Northside SF  

Things are looking up for Kim Nalley, the sultry singer on the hill
By Bruce Bellingham
Photo by Vladimir Korobitsyn

These days it seems that the only times Kim Nalley has the blues is when she sings them on stage. Blues tunes or no, Nalley’s singing is as smooth as warm Brie on sourdough.

She can sing anything. I saw her one night mesmerize the house by performing folk tunes on her guitar.

Nalley, at her young age, is already a San Francisco institution. Her life has changed a lot recently, and she’s only too happy to tell you about it. She has sold her club, Jazz at Pearl’s, which she owned with former husband Steve Sheraton. There’s a tyranny about being a club owner, she says. She’s pleased to be rid of it. 

She says her life “was a shambles a year ago,” but things are pretty peachy right now. Her new husband is a bright, funny man named Michael Lewis, who’s been working in Silicon Valley for the past 17 years.

Nalley has been compared to Billie Holiday in her stage demeanor, but her voice is far more expansive with a range that reaches nearly four octaves. Michael Tilson Thomas heard her singing at the now-vanished Alta Plaza restaurant in Pacific Heights, and hired her to sing Gershwin with the San Francisco Symphony. You don’t hear stories like that too often.
Not only is she a vibrant, remarkably versatile singer, she’s an actress and a writer. Nalley has a degree in history from UC Berkeley, and she recently studied English literature at Oxford. She’s writing a play, “Ella: The American Dream,”that’s slated for its premiere in January 2010. She also blogs regularly for JazzWest.
She’s been named one of the “Ten Most Influential African Americans in the Bay Area.” 
Nalley has an amazing ability to create and star in one-woman tributes to some of her heroes. That includes Ladies Sing the Blues and She Put a Spell on Me, a tribute to Nina Simone. She starred as Billie Holiday in the dramatic play, Lady Day in Love. She plated Blues Speak Woman in Zora Neale Hurston’s Spunk, and has starred in Teatro ZinZanni as Madame ZinZanni, a role subsequently filled by Joan Baez, Sandra Reeves-Phillipes, Melba Moore, and Darlene Love.
Nalley has performed with all manner of jazz greats, some of whom she hired to play at Pearl’s. Late last month she did a series of gigs in St. Petersburg, Russia, and will play the Rrazz Room at the Hotel Nikko, Aug. 20–23.

At her spacious Nob Hill apartment, with Lewis nearby, Nalley served homemade matzo ball soup. Like Nalley, it was quite authentic. She was already packed for the trip to St. Petersburg.

Northside S.F.: How do you prepare for a trip to Russia?

: Well, first thing I have to do is go shopping because the Russians are big on gifts. They’re always giving people that they esteem gifts.

Northside S.F.: You’ve been to Russia before – has it changed?

: Yes, sure. I’ve been to Russia three times now. I used to be paid a bit better, but their economy has really gone under, as the global economy has. It started after the whole Georgia incident. I had some shows that were scheduled but were cancelled. One was in Portugal, but it was for a Russian conference. There was a lot of anti-Russian sentiment in the West. Then the gas prices were dropping.

Northside S.F.: What’s with Russia and American jazz?

: They don’t get a lot of music from outside the country, except things like Britney Spears. I first was introduced to these people in Russia by [San Francisco jazz artist] Denise Perrier, who goes over to Russia a lot. Through her I met a jazz pianist, and I performed on a jazz cruise on the River Volga. One thing leads to another. They’re a little starved for alternative music like jazz. People will ask for my CDs, and ask me for Nancy Wilson CDs. There’s also a great appeal about San Francisco. It’s truly an international city.

Northside S.F.: Do you miss Jazz at Pearl’s at all?

: It was taking me away too much from my music, and my own happiness.
Lewis: On one of our early dates we went to a Giants game. Kim was really excited. She said that she never got to have a night off and go out and be a regular person for a long, long time.
Nalley: I’m getting ready to start a new phase of my life, which will be more for myself, and starting a family. That doesn’t really go well with owning a club. We’re considering calling our first child Satchmo.

Northside S.F.: I heard Louis Armstrong on the radio yesterday. It’s uncanny; you can tell who’s playing just by the first note. I think you have that quality, as Dinah Washington had that quality.

Dinah had what I call “the laser beam.”

Northside S.F.: Are you going to have trouble singing the blues now that you seem so much happier?

Well, I don’t have to sing sad blues. There are all kinds of blues, you know. Did you ever go to a B.B. King concert? I think it’s better I’m in a good frame of mind when I sing. That way I can give more to the audience. Definitely there are people who feed on despair; they feed on the voyeurism. That’s when people see you
cry, and get all caught up in it. That’s not good.

Northside S.F.: Do you feel you’re doing the best work you’ve ever done these days?

Definitely. I’m told my singing gets better, stronger. I’ve learned more now that I’m in a much better space; for example, I sleep now. I don’t think I slept much at all during the entire time I owned Pearl’s – maybe five hours a night for five or six years. What’s important to a singer includes how much you sleep, and how much you talk. You can blow out your voice in the night just being in clubs
and talking. I drink much less, I do everything much less.
Northside S.F.: I thought you enjoyed owning a club because it gave you that opportunity to give artists who should be performing a place to perform.
Nalley: Yes, but that entails cleaning toilets and dealing with 200 drunk people every night who are angry because the cabs are wrong, and all these problems they have. It’s great giving people jobs – but then you’ve made enemies of 5,000 people who don’t get the gig.

Northside S.F.: Has Michael gotten used to your notoriety?

It’s true that I can rarely finish my breakfast or my coffee when we’re out in public before I’m bombarded with attentive people. But I think Michael’s gotten a whole lot better about it. He used to get pretty annoyed.

Lewis: Yes. I’ve gotten better with talking to random crowds of fans of hers. At the time it was a big adjustment. I’m just not that naturally a social person. When we were on tour we had to mark out our path from the hotel to find a place where we could be alone. When they pay attention to me, they’re paying attention to Mr. Kim Nalley. I’ve gotten much better at it. I wrote an article for Kim’s blog space [] about what it’s like to be married to a jazz star. I actually sit sometimes and stare into space and think about baseball.

Northside S.F.: Is Michael a jazz fan?

Nalley: Not exactly. He once asked me what was on the stage sound monitors. He thought they had screens on them. That’s very funny. But, after running a jazz club for all those years, it’s quite refreshing.

Read more about Kim Nalley, subscribe to her newsletter, and view her concert schedule at

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