Baby Dee has a new song called “Pie,” which is hilarious and versatile, as is the nature of pie. She sang it last Thursday night at Joe’s Pub, its New York premiere, and it was sweet.
The Joe’s Pub show was the third installment of “We Sing Baby Dee,” organized by Sxip Shirey, in which myriad performers—well, nine, anyway—gave their takes on Dee’s songs. A folksinger named Aimee Curl did “My Love Has Made a Fool of Me,” in a plaintive voice. Little Annie and Paul Wallfisch collaborated on “The Dance of Diminishing Possibilities.” (Annie loves singing about Bobby Slot and Freddie Weiss.) Lila, a women’s a-cappella quartet minus one (its leader, Rima, explained that one of its members, Vlada, couldn’t be there because she’d just had a baby), harmonized on “Small Wonder.” Curtis Eller, on banjo, augmented by a singer named Robin, did a fabulous version of “Calvary,” a song that has taken on a life of its own. Curtis has apparently been singing it to his daughter as a lullabye. Philip Raia got everyone to sing along on “The Song of Self-Acceptance” (known in some quarters as “Pisspot”). Andrew W.K. showed up late and played, appropriately, “(He’s Gonna Kill Me) When I Get Home,” about Dad being mad when Dee was late for dinner. But the star of the show was nine-year-old Frankky Lou Hightower, of Kansas City, Missouri.
When I first heard that a nine-year-old named Frankky would be performing some of Dee’s songs, I assumed that the child was a boy soprano. Many of Dee’s early songs seem to have been written for that kind of high, pure voice, and Dee even told me once that she heard a boy soprano sing in Cleveland, but knew his mother would not see the virtue in having her son work with Dee. Frankky Lou Hightower is a girl, and she has done pageants—but, she made a point of telling me, “only the ones that have talent competitions,” and on that basis alone she always wins. She was discovered in Kansas City by Sxip, when he was touring with the Dresden Dolls, and she discovered Dee’s music when Sxip played some of it for her. Her mother sews the costumes for all the drag queens in Kansas City.
Frankky chose to sing some surprisingly dark songs for a nine-year-old; for instance, “So Bad,” which has the line “Jesus got my mom in there, and beat her up so bad.” She also sang “Little Window,” and told me afterward that she knew the song was about Anne Frank. I had known that—Dee wrote the song in Amsterdam—but when I heard Frankky sing it, for the first time I made the connection with Anne Frank’s glimpse of the sky from her little window and how much hung on the final words: “Hope. Hope. Hope.” And, as for “So Bad,” the song is about childhood fears, and hearing it sung by this slim little girl with the sweet face and long blond hair, wearing a sequined red sheath and displaying utter poise onstage, was hair-raising. She was like a flame. It was as if she were expressing the soul of Dee at nine years old, as the girl no one knew she was.
At the end, Baby Dee herself took the stage, joined by Matthew Robinson on cello and Emmett Kelly on guitar. She played “Pie” and “Lilacs” and “As Morning Holds a Star,” which sounded both familiar and yet like something I’d never heard before.
Sxip, the impresario, brought Frankky Lou back on for an encore: “The Price of a Sparrow,” which has the lines “What does a hooker know about loving? And what does my Daddy know about me?” It is one of Dee’s saddest songs, and who knows what Frankky is thinking when she sings it? But it is good that she sang it in New York, at Joe’s Pub. I don’t know what the judges would make of it in the talent competition of one of those Little Miss Sunshine pageants.