It's hard to believe that singer Janet Rutland and guitarist Randy Wimer have been making music together for three decades.
It's even harder to believe that the perpetually youthful vocalist was performing professionally for nearly another 10 years before she and Wimer ever shared a stage.
And perhaps the hardest thing of all to believe is that Janet Rutland - one of the region's best-known singers of jazz and classic pop - started her career as, of all things, a touring disco performer.
Hard to believe. But true.
"It was my first professional gig, with Tim Henry, a piano player from TU who'd been playing the clubs for a while," she recalls. "I want to say we had eight people. I was one of the backup singers. We played places like [the former Tulsa club] Ziegfield's. There were showrooms like that all across the country, sometimes attached to hotels. We'd play two shows, doing pop music, and then the band would do dance music, disco, the rest of the night. So if we had our first show at, say, eight o'clock, we'd play until two a.m. It was grueling.
"I lasted eleven months, and came home just whipped, and so homesick," she adds. "But I've always said I'm grateful to have had that experience when I did. I was still young and single and it took care of the mystique of the road and show business for me. I found out exactly what it was about. I found out that it doesn't matter how glamorous your gig is - a gig is a gig."
By the time she and Wimer played their first job together, about eight years later, Janet was making her mark locally as a country singer. She had also married multi-instrumentalist Shelby Eicher, who was then touring steadily with Roy Clark, and they were expecting their first child.
"Some time before I worked with Randy, Shelby had said to me, `I really think you need to learn standards,'" remembers Janet. "He thought my voice was well-suited for that, and he also pointed out that once you have a good list of standards, you can go in and do a gig. You don't have to just keep chasing your tail trying to learn whatever's No. 1 on the charts."
Her first jobs with Wimer primarily consisted of singing harmonies with another vocalist, Donna Williams, who was working with the guitarist at the time. Then, after Janet and Shelby's son Nathan (now a well-known bassist) was born, Rutland and Wimer went back to work as a duo.
"Randy really helped me select my material," she says. "And he was fearless. Any song I brought to him he could chart like a wizard; that's how I started assembling my book. Shelby was right: Once you learn x-number of tunes, you've got the foundation of what you do, even though you always want to add to it."
"Sunday's show reflects that philosophy," says Jason McIntosh, Jazz Hall CEO. "Rutland and Wimer will perform material they've been doing from the beginning of their partnership, as well as songs they've learned through the subsequent years. An example of the former is one of my favorites by Annie Ross - who we honored last year with the Jay McShann Lifetime Achievement Award - a jazz number title Twisted."
"It's not for the faint of heart," Janet notes with a chuckle. "It's like jumping off the high-dive - a thrill when you nail it, but it can hurt if you do a belly-flop."
As for an example of a newer song - how about one from Taylor Swift?
"For years, when people have asked me what kind of tunes I do, I'd kind of kid and say, `Well, you won't be hearing any Taylor Swift, but . . . ' and I'd always get a laugh," she says. "But when I heard her song `Style,' the lyrics really grabbed my attention. Songs today are so heavily produced, layers and layers, but when you break them down to just a vocal and a guitar or piano, that's when you know if they're real songs. I think `Style' really stands up. Our version does not sound like Taylor's, because we're two people, but it's our interpretation.
"Playing with Randy is a collaboration," she adds. "He's an accomplished classical player, and he can go out and shine as a solo artist. There are some people of his stature who really don't understand when they're accompanying a singer, and they step all over you. Shelby refers to it as a dance. Sometimes you've got a partner who'll step on your feet, and sometimes you've got somebody who can lead you gently across the floor and make you look good."
Old Favorites: A Thirty-Year Anniversary, featuring Janet Rutland and Randy Wimer, is set to begin at 5:00 p.m. Sunday, September 27, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa's Jazz Depot, 111 E. First Street. Tickets can be purchased at the Depot, from www.jazzhalltickets.com, or by calling 918-928-JAZZ. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.
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