Last night at Town Hall here in New York City, Julie Wilson made a surprise appearance in an evening honoring two legendary interpreters of song – Mabel Mercer and Bobby Short.
Wearing a long sheath in brown tones with hints of gold accents she was escorted out on the arm of a man, her hair pulled back tight in her signature chignon and a flower framing her left temple. Nearly 90, Julie moved slowly, cautiously, as if with baby steps. As soon as she was in reaching distance of the microphone, her body came alive and undulated like a trapped bird does or a bee when it senses it is once more free.
She began the first words with a voice that now contains an entire lifetime, with the color of an entire palette of human emotion, every glory, every setback. Julie Wilson has had a life and it is in her song. Her range has narrowed to a few notes that float and the rest are gasps and rasps and moans and airy whispers.
Love is funny, or it’s sad
Or it’s quiet, or it’s mad
It’s a good thing or it’s bad
Beautiful to take a chance
And if you fall, you fall
And I’m thinking
I wouldn’t mind at all
Julie Wilson takes her time. She’s lived it all and hurry is something she doesn’t worry about. She’s not singing to prove anything, advise anyone, convince or admonish. Love is not something she longs for, dreams of, not something that lies before her as once it did. It’s all in her now. She has become it.
Love is tearful or it’s gay
It’s a problem or it’s play
It’s a heartache either way
The hall was utterly still. No one was expecting this, everyone was rapt. She was matched at the piano – all her energy, pacing, phrasing, simplicity, the sparseness, nakedness and directness of every line. Julie was the canvas and we filled ourselves in between her words. It was her story and it was ours, her man and ours, her heartbeat and heartbreak…and ours.
And I’m thinking if you were mine
I’d never let you go
And that would be
But beautiful I know
Her masque transitioned between pathos, bewilderment and anguish, and she ended each verse in absolute joy through her smile, that inimitable Wilson smile. Julie is grateful to have lived it all.
Singing is story-telling. Singing is surrendering. Singing is serving up the universal themes that make a life. The great artists have had great lives. Big lives. Things happened to them. Meaningful things. We have to be fearless. We have to live to sing and put what we create of life right back into our song.
The more life we have, the more songs we can sing. Not just vocalize, but sing. Julie is a singer. Her gift is in her ability to take what she’s dared over nine decades to do and feel and be and think, and harness and acquire and lay bare. An artist lays herself bare and vanishes until what we see and hear out in the dark is ourselves. Singer, actor, dancer, painter, poet…a great artist let’s us forget who they are and remember who we are. The song is the bridge.
When Julie finished, applause and cheers filled the hall and most of us rose to our feet because it truly was such a rare and sublime treat. Beaming, she blew kisses and bowed and waved. Her escort returned from the wings to assist her, but Julie Wilson walked off alone. Beautiful.
Photos: Stephen Sorokoff