SPENCERTOWN, N.Y. — For 15 years, Berkshire-area music fans have turned out in droves to hear Wanda Houston sing. They'll have another chance on Dec. 4, when she appears with The Wanda Houston Band at Spencertown Academy Arts Center offering spirited covers of popular songs from Ella Fitzgerald’s hit “A Tisket, A Tasket" to Al Green.
“There’s no one kind of music,” she writes her program, “it’s jazz, rhythm & blues, rock, adult music — it’s the soundtrack of our lives, the music we grew up hearing.”
But just how well do audiences know this high-octane headliner with a dynamic voice and far-reaching repertoire?
For starters, the versatile songstress is part of three ensembles: her eponymous band, featuring keyboardist Rob Kelly, Jeff Stevens on horns, and drummer Jay Bradley; Conn.-based H.B.H. Band — Scott Heth on keyboard, Bradley & Houston — and the duo Big & Bigger with singer-songwriter guitarist Jeff Gonzales, resident at the Lion’s Den for a decade.
She also sings with numerous groups from Vermont to Connecticut including New Orleans-inspired Rejuvenators, and fires up many a wedding and party dance floor.
“I’ve been singing all my life — literally,” said Houston during a phone interview from her home in Sheffield, citing influences from Aretha Franklin and Barbra Streisand to Leontyne Price and Mahalia Jackson.
Born in a Chicago teaching hospital lecture hall, she said, “I screamed, they applauded, and that’s been happening ever since."
She grew up “doing theater with my parents” — her dad ran a company — and singing in church from age 3.
“My mom was a choir director, we had a Gospel singing group called the Houston Singers that went from church to church.”
Studying chemistry at college to be a lab technician — “I really love sciences,” she said — half way through she changed her major to opera.
While applying to Juilliard, she felt she wasn’t ready for New York, so instead studied opera at University of Southern California on a scholarship. In Los Angeles she was drawn to musical theater — not the best place to do that, she observed. But in her case, it was.
Over two decades she acted, sang, danced, recorded and made films. In 1996, she toured Europe and Australia as a stepsister in the Black Cinderella-themed musical “Sisterella,” produced by Michael Jackson. “The show got me to see the world,” she said.
When her 1999 musical “A Good Swift Kick” transferred to New York, New York Times reviewer Ben Brantley panned it but singled out Houston’s performance as “terrific.”
From 2001 to 2006 she acted and sang in New York City, and starred in shows such as “Hello, Dolly!” at a friend’s theater, Sharon Playhouse in Connecticut. She was also a soloist on Broadway Inspirational Voices’ Grammy-nominated album “Great Joy.”
Her Broadway debut came in 2005 as a singer in Roundabout Theater’s “A Streetcar Named Desire” with Natasha Richardson and John C. Reilly in Studio 54. “It was amazing to perform in that space,” she recalled, “it gave me my Broadway ‘cred'.”
“I’ve achieved what I’ve always wanted to do,” she thought.
In 2006, Sharon Playhouse drummer Jay Bradley suggested Houston spend more time upstate. “He took me to Egremont Inn, and I was stunned at what I saw — the people, the scene, dancing, a live band playing.”
They formed a band with keyboardist Heff and became regular performers there — the first of many such gigs for Houston at venues in Connecticut and Berkshire County, from Firefly Gastropub and Castle Street Café (now Number 10) to The Mount summer jazz series and Lilac Park.
With its “rich, artistic culture,” moving to the Berkshires “is probably the best decision I could have made,” she said. “I’ve worked far more here than I ever could in New York City.”
The pandemic shutdown hit hard. Sustained by grants, generous donations and a church choir salary, she taught vocal students remotely as far as Japan.
Gradually, live concerts resumed, first outdoors then indoors when vaccines arrived.
“People were starving for live music,” she observed. Hearing applause again “was soul lifting, I think musicians realized how much we need the audience.”
Over the years, Houston has shared the stage with superstars Streisand, Celine Dion, Martha and the Vandellas and more, at legendary venues including Radio City Music Hall and Carnegie Hall.
These days, besides performing, Houston is minister of music at Pittsfield’s First Baptist Church, and collaborates with Music in Common’s Black Legacy Project.
Her distinctive long ringlets now silver, at age 62, she says, “I’ve been around a while — but I’m not done yet!”
Spencertown Academy music committee member and jazz trumpeter Rob Fisch has known Houston for 20 years.
“She’s such a fantastic performer, she’s got a pretty wide range of music,” he said by phone. “Everybody in her band, they’re all great musicians, I always enjoy hearing them.”
“This is our first live performance since the pandemic,” Fisch said. “[Houston] has such a great rapport with the audience, people can’t miss on having a great time. It’s going to be a great success.”