On the afternoon of Friday, Sept. 3, I sat down to talk on the phone with Louisa Lee Poster, an 80-year old singer who recently performed at Bushwick’s Caffeine Underground.
What I thought would be a short call about how the show went and when she was planning to return to Caffeine Underground quickly turned into a history lesson, a live over-the-phone concert, and a life lesson on the joy of tirelessly pursuing passions.
“What I sing is mostly songs of Tin Pan Alley,” Poster, a Sheepshead Bay native, told me in her movie-like South Brooklyn accent. “I sing them because I love them. I grew up hearing them on the radio. My parents sang them, and my mother would play them on the piano. I’m very attached to those songs.”
“Tin Pan Alley was on 28th Street between 6th Avenue and Broadway,” Poster explained, excited to be sharing the story. “The reason they called it Tin Pan Alley was because it had all of the music publishing companies. It was before the use of any kind of recording equipment or radio even. A song’s success was measured by how much sheet music it sold. So, they had piano players there constantly playing to try to sell the songs. It was a cacophony of piano playing. So one day, someone said it sounded like a bunch of tin pans. Tin Pan Alley really refers to that time and place between 1900 and 1920.”
As a girl and a teenager, Poster lived for music and theater. To this day, two of the biggest moments in her musical life remain being cast in a camp production of “Annie Get Your Gun” when she was 13 and playing Carrie in “Carousel” when she was 14. So, perhaps it isn’t surprising that her biggest influences are Betty Hutton and Peggy Lee.
“I took the ‘Lee’ from Peggy Lee,” Poster told me. I could sense Poster smiling through the phone.
For the bulk of her adult life, Poster worked as a school teacher in Bedford-Stuyvesant. But throughout all of those years of lesson plans, Poster kept her love for music and entertainment. As soon as she retired from teaching, Poster “made the big move to Manhattan,” where she fell in love with cabaret at the West Side club Don’t Tell Mama.
“I managed to make a connection with a musical director. So I was able to play a couple of shows,” said Poster. “That was a very big step for me. I did a show called, ‘Flash, Bam, Alacazam,’ a tribute to Betty Hutton.”
At that point, Poster’s second career was beginning to take form. After retiring from teaching, she was able to find success performing and celebrating the music and figures that shaped her childhood.
“My high point was when a friend of mine took me to see the Rick Bogart Trio,” Poster explained. “This was at a place called Lebane, which is not in existence any more. Instead of just having a piano, as they do in cabaret, they had three instruments – a guitar, a bass and a clarinet.”
“Rick Bogart let people sit in,” Poster added. “Little by little, I did it. And that was the turning point for me. At some point, I became a featured singer in the Rick Bogart Trio. With the Rick Bogart Trio, I was singing jazz songs with a syncopated beat.”
Since, Poster has ventured out to lead shows of her own, often accompanied by piano player Matt Malanowski and bassist Alex Gressel. She has performed at multiple venues, including Caffeine Underground and also at the now defunct SideWalk Cafe, where she recorded a live album appropriately titled “Live at the SideWalk Cafe.”
Some of the songs on the album include “Blue Skies” by Irving Berlin, “You Are My Sunshine” by Jimmie Davis and “Bye Bye Blackbird” by Ray Henderson and Mort Dixon.
“They don’t write them like that anymore,” said Poster.
You can catch Louisa Lee Poster live every Monday at 53 Above, 318 West 53rd St.
Featured Image by Jason Nellis.
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