Down By The River
10:15 pm
Thu March 6, 2014

Connie Fairchild Talks About Band Reunions, Music Therapy And Cabaret

The format for the Songbird Café series — placing four singer-songwriters in the round and having them sing songs in turn — was made famous by the Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tenn.

The approach has worked well here over the three years that Steve St. Cyr has presented the Songbird Café series at Focal Point in Maplewood and occasionally at UMSL at Grand Center.

Connie Fairchild
Connie Fairchild
Credit Provided by The Presenters Dolan

But last week’s sold out concert at Focal Point presented something unique in the series in its combination of musicians. Connie Fairchild, Michele Isam, Mike Newman and Dave Torretta were all longtime members of one of St. Louis’ most popular bands in the 1980s and '90s: Fairchild.

At the height of Fairchild’s popularity in the early 90s, the band and its members repeatedly won the “Riverfront Times” annual People’s Choice Music Awards. For example, in 1992, the band and its members won seven awards: Best Local Musical Artist, Best Recording (“Extreme Reunion”), best Female Vocalist (Fairchild), Best Songwriter, (Torretta), Best Guitarist (Newman), Best Horn Player (Isam) and Best Drummer (Benet Schaeffer).

Although Fairchild, the group, rarely performs together these days, Isam, Newman, Torretta and Fairchild remain active on the area music scene in varying degrees. Isam — whose musical roots include co-founding the popular duo, Jasmine, with Carole Schmidt; stints with Pavlov’s Dog and Fairchild; and releasing her own recording, “Songs of A Midwest Girl” plays on the local music scene often. Newman performs solo and in the duo Lucky Dan and Naked Mike with Dan Randant. In addition to his skills as a songwriter and bassist, Torretta works as an audio engineer and producer for music and events.

Connie Fairchild hasn’t had as many public performances in recent years, but her appearance at Songbird Café — coupled with her debut as a cabaret performer on Saturday as part of the Gaslight Cabaret Festival — has stirred the interest of those who followed her career with Fairchild for many years.

As she told me during a recent conversation over coffee, music and singing will always be part of her life. But these days, she is focused on only doing performances she is truly excited about.

When St. Cyr asked if she would be interested in performing with Isam, Newman and Torretta in this format, yes came easily.

“Steve asked me, when I came to see a Songbird show, if I’d be interested,” she said. Dave and Michele have done Songbird shows several times, and Mike has as well. So they were familiar with it. I said sure, and that’s how it came about.

“I enjoyed myself much more than I ever thought I would. It was so exciting just looking at the other musicians while you play. I think I mentioned that night that one of the fun things I remember about being in a band was rehearsal. You’re looking at each other … working off each other … and the whole night at Songbird was like that.”

Saying ‘Yes’ to cabaret

Fairchild’s decision to commit to her first cabaret performance this Saturday at the Gaslight Theater was much more involved.

“I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for so long,” Fairchild said. “For so many years I’ve wanted to sing a little jazz, although my voice is really a rhythm and blues voice. And I really do like some of the music from great American songbook. A friend of mine, Charlie Taylor, has been talking to me for years about doing a cabaret show. He knows Jim Dolan, the producer who’s doing the Gaslight Cabaret Festival at the West End Grill. After talking to Jim, I told him I didn’t think I could do a cabaret show. I really had a wishy-washy approach!

“But a friend of mine, Karen Coletti, has been playing piano with me over the last year, and we had fun just putting together songs. So I talked to Karen, and I decided to consider Jim’s offer. He gave me a potential date; I said let’s go for it. A bunch of the songs Karen and I worked on are going to be in the show. Then we got Michele on board, and we’ve been working our butts off getting ready!”

River running through

Unlike straightforward music concerts, cabaret shows are built on themes — for example, tributes to a particular composer or musical era, or combinations of songs that reflect the personality of the performer in some way. For Fairchild, the theme for her first cabaret show came from a common thread linking the place she was born and places she grew up in — all river towns.

“I thought my theme would work best if it was autobiographical,” says Fairchild, “something close to home. So I chose ‘Down By the River.’ I started out in Paducah, Ky., which is on the Ohio and Tennessee rivers. In fact, I was born in Riverside Hospital. Then I moved down to Baton Rouge, La., with my family on the Mississippi River. And we would go down to visit New Orleans practically every weekend. Then I moved up to St. Louis with my family — another river town.

“There were so many songs that would support that river theme, songs like Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change Is Gonna Come,’ which starts with the words, ‘I was born by the river.’ And there are a lot of great songs like that that fit into the theme. The river’s such a great metaphor for life — never the same, always changing.”

Always making music

In addition to growing up near rivers, another constant in Fairchild’s life has been music.

“I remember early in my childhood singing spirituals,” she said. “And my mom was a singer. She studied opera, but she sang pop music as well. I have a vivid memory of her singing when I was 6 years old and she sang at a parents’ talent show at my school. She came out on stage with a beret, a full skirt, high heels and black stockings and stood under a streetlight and sang ‘Stormy Weather.’ That was the first of some poignant episodes I remember — seeing women singing and being so moved.”

The family’s change of location had an impact as well.

“We lived in Baton Rouge for three years, and that was a very important three years for me musically,” she recalls. “The girl groups were out, and I can remember the Exciters singing ‘Tell Him’ on the radio. And at the end of that time in Louisiana, the Beatles came out.

“On the weekends, we’d go down to New Orleans and hear Jim Robinson’s band at Preservation Hall with Sweet Emma on piano. I remember that so vividly! She was a one-person band. One of my biggest thrills was when a sixth grade girlfriend had a birthday. Her family took four or five of us down to New Orleans and we had the party at Preservation Hall. When the band had their break, we went back to the plaza area behind the Hall for cake and ice cream, and I got to talk to Sweet Emma. For a 12-year-old girl that was memorable!”

By the time Fairchild and her family moved to St. Louis, she had made up her mind to be a singer.

“I was singing professionally in St. Louis and making a little bit of money by the age of 16,” she said. “I was in a band with my brother, and we would play on weekends on the Admiral. I remember I couldn’t help with the prom at Parkway Central because I had band jobs that weekend.”

A band named Fairchild

Fairchild kept singing in a variety of bands, and eventually ended up living in Champaign-Urbana.

members of Fairchild Mike Newman Michele Isam, Connie Fairchild, Dave Torretta
Fairchild reformed, from left: Mike Newman Michele Isam, Connie Fairchild, Dave Torretta
Credit Brad Blackburn

“We had been living in Champaign-Urbana for about three years because an agency there was booking us all over the country in colleges and clubs,” Fairchild said. “We had been through lots of silly names for the band. Finally, the drummer said, ‘Why don’t we just call it Fairchild?’ That was because my name was the easiest to spell! So we went with it. That was in late 70s.

“Once we stuck with the name Fairchild, we moved back to St. Louis. That was when Laclede’s Landing was just starting, so it was easy to get booked — plus we had some great musicians. We played six and seven nights a week and made an OK living. It wasn’t a living where you think about the future — it was always day-to-day. But it was fun. We opened for a lot of big names like Joe Jackson, Robert Palmer, Robert Cray, Little Feat and the Little River Band.”

Eventually, Fairchild felt the need to get off the seemingly endless cycle of performing every weekend — as well as multiple nights during the week.

“I’ve always loved singing,” Fairchild said. “I absolutely love it. But I just felt I didn’t want to work every weekend, four and five hours a night, primarily in bars. The bar scene got a little old for me, although I admire my friends who do that. Mike Newman goes out almost every night to play somewhere. And he works full time, too. But I needed a change.”

Changing directions

For Fairchild, that change turned out to be a career as a music therapist — a decision she reached while playing a late set.

“I remember I was singing at Balaban’s (now Herbie’s Vintage 72) one night about 11:30,” she said. “And your mind starts roaming when people stop listening. And when you’re signing in a club for three or four hours, things always change by that last set. The crowd gets a little more tipsy — and possibly the band. And I was just sitting there playing the keyboard; and my mind started roaming and I thought about music therapy. I’d actually considered it as a career 20 years before, but I was busy with the band.”

She got a degree in music therapy at Maryville University. “They’ve got a wonderful program,” she said. “And it just keeps getting better and better. I work with Midwest Music Services, and some of the young children I teach have autism and Down’s Syndrome. They’re all 3 to 5 years old and we’re working on goals using music strategies that help the kids learn to speak and using songs to motivate them. I’ve been doing that for about 13 years, and I really have a passion for music therapy. I needed to be on top of my game to do that, and I felt I couldn’t do both that and be in a band fulltime.”

For Connie Fairchild, the musical future will definitely include her work as a therapist — and singing in other ways. She remains open to public performances, specially the challenge of cabaret.

“No matter what, I want to sing and keep singing,” she said. “Music therapy is very satisfying, and I’ve joined a choir at Trinity Presbyterian Church in University City.

“I think I’m really going to like doing cabaret. It’s brand new to me. I guess we’ll see what comes out of this after Saturday night! I hope it continues, I really do.”

Connie Fairchild’s performance at the Gaslight Theater Saturday is sold out. However, there’s a good chance the show will be repeated. In addition, there is a strong possibility that the Songbird Café will reschedule a Fairchild reunion repeat performance as well.