Anne Alvarez

Jazz in the Canals

By Anne Alvarez

Chris Bennett sits still during a moment of reflection on the patio of her home overlooking the Venice Canals, as she takes me back through a multi faceted career that spans 3 decades, various  genres of music and a Grammy nomination for co/writing and singing the title track for the film Midnight Express. Bennett worked alongside composer, Giorgio Moroder, who went on to win the Oscar for the film’s musical score.

Her resume is extensive, including among other things being a pianist, songwriter, jazz performer, choreographer and former disco queen. Having sung back up for Johnny Mathis, Rita Coolidge and Donna Summer on her hit “MaCarthur Park” and “Heaven Knows”,  as well as song writing for singer Tina Turner on her 1979 disco music album Love Explosion.

Bennett, an only child of a conservative Illinois Judge and her music teacher mother, grew up listening to Big Band melodies and Broadway show tunes, and was playing the piano by age 5. She often chose practicing instead of doing chores. It wasn’t until her high school days that she developed a love for the performing arts, specifically dance, that led her to open her own dance studio at the age of 16. She pursued the love of performance art after leaving her family behind, and moving to Los Angeles to attend UCLA. However, within a few months of being in town, she was approached by Jim Nabors, known mostly for his role as sidekick on The Andy Griffith Show. Nabors asked Bennett to join his Las Vegas revue which would eventually tour across the country. Getting to perform on stage every night in new venues, and playing to a variety of audiences in different cities helped Bennett gain the confidence and experience of a seasoned professional.

By her mid-twenties, Bennett had become a worldly woman and a well-known vocalist throughout the music industry. In 1976, while touring Germany, she was scouted and hand picked by composer/producer Giorgio Moroder, a man many credit with pioneering electronic music. Moroder asked her to join the popular disco group, Munich Machine, choosing Bennett to be the lead vocalist for their sophomore album which included a dance version of the Procol Harum rock classic, “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Bennett not only recorded the entire album, she also posed for the groundbreaking cover art, entirely naked. Bennett’s runway model’s body and movie star looks caused an international sensation and made for one of the highest charting and highest grossing disco albums of 1978. As exciting as this period in Bennett’s career was, she knew this wasn’t all she wanted to do. Her main passion had always been jazz, so she took time off, to focus on songwriting, composing and her marriage.

Re-emerging in 1993 a full fledged jazz singer, she produced and independently released an eponymous album that featured an eclectic assortment of covers, including “My Funny Valentine,” the Hollies’ “Bus Stop,” and Leon Ware’s “Somewhere”, along with her own original compositions.

Going through Bennett’s repertoire, it is easy to see why she is regarded as one of the most under appreciated singer/songwriters of our time by many in the jazz community, who compare her near vibrato-less voice to Chris Connor’s airiness. While echoing the purity of Doris Day, and at times channeling jazz idol, Anita O’Day, her ability to sing bittersweet melodies and rockin’ swing tunes make her unique. Bennett has released a total of 11 solo albums, including two live albums, a Christmas platter, and most recently Sail Away – The Tahiti Sessions.

She has also become an advocate for equal rights within the gay community, having composed the song, “Everybody Has The Right” with co-writers, Lisa Catherine Cohen and McKinley Marshall, which she performed alongside disco diva queen Pattie Brooks in major events for the Gay Pride events. Bennett, a heterosexual, firmly believes that everyone should have the same basic rights, a point of view which the Gay and Lesbian community warmly embrace.

Asked why she chose Venice as her home,she answers with a sigh and a warm smile, “There’s no place like Venice anywhere in the world. It is a great place to get older, lots of artistic people with individual ideas are around, and for me it offers the best quality of life one can experience.”

Currently, Bennett tours as one quarter of the disco group, Club Majestic with Pattie Brooks, Suzi Lane and Billie Kaman. Bennett is also collaborating on a musical soundtrack for an upcoming Broadway play by Hollye Leven,alongside acclaimed composer/conductor Maestro Dino Zonic.

She takes me into her in-home recording studio,sits in front of her 1928 Steinway and begins belting out one of the most beautiful melodies I have ever heard, “Sail Away”, a song about love lost.

One thing is for certain, the only place Chris Bennett is sailing into is peoples’ hearts with her gentle and unassuming presence and style.

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Categories: Anne Alvarez, Music