New York Times
Vivian Reed Turns Up the Intensity at Below 54
By STEPHEN HOLDEN JUNE 22, 2014
Conventional cultural wisdom has it that Billie Holiday, who wrote “God Bless the Child” with Arthur Herzog Jr. in 1939 and first recorded it two years later, is the ultimate interpreter of this devastating reflection on poverty and humiliation. In Holiday’s performances, her voice curled around the song and enfolded it as though she were trying to comfort a wounded stray animal she found on the street and brought home to care for: perhaps her own inner child.
To hear the great soul singer and actress Vivian Reed sing “God Bless the Child” on Thursday evening at 54 Below was to rediscover the song in a ferocious interpretation that uncovered a startling bitterness just below the surface. It was the only one of countless versions I’ve heard that matches, and maybe surpasses, Holiday’s in intensity.
Pain that deep doesn’t go away when a child grows up. It is still there inside waiting to be channeled into art. And Ms. Reed, who is operatically trained, has the resources and the will to do it.
“God Bless the Child” is one of two Holiday signature songs that Ms. Reed, accompanied by a hot R&B band, turned into revelations. For the other, “Strange Fruit,” she was joined by an opera singer acting as a second voice and commentator, whose cries turned feral as this song about a lynching gathered force. The third in a triumvirate of near-definitive interpretations of standards was a version of “Blues in the Night” that she treated as every woman’s lament.
Although Ms. Reed, who first gained notice in the 1976 revue “Bubbling Brown Sugar,” for which she was nominated for a Tony Award for outstanding actress in a musical, has had plenty of success, it has not been commensurate with her talent. Imperious and statuesque, she has more in common with Lena Horne than with Holiday, and she has a wider range than either.
Stylistically, she navigates comfortably from jazz to Broadway to disco to gospel. But unlike so many younger singers, Ms. Reed has a severe, no-frills interpretive stance. Her acrobatics, carefully parceled out, are tools for uncovering the truth.