Dangerous Betty isn't so dangerous
On any Saturday night in South Florida, there's always something to do. You can go out to dinner, a movie, a sporting event, do indoor skydiving, or walk around Las Olas Blvd or Lincoln Road. On this night, I chose to go to Casablanca Cafe, a trendy, pricey restaurant in East Ft. Lauderdale. The mission at hand was to go see Beth Cohen in her comfort zone; working with a piano player, dressed to perform, microphone placed just so, a captive audience enjoying a 4 star restaurant while Beth breaks into song, cool as a wave crashing into the sand.
I've known Beth for several years but have never had the opportunity to see her perform in an intimate setting like this; casual, classy. I have, on the other hand, seen her on the big stage performing backup vocals, and as a member of the classic rock band, Boston. With big hair, bright lights, loud guitars and pounding drums this is quite the contrast, but nonetheless, cool.
Tonight, there will be no "More Than a Feeling" or "Don't Look Back" on Beth's menu. Instead, her menu will include Broadway hits and Jazz standards. There will be no bright lights, strobes, guitar or drum solos, only Beth, a piano player, a single microphone and her voice.
After a few minutes, Beth breaks into her first song, the Billy Joel standard, "A New York State of Mind." I look around the restaurant and most people are talking, enjoying their dinner while others are sitting quietly listening to Beth do her thing.
After her second song, a very short, older woman approaches me. Speaking with an obvious New York accent; "Excuse me, are you a reporter?" "Well, sort of. I'm the editor of Fretboard Magazine. We're featuring Beth in an issue and I'm here to watch her perform." She asks; "What's your name? “I’m Craig.” “Hi Craig, I'm Gloria. I'm here with my husband Lee and some friends."
She asked, "Do you know Beth?" "Yes, I do. I haven't seen her in quite some time.” "My husband Lee and I try to come here when Beth performs. She has such a nice voice. You know, other singers around her age, they go on stage, dress in these tight outfits, shake their bodies and dance around. And, their music is so loud." I laughed to myself thinking, if they only saw Beth on stage singing with Boston a few months ago.
"So, you're doing a story on Beth?" "Yes, she'll be featured in the magazine, virtual magazine." "What's a virtual magazine?" "That means it's only available on the internet." "Oh, Lee will have to show me. I don't go on the internet. I just don't understand it. Can it be printed?" " She smiled. You know, I'm from New York. So is Beth. Isn't that funny? Such a small world. Well Craig, it's been nice meeting you. Do a nice story on Beth." Gloria then gave me a kiss on the cheek, called me "boychik" which is an old Yiddish word meaning "young man or sweetheart" and walked back to her table. I continued to take my notes.
FM: Beth, nice performance tonight. It looks like you've got a lot of fans here, especially Gloria and Lee, an older couple from New York.
Beth: Thanks. It's always fun coming here and singing.
FM: Who's your pianist? He's a very good player.
Beth: That's my friend Jon Rose. He's been my pianist for a long time, about 14 years. Yeah, he's great.
FM: Tell us a bit about yourself. I hear you have 4 dogs, or 3rd degree black belt in some exotic martial art?
Beth: (laughing) It’s more like one really old cat, a collection of matchbooks from everywhere I’ve visited, and insane workouts so I can eat cookies.
FM: Where did you grow up?
Beth: I'm originally from New York, Long Island, but I've lived in Florida for a long time now.
FM: Why did you move here?
Beth: I was accepted into the music program at the University of Miami. So, I moved here to go to school and I've been here ever since.
FM: What kind of music did you listen to growing up? Rock, pop, classical music?
Beth: Everything on the radio…and my moms’ albums. (Which were all popular music artists). I remember her listening to the Grease soundtrack and Saturday Night Fever.
FM: Growing up, were you one of those kids that would record songs from the radio on a cassette tape?
Beth: (laughing) Absolutely! I would actually use 2 cassette recorders side by side so I could record the song from the radio on one of them and record me singing into the other one at the same time. That was way before Garage Band!
FM: That was very innovative of you. When did you first realize you had a talent for singing?
Beth: I was probably about 5 or 6. Singing “The Sun’ll come out – tomorrow” all over my house. I was GONNA BE ANNIE.
FM: The next Andrea Mcardle?
Beth: I hoped so!
FM: When did you first get interested in music as a profession?
Beth: During my junior year in high school. I realized I could get a job in a band and make money.
FM: How was that? Did you join a band?
Beth: Yes, I did. We were called Tangerine! I was 16. It was my first paying gig.
FM: Are you still in touch with any of the members of Tangerine?
Beth: Sadly, I am not.
FM: Were you in the choir during high school? Musical theater?
Beth: Yes…both. Chorus class and every play there was.
FM: Thinking back, what was your favorite play?
Beth: My favorite play was Mame. I played Auntie Mame.
FM: I can definitely see that. Singing, performing… Is this something you decided to do on your own or did your parents guide you toward music?
Beth: Always on my own. I was always doing it. They supported me whole heartedly.
FM: Did either of them come from a musical family? Any “Sound of Music” type gatherings at the Cohen household when you were growing up?
Beth: Ironically my mother cannot sing. My father never did. But on my mother’s father’s side they were stage performers.
Beth: Yes, they were Vaudeville performers. I don’t recall exactly what they did on Vaudeville, I only remember they were performers.
FM: So, you are a performer, twice removed.
Beth: Hah! I never thought of it that way but, yeah, I suppose you could say that.
FM: If you were had to choose another profession other than music, what would that be?
Beth: Hmm, that’s a hard one. I would probably be flipping houses. I love that stuff.
FM: So, buying and selling real estate. Not a slum lord.
Beth: (laughing) You know, I suppose I could be a slum lord. Yeah, I could do that.
FM: I can see you now. Driving up to the house, getting out, walking up to the door, knocking and singing, "It's time, it's time to pay that rent!"
Beth: (laughing) Yeah, that's probably how I'd do it.
FM: In addition to your performing, do you still teach singing?
Beth: Yes. I really enjoy it. Watching someone move forward and “get it” makes me happy.
FM: After graduating from UM, did you ever go back there as a professor?
Beth: Yeah, I did. That was for about 2 years, I believe in 1999. I did it for the reward, definitely not the pay.
FM: Which brings me to the next question. What do you find more rewarding, teaching a young kid to sing and seeing the smile when they progress and grow as a singer or being on stage, performing in front of thousands of people?
Beth: Good question; It's two different kinds of rewards. The stage is my home, I will always choose that over anything else. It’s the best high I know. But teaching gives me a special happy “pay it forward” type of feeling that satisfies a different part of me.
FM: For a young kid thinking about pursuing a career in music. Any advice? Do you recommend going to college to study music or possibly study accounting and get the musical training from a pro on the side?
Beth: Everyone needs different things. I wanted the college experience and education to fall back on. But I don’t always recommend it. If a person is driven and talented enough, I totally support going for it without that formal education.
FM: I first met you several years ago at a local fitness club. That was in 2008, I believe. When you worked out, you were intense! You were in pretty good shape then, and you’ve stayed in great shape. What do you do these days to stay fit?
Beth: Yeah, we go way back! And thank you! I am still training. I have a personal trainer with whom I train 2 days a week. Then I still hit the gym on my own the other 3. That’s one thing I can’t let go – looking good onstage is too important. And I like to eat!!
FM: With your own music, what influences your song writing?
Beth: Boys, boys and more boys.
FM: Like Taylor Swift?
Beth: There you go!
FM: See, she stole your idea!
Beth: I think relationships always make for good song writing or at least they give motivation behind the songs.
FM: When we met several years ago, I remember you mentioning that you sang back-up for Barry Gibb. How did you meet this guy? Or, how did he meet you?
Beth: It’s really interesting. He was recording an album for the 25th anniversary of “Guilty” with Barbra Streisand. They needed background singers, so they called me and another singing cohort of mine. He was so happy with what we did that at the end of the session he asked if we would like to sing for him on his tour. Of-course…the answer was YES!
FM: What’s it like when you’re on stage and look over and there’s Barry Gibb. You’re a pro, but, every once in a while, do you just smile and think, “damn, that’s Barry freak’n Gibb over there and I’m singing with him!”
Beth: Yup I do! Most of the time I feel super regular around him. But when we sing “How Deep is Your Love” and I look over… I freak out inside! Like “holy cow…I’m singing this song with HIM.”
FM: Do you give him singing advice? You’ve been doing this a long time. So, do you ever say, “Hey Barry, why don’t you try doing it like this?”
Beth: He’s the one who gives ME advice! Not really for vocals, but for business and the industry. He’s super wise and knows so much about the industry.
FM: What sort of advice, if you can elaborate?
Beth: He told me not to take it personally or be disappointed when people in the industry want to use me to get to someone else. (The situation was there was a London based company kissing my ass, offering me all of these performance dates, “and I could bring Barry too!” Once I said he wasn’t available, they blew me off).
FM: Well, that’s their loss. So, he’s a good source of information I assume?
Beth: Yes, absolutely.
FM: What’s the craziest or funniest thing you can recall happening while you were performing? It doesn’t have to be while on the big stage. It could be something you remember when singing at Casablanca’s or one of the other places you perform, or even during a family gathering.
Beth: Oh man, there are so many. And totally different kinds between the big stage and my local work. One of my very favorites was playing a local party and an older couple was dancing. The man’s fake teeth fell out onto the floor. The server was a quick thinker and grabbed a table and moved it over the fake teeth. I was on stage singing…and trying not to laugh hysterically.
FM: A riot! I know you play piano and some guitar. Do you play any other instruments?
Beth: My first instrument was the flute! I don’t play much anymore. But I still can.