Lulu Rocks New York City—With Love: 2017 Review

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Lulu in a recent concert photo (Photo: Martin Bone Photography; Used with permission)

“Boy, have I had a life!” Lulu said early into her triumphant set at B.B. King’s Blues Club & Grill in New York City on May 30, 2017. “I’ve been around the block.”

It’s fair to say that most American music fans know little about that life. Although the singer, born Marie Lawrie in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1948, scored 15 charting singles over nearly two decades in the United States, and is a genuine superstar in the U.K., she is known here primarily for “To Sir With Love,” her 1967 #1 hit. That record, the title track to the Sidney Poitier-starring film in which Lulu herself also had a featured role, remains a nostalgic favorite, but if her 17-song concert here proved one thing, it’s that her signature tune is actually quite uncharacteristic of Lulu’s overall body of work.

Possessing a throaty, formidable voice that glided seamlessly from soaring wail to soothing lull, Lulu sounded just as comfortable getting into the hard-rocking groove of Bad Company’s “Rock Steady” as she did a three-song medley of Bee Gees ballads. But at heart, she is a soul singer. Her set included songs from the catalogs of Ray Charles and Otis Redding, and when she belted out “Hound Dog,” her arrangement came closer to Big Mama Thornton’s original than the Elvis version.

Related: What were the other big hits of the fall of 1967?

She arrived onstage dressed entirely in black with a touch of white (topped off with a black fedora) and—backed by a protean, five-piece band featuring two guitarists, keyboard, bass and drums—bounded directly into “Shout,” the Isley Brothers classic that launched her career in both the U.K. and America when she was all of 15. Lulu handled the song’s built-in dynamics skillfully, leading the band through its whisper-to-a-scream paces commandingly.

Watch Lulu sing “Oh Me Oh My” at her last NYC concert in 2013

The flip side of “To Sir With Love,” “The Boat That I Row” (which itself landed on the Billboard chart but stalled out at #115), took on a modified calypso rhythm punctuated by chunky guitar riffs. It led to her “Boy, have I had a life” comment, which served to introduce Lulu’s brilliant cover of David Bowie’s esoteric “The Man Who Sold the World,” which the late icon also co-produced for her back in 1974. “Poison Kiss,” from Lulu’s most recent album, 2015’s Making Life Rhyme, and “I Don’t Want to Fight,” a song recorded by Tina Turner, are rarities in that Lulu co-wrote both (with her brother), an activity she explained she largely avoided until later in her career; given the quality of the songs—the first addressed different forms of addiction, the latter divorce—and Lulu’s sharp, blues-informed delivery (the latter was performed with voice and piano only), she’d be advised to keep at it.

The Bee Gees medley was not a mere homage. Lulu was married for four years to Bee Gee Maurice Gibb and witnessed the creation of some of the group’s biggest hits. She prefaced the three songs by noting than she always drew her own influences from American black music, and considered most of the British rock bands to be subpar to the soul, gospel and early rock ’n’ roll she loved. But watching Maurice, Robin and Barry Gibb at work was a revelation, and her turn with their “Run to Me,” “To Love Somebody” and “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” was handled here with true affection.

“Unchain My Heart,” the Ray Charles cover, turned up the liveliness level—Lulu’s arrangement found a sweet spot where a gospel vocal approach and a Memphis backbeat co-existed happily. A presumably new song called “Wait for Me” was next, the only tune of the night approaching schmaltzy, but she recovered quickly with her hit theme song from the 1974 James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun, preceding it with a brief tribute to its recently departed star, Roger Moore, who she described as a ceaselessly funny man.

An early Lulu 45 picture sleeve

Noting that many of her songs that made the charts in the U.K. flopped in America, and vice versa, she next offered a danceable “I Could Never Miss You (More Than I Do),” her final U.S. top 20 hit, from 1981. That dispensed with, she returned to her early catalog, introducing “Oh Me Oh My (I’m a Fool For You Baby)” with another tale of her love for R&B music and interactions with the great Atlantic Records producers Jerry Wexler and Tom Dowd. The song, she noted, was written by Jimmy Doris, a fellow Glasgow native, but recorded in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where it grew its funky beat.

Onstage at B.B. King’s, Lulu displayed a tendency to let the music make the case for her talent. Other than a bit of standard pacing around and speaking directly to the fans between songs, she avoided theatricality, preferring to plant herself at center stage and concentrate on infusing the material with emotion. Although affable and charming, and fired up with youthful exuberance, she nonetheless adheres to an old-school notion that it’s her vocal capability—not countless costume changes, swaying backup singers and other extraneous ephemera—that makes for a good show. Lulu, at 68, has no use for gimmicks because she can still rely on that voice—and nothing but her voice—to win over an audience.

As the set neared its close though, she did turn up the juice a few notches, first with the Bad Company and Big Mama Thornton covers and, finally, “To Sir With Love.” That one, of course, followed the story of how the still-teenaged singer was chosen to participate in the film and sing its title song, written by Don Black and Mark London. “To Sir…” was slated to be the B-side of “The Boat That I Row” until a savvy American disc jockey flipped the single and began playing the theme song, which went on to top the charts for five weeks. That decision is likely why Lulu—who has rarely performed in the United States throughout her career—is able to fill medium-sized venues such as this 50 years down the road. “I’m lucky, I’m blessed,” she said, adding that the song’s message is “still profound,” then proceeded to give it her all, although she’s undoubtedly sung it thousands of times. The soulful gruffness that had defined her voice all night seemed to melt away, replaced by an earnestness and suaveness that followed her through the song’s choruses and crescendos.

Watch Lulu singing “To Sir With Love” in New York, May 2017

A driving take on Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose” provided the perfect encore, and with that Lulu exited. Many in the audience at the Times Square venue and at her last U.S. run four years ago probably never dreamed they would get a chance to see this underrated artist in person. It’s a fair bet that no one left B.B King’s regretting that they finally did.

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Jeff Tamarkin

Best Classic Bands Editor Jeff Tamarkin has been a prolific music journalist for more than four decades. He is formerly the editor of Goldmine, CMJ andRelix magazines, has written for dozens of other publications and has authored liner notes for more than 80 CDs. Jeff has also served on the Nominating Committee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and as a consultant to the Grammys. His first book was 'Got a Revolution! The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane.' He is also the co-author of 'Shell Shocked: My Life with the Turtles, Flo and Eddie, and Frank Zappa, etc.,' with Howard Kaylan.
Jeff Tamarkin
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