To All The Girls I've Loved Before The best cabaret singers can flirt shamelessly, pose elegantly, and break your heart--all in the same song.
By Daniel Okrent

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Lyrics lie: Not only is life not a cabaret, cabaret is no longer cabaret. This most personal form of entertainment took a severe hit when The Tonight Show left New York 28 years ago, and the performers who made a living in intimate nightclubs no longer had access to national exposure.

But a few prosper still, thanks to me. I'm the guy emptying his wallet night after night so that I can have the table up front, where the women in my life let me in on their secrets and everyone else in the room gets to listen in. Try it yourself, in the various New York boites that still feature cabaret, or at certain outlying spots (the Plush Room in San Francisco, Davenport's in Chicago, the Gardenia in L.A., the improbable Odette's of New Hope, Pa.). Such clubs still present what's appealing to those of us who'd like to think that lyrics should mean something, and rhyme. And start off with these sirens, who know how to do it best.

MARY CLEERE HARAN

Of all my women, Mary would have been the one most likely to be called a "Girl Singer." Imagining her in front of a terrific big band--say, Artie Shaw's--I see the Irish sparkle of her eyes, hear the swing in her alto, and wonder which wise guy in the reed section is her secret beau. That depressing thought pulls me back to the present: the Oak Room at New York's Algonquin Hotel, Mary in a strapless red gown, the music of Rodgers, the lyrics of Hart, and as perfect a night as one could imagine. Even at those prices. For upcoming dates: citycabaret.com

JULIE WILSON

Ah, Julie. Seventy-five years old, still wrapped in a black sheath and feather boa, still italicizing her glistening pulled-back hair with an exclamatory gardenia, still singing every number in the Great American Songbook in which you might conceivably find a double entendre (even if you can't find one, Julie surely can). citycabaret.com

ANDREA MARCOVICCI

Ten years ago, I wrote that when Andrea is "onstage and singing to you alone, she's the one true love of your life, and your wife is just your roommate." Somehow I've managed to stay on good terms with both my wife/roommate and "the Callas of Cabaret" (as a critic called her not long ago). That's because, like me, my wife is captivated by Marcovicci's phrasing, material, wit, and, most of all, her actorly quality. My wife's not so crazy about the astonishing sexual heat Andrea brings to a torch song. marcovicci.com

KAREN AKERS

Very tall. Killer cheekbones. Son played linebacker for Notre Dame. Is there anything else you could possibly want in a cabaret singer? Like, maybe, an alto voice as rich and seductive as a cello, coupled with a gift for French torch songs that'll make you want to weep? You'll suffer, but you'll be a better person for it. karenakers.com

ROSEMARY CLOONEY

Clooney's the toughest ticket in cabaret, a singer of uncanny emotional power and grace in spite of her years, recurring health problems, and consequently limited vocal range. Somehow, Rosie manages to give wings to a song simply through inflection and phrasing, to cut to the heart of a lyric with the elevation of an eyebrow. She also tells a hilarious story about the time she met the Pope. clooney.com

BARBARA COOK

Cook is the un-Clooney, her voice--the most powerful and polished instrument in this club--barely diminished from those long-ago days when she was the original Marian the Librarian in The Music Man. Her choice of material is sometimes slightly odd, but her pure vocal talent is its own dazzling reward. At Feinstein's at the Regency, New York City (212-339-4095) until Nov. 25.

SUSANNAH MCCORKLE

I'd tell you to ask Susannah to sing the great Jobim song "Waters of March," but you don't have to--it's her invariable encore. Appropriately, too, for she also translated it from the Portuguese. She began her career as a writer, hung out in bohemian Rome and Paris, nearly went to work as a translator at the Common Market, but instead came home to make a life as a jazz/cabaret singer. Makes sense to me. susannahmccorkle.home.mindspring.com

PAULA WEST

I first encountered Paula at Donald Smith's Cabaret Convention, the annual week-long event produced by the New York dervish, who nearly keeps the entire industry alive by himself. (There's a parallel convention each year in San Francisco, and one in Chicago is launching next year; for information on any of these events, call 212-980-3026.) West applied her insinuating alto to a song you'd hardly expect to hear from a cabaret singer, "Don't Fence Me In"--whereupon I decided she could fence me in, tie me up, you name it. citycabaret.com

ANN HAMPTON CALLAWAY

She plays a terrific piano, she stars on Broadway (the current Swing), she writes songs, and she sings with such authority and taste I'll even forgive her for writing the lyrics to the tune Barbra Streisand sang to James Brolin at their wedding. Ann also does a great parlor trick, asking audience members to shout words and phrases, which she immediately turns into a song. I once tossed out "convertible debentures," and she fielded it as if it were "June moon." annhamptoncallaway.com

WESLA WHITFIELD

Along with McCorkle and West, Wesla resides at the jazz end of the spectrum, laying back on the beat almost as much as Billie Holiday or swinging with nearly the ease of Anita O'Day. Be prepared: The victim of a random shooting incident more than 20 years ago, Wesla is unable to walk. Be prepared for this as well: From the moment she sings her first note in her slightly smoky voice, you forget the previous shock entirely. citycabaret.com

KT SULLIVAN

The three biggest things in cabaret are KT's voice, and KT's... eyes. It's hard to imagine the former--a rich, controlled soprano that's a revelation in full throat, and a provocation in a half-whisper--arising out of Boggy Depot, Okla. As for the eyes, when she's joking around with her accompanist, she's Eddie Cantor; when she fixes them on some poor sucker at a front table, he's doomed.