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From the Subliminal to the Top

Kellye Gray is proof that there is such a thing as subliminal learning.

Gray--like most youngsters growing up in the ‘60s--listened to rock and soul. Her favorites were the Doors, Aretha Franklin, James Brown and the Beatles. Her parents, on the other hand, listened to such jazz greats as Sarah Vaughan and Thelonious Monk.

But the influence of the artists her parents liked must have rubbed off, because when Gray appears tonight at Chadney’s in Burbank, it’s as a jazz singer.

Gray, 35, a native of Dallas who grew up in Houston, took a rather circuitous route in arriving at her calling.

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She had always wanted to be a singer and had been playing guitar and writing songs since she was 16. But after she moved to Austin, Tex., in 1979, she plied the trades she had developed since leaving college a few years earlier--stand-up comedian and improvisational theater performer.

Then one afternoon a musician friend of hers, guitarist Scott Cain, asked her to sing with him at a performance he was giving, and insisted she take a solo.

“He said, ‘Scat a couple of choruses like Ella Fitzgerald,’ ” Gray recalls. “And though I had only done that a couple of times in my life, just make stuff up while I sang, I jumped on stage and did it, and it was a wonderfully freeing experience. I thought, ‘This is something that’s definitely me.’ ”

Subsequently, Cain asked Gray to appear at a Sunday brunch at a restaurant called Jona’s. “I told him I wouldn’t know what to do--I didn’t know any of the tunes he was doing,” she says. “He said, “Oh sure you would.’ ”

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Cain was right. “I got to the job, looked at the songbook he was using and discovered that I knew half of the tunes, because of my parents. They were already in my head.”

After that, Gray was off and running. She worked the brunch with Cain for a while, then in 1980, while waitressing at another Austin room known as Piggy’s, landed a happy-hour job as a vocalist. That led her to form a quartet called Scat, where she performed her own arrangements.

“I really like the experience of being the leader, of being in control, of interpreting songs totally my way,” Gray says.

For a time, during the mid-'80s, when she was touring Texas with KGB (Kellye Gray Band), Gray included a wide variety of material. “I’d do jazz standards, R&B;, anything I could improvise over,” she says. “We did everything from Grace Jones and Prince to Aretha Franklin and Charlie Parker.”

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These days, the Houston-based Gray tours more widely--to St. Louis and San Francisco--and she’s a bit more focused, she says. “Oh, I might throw in a kicker or two, like a bizarre version of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” but it’s mostly jazz. I might sing Eddie Jefferson’s words to Charlie Parker’s ‘Confirmation,’ then do a scat solo, or maybe a classic like ‘Nature Boy.’ ”

No doubt, the soprano with a solid range will offer a tune or two from her debut album, “Standards in Gray” on Justice Records. On such songs as “All Blues” and “How Insensitive,” Gray reveals herself to be a singer with a built-in bluesiness who isn’t afraid to take chances--by going outside a song’s written melody, or by stretching out her words in a vocal taffy-pull. In this, Gray resembles singer Betty Carter, although she doesn’t list her as an influence.

“Actually I never heard Betty until a few years ago. Really my main inspiration is Al Jarreau, who to me is a lot like Betty in that he’s very creative, and he makes you feel a song--he can make you laugh or cry.”

Gray’s goal is to affect people with her music. “I want to give people a beautiful musical experience,” she says. “To me, music is a very spiritual thing, and the power of the human voice scares me to death. It’s the original musical instrument. It’s very essential.”

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Kellye Gray appears tonight beginning at 9:30 at Chadney’s, 3000 W. Olive, Burbank. Two-drink minimum. Further information: (818) 843-5333.


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