Gem of singer blends humor, stories on CD


November 16, 1998|By DAN RODRICKS

A FEW YEARS ago, Niki Lee met a funny and charismatic fellow named Paul Ciccone at the Double T Diner, and he ended up living in her driveway in Catonsville. He was facing eviction, see, and Lee, being a good-hearted and trusting soul, invited him to park his mobile home -- a brown, odd-looking recreational vehicle shaped like a big kidney bean -- in her driveway and stay there a while. Which was fine, except he couldn't shift the vehicle into reverse and "a while" turned into a year.

The result was a song -- "I got a guy who lives in my driveway, and the neighbors think it's kind of weird" -- on Lee's first collection of original songs. The CD had its coming out last night. It was a coming out of sorts for Lee, too.

She grew up in the Washington area and studied voice while in college. She says she was heavily influenced by the vocal styles of Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday. She performed for several years as Niki Ryan, accompanied by her former husband, Lenny Williams, and received high marks in brief reviews from Washington Post music critics.

For the past eight years, when Lee was not tending bar at the John Steven in Fells Point, she took up with local jazz ensembles. She's performed at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel with a trio. She's performed at Bertha's. I heard her for the first time this summer singing standards with Dave Stambler's jazz ensemble during a friend's wedding at Peabody Library. I was impressed then, but even more so -- and in another way, completely -- when her CD arrived a couple of weeks ago.

It turns out that, in addition to having a way with jazz standards, Niki Lee has a superb voice for rockin' pop. She also has a sense of humor, a talent for writing songs, telling stories and putting her finger on some complicated feelings. "Paul Ciccone, R.V." sounds amusing at first, but underlying the story is an unpleasant memory. The fellow stayed too long, see, and some other things happened that left Lee kicking herself. "It's my own fault he hurt me, I should have known," she sings. "Paul Ciccone lives on the fringes, and for my sake he's got to get out, so I can be free as I need to be."

One day, Lee says, the vehicle disappeared from her driveway. She hasn't seen Ciccone since.

But let's not get too bogged down in the details here and miss the greater point. Niki Lee is a true talent, a hidden Baltimore gem, who has finally produced a collection of excellent songs that will make you laugh and cry. "Here," the title track, is one of the best songs I've heard about the barroom scene since Billy Joel's "Piano Man." Lee's "Younger Days" expresses a sweet sentiment every getting-up-there baby boomer will appreciate. "There's Nothing You Can Do (that I can't do for myself)" is a strong-woman anthem, and "Acid Rain" will bring a smile to the face of every woman who's been through a love-hate relationship with a guy. "Patterson Place" is a love song to Lee's friends, a profoundly sincere tribute to life's greatest treasure. This is good stuff.

You go, girl!

Wrestling with syndication

Whaddaya know: Jesse "The Body" Ventura's success in the Minnesota gubernatorial election has had a ripple effect. It's been good for at least one Maryland guy -- the Devious Doc, host of "Wrestletalk America." If you haven't heard it or heard of it, "Wrestletalk America" is a talk show for fans of the not-so-sweet science. Until recently, it could be heard on WJFK-AM.

About the time the Doc took his act to WCBM (680-AM, 8-10 p.m. Saturdays), he also visited a big broadcaster's convention and signed up with a syndicator, who shopped the show around the country.

This month, in the days immediately following Ventura's election in Minnesota, the Doc's New York syndicate made a fresh pitch: "Wrestling rules TV, now it governs the state of Minnesota."

Certainly, in all the sports talk that fills the AM airwaves, there must be room for an hour devoted to the comings and goings of Goldberg, Val Venis and other bright lights in tights. "We had an extra 30 stations sign up after Jesse's election in Minnesota," says the Devious Doc, who pleaded with me not to reveal the name that appears on his Maryland driver's license.

"Starting Dec. 19, we'll have 112 stations carrying the show. Not all of them will be carrying us live." The Devious One plans a big rollout party later this month, at the Hard Rock Cafe, when the World Wrestling Federation hits the arena again.

Stay tuned.

Performance to cry for

The Sun's music critic isn't the only one wild about "Norma" at the Lyric Opera House. Joseph Amalfitano, TJI's chief cultural correspondent and a longtime opera buff-o, says this: "They did Bellini proud. Met-level singing, especially from Hasmik Papian in the title role, Irina Mishura as Adalgisa and Vladimir Vaneev as Oroveso. Papian was electric. I had tears, I tell you! I may go again."

Three more performances are scheduled this week.

A case for closed captioning

Friday night we stopped for a swallow at the Swallow at The Hollow, Northern Parkway and York Road, and, of course, the bar area was loud and happy and smoky.

The two overhead televisions sets were tuned to the local news shows. A sports report came on. There was a story about Alan Mills, the Orioles relief pitcher, but we couldn't tell what. We couldn't hear. (Mills had signed a deal with the Dodgers, we learned later.) At that moment, Turkey Joe Trabert, former Fells Point bar owner and longtime beer historian, barked out a beautiful idea between sips on his Millers: "This is why bars should have their TVs set to closed captioning."

Do I hear a second?

Pub Date: 11/16/98

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