Joanie Sommers would be the first to admit that her on-again, off-again singing career hasn’t been all smooth sailing.
“It’s been a long struggle,” the perky, still-squeaky-clean-voiced songstress said, “but I’m getting there. It’s just taken me a while.”
Sommers, who had a pop hit with “Johnny Get Angry” in 1963, is singing pretty much full-time now, and she couldn’t be happier.
“I’ve worked more in the last two years than I had in the previous 15 years,” she said, “and I love it. I feel most alive when I’m singing. I think it’s my way of communicating and expressing myself in the most honest way. And when it’s right, it’s so right.”
Signed to a Warner Bros. recording contract in 1960 while still a teen-ager, she made a few albums and then recorded “Johnny Get Angry.” (At that time she was also the singer on the “For Those Who Think Young” Pepsi-Cola commercials). But by then, she was pregnant with the first of three children and decided not to tour in support of her hit.
Though her career has contained many highlights--from co-hosting the Mike Douglas TV show to appearing steadily in Las Vegas--from the time of “Johnny Get Angry” until two years ago, she was an intermittent performer; raising a family was her first priority.
By 1984, Sommers’ life had changed. Her husband, theatrical agent Jerry Steiner, had died. Two of her children were grown, the third in his teens. So when pianist Joe Parnello, Frank Sinatra’s former musical director, asked her to sing on Tuesdays at a club date he had in the San Fernando Valley, she accepted, albeit reluctantly.
“My first thought was, ‘Oh, I don’t want to be working in a joint again. There’ll be people talking, smoke will be going up my nose,’ and so on. But then I said, ‘Oh, just go and do it,’ and to tell you the truth, the first night I was in heaven. I felt like a million bucks.”
Now, the jazz-influenced Sommers, who made her club debut at the prestigious Ye Little Club in Beverly Hills when she was 18, works a lot. She delivers her repertoire of standards like “What’s New?” and “I’m Old Fashioned,” and jazz tunes like “Squeeze Me” and her pop hits (“Johnny Get Angry,” “One Boy” and “For Those Who Think Young” in a medley) in venues from the Plush Room in San Francisco to the Golden Nugget in Atlantic City. Tonight and Wednesday, she appears at the Vine St. Bar & Grill, backed by Parnello’s trio.
She varies her accompanists. Sometimes, she’ll appear with Bob Florence, with whose trio she recorded “Dream” (Discovery, 1980), her latest and jazziest LP. She’s also worked with Frank Collett, currently with Sarah Vaughan.
“It’s important that I develop a sense of working with all different kinds of people,” she said. “I used to be scared of that, but now that’s what I want to do. “
One different job was her opening for comedian Pat Cooper at the Las Vegas Tropicana last April. “I did three days, and it was my first time on stage with a big band in years, and I loved it,” she said with typical exuberance. “I said to myself, ‘This is it! I’ve got a chunk of the real thing to hold on to so that I can deal with all the rest of the negatives that go with a career in show business.’ ”
Through the years, Sommers has remained a name with many of her fans. “I find now, going around the country, that people remember me,” she said. “And not only do they remember, but they think I’ve been working all this time and just haven’t come to their particular part of the country.”