Sydney Claire: Bio

Born and raised in Louisiana, the birthplace of Jazz, Sydney Claire was born into an artistic and musical family in which her talents were fostered and encouraged from a young age. At an incredible mere 9 months, Sydney Claire was singing the scales in perfect pitch and by the time she was barely able to walk, she was climbing up on the huge neighborhood oak tree stump to use as her stage. Her childhood family home life included evenings spent in the large music room where her father loved listening to his quadraphonic stereo system, the room filled with rows and rows of albums. The family home has always had a piano and her mother played the piano and sang Sydney Claire’s entire life. Childhood meant music and singing. From as early as she can remember, Sydney Claire would stand beside the piano and sing such blues and jazz standards such as Stormy Weather while her mother accompanied on the piano and an audience of family and friends listed and watched. Her maternal grandmother was well known for her uncanny natural ability to play any song by ear on the piano. She, too, was an incredible singer.

The arts in all forms were a constant in Sydney’s life. Her mother, an accomplished artist, was ever present in the home deep in the creative process through painting with oils, building sculpture, molding clay, stretching, gessoing, and painting large canvases, and working alongside world-renowned artist Clyde Connell, Sydney’s godmother. The arts in all forms were an ever-present theme in the home and family vacations always meant traveling to major cities and touring museums. Sydney Claire’s mother worked in the entertainment and music industries both before and during Sydney Claire’s life and her careers in both touched Sydney’s life at an early age. Her mother, Elizabeth Woodall, worked in radio at Shreveport radio’s KWKH during the time when The Louisiana Hayride was revamped. Elizabeth’s voice was used as on-air talent for commercials and Sydney’s birth was announced on-air to the song Claire, perhaps a testament to fate. By the time she was 3 years old, Sydney was appearing in local and regional television commercials.

By preschool age, Sydney’s creative experience branched into dance. By the age of 5, Sydney Claire was enrolled in professional ballet lessons year round at the Shreveport Metropolitan Ballet Company, studying under Marion Mills. Beginning at the age of 6, Sydney performed every year in the Shreveport Metropolitan Ballet’s annual ballet The Nutcracker at the now Riverview Theater in downtown Shreveport on the Red River front. This began a decade of nights spent in the theater rehearsing late into the evenings on school nights. By age 8, Sydney was also taking jazz and tap. It was in the many years’ of jazz under the instruction of Carol Anglin that Sydney found her forte in dance and a comfort on stage performing. Days were spent at the private school Agnew Town and Country Day, a nurturing school where music was a focus and music classes were a daily part of the curriculum. With ballet, tap, and jazz lessons year round after school and rehearsals in the evenings from fall into January, Sydney still found time to begin singing lessons at the age of 8.

At age 8, Sydney asked her mother if she could join a local theater group to take weekly acting lessons. Her mother agreed to support her ambitious drive and soon Sydney was studying theater and performing in back-to-back local professional theater. Now her childhood evenings, beginning at age 8, were spent in hours and hours of musical theater rehearsals on back-to-back productions. Before one show could wrap production, Sydney was having her mother take her to the next audition. At the age of 8 she also began a two decade-long study in professional voice lessons. Her very first audition for professional theater landed her in the opening act’s opening solo and immediately she was receiving much applause and recognition for her vocal abilities. Focusing on her singing talents and strengths was very encouraged by the producer, her teachers, her coaches, and friends and family. She began studying voice under Shreveport’s Lael Ellis and Manhattan’s Everett McCorvey, learning The Great American Songbook, including such standards and classics as Somewhere Over The Rainbow, Johnny One Note, and Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered. After-school lessons expanded to include piano lessons. By age 10 Sydney was asked to join a newly forming elite small group of seven child performers from her musical theater community. This best-of-the best group of kids honed their talents and gained invaluable experience performing off stage at such events as private parties, area schools, fairs, malls, nursing homes, anywhere the troupe was hired to perform and anywhere the young performers could gain a new perspective in entertaining and get more experience in performing before large crowds. Each performer sang solo his or her own songs and when Sydney took the stage the crowds would gather. It was quite common for large crowds to gather in the middle of huge malls to hear the talented young girl sing. Even at a young age Sydney had a perfect ear and her voice had a smooth, natural, rich, deep quality, her vocal strength and control unmatched. By the age of 11, Sydney would finish her school day at the usual time and then head to the Centenary College campus’ Hurley School of Music to study opera and learn Italian. At age 11 she was performing with The Shreveport Opera at the turn-of-the-century Strand Theater in downtown Shreveport. While her friends were playing, she was singing Tosca in Italian.

While Sydney was excelling in her vocal, dance, and theatrical endeavors (she was becoming known at auditions as “the triple threat”), her mother’s art career was also flourishing while working alongside Clyde Connell, the late famous female abstract impressionist sculptor. Connell lived and worked in a cabin at Lake Bistineau, Louisiana during her later years and Sydney’s mother spent much time working alongside Connell helping her create the physically demanding sometimes ten-foot-tall sculptures. Sydney’s frequent visits to the magical art cabin tucked amid the beautiful hanging Spanish moss and serenaded by the swamp song of cicadas no doubt filled Sydney’s subconscious and became a part of her that would years later be heard in her jazz and blues. The serenity of the lake and the passions of the artistic process unfolding right before her eyes seeped into Sydney and has manifested into the smooth, soothing, stirring sounds and feelings heard in her voice and music.

Trips to Manhattan as a child meant dance classes at The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, rounds of Broadway plays, visits to schools of acting, and art openings in art galleries where the larger-than-life sculptures, the very pieces that she had witnessed over the years being born back home at the Lake Bistineau cabin at the hands of Connell with the invaluable help from her own mother’s artistic hands and heart, were shown. Sydney thought that perhaps it wasn’t all too unusual to fly to Manhattan to the art exhibition of the sculptures her own mother had been working on. Her world and imagination were as open as the sky wide and her dreams and heart continued to unfold in the arts.

At age 15 Sydney was accepted into Southern Methodist University’s Talented and Gifted (TAG) program, a summer University experience in Dallas, Texas in which middle school and high school aged kids are chosen from a large pool of accomplished and highly recommended applicants to attend SMU and receive college credit while honing their talents. Sydney gained even further performance experience and instruction that summer in SMU’s Bob Hope Theater studying under Gail Cronauer and performing on stage. Living alone on campus in the big city of Dallas at such a young age and being surrounded by other youngsters passionate and driven by their talents and studies further pushed Sydney to sharpen her skills. By age 15 Sydney asked her mother if she could take drum lessons in town from the great Ed Kozak. Sydney was the only girl in a group of four high school aged boys in the drum lessons on Saturday mornings but she had a strong passion to play the drums. She was a natural talent and all her years of dance, perhaps, helped her natural ability of timing and rhythm. While rehearsing at the lesson one Saturday, Sydney began to sing and Ed Kozak told her she had a voice quality much like Karen Carpenter.

Kozak encouraged her to continue drums and singing and that she could be the next Karen Carpenter. Kozak’s professional advice and direction was somewhat lost on the youngster but would come back to her years later when recording Carpenter’s Close to You. Much alone time during the high school years was filled jamming out on her seven piece drum set at home in the upstairs of her parents’ home. Private drum lessons under Kozak and Ken Monk continued and Sydney flourished in the hours of musical study. By age 17 Sydney was cast as the female lead in an after-school-special type educational made- for-TV drama and by age 18 Sydney had moved to Dallas as she was accepted to Southern Methodist University as a full-time student. While in Dallas, Sydney continued her vocal training and began serious Television and Film acting training under such Los Angeles coaches and casting directors as Cliff Osmond, Mark Teschner, Chris Nassif, Robin Nassif, and Anna Chappel.

After her very first audition and meeting, Sydney got signed to professional representation by the highly respected Peggy Taylor of The Peggy Taylor Talent Agency, the oldest talent agency in the Southwest. Taylor’s successful career as a talent agent included being credited with launching such successful careers as Morgan Fairchild, Patrick Swayze, and Robert Urich. Sydney’s after-school hours were spent appearing in national television commercials (Nike, Phillips 66) and televisions dramas (Baby Makes Three, a Bob Banner production. Banner executive produced such hits as The Carol Burnett Show, Solid Gold, etc.; and a stint on Walker, Texas Ranger). Her professional television credits garnered her membership in the Screen Actors Guild and were securing meetings in Los Angeles with major talent agencies.

It was outside of the classroom walls of SMU, however, and beyond her professional performing experience in Dallas that Sydney’s artistic passions truly awoke. It was a natural, organic process that unfolded in the evenings while cooking dinner and enjoying good conversation over wine with her University classmates that she discovered her true passion of music through jazz. Despite having vocally trained her way through The Great American Songbook, Sydney ironically had yet to truly discover the rich sounds of such great jazz legends as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, King Oliver, Count Basie, and Cab Colloway. By the spring of her 19th year Sydney had fallen madly and deeply in love with jazz and her focus and life began a new direction. Endless hours, especially late into the nights, were spent listening, listening, and yet more listening to jazz and Ella. Sydney’s vocal style began to develop and unfold and magic was witnessed as her friends and family began to hear Sydney sing the old jazz standards of Ella Fitzgerald, a natural fit for the songstress’ warm rich voice with sultry low notes mixed with the feeling of a young girl’s innocence and amazing soul stirring vibrato.

During college, Sydney’s education included the invaluable experience of studying abroad in London, England. Her time in London was filled with music and most evenings were spent taking in show after show. While Sydney truly enjoyed the sound of the Broadway-type musical theater, her heart was deeply unfolding with a lighter, softer, older, richer jazz and blues. Sydney was encouraged by the reception she was getting on her jazz singing but the applause from it was not a motivating factor. She was truly in love with the genre and felt a magical spell. A magic grounded in depth and soul. Sydney felt as if she had found something real and substantive that moved her and touched her. The music she loved resonated within her and she knew she would never be the same. While the other college co-eds were eager to hang at the local frat bars and pubs, Sydney was dragging her closest friends to esoteric jazz clubs. Being in the presence of live musicians performing jazz made Sydney desire to sing jazz live in a band. Pursuits of Los Angeles and acting would become left behind. While Dallas had begun to feel partly home to Sydney, she felt the true home callings of Louisiana deep inside.

Music, especially jazz and blues, is in the soul, the culture, the ideology of Louisiana. Talent runs deep in Louisiana. It is in the water, the food, the history. Jazz the world over is born from Louisiana. And while jazz is deeply felt in southern Louisiana (Louisiana is the birthplace of such late greats as Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Joe “King” Oliver, Jelly Roll Morton, and also such current greats as Harry Connick, Jr.), blues are certainly a deep part of northern Louisiana, particularly Shreveport, where Sydney was born and raised. A mere three hours’ drive west of the Mississippi Delta (known for its rich blues history), Shreveport was the home of the late great blues legend Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter. Born on the Jeter plantation in Mooringsport, Louisiana, Ledbetter sang his entire career of blues about a five minute drive from where Sydney grew up. And while she perhaps was not acutely aware of all his songs as a child, she always knew of Ledbetter Heights, the area of downtown right behind the Performing Arts Center theatre where Sydney spent countless hours rehearsing and performing. Ledbetter Heights is the area of Shreveport where the great bluesman sang at the early part of the 20th century and has since been officially named in recognition of him and his gifts to music. And although always aware of the significance of Lead Belly on the blues, it wouldn’t be until later in life that Sydney would become enchanted with the genius in the sounds and singing of his Library of Congress recordings, particularly Black Betty, an obvious influence on her a capella title track Rocks In My Bed.

Shreveport’s rich and impressive historical connection to music and the blues in particular also includes Elvis Presley’s first ever television appearance. The nationally broadcast Louisiana Hayride was a radio and later television music show broadcast from the Municipal Memorial Auditorium in Shreveport, Louisiana. Produced in Shreveport from 1948-1960, The Louisiana Hayride during its heyday helped to launch the careers of some of the greatest names in American music. Elvis Presley, then a teenager from Memphis, Tennessee, performed his newly-released song from Sun Records called That’s All Right Mama in Shreveport on October 16, 1954 on the radio version of the Louisiana Hayride. The broadcast’s program emcee was Frank Page, a well known name in the Shreveport music industry who, as fate would have it, would work years later with Sydney’s mother in radio. On March 3, 1955, Presley made his first television appearance on the TV version of the program, carried by KSLA-TV. Presley was signed to a one-year contract for future appearances in Shreveport on The Louisiana Hayride and the musical landscape of northern Louisiana, Shreveport in particular, was continuing to grow and evolve. The Louisiana Hayride’s primary run ended in 1960 but was revamped years later in 1974 in Shreveport and it was during Sydney’s mother’s career in radio and broadcast that she worked on The Louisiana Hayride coordinating such musical greats as Loretta Lynn. Both of Sydney’s parents enjoy colorful anecdotes of meeting Elvis on the steps of Shreveport’s Municipal Auditorium and having their picture taken together, as teenage sweethearts, with Presley. Sydney grew up hearing amazing stories from her mother of great singers arriving backstage of the Municipal Auditorium (Loretta Lynn arriving pre-performance in curlers) to perform and her mother would be the first person many times the performers would encounter.

So while Sydney loved living in Dallas, she knew she belonged to Louisiana and eventually moved back to the great music state. She enrolled in grad school in south Louisiana, where jazz and music are as present as the warm muggy air and Cajun cuisine. Asked to sing lead for a jazz band comprised of LSU School of Music’s best jazz musicians, Sydney became a member of Infirmary Road, a five person jazz band (Russ Bryant on saxophone; Gino Giles on guitar; Chris Horgan on drums; Paul Westbrook on bass; Sydney Claire on vocals). The dynamics of a working band, the rehearsals, the gigs, the traveling to gigs, the nights of performing jazz standards and playing with the art of live jazz improvisation bouncing back and forth between her vocals and impromptu sax, guitar, and drum solos, and her performances of strong and stirring vocals further engrained invaluable experience in Sydney Claire and opened her world to a whole new repertoire of music.

Under the influence of her accomplished and passionate band mates, saxophonist Bryant in particular, Sydney began to listen to the sounds of Diana Krall and began to infuse her playlist with some Krall amongst Ella. Infirmary Road was the beginning of Sydney’s Peel Me a Grape. The reception Sydney got while performing her smoky ballads changed Sydney forever. A typical night of performing with Infirmary Road (LSU’s School of Music in located on Infirmary Road, directly across the street from the campus infirmary, thus the name) meant having guests from the audience come up to her after her performances and tell her that her voice truly made them feel alive. An awakening, perhaps, like the one she had experienced years earlier when she herself had discovered Ella’s voice and jazz. But all the applause and compliments is the world couldn’t keep Sydney singing jazz. Nor, hypothetically, could all the crickets of silence from lack of applause have kept her from singing it. It was and is in her soul and is part of her self-identity. And while jazz is not all she sings, her jazz and blues influence can certainly be heard in her rendition of popular 1970s and 1980s familiars such as “I Guess That’s Why They Call It the Blues” (her version actually sounds bluesy), “Killing me Softly with His Song” and Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” One wonders why other great female singers have not covered these chart topping hits. It isn’t long, however, until one realizes that most other female singers cannot sing the low notes and in the low, breathy register that Sydney Claire can. Perhaps these tunes have been covered by other female singers, but invariably the female singers have had to take it up a notch or two to a higher key. Not Sydney, though. Sydney can sing it with the best of the big boys. Her contralto vocal abilities are truly amazing. Sydney’s performance of Peel Me a Grape reaches down to an unbelievable C below middle C and yet still rings true as feminine, soft, sexy, and rich. No other female singer comes to mind who can sing as clear as a bell and as comfortably a whole octave below middle C. And while she can certainly sing the unbelievable deep, low notes, Sydney can also beautifully sing clear as a bell the angelic high notes. Her range is broad and impressive. Sydney’s voice is truly one of a kind. And while the instrumental tracks on her album are spot-on exact arrangements of the original recordings played by professional studio musicians, and thus oh-so nostalgic of our own youth in the 1970s and 1980s, Sydney Claire’s voice is remarkably new, fresh, warm, and smooth. A real joy to the listener, Sydney’s voice brings a whole new life to these hits. Sydney Claire’s voice possesses a remarkably commercial sound with a real and substantive technique that only a lifetime of singing and performing could garner. The industry is taking notice of this new Louisiana voice. The new voice of the 21st century.