Donna Salter is delivering standard lounge lines to wake up the dinner crowd at the Ice House Cafe and Oyster Bar in Herndon, but it isn't working on this hungry audience. Anyone celebrating a birthday? How about some anniversaries? We've got three ladies here who wanna dance, fellas. Salter senses the need for vigor, cues her bass and guitar players and launches into an up-tempo version of the Billie Holiday number, "Fine and Mellow."
Love is like a faucet. It turns off and on. Sometimes when you think it's on, baby, it has turned off and gone.
The song rousts the crowd from its escargot, salmon and lamb chops as Salter's sultry alto infuses the room with a romantic eloquence and bluesy brio that seems out of place in a joint adorned with a stuffed walrus head and ice tongs on the wall. Diners sitting at the small tables begin snapping their fingers and swinging their shoulders.
For Salter, 43, singing the blues and jazz is more than a hobby. Performing has always been her way of coping with a topsy-turvy life, from growing up in a broken family in Detroit's ghettos to conquering breast cancer.
Salter loves to sing, whether it's at the cozy Herndon supper club or at Unity of Fairfax church in Oakton where she works part time as a song leader. On Tuesday night, the Marshall resident will have her biggest gig yet, at Blues Alley in Georgetown, where she will play with her regular backup band, the Bob Meyers Trio.
The Washington show is the highlight of her amateur career. Her success, she said, reflects the emotional and financial support that neighbors and church members have given her. When she was diagnosed with cancer two years ago, close friends drove her an hour each way to the Loudoun Cancer Care Center in Sterling for radiation treatments. Last summer, more than 60 church members donated $8,500 to help her record a CD, "Love Is Here," in Nashville.
Though the CD is not available in stores, Salter has sold 400 for $15 apiece through her Web site, www.donnasalter.com, her church bookstore and in regular appearances at the Ice House. Sales have topped $7,000, most of which has she has given to Unity of Fairfax.
In December, for Christmas, she gave 400 copies to U.S. Navy servicemen and women shipping out. Last month, Salter started donating one-fourth of the profits to the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation.
"Unless you've lived the blues, they always say you can't sing the blues," Salter said between sets at the Ice House while drinking water to soothe her throat. "Well, I've certainly lived them."
Salter's life is like a profile out of VH1's "Behind the Music," an improbable rise from poverty, divorce and cancer. Her father, a Fuller Brush salesman, left the family for another woman when Salter was 2, forcing her mother and four older brothers and sister from their tidy subdivision home to Detroit's rougher neighborhoods where, she said, drugs and poverty were rampant.
Her mother worked secretarial jobs, slept on a rollaway bed in the living room and collected food stamps every two weeks. The family, Salter said, learned quickly that music, popular and religious, provided a reprieve from a hardscrabble life. Her sister, Denise, introduced her to rock music, bringing home Janis Joplin and Beatles albums.
"My brothers would scour the neighborhood garbage cans to see if anyone bought appliances, and they'd play drums with the cardboard boxes," Salter said. Before going to sleep, the family would sit around her bed and sing 10 Hail Marys.
She graduated from high school in 1977, and later that year, her brother Paul bought her a Radio Shack microphone for Christmas. Word spread in the neighborhood that the girl could sing, and she was recruited by a local bar band to sing cover songs of Natalie Cole and Martha Reeves and the Vandellas.
A few years after high school, she went to California, married a hometown friend, waitressed, played in a wedding band and had a daughter, Cassandra, now 18, and a son, Nick, 16. Both are students at Fauquier High. In 1988, the family moved to Hawaii on a lark.
The marriage soon fell apart, and she rented a place on a coffee plantation where she met her future husband, Tom Salter, a Treasury Department employee who was visiting his brother.
In Fauquier, during the mid-1990s, she began performing at the community theater with her daughter. There she met Kathy Wolf, who works for the Justice Department, and together they started something of a secret society, The Red Tent Sisterhood, named after the Anita Diamont novel. Wolf said it began as a book club of about a half-dozen women, but they ended up gabbing too much.
When Salter was diagnosed with breast cancer in March 2001 and underwent chemotherapy and radiation treatment, "we asked her to stop wearing her wig," Wolf said. "We felt she needed to be comfortable and not self-conscious about her baldness."
At Salter's church, the Rev. Terry Dearmore convinced her that she should produce a CD. He got church members to chip in, an easy thing to do, they said, after they sang a rousing version of R. Kelly's hit "I Believe I Can Fly."
"People gave $1,000 checks after that one. We couldn't stop them from giving," said Dearmore, who helped Salter connect with a recording studio in Nashville, where he once sang commercial jingles. Along with promoting pig dysentery pills, his was the voice that hawked Budweiser beer with the line, "This Bud's for You."
Salter prepared by taking voice lessons from Lisa Reagan, a Washington Opera singer in The Plains who taught Salter how to coordinate breathing with singing.
"She's playing at Blues Alley? She should. Duh," said Reagan, who gave concerts at the White House in the 1980s when her distant cousin was a resident. "She has such a smooth voice."
Back at the Ice House, Salter, dressed in a fitted khaki blazer, white shirt and black slacks, is taking a short break from her four-hour set. She has just finished "Fine and Mellow," and a club regular approaches her with a typed poem he prepared for her.
I'll fly seaplanes all full of tourists and watch in the evenings as you sing the old, slow songs to expats in a dark quiet bar.
"It's amazing," she says, holding the poem. "Blues and jazz gives so much to the audience. It has given so much to me, too."