Cabaret series wraps up season with familiar voice, unfamiliar name

Clint Holmes, singer of 'Playground in My Mind,' will close cabaret series

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As the Trust Cabaret series draws to the close of its second season, its first male voice arrives in Pittsburgh, and it's one that's well known on the cabaret scene and one you probably know -- you just don't know that you do.

It was 1972, and the song "Playground in My Mind" gave Clint Holmes a No. 2 hit on the pop charts.

"The record was a long time ago and it's one of those deals where people remember the song but have no idea who sang it. So when I sing it, I see the surprised faces -- 'Oh, we remember that. We didn't know it was you.' The other thing that's interesting about that record is, it's called 'Playground in My Mind,' but people know it as 'My Name Is Michael [I've got a nickel, shiny and new ...].' "

Clint Holmes

Where: Cabaret at Theater Square, 655 Penn Ave., Downtown.

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday.

Tickets: $50-$60; or 412-471-6930.

When it comes to cabaret in venues from New York's Cafe Carlyle, where he has been winning over crowds and garnering awards, and the Smith Center in Las Vegas, where he is an artist in residence, garnering more awards, the 68-year-old Mr. Holmes is a voice that carries clout of experience and a smooth, soothing sound.

"I come from that tradition of [Harry] Belafonte and Sammy Davis and Frank Sinatra and those people as I was growing up."

He was born in England to the British opera singer and vocal teacher Audrey Holmes and jazz musician Ed Holmes. His family moved to a home outside Buffalo, N.Y. At 10, his mother recognized that her son had a voice, and his lessons began.

Mr. Holmes has recently been doing the show "Stop This Train" that tells the tale of the early days, before he became an opening act for Bill Cosby, Don Rickles and Joan Rivers; he was the announcer for Ms. Rivers' "The Late Show" in 1986-88.

"The show is about my family. My mother was a white British opera singer, my father was a black American jazz singer, and that's how I grew up, hearing all of that music and being influenced. So I felt that was interesting and it is autobiographical in a sense. Then when I was ready to go out into the world, I heard all of the jazz musicians talking about how all the hip guys, Count Basie and Satchmo, those guys, were in Paris. So the piece extends to me going to Paris to quote-unquote 'find the music.' So its autobiographical to a point. We're also working on making that show a little larger, into a theater piece at the McCarter Theater in New Jersey in December."

Rex Reed, writing in the New York Observer about "Stop This Train's" Cafe Carlyle debut in October 2013, compared it to Mr. Holmes' previous gig at the same NYC venue, when the singer unleashed a tribute to cabaret icon Bobby Short.

"He has mellowed even more and learned the value of palpable intimacy," Mr. Reed wrote. "He has been around for four decades, but he's just now hitting his stride, winning new fans and sailing into well-earned stardom. With phrasing warmer than anybody since Johnny Hartman and a laid-back personality as friendly as it is inviting, Mr. Holmes is one of the best musical additions to the waning scene of New York nightlife since, well, Bobby Short left the building."

Pittsburgh will see that side of Clint Holmes that's a showman and the creator who can't stop creating. At the Smith Center in Las Vegas, where he is the artist in residence, he does a new show monthly. For the audience at the Cabaret at Theater Square Monday, he brings the show "This Thing Called Love," which won the Bistro Award as the show of the year in New York.

It's an unusual piece, to say the least. Think "Still Crazy After All These Years" meets "Night and Day."

"It's the music of Cole Porter and Paul Simon together," he said. "The reason I ultimately chose those two composers is they were so clearly of their era. I thought it would be interesting to see first of all if and then how their music came together. We eventually limited ourselves to love songs, and although we didn't set out to do this, we ended up creating a story of a guy who falls in love, screws it up and learns."

There have been some additions along the way, a little Burt Bacharach here and there, but Mr. Holmes wasn't yet sure if those will make it into the mix in Pittsburgh. Although he's known for his ease with audiences, in this show, he does become that guy who falls in love.

"It's not far from myself, but a character," he said.

He learned about stage presence mostly from Bill Cosby, he said.

"He is so himself on stage. That's what people love. When they went to see Sammy Davis Jr. and Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland and Lena Horne, they felt like they had just spent an evening with someone -- not 500 dancers and pyrotechnics, but a person. What I learned from Cosby is to walk on stage the same person you are off the stage."

The admitted "tennis fanatic" is fit at 68 -- his birthday was Friday -- and enjoys traveling now that his children are grown and he is accompanied by his wife, Kelly Clinton-Holmes. He had been working in Florida and was in New York before coming to the Pittsburgh Cultural District.

"The last time I performed in Pittsburgh was with Joan Rivers," he said. "I remember the hotel we stayed in, we were overlooking the ballpark and we were in a room high enough that we could actually see the game starting, which was fantastic. And it was right where the three rivers intersect; it was just gorgeous. I just got off the phone texting back and forth with Franco Harris, who is a friend. He's trying to come on Monday night. I'm not really familiar with Pittsburgh, but I'm excited to be there."

While Las Vegas is his home base, Mr. Holmes also has been trekking to Los Angeles to work on his first CD "in quite a while," which will include guests such as Dee Dee Bridgewater. And he is, as always, working on new shows, including a series he calls "The Contemporary American Songbook," featuring music by artists such as Pharrell Williams, John Mayer, James Taylor and Stevie Wonder.

"We tend to think of the Great American Songbook as Gershwin, Porter and Harold Arlen," he said, "and of course those are huge writers. But I think it's still being written."

Sharon Eberson: or 412-263-1960. Twitter: SEberson_pg.

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