The Deborah Newallo Experience

May 28, 2024

Red Rooster is a restaurant in the heart of Harlem’s music scene created by Andrew Chapman and Marcus Samuelson. It is so titled in honor of its namesake, a legendary Harlem speakeasy that attracted neighborhood folk, jazz greats, and major figures of the 20th century.  It continues a tradition of good food, friendly service, hip vibe, and relaxed surroundings and good music. The simple setup in the corner of the room near the entrance features organ and drums and one microphone on a stand. At first it seems that the music is there as an afterthought, but the minute singer Deborah Newallo lets loose with the infectious, individual swing of Irving Berlin’s “Cheek to Cheek,” what could have been an afterthought becomes the main focus. The sound is classic, old school bluesy, blissful jazz (including a taste of “Killer Joe” worked into the mix), and Newallo is a journeyman jazz singer who knows how to work a room and deliver a song. Nate Lucas on organ and John Cooksey on drums are right there with her, supporting, punctuating, leading, and following. They are the kind of tight solid trio of music makers that the iconic repertoire needs and deserves. 

Deborah Newallo (Photo courtesy of Red Rooster Harlem)

The swing continues in a softer style with “All of Me” (Gerald Marks, Seymour Simons) with an attention to the lyrics rare for this kind of “restaurant gig” which doesn’t offer the opportunity to dig too deep into the storytelling. Still, Newallo manages to walk the thin line between throwing away a song and doing a full-blown cabaret number. “Fly Me to the Moon” (Bart Howard) has an easy exuberance that blows away any pesky cobwebs that might have been there in less talented hands. Some intricate, inventive drumming lifts “Autumn Leaves” (Joseph Kosma, Jacques Prevert; English lyrics by Johnny Mercer) and the singer follows suit with some captivating changes. She is so centered in her performance that none of these classic songs seem like filler or beyond her—she embraces each one with delight and intelligence. 

She goes for a more modern, pop sound with Anita Baker’s “Sweet Love” (Baker, Louis A. Johnson, Gary Bias) and proves herself equally at ease away from the Great American Songbook. An erotically charged “Lover Man (Oh Where Can You Be?)” (Jimmy Davis, Roger “Ram” Ramirez, James Sherman) takes her from the stage into the audience and she makes even this potentially awkward situation work, connecting with individual patrons as easily and warmly as she connects with the material and the audience at large.  The first set of the night ended with an exemplary deep dive into the lesser known “On Green Dolphin Street” (Bronislaw Caper, Ned Washington) and then she bookends the first half, returning to Irving Berlin with “Blue Skies.”

The classic sounds of jazz organ and drums are an important part of the night’s success throughout, but they really shine as the second set opens with “Satin Doll” (Duke Ellington, Billy Strayhorn)—that Ellington sound pulses through the veins of this neighborhood, and Newallo and company do it proud. “God Bless the Child” (Billie Holiday, Arthur Herzog) burns as the brightest flame of the evening as the singer builds in intensity, letting the song take over the room, controlled but fiery and pleading.  Skipping forward in time, she jumps into “You Are My Starship” (Michael Henderson), done famously by Norman Connors, Phyllis Hyman, and Henderson, but Newallo reinvents it as her own with a Bacharach/David sound and a few echoes of Dionne Warwick in her phrasing.  The song transforms into a haunting love song that shows off the singer’s dramatic and rhythmic flair.  

Lucas and Cooksey give Van Morrison’s “Moondance” a steely spine that swings like crazy and a raw, rock edge over which the vocal becomes almost a chant. The arrangement for “Let’s Stay Together” (Al Green, Willie Mitchell, Al Jackson Jr.) plays it tight and close to the vest allowing Newallo’s vocal to live around the edges sliding her vocal into that familiar, hypnotic rhythm. Placed back-to-back with a blazing “Dr. Feelgood” (Aretha Franklin, Ted White) that managed to be laid back and hardcore at the same time, here was a preview of a great R&B concert just waiting to happen. 


Presented at Red Rooster Harlem, 310 Lenox Ave., NYC,. Two sets presented every Tuesday, 6:30-9:00 pm. Reviewed on May 21, 2024.


About the Author

Gerry Geddes has conceived and directed a number of musical revues—including the Bistro- and MAC Award-winning "Monday in the Dark with George" and "Put On Your Saturday Suit-Words & Music by Jimmy Webb"—and directed many cabaret artists, including André De Shields, Helen Baldassare, Darius de Haas, and drag artist Julia Van Cartier. He directs "The David Drumgold Variety Show," currently in residence at Manhattan Movement & Arts Center, and has produced a number of recordings, including two Bistro-winning CDs. He’s taught vocal performance at The New School, NYU, and London’s Goldsmith’s College and continues to conduct private workshops and master classes. As a writer and critic, he has covered New York’s performing arts scene for over 40 years in both local and national publications; his lyrics have been sung by several cabaret and recording artists. Gerry is an artist in residence at Pangea, and a regular contributor to the podcast “Troubadours & Raconteurs.” He just completed a memoir of his life in NYC called “Didn’t I Ever Tell You This?”