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Inner Voices Feel Spirit of the Holidays

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Like those of us who grew up in what these days is called a dysfunctional family, singer Morgan Ames’ Christmases were usually less than joyful. Her parents were of different religions--her father was Jewish, her mother Protestant--and one of them was an alcoholic.

“It wasn’t much of a Christmas,” she says. “It was more like warfare.”

Many of the feelings of those early years still affect her.

“Christmas is a vulnerable season,” she says. “It often makes me feel alone, like I don’t belong.”

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Born Vicki Arnold, she changed her name after she left home at age 16 and started working Los Angeles coffeehouses as a pianist and singer. She studied classical music under Maggie Bailey, then fell in love with pop music when she heard Peggy Lee’s version of “Sans Souci” in the ‘50s.

Recently, Ames--who has a grown daughter, Karyn--served as music consultant to director Mark Rydell and soundtrack composer Dave Grusin on the new Bette Midler-James Caan film, “For the Boys.” She co-produced Dianne Schuur’s 1988 Grammy-winning album, “Diane Schuur with the Count Basie Orchestra” on GRP Records.

And she has written lyrics with Bill Evans, Johnny Mandel and Dave Grusin. In fact, Grusin and she wrote “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” the theme from the mid-'70s Universal Studios TV show “Baretta,” which starred Robert Blake.

But her love for the seasonal music that gave her solace from the emotional onslaught at her home in Burbank has always remained. And yet, as the years passed and she established herself as a successful studio session singer, songwriter and music producer, she found she rarely had a chance to perform it.

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In 1981, when she had an opportunity to record some Christmas music with an all-female, a cappella vocal quartet, she jumped at it.

“After I arranged and recorded a 10-voice a cappella group on a commercial for a brand of stereo speakers, I took the singers into the studio again and recorded two Christmas songs,” she recalls.

“Then I tried it again with just four singers,” she continues, “because we were so copacetic during the other recording session.”

The chemistry was immediate.

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“We understood each other--bap, bap!” she says.

Ten years later, those same four singers--Ames, Darlene Koldenhoven, Clydene Jackson and Carmen Twillie--are known as Inner Voices, and they’re still feeling the spirit of Christmas, at least musically. The group, which appears Thursday at At My Place in Santa Monica and Dec. 20 at Le Cafe in Sherman Oaks, also has released a CD, “Christmas Harmony,” on Rhino Records.

The material on the album, which the singers will be performing live--plus one non-seasonal tune, Grusin’s theme from the film “On Golden Pond"--ranges from stalwarts such as “White Christmas” and “Silent Night” to originals, such as Ames’ “Sweet Little Baby” and bluesy numbers such as “Merry Christmas, Baby.” The renditions, many of which Ames orchestrated, reflect her musical proclivities, which include jazz, R & B and gospel music, and classic pop standards.

“I rearranged the songs considerably,” she says. “For example, I can no longer sing the original words to ‘Greensleeves,’ you know.” In a resonant alto voice, she sings “What Child Is This” to the familiar melody, and then stops.

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“So I wrote totally new lyrics,” she goes on. “Or ‘Silent Night,’ we do that humming, with no words at all, except ‘Sleep in heavenly peace’ at the end.”

The pieces are arranged, Ames says, so that Koldenhoven, who has the highest range, is the top voice.

“But I have a way of arranging for the group so that everybody has the lead or a solo within a given piece,” she says.

For the first six or seven years, only those close to the members of Inner Voices knew of their music. The singers went into the studio each year, made cassette copies of their efforts and sent them to friends.

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“They were our Christmas presents,” Ames says. “They were also a birthday present to me. I was born on Dec. 8.”

In 1987, Jackson suggested a live performance, and a show was scheduled at At My Place.

“We agreed to the gig, and then I got scared,” Ames remembers, laughing softly. “This music is hard. It’s athletic. It requires perfect intonation, yet there’s a lot of room for personality. An a cappella show is like singing without a net.”

Nevertheless, Ames says, the show got “an overwhelming reaction.” Their appearance--it’s their fifth at the Santa Monica club--will be filmed by CBS for a segment on the group in its network show “Sunday Morning.”

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Why do they continue to sing a cappella?

“Gee, I guess because we can,” Ames says. “We’re not averse to a band, but we never sought one out. Guess I’d like to establish us as a cappella singers. That’s our identification.”

And though Christmas music has been the group’s sole direction, Ames sees that changing.

“I’d like to do a jazz album, with four voices and guest instrumentalists,” she says. “I’d also like to do a cowboy album, tunes from the Old West like ‘Streets of Laredo.’ And since the Rhino album was a one-shot, we’re looking for a new home, label-wise.”

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Inner Voices began as a project that was also completely different from the participating singers’ regular employment: All were active in the recording studios as backup or lead singers.

“This was for fun, not for profit,” says Ames. It remains fun--the singers are good friends--though with the album and the live performances, profit has entered the picture. Still, Ames calls Inner Voices “a great escape.”

“You can get seduced and caught up in working for money,” she says, “but when you lose sight of your heart, life is dry. You have to follow your dreams, and Inner Voices is that.”

Group members are expanding their performance schedule and are working together outside the Christmas season. In the past two years, they’ve sung in a film, “Troop Beverly Hills,” directed by Jeff Kanew, and have backed up Brazilian composer-vocalist-guitarist Dori Caymmi in three selections on his “Brazilian Serenata” Qwest Records release. They’ve also done some benefits for such organizations as the Betty Ford Foundation and the Los Angeles Child Development Center.

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At this time of year, Ames looks over her life--from her rugged childhood to her bounteous career--and sees a lot of pluses.

“I’m very grateful to be alive, healthy, sober and full of hope,” she says. “I’m also grateful to have a life where I get to do what I want to do. That puts me in a rarefied place.”

Inner Voices will perform at 9 p.m. Thursday at At My Place, 1026 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica. Tickets: $8.50 with a one-drink minimum. Call (310) 451-8597.


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