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Simply Unforgettable - Stella’s ‘Baby’

Stella Yudko . . . comes from a musical family Photo: Nicole de Castro

It is 9pm on a Saturday night. Inside a medium-sized theater, a largely middle-aged crowd sits expectantly, waiting for the show to begin. As the last few stragglers hurry to their seats, the house lights dim and the stage lights slowly brighten to reveal an eight-piece band: two guitarists—one rhythm and one bass; a keyboard player; a four-man horn section—two saxophones, one trumpet and one trombone; and a good-looking young girl behind a full set of drums. Aside from the girl, whose dress sparkles as it catches the moving stage lights, the other musicians, all male, are dressed in matching orange stage wear. The excitement rises as a statuesque, strikingly pretty woman appears on stage—dressed in a shimmering evening gown—and after flashing a dazzling smile at the applauding audience, begins to sing in a voice that is at once soulful and intimate, while powerful enough to fill the theater and even burst its walls. Smoke and colored lights adorn the stage as she sings, and video clips of classic movie scenes play on a gigantic screen suspended high above her.

No, this is not Las Vegas, and the lady with the microphone is not Celine Dion. We are on Ben Gurion Street in Herzliya, and the lady is Stella Yudko—creator, producer and one of the three featured singers in Unforgettable, an indisputably world-class musical review currently touring Israel. 

Zac Hilon . . . started singing at 11 Photos: Nicole de Castro

A tribute to the classic pop music of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, Unforgettable pays homage to such stars as Shirley Bassey, Ray Charles, the Temptations, the Platters, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard, Tom Jones, and of course Nat King Cole, whose signature song provides both the name and leitmotif for the show.

"I am the producer. This show is my baby," says Stella over a cup of coffee, a week before the production in Herzliya. Born in Kiev, she came to Israel in 1990 with her parents and grandparents. "My parents were musicians. I come from a musical family. But in a musical family you never learn music because every member wants to teach music in a different way. My father wanted one way, my grandmother who was an opera singer insisted on another way. They were actually fighting over this. So I simply said to myself, 'Okay, no music for me in this family.' I finished high school here in Israel. And then I got married. And I have been living with my husband for 21 years."

Stella's musical career almost didn't happen. "I started singing at a very late age. I was around 26, 27, because my husband did not want me to sing." The memory of Ricky Ricardo forbidding his wife Lucy to sing in his night club act on the old I Love Lucy TV show springs vividly to mind as she relates this story:

"My husband Micha has a band, the Manhattan Band. He started to build this band in 1993, just before we got married. He is a musician, and I met him through my parents. When we came to Israel, my father started working with a band, and my husband was a keyboard player there. So that's how they met. And then my mom invited him to our house, and that's how we met. And since that moment, we've been together.

"And when I saw his band perform, with all the musicians, the girls and boys, and all the costumes I said, 'Oh my God, I would like to do that!' And my husband just said 'No, no, no!' But I watched the shows and that's how I learned."

Her moment came when the band suddenly needed another singer. Stella obligingly brought her husband a female singer's "demo tape". What she didn't mention, however, was that the female singer on the tape was her, recorded with the band during a rehearsal. Her husband listened to the tape and asked her who the singer was.

"I said, 'Micha, it's me!' He couldn't believe it. But then he realized what he had right in front of him and agreed to let me go to a teacher. I began singing with the band in 1997, and from that moment I have never left the stage." To enhance the story's happy ending, her husband now serves as the musical director of Stella's show.

Stella shares the stage with two seasoned and very talented performers - Zac Hilon and Charles Garrett. Born in Israel, Zac Hilon moved with his family to South Africa at the age of four. He recalls, "I had just finished kindergarten and was put on a plane to South Africa. At the age of 11, I started singing and then performing. And then slowly, slowly I started to enter talent shows.

"I attended two schools. When I was 14, I went to the College of Performing Arts in Johannesburg. I went there in the morning until 1pm. And at 4pm I went to another school called the Performing Arts Workshop. I had to ride a train for an hour. I studied acting, singing, voice lessons and guitar. It was like the school in the movie and TV show Fame, the High School for the Performing Arts. And through that school, I got to meet a lot of producers. At the age of 17 I had my own TV show."

Zac became a featured singer on many South African TV shows, appeared in numerous commercials, performed at a tribute to Nelson Mandela, formed a band which toured extensively throughout South Africa, and then moved to Las Vegas in 2002. There, Zac performed at such well-known venues as the Imperial Palace and the Golden Nugget. In 2009 he attended a video editing school in Burbank, California and became an accomplished TV and film editor, working for the local Las Vegas affiliates of NBC and Fox, as well as for the Food Network. And now Zac has left all that behind to join Unforgettable and return home to Israel. 

Charles Garrett . . . evoking memories of Motown Records

"A lot of artists' influences come from what they listened to in their childhoods, basically what their parents listened to," he says. "My influences were people like Billy Joel, Elton John, Rod Stewart, even Sha-Na-Na. And I love the bands of the 80s, because I grew up in the 80s. And I loved a lot of the 60s music, because that's what my parents listened to, and what I heard all day long." Yet the unmistakable aura of Las Vegas is very much in evidence when Zac takes the stage in Unforgettable, especially when he sings the music of Elvis Presley—wearing one of Elvis' costume belts. "I'm bringing all my experience from performing in Las Vegas and on big stages elsewhere," he says. "There's something about going on stage and performing in front of a live audience. It's a drug."

A singularly pleasant surprise is Charles Garrett, the only one of the three singers in the show actually old enough to remember when many of the songs were new. Born 62 years ago in Chicago, Charles grew up listening not only to such legendary Chicago blues singers as Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, but also to the groundbreaking rhythm-and-blues songs being recorded by such artists as the Platters, Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. Charles became a musician, playing the alto saxophone, performing solo and with small combos.

The Original African Hebrew Israelite Nation of Jerusalem, better known as Black Hebrews, has two main centers of activity - Chicago and Dimona, Israel. After becoming acquainted with this group in his home town of Chicago, Charles moved to Dimona in 1980 and settled in with the community. He left the group after several years, along with his wife and children, and has continued to live in Israel ever since. He has worked in clubs and hotels with numerous bands—some Israeli and others composed of mostly African American musicians like himself. These days Charles performs as a singer. His renditions of songs by Black rhythm-and-blues artists in Unforgettable evoke memories of the best days of Motown Records under Berry Gordy and the sleek, elegant "Philadelphia soul sound" of producers Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff.

Why bring this kind of music to Israel? "We want to bring this kind of musical review tribute show to Israeli audiences," Stella explains. "You know, when you're in your 40s, and you want to go out and have a nice evening somewhere, you don't have this kind of entertainment. You have pubs, with Israeli pop music, but you don't have any place nice to go to hear this kind of music. I just decided that I had to do this."

"I call it musical education," says Zac. "It's basically about educating Israelis about this kind of music. It's for people who only listen to Mizrahi music, or Israeli rock, which I think is great because it's part of this culture and this country. But here, finally, we're bringing this great international music—international standards, really—that some people may not be aware of." Stella adds, "Or we can also say that it's music that people have been exposed to, but there's simply no place to go and hear it. We want to fill that need. This is just the beginning. We have had a few dates in Givatayim and Herzliya, and then we'll be going all around Israel."

It is well known that people who stutter when they speak do not stutter when they sing. The two activities seem to be driven by different parts of the brain. That may be the reason that many people who speak with strong accents of one kind or another tend to lose them while they are singing. Stella Yudko, late of Kiev and long in Israel, speaks English with a very strong accent that virtually disappears when she begins to sing songs by Shirley Bassey, Ray Charles and other American artists. How has she become so apparently comfortable and confident while singing these songs, many made famous by Black performers? Does she consciously attempt to adopt their idiom?

"I do," she says. "And you know, it's different when you're singing, because when I sing, I have much less of an accent. But really, when I sing a song by someone like Shirley Bassey, I'm doing it my way. I'm not trying to imitate her. I'm not trying to be her. I'm trying to sing her song my own way, with things that I've learned from her. She is my inspiration, but I am the performer."

So what's ahead for this "unforgettable" musical review and its producer and star? "I'm planning to run the show for another three years," says Stella. "I'm sure it will be very successful. And then, I will build another show. I really believe that I have a voice that engages people."

 

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Thursday, 13 May 2021

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