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Saturday morning in Ybor City with Rosa Rio



(This is the 18th entry in Soundcheck's summer concert series, The 50-50 Club. For previous entries, click here.)

Rosa Rio can tell you stories about rushing to Cole Porter's apartment at the Waldorf Astoria after midnight for an audition with Broadway star Mary Martin.

She can describe how Orson Welles used to jump from microphone to microphone while recording multiple voices for the smash radio serial The Shadow.

Rosa Rio, who performed Saturday morning at Hillsborough County College-Ybor City Performing Arts Building, can tell you these stories ... because she is 107.

"And sexy, too," she adds.

We're all about the iconic these days, it seems. Let me raise the question: Does Tampa Bay have an iconic musician?

Blues legend Tampa Red, maybe? Christian metalcore veterans Underoath? Longtime music producer Steve Connelly, who has recorded with more local artists than any of us can count?

A very strong case could be made for Rio, who cut her teeth as an organist and pianist in New York in the '20s, '30s and '40s. She performed in theaters and on television and the radio, with the likes of Lucille Ball and Art Carney, among others. A resident of Sun City Center, she still performs at the Tampa Theatre on a semi-regular basis.

However, someone told me this week that Rio has recently, finally, given some thought to the notion of retiring. I've never seen her live. In fact, I've never even seen another human being this old (my previous record was a 106-year-old woman), much less one who can still play complex classical standards as well as a pianist a fraction of her age. So I had to go.

Rio was at HCC for the Homemade Music Symposium, a weekend-long series of seminars and concerts celebrating and aiding the local music community. Her performance was part of a kickoff seminar titled "Poets of Popular Song: The Lyrics and Lyric Writers of the Great American Songbook," hosted by writer/jazzman/arts maven/man-about-town Paul Wilborn, executive director of the Palladium Theater.

Wilborn, speaking from a stark theatrical stage on which the only setpiece was a sleek black Steinway & Sons concert grand, talked about lyricists like Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer and Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart, who composed some of the cleverest pop songs of all time.

"We're living through a time when popular music plays better when it's dumb," Wilborn said. "But in the '20s, '30s and '40s, dumb didn't cut it. Popular music had to be clever."

He's probably right, considering the current standard for lyrical wit is If U Seek Amy. Most of today's lyrics place a lot of undue emphasis on the overbearing and overemotional. 

I spent a couple of minutes trying to think of my favorite song lyrics from the past few years, and one song in particular came to mind. From Sunrise, by Norah Jones: "Sunrise, sunrise / looks like morning in your eyes / but the clocks have 9:15 for eyes."

Now, this is what I thought the lyrics were, and I have always loved them. The image of a clock as an eye, with the arms pointing to 9:15, representing closed eyelids, was evocative and lovely.

However, I just double-checked the lyrics online, and it turns out the final part of those lyrics is actually, "but the clock's held 9:15 for hours." That's not terrible, but it's certainly not as clever as the lryics I thought I heard*.

So yes, Wilborn has a point about modern lyricists. There's not another Cole Porter out there. To drive this point home, he performed Night and Day and Get Out of Town, and brought wife and singer Eugenie Bondurant** to perform Porter's dark yet funny Miss Otis Regrets. She also did a spoken-word reading of Love For Sale, which is one of the truly memorable songs about prostitution, alongside Roxanne, Lady Marmalade and ... It's Hard Out There For a Pimp? Sorry, I'm drawing a blank here.

Anyway, then out came Rosa Rio, who played a handful of George and Ira Gershwin medleys. Some of the songs I recognized (The Man I Love, Rhapsody in Blue, I Got Rhythm), most of them I didn't. She also performed a few songs with Wilborn (the Gershwins' 'S Wonderful and They Can't Take That Away From Me, Sammy Fain's I'll Be Seing You).

Rosa moves fluidly and capably, and considering her age, she looks out of this world. She tickled the top of the keyboard, and occasionally the bottom. The gold bracelets on her slender wrists tinkled along with the keys. She joked, she told stories, and she finished each song with a flourish of her wrists and an earnest and jubilant smile.

If you subscribe to the "Six Degrees of Separation" theory of life and art, it's pretty astounding to think you're watching the same fingers perform the same music once played for America's greatest songwriter (Cole Porter) and the man who made its greatest film (Orson Welles). 

On Saturday afternoon, the Homemade Music Symposium will feature seminars on digital music distribution, electronic press kits, video production and Twitter. Rosa Rio is one of the world's last direct -- and still active -- links to an era none of us can imagine, an era in which the art of music, and of songcraft, was all about being wittier, catchier and more poetic than the next guy.

And she lives in Tampa Bay.

"I recently had a near-death experience," she said from the stage. "I went up there and they said, 'We don't want her up here.' I went down there and they said, 'We don't want her down here, either.' So here I am."

If Rosa Rio ever does retire, she will be sorely missed.

-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*

* Although I suppose rhyming "eyes" with "eyes" wasn't very clever in the first place, so maybe the world is better off this way.

** Who was in Fight Club! And a Wayne's World skit on SNL!

[Last modified: Saturday, June 13, 2009 1:04pm]


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