Cybill Shepherd launched her recording career five years ago with an album called "Cybill Does It . . . To Cole Porter!"
Charitable interpretations of the title didn't rush to mind. After all, hadn't her boyfriend/discoverer Peter Bogdanovich admitted that Paramount underwrote the whole recording project without hearing the beautiful blond actress sing a note? Critics were already troubling over whether the ex-fashion model could act. Suddenly, she was singing, too.
Shepherd now thinks that she was singing too soon. Over the past few years, she has studied voice and worked hard to prove she can do it.
So Tuesday evening at Reno Sweeney's one of Greenwich Village's choicest night spots. Shepherd unveiled her new nightclub act -- a set of jazz and show-biz tunes backed up by the Memphis All-Stars, three veteran jazzmen from Cybill's home town.
Relaxing before the show, bassist Jamil Nassir didn't want to hear any of that "Can she sing?" stuff.
"I think she's 96 percent better than anyone you see or hear on television," objected Nassir. "The other 4 percent are people like Sarah Vaughn."
"Her intonation and timing are impeccable," chimed in Harold Mablin, her pianist and former sideman with Vaughn. "She can hear the music like we hear it. She overwhelms me."
"And we are tough," interrupted Nassir. "When we say it, we mean it."
New York audiences, though, are tougher. More than an hour after Shepherd was scheduled to begin, the 125 seats in Reno's brick-lined Paradise Room remained less than half-filled. Undaunted, Shepherd sashayed toward the stage around 10 p.m., leading off with "Vanilla," the title cut of the new album she and her musicians have just released on the Peabody label.
Seated by the piano, blond hair dagling over her left eye a la Veronica Lake, she kept the polite crowd in hand with spunky and soulful renditions of songs from her album, including "You'd Be So Nice to Come Home To," "Can't Help Loving That Man," "My Ship," and "Villa" from "The Merry Widow."
Now 29, the enigmatic star of "The Last Picture Show" and "The Heartbreak Kid" surprises those who expect a modely vision along the lines of Lauren Hutton. Five feet 8 1/2 inches, 130 pounds and broad sholdered, Shepherd still looks as though someone yanked her off the farm and stuffed her into a black evening dress.
But with the size comes vocal power. Despite some flat moments around the corners of songs like Noel Coward's "Mad About the Boy," Shepherd belts out the numbers loud and clear. Verbal confidence is another matter. In the first show, her entire dialogue with the audience consisted of one sentence -- "You can't go wrong with that song."
"I just don't know how to do it," shrugged Shepherd between shows, explaining her reticence. She's serious about the singing career, though, even if she admits that audiences "come in skeptical."
"They don't expect much," she says with a brief, liquid smile. "But that can help too."
Mostly, Shepherd claims to be happy. Now living back in Memphis with daughter Clementine and husband David Ford, a former auto-parts manager two years her junior, Shepherd tighthens up a bit -- whereas Ford breaks into a smile -- when asked about the consequences of her split with longtime mentor Bogdanovich.
"It works both ways," she says tersely.
Maybe. But it's clear that times and Cybill Shepherd have changed. Throughout both shows, practically hidden behind saxophonist Fred Ford, husband David sat quietly, occasionally contributing a few chords on guitar. None of the performers introduced or acknowledged him. You can bet no one thought his name was Svengali.