Natural Delivery 

"A singer is really naked in a way that other musicians are not."

The heel of Robin Gregory's golden slip-on shoe taps a steady 4/4 as she and pianist Bliss Rodriguez swing though "S'Wonderful." It serves as an anchor against which the vocalist subtly syncopates the Gershwin brothers' French-flavored standard. Swaying her arms while standing on the stage at Anna's in a tan Chinese-style tunic ensemble--a mop of casual curls framing her round, almond-hued countenance--Gregory draws the attentive listeners in the front rows of the tiny Berkeley bistro into the romance of her music. The chatter of diners in the back fails to break her concentration.

"We're having an intimate conversation," the Oakland-based singer says about this gig with only her pianist. The bassist and drummer with whom she usually performs--and who play on the just-issued CD debut Honeysuckle Rose on her own Wildbird Records label--are absent. She and Rodriguez, a blind pianist with an elegant concept of harmony and an assured sense of time, make for a commanding duo during a set that includes such other old favorites as "Day by Day," "Our Love Is Here to Stay," and Duke Ellington's "Satin Doll," which Gregory dedicates to the memory of the recently deceased Ellington vocalist Al Hibbler. Two from the '60s --"Quiet Nights" and "Watch What Happens" --are among the most modern in the singer's extensive repertoire. Gregory's dusky, richly resonant contralto brings the late Betty Carter to mind, though some hear Anita O'Day in her singing.

Restaurateur Anna De Leon, herself a fine jazz vocalist, had been singing every Friday and Saturday night at the cafe, but recently turned Saturdays over to Gregory. De Leon is the former wife of bluesman Taj Mahal and met Gregory through Taj's brother, Oakland art gallery proprietor Samuel Fredericks. Longtime friends, Gregory and Fredericks recently became engaged.

Born 55 years ago in Washington, DC, Gregory has been singing all her life--though she began performing for audiences just seven years ago after passing an audition for the Oakland Jazz Choir. "I was friggin' petrified," she recalls, "but the Oakland Jazz Choir was what got me able to stand up and sing in front of people."

Working with just a rhythm section was another matter, and she turned for help to El Cerrito hypnotherapist Ken Fox. "His theory," she says, "is that stage fright really has nothing to do with the actual act of standing up and singing in front of people. It's a whole bunch of other stuff, and then when you stand up, it all comes out. A singer is really naked in a way that other musicians are not. There's nothing in front of you, and you have to show your emotions and all that kind of stuff. It's frightening. I've never talked to any singer, even veteran singers, who told me they didn't have it. You don't get to the point where you don't have it; you get to the point where you just let it be there and you go on and you don't let it intimidate you."

Gregory was surrounded by jazz as a child, both at home with her parents in Washington and during summers at her grandparents' house in Atlantic City. In Washington, she met John Coltrane at a club when she was sixteen and frequently attended jazz and R&B shows at the Howard Theater. "You could go to the Howard Theater after school, and for three dollars you might see Quincy Jones' orchestra, Miles Davis, Nancy Wilson, Herbie Mann--you know, five or six people, all on the same bill," she remembers.

Gregory managed to overcome her shyness enough to be talked into running for Howard University homecoming queen in 1966 during her senior year as an art major. Her win made national news in black media, including Jet magazine, because she was the first woman with a "natural" hairstyle to ever be so crowned at the prestigious African-American college. She remains a footnote in the history of the Civil Rights Movement, her achievement duly recorded in a segment of the PBS television documentary Eyes on the Prize.

"The whole homecoming queen campaign was a social protest," Gregory explains. "These guys from Howard's law school wanted to make a statement about black pride and black beauty, and they asked me if I would run. I was like one of maybe two people on campus who had an Afro hairstyle at the time. There was one other person who was in the fine arts department with me who had one; she was Stokely Carmichael's girlfriend.

"Black people were ashamed of their hair, so we decided to campaign on that issue alone. It was very controversial, and people were very shocked when I won. It was not according to Hoyle. In fact, they would have these faculty teas for the homecoming queen, but they didn't have one for me. And the sororities would do something for the homecoming queen, but they didn't do it for me. When they could exclude me, they did."

Today, the light-complected vocalist finds irony in her victory. "I know it wouldn't have happened if I wasn't light," she says. "The next year we decided to run a dark person, and she didn't make it."

Gregory moved to the Bay Area in 1969 with her then-husband to be a "black revolutionary" but soon found herself teaching art at an elementary school in Sausalito and raising two daughters. Her oldest girl, thirty-year-old Aisha Tyler, is an actress and comedian whose fame has skyrocketed since she was hired last year to host Talk Soup on cable TV's E! network.

A claims manager for a workers compensation insurance company for the past sixteen years, Gregory is now in the process of launching her own career as an entertainer. There's nothing trendy about her music, however, and she sees herself in the tradition of the singers she grew up listening to, among them Billie Holiday, Betty Carter, Dakota Staton, Gloria Lynne, Nat King Cole, Nancy Wilson, Sarah Vaughan, and Ella Fitzgerald.

"I think of myself as a storytelling singer," she says. "I don't think of myself as someone who wants to manipulate the changes of the song and do a bunch of vocal acrobatics. I want to tell a story when I sing, and I want to convey emotion and touch people's emotions. These songs speak to me emotionally, and I feel authentic singing them. I think the most contemporary song in my entire repertoire is 'On Green Dolphin Street,' and that's old."


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