FROM THE LOOKS of things, the audience could have been placing bets on horses instead of singers. Checking off names, writing down numbers and sneaking stray glances at other programs, everyone had picks on who would win the Second Annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition. As the 19th, out of 20 singers, sang, it became quite clear who would win -- Staff Sgt. Delores King Williams.
Ask Carolyn Brown and Janice Brown, two friends who came to hear the five-hour contest yesterday afternoon at the Walters Art Gallery. "Let me check my list. It's been changing all afternoon," said Janice. "Yes. Delores Williams. She has a voice that is music."
Carolyn says, "I loved her from the moment she started singing. Her presentation, her performance showed that she isn't an amateur."
While some of the semifinalists seemed less polished than others, none was amateurish. They were all there to do some serious singing, and the competition, although it was friendly, was intense. Sponsored by the Mayor's Advisory Committee on Art and Culture and the Pepsi-Cola Company, the Holiday Competition is intended by Mayor Schmoke to be a "living memorial" to jazz legend and Baltimore native Billie Holiday.
Each singer, selected from entry tapes, performed for a panel of three judges, Earl Arnett, Ruby Glover and Doug Daniel, in hopes of winning $1,500 and the opportunity to perform at "Artscape '91." Arnett said the judges were not looking for an imitator of Holiday, but rather someone who could match her interpretive imagination and versatile musicality.
They were not disappointed. There were as many different renditions of such classic Holiday songs as "Lover Man" and "Good Morning Heartache" as there were people in the crowded auditorium. Singer Charlene Fitzpatrick, an operations clerk at Maryland National, said, "I wish all of the audiences in the clubs were like this one. They are so receptive and supportive."
And vocal. The performers were cheered, applauded, and all but overwhelmed by the audience's enthusiasm. One jittery singer, giving her hips a nervous shake, got some hearty agreement from her fans and her performance, all smoky embers, lit up in a blaze. One infant, inspired by some particularly soulful belting, added a few tones of his own.
The crowd, however, saved its loudest cheers for the final round which featured Lea Gilmore, Michele Johnson, Rhonda Rene, Janet Taylor and Delores King Williams. These five women outdid each other in a series of deeply felt ballads.
But it was Williams, a singer with the Jazz Ambassadors of the U.S. Army Field Band, who brought down the house with an elegant and sensual version of "Willow Weep For Me."
Williams was to sing the national anthem today at the Orioles' opener.