When Nancy LaMott died of uterine cancer on Dec. 13, 1995, two weeks before her 44th birthday, she left behind quite a distinguished legacy. Beauty, purity, talent and unimpeachable good taste were some of the enviable trademarks that made her a crown princess of cabaret. The cherished CD’s that songwriter David Friedman produced during her brief career are collector’s items. But now there is more. If you never saw her in person at the White House, where she was a huge personal favorite of the Clintons, or thrilled as she lit up swank venues like the Oak Room in the Algonquin and Tavern on the Green, you can now watch a stunning collection of 25 rare, never-before-seen performances on a new DVD called I’ll Be Here With You, also produced by the devoted Mr. Friedman, that brings back the thrill and passion of this mellow-voiced hug-me doll whose dedication to the Great American Songbook was a talisman the current crop of cabaret thrushes live by.
When I first reviewed this entrancing wunderkind back in 1979 at the loudly lamented Reno Sweeney, I praised her maturity, sophistication, sweetness and lyrical simplicity. My admiration accelerated through the years. She swung jazz, melted ballads, launched new songwriters, kept Mercer, Mancini, Kern, Berlin, Harry Warren, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and even James Taylor alive, and discovered forgotten Ira Gershwin lyrics that rhymed “peanut brittle” with “noncommittal.” It was just too surreal to find so much style, panache and unaffected charm in a singer so young, but Nancy was unusual in every way. No beads, no feathers, no contrapuntal arrangements in impossible keys, no dumb or pretentious tunes that wasted your time, no forced synthetic patter. She just stood there, like Jeanette McDonald in the ruins, and sang.
Inevitably, we became friends. The day before she died, I visited her in the hospital, sitting on the edge of her bed surrounded by mountains of get-well cards from her fans, and it was miraculous how warm and comfortable and full of optimism and gratitude she was. This spirit and joy, dazzlingly in tune and perfect pitch, is present throughout the new DVD. Mr. Friedman’s “We Can Be Kind,” a humane antiwar anthem to peace between people and nations, performed in concert at St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1993, will stop your heart. From the Cathedral of St. John the Divine to the Easter Bonnet Celebration at the Palace Theater, every dimension of her gigantic talent shines on stages large and small. You get her earliest public appearances at Don’t Tell Mama, which were highlights of my youthful nightclub forays, before I could afford Rainbow and Stars. And on an accompanying two-CD set of 20 previously unheard recordings, called Ask Me Again, released simultaneously this week on the Midder Music Records label, you also get Rodgers and Hart’s “I Didn’t Know What Time It Was,” recorded “live” at the Museum of Broadcasting on Dec. 9, 1995, four days before her death. This is the last song Nancy ever sang, and if you don’t brush a tear from your eye as you listen, you better check your pulse to see if you’re still alive. In fact, if you don’t know the work of Nancy LaMott, you’re already dead and don’t know it. No singer on the scene today is more enchanting, and now, through this limited edition double release on CD and DVD, you’ll realize why no one ever will be. Think of this as a final encore. Her career was brief and troubled, but at last Nancy LaMott sings her own happy ending.