Put two great male singers in a band–Lennon and McCartney, say, or Henley and Frey–and what do you call it? Supergroup! But try it with two females, and to some, it’s a catfight.
That’s what a few haters snarked when, in 2011, one of Portland’s best known vocal stars, Storm Large, joined one of its most beloved bands, Pink Martini–whose lead singer since its 1994 inception had been China Forbes. When she was sidelined by vocal cord surgery, Storm (better known at that point for hard rock swagger than PM’s retro global lounge sound) blew in, replacing her on a tour that summer and winning raves.
“I always hoped we could find a way to collaborate,” he said when Large first joined. “She is a brilliant, beautiful, charismatic and seductive star who would give Jayne Mansfield a run for her money.”
While Forbes healed, comparisons and questions inevitably arose, and some wondered: did the band’s future lie in China, or with Storm?
The answer will be clear when the band performs Friday at Troutdale’s Edgefield Concerts on the Lawn.
Even though Pink Martini was always very much classically trained pianist Thomas Lauderdale’s creation and followed his quirky blend of classical, Latin jazz, and French cafe music, Forbes (an off-Broadway actress and singer-songwriter) had been its glamorous frontwoman and an important songwriter from the get-go. While easily sharing vocal duties with Pepe Raphael and Timothy Nishimoto, her charismatic singing, understated, even ironic persona, and ability to command the spotlight even with symphony orchestras and in the Hollywood Bowl — without making the show all about her — “made the band possible,” Lauderdale told The Oregonian. “The way into the music is through her voice. She helps articulate the romance and the lushness of the songs. China helped broaden the vision of what the band can be. There’s been a huge folk, pop, rock influence that we wouldn’t have had. She’s the reason the band has been so successful.”
Able to convincingly deliver everything from opera arias to retro-romantic stage musical ballads to cheesy pre rock pop, in multiple languages, Forbes could be a diva (Lauderdale calls her “the diva next door”) — but never a prima donna. That’s why he’d enlisted his old Harvard classmate and buddy (they used to play and sing opera arias in their dorm common room at night) when he started the band in the first place. Over a decade and a half, the oddball band of “musical archeologists” rose to international prominence, playing arenas, festivals, and clubs around the world. And now, in summer 2011, their major voice was threatened by vocal polyps.
Socially embedded gender roles and even misogyny lead many to assume any shared singing among women to amount to “dueling divas.” But regardless of gender, history hasn’t been kind to bands who replace frontmen — or women. Though in the 1950s and ’60s, it was common for bands (the Drifters, Crystals, Miracles, Temptations) to replace lead singers who went on to solo careers, with few hard feelings, plenty of male bands have since found it hard to share, as David Crosby found out when Roger McGuinn ousted him from the Byrds at the height of the band’s success. Sometimes audiences rebel: fans threw punches when the Beatles replaced original drummer Pete Best with Ringo Starr. Consider Van Halen’s fraught history with David Lee Roth and Sammy Hagar.
A parallel to Pink Martini’s situation occurred when Doobie Brothers’ founding lead vocalist Tom Johnson took a medical leave, to be replaced by keyboardist Michael McDonald, which changed the popular band’s sound and brought it even more success. They found it impossible to share the lead role after Johnson recovered. He only returned a decade later when McDonald departed for a successful solo career. Johnson still fronts the Doobies, though McDonald occasionally rejoins the group in performance.
Of course, women have shared the mike in bands for ages, from the Supremes to the Shirelles to Destiny’s Child. But with a few exceptions (Fleetwood Mac, Sleater-Kinney, Throwing Muses), usually a single alpha female takes the lead.
But it’s much rarer for bands to replace an established, popular, successful singer with another star — and then have both share the lead. That’s what Pink Martini was trying to do, and in the context of sexist social pressures that tend to pit accomplished females against each other even more than their male counterparts.
But like all stereotypes, those assumptions and precedents didn’t account for the reality of the two individuals involved. And both Large and Forbes, secure in their own artistry, had plenty of reasons to welcome the shared spotlight, especially since for the most part, they alternate PM performances rather than singing in the same show. Lauderdale was initially loath to invite comparisons, but it made a lot of sense.
For one thing, Forbes, who detests living out of a suitcase, had always hated the band’s relentless touring schedule, especially after becoming a mother. The lighter singing load took some of the strain off her voice — especially since she could now leave the damaging belt-out numbers that didn’t really suit it to Large.
Large — who recommended the OHSU physician who ultimately treated Forbes’s vocal polyps — “relieved the pressure on my shoulders of keeping the band going,” Forbes told The Oregonian. “I don’t feel any competitiveness with her because now I’m secure in myself. Some songs she does way better than I did and she’s so entertaining. Thank God for her because I would have been in the loony bin.”
For her part, Large welcomed both sharing the burden and her new sometime band’s variety. “One of the things I love about singing with Pink Martini is it’s not all about me for a change,” she said. “I’ve been a solo singer for 20 years. It’s so relaxing.”
While she maintained a solo career, learning from Forbes and her occasional performances with Pink Martini allowed Large to stretch her musical muscles. “I have fought my theatrical and dramatic leanings for more than 15 years because I thought they weren’t cool or rock n roll,” she told me in an Artslandia interview a few years ago. “Singing with the symphony and Pink Martini, writing love songs where nobody dies at the end, is the next step in my artistic evolution. It forces me to be soft, vulnerable and feminine….qualities that, a few years ago, I would consider to be the most humiliating to ever take on.”
The joint venture also benefited the band, allowing Lauderdale to vary the musical menu as he’d long desired, and giving fans yet another reason to see Pink Martini, maybe even twice in a brief span. After her successful vocal surgery, Forbes rejoined the band and the dual — not dueling — divas have happily shared the benefits and burdens of performing with Portland’s most diverse band ever since.
The answer to the “China or Storm?” question turned out to be: better with both. They’re a mutual admiration society, and part of something bigger than both of them. “I consider us to be soloists,” Large says, “in a big posse of soloists.”
Pink Martini with China Forbes and Storm Large perform Friday at Edgefield in Troutdale. This story originally appeared in Artslandia.