Not for Holly is standing in one place,
the crowd --- she loved to be out
in the crowd. She'll take you by the hand, look you straight
in the eye and you're under her spell.
I admit Holly Shelton seduced me.
Holly Shelton charms at Five
Sisters Blues Café
(Logo used by permission)
would have gone up to her after the show and told her how much I
enjoyed it, but there was no way I was going to get anywhere near Holly
there was such a crowd around her. But I told myself, "Next
time." Well, the next time I saw Holly Shelton it was January
at downtown Pensacola's Gallery Night. Holly was
the musical artist at the Jewelers
Trade Shop. It's store, not a place designed to
listen to music; with the crowd all you could do was
walk through and look at the pretty (and pretty expensive) stuff in the
display cases. But I did swim my way through the crowd to get
to Holly, introduced myself and spoke to her for about 30 seconds ---
long enough to say, "I saw you at the Arts Festival and really loved
your show." She gave me one of her cards so I emailed her to
be put on her mail list and we exchanged a couple of messages.
As I said, one of the best things about Pensacola is the sheer amount
entertainment we have here. I don't need to pay for
my entertainment. So most of the time I don't. But
with Holly Shelton I did something I almost never do, I went to a
restaurant to see her. That was at the Five Sisters Blues
Café. And it was there when I went up to Holly before her
first set that I began
to understand just why her fans were so devoted to her.
Five Sisters Blues Café
Sisters Blues Café is a great little restaurant.
Located in the Belmont-DeVillers
area of downtown Pensacola in a renovated historic building that was
once Gussie's Record & Variety Shop,
the home of WBOP one of Pensacola's first African-American radio
stations, Five Sisters is an eatery with personality, filled with art
More importantly, the food's terrific --- Southern
home cooking at its best --- the plates come loaded and at a very
reasonable price. I got a delicious two piece chicken dinner
a moist piece of cornbread and two sides including the best yams I've
ever had for only $7.99.
|Even though we'd only met
for seconds, she remembered who I was. She called me by name,
last, and she pronounced my last name correctly. (And,
believe me, most people can't remember or pronounce my last name even
when I've just said it to them.) Holly Shelton must have a
phenomenal memory for faces and names. Combined with that
memory, she exudes a warmth that makes you feel like you're a
friend, not a stranger.
I could understand why there were tables
of people at Five Sisters to see Holly. And she gave a
wonderful performance. I brought a friend with me, a lady of
78 years who knew every song Holly performed. When Holly was
singing "Cry Me a River," I leaned over and said to my friend, "If I
were married to Holly I'd make her sing to me every night" ----- and
I'm not even gay. My friend enjoyed Five Sisters and Holly
Shelton so much as we were walking out the door, she was
already talking about the next time we'd come back.
That next time was going to delayed, as I explained in an email to
Holly, because my friend was having knee surgery. And what I
got back made me finally
understand why Holly has the fan base she does ---- because I got back
an email requesting to know when my friend's surgery would be so that
Holly could keep a "thought and prayer" for her. This was a
woman who truly seems to care for her fans..........even the brand new
ones. And so the fans give that caring and devotion back to
Holly in spades.
By then I'd been talking Holly Shelton up. When I find
someone who's truly
good and who I like, I talk them up and try to share them with people I
think might enjoy their music. Since my one friend was still
recuperating from her knee surgery, for the Gallery
Night in March I'd asked another friend who drove in from out of town.
The moment when Holly called him by name, held his hand and
sang into his eyes, I knew Holly Shelton had won yet another fan.
He had a blast, sitting there snapping his fingers along with
the music and chuckling at Holly's funny asides. As we were
driving away, he was talking about the next time he was going to see
Holly and about how he should have dressed in a suit and worn a fedora;
then he quoted Raymond Chandler's hard-boiled detective Philip
Marlowe to describe Holly, "It was a blonde. A blonde to make
kick a hole in a stained glass window."
At Gallery Night, Holly asked about how my first friend was doing after
her surgery and said to tell her "Hi." By then I was no
longer surprised that Holly expressed concern. Not surprised,
but still touched. When my friend's knee is better, we're
going back to Five Sisters to hear Holly. Instead of just us
two, there are five
of us planning on going, all ladies, so it will be five "sisters" at
The ones who haven't seen Holly Shelton are really looking
forward to it, and so are those of us who have.
As for me, I now even like jazz ------------- as long as Holly
I'm planning on writing a lot more about Pensacola this summer. Keep an
eye on the Archive for upcoming articles
about the Pensacola scene. However, you can read a vignette about life
in Pensacola in "The Suburban Wilds." One
piece I recommend everybody reads is "7 Scary Things You Didn't Know about Your
Pet's Food." If you don't own a pet, then you know
someone who does, and the information in that article is something
every pet owner should know.