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Denise Thimes' benefit showcases the music of Streisand

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 27, 2010 - Vocalist Denise Thimes  will present the sixth annual concert to benefit the Mildred Thimes Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer, which promotes research into a cure for the disease, this Thursday, Oct. 28 at the Sheldon Concert Hall.

As you might surmise, Mildred Thimes was the mother of Denise. And Mildred Thimes was a victim of pancreatic cancer, which takes the lives of more than 36,000 people in the United States every year and which has only a 5 percent survival rate five years after diagnosis.

On the Monday morning before the Sheldon benefit concert, Thimes joins me at the Forest Park Avenue Bread Company, balancing frequent cell phone calls concerning concert details with a conversation that touches on the musical details of Thursday's event, her continuing efforts to expand her performing career beyond her hometown of St. Louis, and her efforts to be a good mother for her two children.

The tall, striking singer smiles brightly and waves to those at nearby tables who recognize her from her performances at the Sheldon, Jazz at the Bistro and other venues, then sits down with a green tea to discuss the upcoming concert.

"It's the sixth year for this fundraiser for my foundation at the Sheldon," says Thimes as she keeps a wary eye on her nearby cell phone. "And it's an event that means so much to me - for obvious reasons. It's a way to remember my mother, raise awareness about a very deadly form of cancer and help fund research."

After the initial benefit concert in 2006, Thimes decided to present an annual theme for the event. The second and third year, she highlighted the music of vocalist Phyllis Hyman, then followed with a tribute to Roberta Flack and a presentation of the play, "The Pocketbook Monologues."

This year's concert focuses on the music of Barbra Streisand, a choice that might seem like a stretch for a jazz vocalist. But Thimes also has impressive credentials in theater, with frequent appearances in musicals and plays by the Black Rep such as "Crossin' Over," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone," "Ain't Nothing But the Blues," "Bubbling Brown Sugar," "The Wiz," "Purlie," "For Colored Girls," "Mahalia's Song," "Tambourines to Glory" and "Crowns."

"There's so much to choose from in Streisand's music," states Thimes, "and it also gives me the opportunity to showcase other artists on songs that fit their style as well."

One of Thimes' special guests is vocalist/songwriter/producer Billy Valentine, a Los Angeles-based artist whose credits include several years as the lead singer for the jazz group, Young Holt Unlimited, a role as lead vocalist in the film, "The Five Heartbeats," and the vocalist for the theme song for the TV series, "Boston Legal." Valentine has also written songs for the Neville Brothers, Mavis Staples and Ray Charles, and has two recordings as a leader, and four more with his brother John as the Valentine Brothers.

"I met Billy out in Los Angeles through a friend," recalls Thimes. "He came up to sing with me at a club I was playing out there, and we just hit it off vocally. I just had to bring him in for this show. ... He's a crooner!"

Thimes is also featuring another young St. Louis vocalist, Lilly Karrer in Thursday's concert. Thimes daughter, Simone, who met Karrer at the Muny when Simone performed in the Muny production of "Showboat" last summer, recommended Karrer, a sophomore in high school and a member of the Muny Kids, to her mother.

"Simone told me Lilly was a great singer," recalls Thimes. "And I really enjoy featuring young talented artists in these concerts. She's working on a version of 'Amazing Grace' that's just going to blow everyone away!"

Although the benefit concert Thursday at the Sheldon is top of mind for Thimes at the moment, it's certainly not the only thing occupying her time. Right after the concert on Friday morning at 7 a.m., Thimes boards a plane to Bangkok, Thailand - and a four-month residency at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel's exclusive Bamboo Bar.

"I've been there several times, and it's a wonderful place to sing," says Thimes. "I'll sing there six nights a week - backed by a Russian band. It's really an international event," she adds with a laugh.

For Thimes, building her career outside of St. Louis has been a goal for many years. When she met legendary jazz trumpeter Clark Terry several years ago, he was impressed by her talent and opened doors for her at music festivals and events such as the Cape May Music Festival in New Jersey and Flushing Hall in New York. Thimes played with a who's who of jazz greats such as Billy Taylor and Jimmy Heath, and bookings on both coasts - as well as on the prestigious Jazz Cruise in the Caribbean -- have followed.

But awareness and recognition of her achievements have been slow to follow - especially among her St. Louis area fans. She recently ran into a friend who now lives in Florida, and he said he was curious why Thimes had not "made it to the big-time." That drew a bewildered reaction from her.

"I told him that I've sung for President Bush, and for Queen Elizabeth in Washington, D.C.," she explains. "I've sung at the Kuwait Embassy there, and Michelle Obama has heard me sing. I've performed across the country and in Thailand, Singapore and the Middle East. I guess I don't know what else I'm supposed to do?"

Whatever the future holds in terms of performances around the country or around the globe, Thimes also emphasizes that her two children are her primary focus.

"I'm a woman with two beautiful children," she states, "and since they are both going to be in high school soon, this is probably my last trip to Bangkok for awhile. I need to be there for them, and balance my role as their mom with my career as a singer. I've been working out here as a professional artist for a long time, and I'm not about gimmicks. I'm at an age where it's all about bringing my best to my music every time I perform. So bring it on. I'm ready."

Terry Perkins is a free-lance writer whose expertise includes music. 

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