David Campbell’s life was changed by one of Barbara Cook’s masterclasses. He recalls a great Broadway and cabaret star.

Broadway theatre and cabaret star Barbara Cook has passed away at age 89. In a tweet this morning David Campbell said: “If it wasn’t for Barbara I would not have a career. I am forever in her debt. RIP Barbara Cook, Broadway Star.”

Writing for Limelight, he recalls an inspiring artist, a great lady and a generous mentor.

Barbara Cook

Barbara Cook was a one of a kind. As a young Broadway ingénue in the late ’50s her sound was perfect. Her tone, her pitch, her clarity were second to none. Listen to her on The Music Man with the great Robert Preston, her ridiculously flawless Vanilla Ice Cream from She Loves Me or Glitter and Be Gay from Bernstein’s Candide. I truly think there was none finer. She was peerless.

This voice complemented the honesty and simplicity in her interpretation of lyrics. I remember her telling me that one of her favourite songs was Irving Berlin’s simple love song Always. The lyrics seemed so simple but the emotion… Ah, that was the hard part.

As an interpreter of the American Popular Songbook I put her up on a pedestal with Streisand. In her later years, she was more prolific, to the joy of her fans. These years started when she teamed up with the late Wally Harper, her pianist and arranger who brought her back from a 20-year struggle with depression and alcohol addiction. Her voice had grown warmer, and she reignited her career at Carnegie Hall, and in doing so, made cabaret cool again. She inspired more to be like her and she would mentor many of them.

Cut to the Arts Centre in Melbourne in the mid ’90s. A random afternoon, when a kid from Adelaide walked up onto her stage to be a part of her masterclass. I was a nobody. A wannabe singer who was inspired by Barbara, Feinstein and the like and wanted to emulate them to no avail.

I sang my song in front of a thousand people. Terrified. Trying not to be too “tricky” with my vocal. When I finished, she said to me, “Darlin’ that was lovely. What else have you got?”

Nothin’. I had nothing! However, Wally was there. We threw down a version of Rockabye Your Baby (with a Dixie Melody) and Barbara said, “Well, that was great. Just keep going.”

My career changed forever. New York welcomed me thanks to her generosity. She would come to my show down in the Village and hug me, call me “Darlin’” and give me her blessing. Fans of hers would see a Broadway legend. Yet when she was there, I just saw her sparkling eyes and listened to her talk with her warm Atlanta Georgia meets New York City twang.

We shared the stage one more time at the Sydney Opera House for the Olympics. We stood in front of the Symphony Orchestra singing Some Enchanted Evening as well as many others. Her voice up close was so warm. It would not waver, yet she put her entire life on every phrase, every syllable.

I could go on but, instead, I implore you to listen to her fragile and heartbreaking take on Sondheim’s In Buddy’s Eyes from Follies. Or it’s It’s Better with a Band from her Carnegie Hall comeback to hear how great she could swing.

What an honour to have been in her presence. I owe her so much. She changed my life and gave me so many gifts, including the challenge to get better with age as a singer, like she did.     

Bye Darlin’. I’ll be loving you… Always.

David Campbell

David Campbell performs in Stephen Sondhem’s Assassins at the Hayes Theatre Co, Sydney from September 15 – October 14, and reprises the role of Bobby Darin in Dream Lover the Musical at Arts Centre Melbourne from December 27