He jokingly calls it the “Never Ending Gatlin Brothers Reunion, We’re Broke—We Gotta Sing! Tour,” and while his and brothers Rudy and Steve’s show at 54 Below Saturday night had plenty of laughs, it was certainly no joke.
Not only has Larry Gatlin never sounded better in his near 40-year career as a country music star, but at this classy new Broadway club, he drew a crowd of actors and producers in addition to his country fan base—fitting in that he starred in the title role of The Will Rogers Follies in the early 1990s, and has participated in Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS.
None of this was lost on Gatlin, who goofed on it right off in welcoming everyone to “the birthplace of country music,” then proceeded to invoke his old friend Johnny Cash throughout a set loaded with hits and also featuring a turn by cabaret queen Jamie deRoy, who enlisted Gatlin as a guest a month ago at her Jamie deRoy & Friends gig at the club.
Cash came up at the start, after Gatlin’s solo acoustic performance of “The Heart,” when he said how Cash had told him to get the sad slow songs out of the way before everyone in the club gets drunk and falls asleep. He later sang his inspirational song “Help Me” after relating how Cash had asked him to sing it, a June Carter Cash favorite, at her funeral, four months before he served as pallbearer at Cash’s funeral.
Before bringing out brothers Steve and Rudy to accompany him vocally and on guitars, Gatlin, backed by his superb guitarist Steve Smith, sang “Try To Win A Friend,” which he noted had been recorded but left out of Barbra Streisand’s Streisand Superman album of 1977, but is included in her latest album Release Me. With the rest of the Gatlins group now on stage (also including drummer Shannon Ford), he sang his majestic hit “Night Time Magic” and then “Bitter They Are Harder They Fall,” which, he related, was recorded by Elvis Presley.
Departing from the set list, he took a couple audience requests in “Taking Somebody With Me When I Fall” and “Sweet Becky Walker,” and hurried into “I’ve Done Enough Dyin’ Today” to head off any more. Gatlin then brought up deRoy, who sang a couple very funny parodies (“Duane Reade,” about the ubiquitous drugstore chain, to the tune of “Downtown,” and “Gentiles On My Mind”) with the support of pianist Lance Horne, who stayed on to sing his own whimsical ditty about being a little asparagus, then joined Gatlin in a beautiful unfinished show tune the two co-wrote, requiring Gatlin to borrow reading glasses from a fan (which he then pocketed).
Of course he did his 1975 breakthrough hit “Broken Lady,” also his most recent hit, “Johnny Cash Is Dead (And His House Burned Down),” the title symbolizing the lyrics about the changing of the country music guard. After a shout-out to his Broadway pal Barbara Barrie, he sang solo an old song she requested, “Penny Annie,” then closed, with the band, with the great “All The Gold In California.”
But Gatlin did take a final request in “The Midnight Choir,” his poignant/humorous 1979 take on “drunks trying to talk to God,” he said, noting how woefully mischaracterized the song had been, as a radio station in Little Rock burned copies of it.
There was no mistaking Gatlin (who served in gospel group The Imperials before scoring in country music) and his brothers at 54 Below, though, bankruptcy and birthplace of country music jokes aside. Larry Gatlin’s engaging humor was as clear and obvious as his music, which was at home on Broadway as it was when first recorded in Nashville.
[The Examiner wrote the CD liner notes to The Best Of The Gatlins: All The Gold In California.]
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