'Wanda World' takes root in Berkshires

Wanda Houston's voice continues to resound in these hills

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Wanda Houston is such a fixture in the Berkshire music scene that some observers assume she's been here forever.

"It's like, 'No, honey. You have no idea,'" Houston said, laughing. "You know that song, Johnny Cash, 'I've been everywhere, man.' Story of my life. I've been everywhere."

On this particular Tuesday night, the singer was in Great Barrington, answering questions after a rehearsal with clarinetist Paul Green and host Robert Kelly, who was on the keys. The trio would be performing a benefit show that Saturday night at Mr. Finn's Cabaret in Pittsfield, raising money for Rites of Passage and Empowerment.

Houston, as usual, was also preparing for a slew of upcoming Wanda Houston Band performances. Featuring Houston, Kelly, Jeff Stevens and Jay Bradley, the group was scheduled to play at Firefly Gastropub in Lenox on Saturday, Oct. 12, Old Parish Church in Sheffield on Oct. 13 and Number Ten in Great Barrington on Oct. 18. While there may have once been a time when Houston would belt to just a couple of spectators at local gigs, over the past 13 years, the Sheffield resident has built a passionate Berkshire fan base who now regularly make her shows festive occasions. She calls them citizens of "Wanda World."

"'Wanda World' is really like the insanity that is my existence," Houston said. "I have lived a very charmed life, and this has been the best, finding my niche here and finding these incredible people who have been supportive and loving."

Houston was raised in a creative Chicago family. Her late father, John, was an actor, and her mother, Bessie, was an actress and singer. So, Houston has always felt at "home" in theaters, as well as in churches.

"Church and theater are really kind of the same thing," she said. "Theater grew out of the church, so it has that same energy. It's to make people go in for a while and forget your troubles for just a minute."

Her mother directed the church choir, and though Houston's song choices with The Wanda Houston Band and the HBH Band (her Connecticut group) span jazz, rhythm-and-blues, rock, blues and country, gospel is still her voice's greatest influence. She developed it during her years singing in the church choir.

"It's the first place where you learn to interpret and to feel where the words and the music mean something, and you need to communicate that to the people," Houston said. "It informs everything that I do because now everything that I sing has that importance. It's not just about singing a song. It's about communicating it from my heart to your heart."

Houston idolized Mahalia Jackson during her youth. Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand were influences, too. But Houston didn't set out to become a professional performer.

"I thought I would do it on the side, or for fun," she said.

When she arrived at Ripon College in Ripon, Wisc., she wanted to be a lab technician. Then she took chemistry."Maybe not," Houston said of her original pursuit.

Soon, she was earning a music degree, studying opera. She thought about heading to The Juilliard School in New York City, but ultimately decided that she wasn't yet ready for the Big Apple. After college, she ended up in Los Angeles. She spent the next two decades there.

"It was what I needed at that time, something completely different," she said.

Finding roles in a couple of movies (one was "The Christmas Path" with a very young Shia LaBeouf), TV, theater and bands, Houston coupled her artistic interests with corporate jobs to support herself.

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"I was always the front office girl. The last corporate job that I had was as a property manager, managing office buildings," she said.

She liked that position and was serious about getting her MBA, but a part in "Beach Blanket Babylon" at Las Vegas' Sands Hotel and Casino, the famous Rat Pack haunt, delayed that ambition. After a year in the desert, she returned to LA, eventually landing in a Michael Jackson-produced, internationally touring show, "Sisterella," as one of the wicked stepsisters. Among other places, the piece traveled to Australia; Houston loved Melbourne and considered staying. It wasn't long, however, before she was acting in the musical satire "A Good Swift Kick" off-Broadway, fulfilling her dream of living in New York City.

"Ms. Houston is terrific doing a torch ballad about codependence, one of the few numbers in which style and content comment rakishly on each other," The New York Time theater critic Ben Brantley wrote in an otherwise negative review of the play in 1999.

Perhaps Houston's most prominent New York City theater performance arrived in 2005 when she played "the Negro woman" in a Broadway production of "A Streetcar Named Desire" that starred John C. Reilly and Natasha Richardson. Director Edward Hall expanded Houston's role in this version of Tennessee Williams' famous work, allowing her to open the show with some soulful sounds as a means to set the New Orleans scene. She also sang between breaks.

"He kept calling me the spirit," Houston recalled.

The play's run wasn't very long, though, and Houston found herself performing in "Ain't Misbehavin'" at the Sharon Playhouse during the summer of 2006. Chicago friends first brought her to the Sharon, Conn., theater in 2001. Houston had traveled throughout the country with her family and on her own, but she had never spent much time in New England until then.

"I don't know what it is about New England, but it is just lush and beautiful," she said.

Bradley was the drummer for "Ain't Misbehavin'." Houston recalled him advising her to stick around after it closed. He gave a car-less Houston a tour of the region.

"OK, well, I'll give it a couple years," she thought.

That was more than 13 years ago. She kept her New York City ties alive for some time, participating in Broadway Inspirational Voices, before realizing she would not be returning there permanently. At first, she resided in northern Connecticut and performed locally. She hit up the Egremont Inn and Napa initially. She also began directing a church choir in Goshen, Conn.

"That was what made me realize that I could make a go of living up here, was that I got that church gig," she said.

Her first group was Heth, Bradley & Houston, which is Connecticut-based. The Wanda Houston Band formed more than a decade ago; it currently has recurring appearances on second Saturdays at Firefly and third Fridays at Number Ten. Houston has also sung in a blues duo, Big and Bigger, with Jeff Gonzales, but defining her as a blues or jazz singer would be a mistake.

"I'm an entertainer. I am not any one kind of singer, and people try to pigeonhole me," she said.

It's not genre but quality that leads her voice.

"There's only two kinds of music in the world. There's only two: good music and bad music," she said. "And I just try to do the good music."

Benjamin Cassidy can be reached at bcassidy@berkshireeagle.com, at @bybencassidy on Twitter and 413-496-6251.


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