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Jazz singer Angela Bofill makes a comeback without voice that made her famous

Angela Bofill, whose R&B and jazz songs topped the charts in the '70s and '80s, told stories Sunday while some of her hits were performed by Maysa, front, for the crowd at the Birchmere in Alexandria.
Angela Bofill, whose R&B and jazz songs topped the charts in the '70s and '80s, told stories Sunday while some of her hits were performed by Maysa, front, for the crowd at the Birchmere in Alexandria. (Jahi Chikwendiu/the Washington Post)
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"It really slows my roll up, you know. But grace, still alive. Some people no make it. No eat a long time. Need a feeding tube. Awful. Only good thing I lose weight. A stroke diet. It works!"

Eventually, she began talking again. "But my voice no sing. I rather not sing. Awful. Crack me up! Funny! I laugh about it. But very grateful - still living. Never take things for granted. I think a stroke - no joke. Yes. But, I think a better a person."

She is laughing now, but a few years back, she was severely depressed. She had no voice and no health insurance. Her hospital bills piled up. Celebrities held benefit concerts across the country to raise money for her. Some singers she thought were friends called with empty promises of help. She had to sell her house in California. She moved in with her sister. Despondent, she spent most days in front of the television, flipping channels.

"First time very depressed," Bofill says. "Crying all the time. Turns out a side effect of the stroke. Made me depressed." Still, she seemed to be recuperating. Doctors said she might sing again. But a year later, she had another stroke that left her without the one thing a singer needs.

"It was devastating to lose her singing voice," Engel said. "When you take a voice away from a singer, nothing is worse. A lot of it was like, 'What do I do now, now that I can't sing?' That was her life. Her livelihood was being onstage."

Engel used to call her daily. "She was just down," he said. "That is all she did was hang around and watch TV. She didn't try writing any music. She didn't try writing any stories. I'd say, 'How you doing, Angie?' She would say, 'I'm bored.' " Engel would make suggestions.

"Finally, I said, 'You got to get off your ass, Angie! You are a good-looking woman. It's not like you are dead!' "

That's when the idea came to him. He would create a show starring Bofill. Just like old times. She wouldn't be able to sing, but she could tell her stories. He called members of her old band. They were game. He called Dave Valentin, the legendary flutist who helped Bofill get her first record deal.

"He said, 'Angie wants you. Without Dave Valentin, I'm not doing the show,' " Valentin recalls. "I told him, 'Of course, I'm doing it.' "

Engel sought soul and jazz singer Maysa, who grew up in Baltimore listening to Bofill. Maysa, who was a member of the British band Incognito, agreed to join the show.

"I have been listening to her since I was 12 or 13 years old," Maysa says of Bofill. "That is how I cut my teeth. Mother had to buy new albums, because I would wear them out. When you listen to someone so long, it is amazing to be onstage. She is looking at me singing her music. It's like a student getting approval from the teacher.

"At first, I was nervous. I wanted her to be proud. I don't know if I could have the strength to sit there and watch someone singing my songs. But she is happy."

Telling a new story

The first five "Angela Bofill Experience" shows sold out in San Francisco. Fans came, knowing Bofill couldn't sing. They just wanted to see her again. The show - even without her voice - drew rave reviews. Engel says he wants to get a movie made of Bofill's life. "Ultimately, I'd like to take the show to Broadway."

At the Birchmere, Bofill is wheeled up a ramp. She doesn't like the wheelchair. When she gets to the edge of the stage, she rises and the crowd applauds - an ovation that grows louder as she walks haltingly across the stage. The house lights go up. She sits in a chair and tells stories. Maysa sings.

Bofill moves her mouth. "Lip-syncing," she tells the crowd.

The audience laughs. Videos flash of Bofill in her heyday. The crowd is quiet. The show is like a memorial concert, except Bofill is still very much alive. Laughing but unable to sing.

"Sometimes," Bofill says, "I crack me up. Better to laugh than cry. Turned out, me a comedian." She laughs. "Instead of a stand-up comic - a sitting-down comic."

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