I recently attended a standing-room-only performance of Janet Klein and Her Parlor Boys.
Their unique mixture of vintage songs and exceptional musicians, featuring ukulele, accordion, upright bass, guitar, banjo and an odd “percussion tree”, combined with Janet’s sweet voice and charming style, made it an evening that was lifted the audience and moved them. For the next hour and a half, I was transported to another time and place – was it 1908 Atlantic City, or 1928 Harlem? A little of both, perhaps, but definitely a place you wanted to stay – for as long as possible.
After the performance, I was time warped back to 2012, and had a chance to speak with Janet about what gave her this amazing ability to transport audiences and make them never want to come home again…
BeatNik: Tell me a little about Janet – where are you from originally? Local girl?
Janet: I was born is Los Angeles but grew up in the Inland Empire..the landscape seemed quite drab to me with the exception of the natural beauty of the desert, (I grew up under a natural wonder in the San Bernardino foothills.. there appears year round the image of an arrowhead on the mountainside),
and the old places there held such mystery for me… The Mission Inn
, the Sycamore Inn
, the Palm lined groves of oranges and Old California dream homes of the 1900s and 1910s in Redlands. I was close to my family, and got to know two of my great grandparents..my family fascinated me and I grilled them for stories that always lead back to New York in the 1930s and the “Old Country”.
I always say that San Bernardino was a good place to be an escapist.
What made you fall in love with the ‘2os?
I seek out touchstones of the past wherever I can…you don’t have to dig that deep to live life like an archeological expedition.
Almost everything that I am naturally attracted to leads me back to the early part of the 20th century. Art, photography, design, film, entertainment, music, architecture, objects, clothing, family history. You scratch the surface and there are wonderful aesthetic rewards and layers of history to get to know.
Tell us about your ukulele history. How long have you been playing?
In the 1980s and 1990s I was doing performance art and poetry recitations. I have a fine art background and although I thought of myself as a painter
, I had fantasies of being a fancy chanteuse and of expressing myself with a hankie and candelabra and had to find ways to accommodate that.
I started to incorporate musical aspects to my poetry. To me poetry is about thinking SMALL, it’s a process of polishing up something gem-like, and if it’s good…”small” can be mighty.
I added triangle at first and then picked up the ukulele in 1995. I had been collecting recordings of music from the 1920s and realized that I could make these tunes my own, or at least share them with others through the ukulele. For a while I would insert just a song or two into my poetry readings. I started to meet my wonderful band-mates around 1998. It was like being Dorothy on the Yellow Brick Road… I met all these great characters one after the next and the band materialized.
Who has inspired your performance? Fanny Brice? Josephine Baker?
I like to think that all the things that you admire become part of who you are, like an extra genetic code…
How did you manage to get the great Ian Whitcomb to be one of your “Parlor Boys”?
Our mutual friend Jim Beloff
was on a quest to revitalize the ukulele around 1999 or 2000.. (I think he succeeded!) and was putting together shows featuring “ukulele artistes” at McCabes ( a neat LA venue), called “Uketopia”. Ian and I hit it off and found ourselves playing on the bill together a number of times and I invited him to come play with me and he’s been a distinguished Parlor Boy ever since. Lucky me, that he fits me into his schedule besides being a band-leader, author, radio show host, etc., etc.
Your songs are fantastic and obviously quite obscure – where do you find such interesting tunes?
Everywhere I can! Old films, sheet music, 78 record collectors, music and movie and animation historians, preservationists, and relatives of composers and lyricists.
My favorite thing is visiting with collectors and having 78 rpm listening sessions… that’s the best! When I started to become interested in the old music, pre-1940s, it was very difficult to find. I used to haunt the music library at UCLA. Pre-internet, finding sources of any kind, just locating the small record labels compiling this type of material took years!
Anything exciting lined up in the near future we should know about?
We are preparing to record our 8th CD and at the same time working on ideas for making some musical film shorts with the band.
I recently compiled some wonderful artistic treasures from my family onto DVD and presented them on a big screen at the Steve Allen Theater, including my grandfather Marty Klein’s magic act from the 30’s & 40’s,
- Marty Klein
entitled “Ten Minutes with Ten Fingers” as well as experimental animations by my father and mother, Stephen Klein and Marion Klein, and also a couple of our own film shorts. Now that we’ve digitized these things, I am hoping to make a DVD with the Parlor Boys of shorts in the style of the mid-20’s Vitaphone films, mixed with live concert footage and musical animations.
We haven’t set a date yet, but I am hoping to get some Parlor Boys together and head back up to the Niles Essanay Silent Movie Museum
up in Fremont, California to help celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Essanay Silent Movie Studio.
Thank you Janet for your time, talent and for taking me on a musical journey I won’t forget!
To learn more about Janet, her schedule and pick up some CDs of her music, check out her website at http://www.janetklein.com