Dee-Dee Darby-Duffin was born to perform.
The 47-year-old Baltimore native, who now lives in Salt Lake City, says she was by herself a lot as a child — as a result she spent much of her time reading and listening to records.
“I’ve always been a ham, my mother says,” the singer and actor recalls. “She said she’d come to my room and hear all of these people talking, but she’d come in and there was nobody there. Just me, doing all these voices.”
Family members encouraged her talents.
“My grandmother used to make me sing for her ‘lady lunches’ — basically, these women who got together to drink brandy in the middle of the day,” Darby-Duffin laughs. “She’d say, ‘Come over here, baby, and sing that song.’ So I’ve been performing since I was 6 years old.”
On Monday evening, Darby-Duffin comes to Peery’s Egyptian Theater in downtown Ogden for “Back to Basics,” a concert of jazz standards as well as music from Burt Bacharach and other composers from the 1970s. The show is part of the monthly Excellence in the Community concert series.
Admission is free.
“Mostly, it’s a return to the old jazz standards, songs where you close your eyes, reminisce, snap your fingers, Darby-Duffin said. “It’s a time — I sound like my mother, but — when music was music.”
Backed by her quartet (pianist Brian Bennett, guitarist Mark Maxson, bassist Alicia Wrigley, and drummer David Evanoff), Darby-Duffin will sprinkle the time between songs with what she calls “Dee-Dee-isms” — little words of wisdom the singer has collected.
“I like to talk to the people,” she said. “They come not just to hear music but to get to know the musician. It’s special when a musician can connect with audience members.”
Darby-Duffin says she thought about going to college to study music or theater but didn’t want to be a “starving artist.” So she looked for more traditional ways to earn a living.
“Once I got settled with a real job and knew I could feed my daughter, I felt I could start doing more creative things,” she said.
Darby-Duffin was working as a waitress in Salt Lake when she saw a performance of the Utah musical satire “Saturday’s Voyeur.”
“I thought, ‘I could do that,’” she recalls.
A turn in “Saturday’s Voyeur,” along with roles in a few other plays, started Darby-Duffin on the road to performing.
“But for a number of years I was just known as an actor,” she said. “I didn’t sing at all. People were surprised to learn I could sing.”
The turning point came when Darby-Duffin landed the role of Billie Holiday in Pygmalion Productions’ one-woman show “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill.” Darby-Duffin admits she didn’t know a lot about either Holiday or the auditioning process at the time; she didn’t even bring a head shot.
Other than finding the most basic information about the famous jazz singer, Darby-Duffin says she didn’t prepare for the audition.
“I did have the wherewithal to look her up,” Darby-Duffin says. “But I just knew that she came with a bunch of attitude, and she’d grown up in Baltimore.”
So when director Teresa Sanderson asked, ‘What do you think about Billie Holiday,’ Darby-Duffin didn’t pull punches: “I said, ‘I don’t think much of her — her voice is kind of tinny — but I can sing her backwards and forwards because, first, she’s from my hometown, and, second, she reminds me of my Aunt Gwennie.’”
The look on the director’s face was priceless. Darby-Duffin says Sanderson would later confide, “I just thought if this girl can sing one iota — if her mouth can cash this big check she just wrote — I have to have her for this show.”
Indeed, Darby-Duffin’s mouth can cash such big checks. Local critics raved about her performance as “Lady Day,” and unlike many performers, Darby-Duffin says stage fright has never been a problem.
“I love doing it, and I’ve also been doing it for a very long time now,” she said. “I don’t get nervous, but right before I open my mouth for the first note, there’s just a tinge of anxiety. I’m thinking, ‘I gotta get that first note.’ After that, I’m fine.”
Darby-Duffin called the “Lady Day” show the most incredible experience of her life — it’s what developed her passion for jazz music. And she says it’s the emotion in songs by jazz greats like Holiday that she relates to.
“Billie Holiday wasn’t the strongest singer, she really wasn’t,” Darby-Duffin said. “But that makes me love her more. Her passion was to sing, to get it out there so others could feel it. It wasn’t about being the most perfect, on-pitch singer. It was just about making people feel it. And that’s what I want. I want those feelings to move people. I want it to move people in ways only music can.”
One of the most emotional moments of Monday’s concert promises to be a performance of “Strange Fruit,” the Abel Meeropol protest song about the lynching of African Americans in early 20th Century America. Most famously sung by Holiday, Darby-Duffin says that, for her anyway, she considers it the first activist song.
“A lot of people, when Billie first started singing it, thought the song was about fruit,” Darby-Duffin said. “Ignorance is sometimes not bliss.”
Holiday stubbornly sang the song in her sets, despite the fact it often meant not getting paid by angry nightclub owners, according to Darby-Duffin.
“People would throw things at her when she sang the song,” she said. “The FBI started following her around. They’d say, ‘If you’d just stop singing that song, we’ll leave you alone.’”
Darby-Duffin says her goal isn’t to make people cry with her songs. Rather, her goal is “to make people feel.”
“I’m trying to give you a piece of me that I can’t give as an actor playing a role,” she said. “I’m being the most vulnerable I can be, hoping you’ll take that ride with me.”
And although photography isn’t prohibited at the concert, the singer hopes people don’t overdo it.
“I don’t want you watching the concert through the eye of your phone,” she said. “I want you to enjoy the moment, to be with me in the moment. I consider this a gift to you, and I want you to be present.”