Arts planner for the Midlands: Interview with Connie James

otaylor@February 3, 2013 

Here’s how Connie James raised the bar for touring cabaret performers who flip through the so-called Great American Songbook before putting their shows together: she updated the songbook.

“Because music didn’t die with Cole Porter,” James said. “It goes forward to include my generation.”

In “Connie James: Raising the Bar,” she performs songs by Carole King, James Taylor, Chaka Khan and Queen, among others. Queen as an update to the Great American Songbook? Nevermind that band is British, but James does make a point insisting on the inclusion of Queen’s “We Will Rock You.”

“There’s no sporting event that you don’t hear that,” she said.

James, a Columbia native, will perform at 7:30 p.m. Friday at the Koger Center in a show titled “Connie James Coming Home with the Sandlapper Singers,” and she’ll play some of her songbook additions. For part of her performance, James who will sing with the Sandlapper Singers and the Dick Goodwin Quintet, will also play with core members of her working band.

“I’m bring my people because they know my book,” she said.

James, a graduate of Columbia High School and USC, has toured with the Arpad Darazs Singers and she was a soloist with Goodwin’s big band. After graduating, James left to pursue professional interests in New York.

In recent years, James has toured with two tribute shows: “Sweet Baby James,” a show dedicated to James Taylor and “Blue,” a tribute to Joni Mitchell. Taylor might be the more popular of the two, but Mitchell’s songwriting is equally as memorable.

“When I heard it, I understood that it was special,” James said of Mitchell’s music.

While James loves Mitchell, she’s “madly in love with J.T.”

“It’s something that resonates across (demographics),” she continued. “It’s the kind of music that resonates with everyone.”

In two decades of performing in New York and elsewhere, the classically trained singer has also become an actor. She’s starred in an independent short film and made appearances on NBC shows “Law & Order,“ “Law & Order: Special Victim’s Unit” and “Homicide: Life on the Street.”

“Acting is something that kind of happened,” James said.

What happened was she saw a spider monkey on an episode of “Friends,” she said.

“It cracked me up,” she added. “It was totally hysterical. But that monkey made more money than me.”

Whether acting or singing songs that are familiar, connecting with the audience is imperative for a performer.

“If you don’t care about anything, nobody else is gonna,” James said. “If you are not emotionally connected to whatever it is, nobody will care.”

When James gets to town Monday, she said she is having dinner with USC president Harris Pastides.

“That’s pretty cool,” said James, who will also give a seminar at Benedict College and USC’s School of Music. She’s also attend a choral clinic at Columbia High.

According the Lillian Quackenbush, the Sandlapper Singers’ artistic director, discussion about putting together a concert featuring James began with local musician Cleve Edwards. He was a classmate of James’ at USC, and they had played some gigs together in Florida in recent years.

“Part of the Sandlapper Singers’ mission is to promote lifelong engagement in singing that is stimulated through participation in choral singing and Connie certainly epitomizes that,” Quackenbush said. “As a student at both Columbia High and at USC, she was part of a culture of choral singing that celebrated excellence, igniting in her a passion that she has pursued throughout her career.

“This is why it seemed a natural fit to celebrate her lifetime achievements in the city and through the medium that helped launch her success.”

It’s been, by James’ calculation, at least a decade since she has been to Columbia. She has a brother who lives in Savannah. When asked for the year she graduated from Columbia High, she emphatically said no, because she knew where this reporter was heading.

“As an African-American woman, I don’t need to give anybody else any more reasons to discriminate against me,” she explained. “It is show business.”

Another lesson about show business is that it’s not as glamorous as it seems.

“There’s nothing glamorous about show business until the house lights go down and the curtain goes up,” James said. “It’s all work.”

The Koger Center is at 1051 Greene St. $24-$29; (803) 251-2222

Columbia Classical Ballet will perform at noon Friday at the Columbia Museum of Art as part of the museum’s Artist Salon Series. The ballet will perform at original work inspired by the museum’s current exhibition “Impressionism from Monet to Matisse.” Radenko Pavlovich, the ballet’s artistic director and Simone Cuttino, resident choreographer, will discuss their creative process. The museum is at Main and Hampton streets. Free with membership or admission;

USC’s Theatre department will stage Paula Vogel’s “How I Learned to Drive” at 8 p.m. Thursday through Sunday at USC’s Lab Theatre, 1400 Wheat St. Winner of the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama, the coming-of-age story has adult content and isn’t suitable for children. $5; (803) 777-9353

The first sentence from Trustus Theatre’s press release about “The Motherf**ker With the Hat,” the production that opens Friday on the Thigpen Main Stage, includes the words “baring it all.” So the title of the play that details the complications arising from addiction and the symptoms of love isn’t the most scandalous aspect? That should interest theatergoers who have salivated for more envelope-pushing local productions. “The Hat” opened on Broadway in 2011 with Chris Rock was in the original cast. The plot: A low-volume drug dealer, freshly paroled, fights to stay clean so he isn’t thrown back into jail. His immediate problems include that he’s still in love with his coke-addicted childhood sweetheart, but when he comes home he finds a man’s hat by the bed. Guess how he refers to the dude? Chad Henderson will direct the production, which has scenes that require nudity. Also, Henderson collaborated with Preach Jacobs on the show’s original score. The show runs through Feb. 23. Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday. Trustus is at 520 Lady St. $15-$22; or (803) 254-9732

The South Carolina Philharmonic’s fifth Masterworks concert of the season is titled “Eternal Love.” The concert, at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Koger Center, will feature Mahler’s Symphony No. 5, as well as Wagner’s “Die Meistersinger” and J. Strauss II’s “Wine, Women and Song.” The Koger Center is at 1051 Greene St. $23-$53; (803) 251-2222

ETV will premiere the riveting documentary “The Education of Harvey Gantt” at 8 p.m. Thursday. The 30-minute film recounts Gantt’s journey to becoming the first black student admitted to Clemson in 1963. Phylicia Rashad narrates. ETV is on Time Warner Cable channel 11. (There will be a free screening at 3 today at the Nickelodeon Theatre, 1607 Main St. The film’s producer, Betsy Newman, and Bobby Donaldson, a USC professor featured in the film, will answer questions after the screening.)

The 13th annual Columbia Jewish Film Festival begins Saturday at the Nickelodeon Theatre and runs through Feb. 14. The festival will be kicked off with a B’nai Mitzvah Party at 7 p.m. followed by a screening of the documentary “Hava Nagila” and then an after-party. Only 100 $50 tickets will be sold. The Nick is at 1607 Main St. For a schedule of the festival, visit

The Palmetto Mastersingers will present The Festival of Choirs at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at First Baptist Church. The concert also will feature the Brookland-Cayce High School Choir and the Claflin University Concert Choir. The church is at 1306 Hampton St. $10; or (803) 765-0777

The fifth annual REEL Black Pix, a Pan-African film and cultural arts festival produced by HeTePu Productions, will be held Saturday and Feb. 10. REEL Black Pix begins with a hip-hop summit that will feature Professor Griff of Public Enemy from 2-8 p.m. at Benedict College’s Henry Ponder Fine Arts Center, 1600 Harden St. There will also be film screenings, panels and a cultural artisans expo. The festival continues from noon-5 p.m. Feb. 10 on Benedict’s campus; or ( 803) 553-5634

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