Lavay Smith has got the look down—the sultry smile, the skintight dress, the lipstick and penciled eyebrows. She's got the band, her Red Hot Skillet Lickers, complete with fedoras.
She's also got a voice that evokes the classic blues and jazz singers from the 1920s through the 1960s without copying them. And she's not afraid of taking them on.
For four nights, March 6 through 9, at the SF Jazz Center, Lavay will delve into the songbooks of four queens of jazz, blues and rhythm & blues, one performer per night: Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughn, and Etta James.
Lavay has been performing classic jazz in the Bay Area and beyond since 1989.
"The reason I chose these four singers is I love each one of them, says Lavay. "I love the songs, and these ladies taught me them."
"Bessie Smith was the one who drew me to the music," Lavay says. "She's still so relevant today. She was a tough woman going out on her own."
"Billie Holliday, to me, she's all about the lyrics. She is the most present singer when it comes to delivering lyrics."
"What I get from Sarah Vaughn is, I try to imitate her sound a lot. Sarah Vaughn maintained her voice up until the end. I try for vocal placement like Sarah Vaughn did."
Etta James's songs aren't regulars for Lavay, because Etta's voice is so "gravelly." She's practicing the songs daily.
"I like a singer who pays homage to the greats," Lavay says.