Julie Wilson, one of the most bewitching artists of the cabaret stage, renowned for her dramatic interpretations of classic and forgotten songs and for her occasional roles on Broadway, died April 5 at her home in New York. She was 90.
The cause was a stroke, the Associated Press reported.
Ms. Wilson was musical actress early in her career, but over time she became better known for her strikingly intimate performances as a chanteuse. Her manner of singing and storytelling came to exemplify the music that came to be known as cabaret.
She did not have a conventionally pretty voice, but she compensated for her vocal shortcomings with a direct, straightforward style, using half-spoken lyrics and a compelling stage presence to create a bond with her audiences. She invariably wore a tight, slinky gown, with a gardenia tucked in her pulled-back hair.
“Ms. Wilson,” critic Will Friedwald wrote in 2005, when she was 80, “remains the queen of all cabaret divas, and still has style and class to spare.”
She began singing in nightclubs in the 1940s, whenever she wasn’t appearing in Broadway musicals or in touring shows. She performed standards by George Gershwin, Cole Porter and Harold Arlen, but after she had Broadway roles in “Follies,” “Company” and “A Little Night Music,” she became especially known for her powerful interpretations of the songs of Stephen Sondheim. Her signature tune, “I’m Still Here,” was from Sondheim’s 1971 musical “Follies.”
“Good times and bum times,” the song begins, “I’ve seen them all and, my dear, I’m still here. Plush velvet sometimes, sometimes just pretzels and beer, but I’m here.”
Explaining her interpretive approach to a song, Ms. Wilson told the Boston Herald in 1997, “I always look at a song as a small play, with a beginning, middle and end. And it’s the singer who brings the colors, the variety, the spice. Whether it’s cheeky, provocative, reflective, resigned, where else to find these emotions but your own life?”
Ms. Wilson gave up performing for several years while raising her two sons, then made a triumphant return in 1984. She discovered new audiences and showed a fresh confidence in what one critic called her “leathery, pickled-in-brine voice.”
She was a headliner across the country but was especially acclaimed in New York, where she appeared at Michael’s Pub, the Oak Room at the Algonquin Hotel, the Cafe Carlyle and at other chic nightspots, usually accompanied by pianist William Roy.
Ms. Wilson projected a rare combination of elegance and earthiness, sauciness and allure. She stood at the microphone, her beaded gown shimmering in the spotlight, extending her arms in broad, theatrical gestures, acting out her songs as much as singing them.
Many of the tunes she favored, such as “I’m a Bad Woman” and “Twelve Good Men and True” — about how a woman beats a murder rap by becoming well acquainted with the men of the jury — were seldom done by other singers.
She often swirled a feather boa around her shoulders as she delivered suggestive lyrics layered with double and triple meanings.
“I always say,” she noted in 1997, “the older you get, the naughtier you can be in song.”
Julia Mary Wilson was born Oct. 21, 1924, in Omaha. Her father sold coal, and her mother was a hairdresser.
She began performing at 14 and left college at 18 to join a touring revue that took her to Chicago, then on to New York. She performed in Europe with the USO during World War II and appeared in several Broadway chorus lines and other productions.
When not on tour in such musicals as “Show Boat,” “Silk Stockings” and “Panama Hattie,” Ms. Wilson worked as a band singer and as a solo performer in nightclubs.
In London in the early 1950s, she was offered a role in “Kiss Me, Kate,” by Porter, the show’s composer. She later starred in British productions of “South Pacific” and “Bells Are Ringing” and studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts.
Ms. Wilson returned to Broadway in 1953 for a role in “Kismet” and later appeared in “The Pajama Game” and a couple of forgettable films. By the time she released her third vocal album, “Live at the St. Regis” (1958), she had perfected the wry, sophisticated approach that defined her singing for decades.
“I had discovered that being a nice girl from Omaha didn’t make it,” she told New Yorker writer Whitney Balliett. “I decided to get mean, a little bitchy. I started sticking my chin in the air, and at the end of a performance I’d turn my back on the audience and walk out — and people began paying attention.”
She took vocal lessons throughout her life, but the only singer who was a conscious influence, she said, was Billie Holiday. After the jazz star died in 1959, Ms. Wilson adopted Holiday’s style of wearing a gardenia in her hair.
Ms. Wilson’s three marriages, to agent Barron Polan, film producer Harvey Bernhard and theatrical producer Michael McAloney, ended in divorce.
She left show business in 1976 to return to Omaha, where she cared for her aging parents and raised her sons from her third marriage. Her younger son, Michael McAloney Jr., died in 1991. Survivors include a son, actor and producer Holt McCallany, and a granddaughter.
In 1988, Ms. Wilson had a leading role in the short-lived Broadway musical “Legs Diamond,” for which she received a Tony nomination. She recorded several albums and continued to perform into her late 80s.
“Performing was something I had to do,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 1996. “Nobody encouraged me. I like to express myself, and I just love an audience. I thought I’d grow out of this madness, but it never happened.”
An earlier version of this article omitted a granddaughter as one of Ms. Wilson’s survivors.