It's 10 p.m. on a Friday night at Marla's Memory Lane in Los Angeles, and the crowd is getting impatient. It has heard a nifty five-piece band, led by trumpeter Bobby Rodriguez, blow through a couple of standards, and it listened while veteran comedian Renaldo Rey jabbered away on an assortment of colorful topics ("What are those blues singers talking about? Drink muddy water? Sleep in a hollow log? You'd have to be nuts!").
But then the band strikes up again, and suddenly Maxine Weldon is there, singing in hard, clear tones, swaying to a rocking-chair rhythm while her voice slides from a conspiratorial whisper into a full-blown cry.
Her delivery is so genuine that members of the audience feel compelled to respond, offering encouragement, or nodding their heads and saying, "That's exactly how it happened."
Weldon, who appears tonight at Laguna Niguel's Design Center South, offers the crowd some blues, jazz standards ("My Romance," "When I Fall in Love"), and an original entitled "Lend Me Your Life." She even does a country tune, Gary Stewart's "You're Place or Mine." But with a jazz quintet providing the instrumentals, the song's roots are hardly identifiable, even though her phrasing, as it is on almost every number, has that in-the-saddle, C & W swing.
"My basic feeling is country-Western," the singer said recently from her home in Beverly Hills. "A lot of the songs I do in my show are country-Western. They may not sound like country-Western songs because we're doing it without the guitar and we're doing it a little up, at a little faster tempo."
The singer, born in Holdenville, Okla., and reared in Bakersfield, credits her father for childhood exposure to country. "My father loved country and Western, he was a great fan of Red Foley and Roy Acuff. I was, too, and I still enjoy it."
But despite the fact that her father taught music and that she "was always involved in some music program or another," the kinds of music she heard at home were limited.
"We couldn't listen to jazz and blues around the house at all because my parents were very religious. It was considered sinful to listen to it, that it was the devil's music. So the music that we could hear was picked for us. But we'd get out to hear other music; you know, go next door to a friend's house and hear whatever was going on at the time. Mainly it was Fats Domino, Ray Charles, the Platters, the Coasters."
Weldon began her singing career after moving to Hawaii in 1959. It was there that she had a chance to work with respected vocalist Helen Humes.
"I learned a lot of stage presence from her, which helped me to become a performer," Weldon said. "I was really young, about 18, when I worked with her, and she gave me a lot of direction."
In 1961, the singer began a five-year stay in Japan, appearing at clubs and concerts in Tokyo as well as in Formosa, Korea, Thailand and Hong Kong.
It was during this time that she met and performed on bills with fellow Americans Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Nat King Cole. But not all her engagements were so glamorous. "I worked a lot of clubs that had no English bookings at all so I had to learn to speak Japanese. It was quite an experience being a black woman living in Japan. I'm not surprised about what's happening there now because it was happening there then. It was very future-conscious and I was lucky to be a part of it.
Back in the States in 1966, Weldon began making club appearances in Los Angeles and hit the TV circuit. She released a number of small-company albums in the 1970s, but, despite one single for Columbia in 1975, she's never had a major-label album contract.
"I had a lot of difficulty with my kind of music at the time. They didn't really want to hear a black woman record country-Western music. I got a lot of negative feedback for that."
But Weldon is confident that things will turn her way.
"(Record companies) are a little more liberal now than before. Before they wanted you to sound like Aretha Franklin or Nancy Wilson. Well, I don't have that kind of sound, I don't sing like anybody else," she said.
For her Design Center South appearance, Weldon will be backed by her usual band, which is led by trumpeter Rodriguez and includes saxophonist Louis Taylor, pianist Phil Wright, bassist Ricky Taylor and drummer Washington Rucker.
While most singers prefer the quieter support of piano or a bass-piano duo, Weldon prefers a bigger challenge. "I like the big-band sound. I like working with horns, because I have a strong voice."
She thinks the kind of music being written today is cause for optimism. "They're bringing romance back to music now. Before, the men were putting down women and the women were putting down the men. But now it's all about love and dancing close and looking together at the sunset. And I like that romantic kind of music."
Maxine Weldon appears tonight at Design Center South, 23811 Aliso Creek Road, Laguna Niguel, 8 p.m. Information: (714) 643-2929.