What qualities of voice are evoked when one is compared to Edith Piaf and Billie Holiday? Both divas sang from somewhere below the heart and reached into the hearts of fans everywhere. They represented the dignity of womanhood as experienced in the grit of life. They sang of love and longing, good times and bad. They touched – and continue to touch – souls through their music. And they became national idols on the world’s stages.
To take on such a portentous role, Elaine Rachlin comes to the stage well-schooled. Known as an international chanteuse who has performed far and wide, from venues in New York City such as the Red Blazer, Cajun and Judy’s Cabaret to the Khan club in Jerusalem, she sings in French, Italian, Spanish, Russian, Hebrew and English. As a regular at the Rhinecliff Hotel’s Sunday Jazz Brunch, the multilingual vocalist wows the crowd with American jazz standards, often accompanied by her jazz pianist husband John Halsey.
This Friday evening, the duo will appear at the Rhinecliff to celebrate the 2014 Beaujolais Nouveau, an occasion marking the end of the grape-harvest season in France. Once considered a “cheap and cheerful drink” for the folks who worked the vineyards, the completion of the bottling of this fresh, fruity red has become a national cause for fireworks, food and celebration – as if the French were ever known to require a reason. At least 120 such festivals are held in the Beaujolais region on the third Thursday in November each year.
The Rhinecliff’s James and David Chapman are only one day behind schedule in hosting an event that features wine-tastings – Beaujolais Nouveau and more – and other specials, paired with authentic French fare such as escargots, frogs’ legs and onion soup. All will be enjoyed as Rachlin sings “Vive la France” along with various other appropriate selections – French drinking songs to be included, of course. “It will be an all-French evening of the music done by Edith Piaf, Django Reinhardt and Jacques Brel” she says, and translates a line or two of “Chevaliers de la Table Ronde”: “Taste and see if the wine is good, oui or non. Drink before you die!”
Rachlin performs both on guitar and as featured vocalist in hotel and cabaret lounges, at weddings and other special events. She considers singing “a spiritual experience” through which she shares her passion for music with all kinds of audiences, large and small. Her two CDs – one of French, American and Italian jazz standards and one in Hebrew, Ladino and Yiddish – are available for purchase at her performances.
Rachlin was born in Brooklyn. Her family moved to Schenectady when she was still a child, where she listened to her mother, Mary Rachlin, sing on the radio. She attended the then all-female Skidmore College, majoring in French and minoring in Voice, and went on to graduate study in French Theatre and Literature at the Middlebury School of Languages. She recalls earning a D on a French paper and being told to “changer her major.” This only made her work harder to learn and succeed.
Her year in Paris also involved a stint at busking outside French moviehouses. “I made a little extra money by playing my guitar, singing songs and passing the hat for collection,” she says, musing that having to overcome earlier academic challenges gave her the gumption to sing for her supper, literally.
Upon returning stateside, Rachlin taught French to elementary school children, to teens at Great Neck High School and on educational television. Continuing her own musical education, she studied guitar (at one point with Erik Darling of the Weavers) and became active as a folksinger. Going pro, however, was a part-time gig. While honing her sultry voice, increasing her repertoire and establishing her reputation around the New York club scene, Rachlin also developed a career in finance, first with Credit Lyonnais in Israel and afterwards in New York.
“I was a certified financial planner and investment advisor for many years. After I left finance, I decided I wanted to do music full-time… Now I’m really focusing on it. In fact, last Bastille Day, during the week of July 14, I had seven gigs.”
Elaine Rachlin/Beaujolais Nouveau, Friday, November 21, 7-10 p.m., no cover, Rhinecliff Hotel, 4 Grinnell Street, Rhinecliff; (845) 876-0590, https://therhinecliff.com.