Maggie A's Meanderings




March 20, 2011

The Sounds of Pensacola:  The Seductive Stylings of Songstress Holly Shelton

Holly 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 jazz.  

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 Pensacola music scene is that you hear the same 20 bands over and over again.  To a large extent that's true.  And, sad to say, some 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 events to have a stage line-up of regional talent rather than relying on just local talent.  That meant I'd 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 the list of performers.  The local symphony orchestra I didn't mind; they're a decent orchestra and I enjoy classical music.  But Holly I wasn't looking forward to because I figured it would be an entire set of the dreaded jazz.

For the Arts Festival I was more interested in the music than the arts on display at the booths.  I didn't need any ceramics or paintings or jewelry or anything else that was on sale.  So Saturday morning 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 cold (okay....cold for Florida) November day, there was hardly anyone there.  And of 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 to stay there all day.  There were five bands playing that day.  The band I was eagerly anticipating was the one who was playing last, the now Grammy nominated Feufollet.  Feufollet is a Cajun band; I may not like jazz, but I adore Cajun and zydeco music.  When people speak of New Orleans and music, most people think "jazz"; I think "zydeco and Cajun."

Holly 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.  1:45 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 all day.  There might have been a few seats left at the back, but the 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 of 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.

Holly Shelton...........Holly Shelton you notice in a crowd.  Even in flats she's six feet of tall 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 woman into wallpaper.   And then there's her voice.  Even her speaking voice is Kathleen Turner with a Southern drawl: deep, rich and guaranteed to send shivers up any man's spine.

Holly 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 --- she greeted them by name.  Then she went back up on the stage, and, 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 performer.  Holly didn't sing her songs; she lived them, breathed them.........embodied them.  With many singers, it's about their singing, what shows off their voice the best, and too many singers think the answer is volume, lots of it.  Holly changed her style for whatever worked best for each song.  Holly Shelton is versatile, 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 jazz.  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.

Blues..........Holly's got it.  There's a hint of bluegrass with her Memphis upbringing.  She even sang pop, and Holly Shelton can sing Carole King better than Carole King.  Holly is one of those singers, that when she 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 of 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.  Young 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, singing to 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 at Five Sisters Blues Cafe
Holly Shelton charms at Five Sisters Blues Café
(Logo used by permission)
I 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 --- just 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 of free 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
Five 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 and music.  

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 with 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, first and 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 a bishop 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 Five Sisters.  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 Shelton's singing it.
  Holly Shelton cartoon
Holly and Jazz

"My Love Is"
Songwriters: Bill Dimtry, Kierin Kirby & Towa Tei
Jazz Society of Pensacola's 2010 Jazz Gumbo
Holly and Musical Theater

"Bill" from Show Boat. (music starts at 50 seconds)
Music by Jerome Kern, Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Choral Society of Pensacola's "Lyric Libations"

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.



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