Amy and Freddy Hit the West Coast
In 2007, my husband and I took an RSVP cruise from New York harbor to Southampton, England. It was aboard the brand new QMII, the first all-gay transatlantic cruise, and had a full lineup of cabaret entertainment, starting with the sensational cabaret diva Ann Hampton Callaway and her sister, Broadway star Liz Callaway, along with a host of other cabaret performers, most of whom we were not familiar.
We sauntered to the first evening's show, surprised to find the room packed like sardines - SRO, and people spilling out both entrances into the hallway 3 deep and 5 wide, for someone we'd never heard of. We toyed with going to one of the other venues, but decided to stick around and see who this cabaret phenomenon must be, and we were so glad we did. First we heard some raucous banter from the stage that had everyone roaring with laughter, but familiar laughter. This audience was laughing even before the punch lines. They'd all heard it before, but didn't mind in the least; in fact, they were egging her on. Then we heard the singing voice, the powerful trumpet like belt, but with lots of heart. I say heard, because we couldn't see past the mass of bodies standing in front of us.
Through some assertive squeezing in, we were finally able to catch a glimpse of the entertainers on stage, and we didn’t take our eyes off them for the rest of the evening, or the rest of the week, for that matter. I am speaking of Chicago-based Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen.
Armstrong sings, (and boy does she sing!), and Allen plays the piano, with occasional background vocals. Armstrong is clearly the focus of the act, and Allen is all too willing to play the, er, "straight" man to her hilarious burlesque humor. But make no mistake, they are a solid team, having been performing together for over 17 years, during which they have been feature entertainers on over 50 RSVP and Concierge cruises. No wonder they were packing them in on the QMII. On land, they are fixtures at gay resorts and cabaret clubs, such as the new John Paul’s Bar in New Orleans, The Dunes Resort in Saugatuck, Michigan, The Palm in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and of course their native Chicago. They have recorded 4 CD’s together, and are working on another. Referring to themselves simply as Amy and Freddy, they will make a number of appearances on the West Coast December 14 - 16, 2012.
Edge was able to catch up with Amy and Freddy to talk about how they met, that memorable QMII cruise, and their shows.
EDGE: How did you two meet?
Freddy: We met at [the piano bar] Gentry at an open mike in Chicago. Amy got up to sing; she was all dolled up, and beautiful. First, I though she was a drag queen (Amy feigns a protest!). Then she sang and wowed the audience. I thought to myself, ’They need to hire her because she is terrific.’ I had done my show right before the open mike, and I was sitting at the bar getting drunk. I told her we should practice some material together. The first time she came over the apartment to rehearse, we just clicked and it’s been like that ever since. She’s my sister.
Amy: And he’s my sister. I am blessed. He not only gets me as a friend but as a musician. I had a pianist before that just didn’t get me. He told me I was no Julie Wilson. And I said, "You’re right, I am Amy Armstrong!’
EDGE: When did you start performing together?
Freddy: Seventeen years ago, right after we met at Gentry.
Amy: I knew I liked singing on my own, and I was so broke when I moved to Chicago. On my first night at Gentry I made $42 in tips, and I got gay men to kiss me, and I thought, ’Wow, I’m rich, and gay men kissed me!’ I can’t believe how quickly it happened. It was crazy.
Freddy: Yeah, once we started the Gentry thing, we were given a Monday night, then, after a few Mondays, the owner put us on 4 nights a week.
EDGE: Amy, what kind of music were you exposed to and influenced by growing up?
Amy: My mother loved music so much, but she was tone deaf. When she tried to sing, I would say, ’Mom, stop!’ She was good about exposing me to the "Flip Wilson Show" and other TV [musical and comedy] variety shows. I was going to musicals, via my high school and local community theater, stuff like "Oliver!." I knew I wanted to be a part of it. My mother knew I had a voice and she tried to help direct me. One of the biggest roles I had in high school was in "42nd Street." Then I saw Bette Midler! I thought she was incredible. I also liked the albums of Richard Pryor and Phyllis Diller. I used to hide some of the records for fear they were dirty.
EDGE: Freddy, what kind of piano training did you have growing up, and how did that lead you to cabaret and piano bars?
Freddy: My great grandmother was a professional musician and a phenomenal pianist, and she started me out at 5 years old with piano and I took to it. I went to college for piano performance. I loved accompanying other people especially in college and I was good at it. I started out accompanying classical singers, but I always loved playing a variety of music like ragtime, blues, jazz, country/western, and even classical still.
EDGE: How did you get into performing the cruise circuit?
Freddy: With RSVP, we were performing for 1500 people in one pop on the main stage, and when you do that once, you get a built-in audience.
Amy: Our first cruise gig, they told us we would maybe do one every couple of years. Then they called us the next year and said you scored so well on the survey, we want you back. Then they called us year after year and to perform on the main stage. When I was growing up, I would watch "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island." Now I have my "Love Boat" and "Fantasy Island." And if there was a midget, OMG!
EDGE: Where have been you favorite places to travel while performing?
Amy: My favorite is Barbados, and I love when we do the Mediterranean cruise; every port is incredible.
Freddy: Italy one day, and Spain the next. It is a great way to see the world.
Amy: I also like the Alaskan ones. It is so different. It is more about the camaraderie with the people who are on the cruise. That was a very different cruise. You see the glaciers calving into the ocean, bald eagles, waterfalls. It is almost surreal. On the Alaska cruise, the bears have a lot of sex, and then you have an ice cream social.
EDGE: On the 2007 RSVP QMII Transatlantic Cruise, you had several impromptu opportunities where you shared the stage with Ann Hampton Callaway, each of you inviting the other up to sing during your solo shows. What was that like?
Amy: I loved that experience. I would much rather have an experience that is unrehearsed and live. She was so nice to me, a real influence and it was wonderful to sing with someone whom I look up to. It is nice to get recognition from other performers. Sometimes people can be mean and say bad stuff. But she made me feel good about what I do. I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea. But I want to keep doing this until the day I die. The biggest high you can get, better than booze or drugs, is to sing on stage with someone you love performing with.
EDGE: Do you recall the last night of the QMII cruise, when you and Ann [Hampton Callaway] performed an impromptu duet on "Summertime?" You were wildly trading off jazz phrases that whipped the audience into a frenzy, standing and cheering before the song was even over. What was going on there?
Amy: I remember that night and that moment. I remember asking my fans ahead of time during the week to show up. I was amazed when Ann wanted to sing with me. Everyone who was on that ship remembers that moment and that song, and I think it was one of the best moments I’ve ever had. Honestly!
Freddy: It was very magical moment. It was a magical night.
EDGE: Amy, when you are talking to your audience, you have this bawdy no boundaries persona, strong, willful, and yet your singing repertoire is filled with tender, vulnerable ballads. Which is the real you, or are they two sides of the same coin?
Amy: Of course, everyone has the two sides. What you see is what you get. You get to see all of me. You see the wild side, and then the tender side. It’s like a roller coaster ride. I like the variety. It keeps everyone interested. I would never want to do a whole show of one or the other. I want to have you laughing one minute, grabbing my boob, then grabbing your man’s hand while I sing a sad song. For me, cabaret is successful when it has the full range. Crass humor, tender ballads, laughs one minute, tears the next. My thing about cabaret is that people should forget their troubles for an hour. My best complement is when someone says, ’I was having a crappy day and you made it better.’ You know how good that makes me feel?
EDGE: What can we expect in your current show?
Freddy: One of our balls out shows, the roller coaster ride that Amy was talking about.
Amy: Showtunes, some blues, some of the songs from our latest CDs. It will be full frontal.
Freddy: Really? I’d better start working out now!
Amy Armstrong and Freddy Allen perform in San Francisco, at the Rrazz Room on December 14, 2012; in Los Angeles on December 15, 2012 at the Rockwell; and in Palm Springs on December 16, 2012 at the Birba Restaurant. And St Paul Mn Camp Bar on Jan 18th 2013.
For more on these dates and on Amy and Freddy, visit their website.