Born in Chicago, Garrett grew up on entertainment provided by Ed Sullivan, Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. She honed her vocal skills by singing along to records, especially those of Judy Garland and of great soul and jazz singers of days gone by. Even though Garrett is well known by Denverites for performances that brim with sharp, playful humor and soulful renditions of the music of yesteryear, she didn’t sing professionally — or for audiences of any kind — until she moved here in the early 1970s, when she was in her twenties. Her first experience singing with a band was with local act the Triple A Band — and it was a disaster. But the experience only made Garrett more determined to succeed, and her next venture proved far more rewarding.
Westword: What was your first big break into live music?
Lannie Garrett: I went up to this singer in town, Ron Henry, this charismatic black soul singer who I used to go see perform in town all the time, and I said, “My name is Lannie, from Chicago, so if you ever need a singer, call me.” He was putting together a soul group [called Pride]. He had two fabulous black female singers, and he wanted a white girl in the middle. Some of our first shows, we were the house band at a venue in Glendale called the Warehouse. Glendale had all the nightclubs back then — no one went downtown. We opened for Ray Charles, Richie Havens, Tina Turner, Four Tops, Donnie Hathaway and Mel Torme. All of a sudden, I was this twenty-something-year-old girl who’d never sung in front of people before, and I’m standing in the middle of these two amazing soul singers and hanging out with these incredible people.
Why did you want comedy to be a part of your own shows?
Humor got my sister and I through some very difficult times. We’re four years apart but have the same sense of humor. When I started booking the band, I got booked into a lot of gay clubs. In the ’70s, the gay thing was just coming out of the closet big time. I started playing in front of gay audiences, and they really brought me out of my shell with comedy. Being able to work in front of an audience, I learned more about timing and how to tell a story. I kind of went to school on stage.
You had a brush with a now very famous comedian before he became a household name. Tell us about that.
In the ’80s, my older sister lived in New York, and her boyfriend had a friend who was living in an actors’ hotel, and they fixed me up on a blind date with this guy. This was ’86 or ’87. We went to a cabaret, and I sat in. He was a struggling comedy writer, and he was very nice. He said, “I’ll write you a comedy cabaret show for a thousand dollars.” Then he said, “I’ve got some stuff going on at Caroline’s tonight.” Then we saw some stuff he wrote, and it was hilarious. I was thinking, “A thousand dollars? This guy is really funny, and that would be great!” But I didn’t have a thousand dollars, so it went by the wayside. Two or three years later, my sister calls and says, “You know that guy you went out with? He’s got a show on TV. It’s called Seinfeld.” It was Larry David. For a thousand dollars, I could have had a cabaret show written by the most successful comedy writer of all time. The skits we saw were precursors to Seinfeld. That episode where George leaves a nasty message on an answering machine and they sneak in to steal the tape? That was one of the skits.
In the ’80s, you couldn’t afford to hire a band, so you played with Ross Taylor Pitts, who made tapes of the music for you when he moved away that you used for years at your live performances. When did things change to something more substantial?
In about 1990, I went to Cliff Young’s, which is where Hamburger Mary’s [now M Uptown] used to be. Next to it was this room he had designed and decorated and got fixed up for a cabaret. Leopard-skin carpeting, jeweled walls, velvet curtains, chandeliers — small but gorgeous. This drummer named Cubby O’Brien was playing in town; he was the drummer for the Mouseketeers. We got to be friends, and he went to that place, and I fell in love with it. Cliff Young said he didn’t know what to do with it, and I told him I did. So soon my business partner, Thom Wise, took over the place — Ruby — and I had a club night there for ten years. Patsy DeCline was born there.
What was the origin of Patsy DeCline?
Patsy DeCline is partially inspired by This Is Spinal Tap. It hit me that I could do that with a country singer. I don’t do any Patsy Cline songs. It’s totally a spoof of 1960s big-haired singers. The first thing I do is explain that to everybody: “If you think you’re going to see a sweet little Patsy Cline show — she’s dead, I’m here, and that’s that.” Patsy is more successful than Lannie. She’s been very, very good to me. I bought a wig, put an outfit together. I didn’t write anything. We just played country songs, and if I got a laugh, I put it into the show the next time. It wrote itself on stage and organically developed into this thing I’ve been doing for 25 years now.
The last Patsy DeCline Show of the year, on April 9, is sold out. But you can see more of Lannie Garrett at westword.com/music, where we have a gallery of portraits of the chanteuse through the years.
Colorado Music Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony
7 p.m. Saturday, April 16, Glenn Miller Ballroom, 1669 Euclid Avenue, Boulder, 303-492-8833, $53, 16+.