Elly Stone would most likely be the last person on earth to ever call herself a living legend, either publicly or privately. But she is indeed. And how. Best known as the definitive interpreter of the English translations of songs by Jacques Brel, finding fame as the star of the theatrical hit Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris and the film version that subsequently followed (both with lyrics by her late husband Eric Blau and contributions by Mort Shuman), Stone today, at the age of eighty-eight, often refers to herself as “just another grandma in Manhattan.” And even with a career which, to date, has spanned nearly seven decades and from which she removed herself completely from the limelight some time ago, her fan base continues to grow by leaps and bounds completely and utterly unabated.
A Brooklyn native, Stone was an introverted, abused child who chose to escape within her own thoughts rather than interact with those persons surrounding her. Her vocal prowess, however, showed promise and she possessed a keen ear, and while a student at Junior High School 50 in Williamsburg, a teacher introduced her to a vocal coach named Lillian Strongin, who retains the distinction of being the person that would truly unleash Stone’s instrument as it was intended. Strongin, who Stone has always considered her true mother, helped organize her audition material for the famed High School of Music and Art (now Fiorello LaGuardia High School), where she was accepted as a voice major. After graduation, Stone opted to marry at the tender age of seventeen, divorced her first husband shortly thereafter, and began a lifelong residence in Manhattan, rarely ever looking back upon her outer-borough roots. However, after a foray into folk music, she would meet Eric Blau, at the time a published poet, who had written a campaign song for a candidate seeking election as Brooklyn Borough President; Stone was engaged to sing it. He later told an interviewer, “I thought she was kind of cute.”
Blau and Stone began a whirlwind romance very soon thereafter, and this was a heady time for her. She’d phased out of folk music and into theater, first as a standby for Barbra Streisand as Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It For You Wholesale in 1962, and then in Blau’s Off-Broadway revue O, Oysters! in 1964, by which time they were married and she’d given birth to their son Matthew. At this time, Blau’s friend Nat Shapiro (the head of International A&R for CBS/Columbia Records), introduced the two to the songs of Jacques Brel, which blew their minds. He also introduced them to Mort Shuman (a wunderkind composer in the 1950s of such classic pop tunes as “Save the Last Dance For Me” and “Teenager in Love”). Shuman was also a big fan. Jacques Brel, at that point, was only a star in Europe (particularly in Paris and his native Belgium), but the three saw a clear course. Brel was obviously as powerful an artist at the time as Bob Dylan or Leonard Cohen, and deserved adaptation into English. One thing led to another, and by 1968, Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris was opening at the Village Gate. What followed, aside from the recording of the original cast album, were productions in every possible corner of the globe and truly a worldwide miracle. As Stone says, “Not a day has gone by since the show’s inception forty-seven years ago, without the show being played somewhere on the planet.”
While all of this was transpiring, Stone was working diligently into the late nights in the studio after getting off stage at the Gate to record her first album, the self-titled Elly Stone, which emerged on CBS/Columbia. Although not a commercial success, the record did include several translations of Brel that weren’t included in the original show (among them “My Childhood” and “Song for Old Lovers,” interpreted from “Mon Enfance” and “Chanson Des Vieux Amants” respectively) as well as the extremely-poignant “Alexander’s Song,” a tribute by Blau to his father, who made a living as a New York City taxi driver. Her large cult following rushed to purchase copies, and it still remains a favorite among her fans. Several selections on the recording were developed in tandem with orchestrator/arranger Ralph Affoumado, and Billboard Magazine referred to it as “one of the best undiscovered albums of the year.”
Once freed from having to star in Brel on stage as a full-time occupation (by 1973 the show had closed at the Gate and moved to the Astor Place Theater with a cast that featured Teri Ralston among others), Stone set about a separate career as a concert artist. She’d appear with a full band in venues ranging from Lincoln Center to The Bottom Line from that point on, as well as such out-of-town locales as Wolf Trap, and recorded a second album, Spirit of ’76, as a celebration of the Bicentennial year. Here, while Brel interpretations were again evident, she and Blau worked with David Frank to develop such songs as “Mr. Williams” (for which Stone herself wrote the music), “Soft Shoe Routine,” “Snows of Fifth Avenue,” and “New Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and “Old Soldiers in the Chinese Restaurant” (both with music by the aforementioned Affoumado). Again, among her fans, the record sold like hotcakes. However, a year or so earlier, she and Shuman (and Joe Masiell) were cast in the film version of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, which also featured a cameo by Brel himself. It has been a cult hit for years. And, she’s never seen the film.
Her last appearance on the legitimate stage came in 1977 at the Astor Place, in another Blau musical called The Cockeyed Tiger. But he started creating a new work and consequently stumbled upon composer/lyricist Elliot Weiss, who had only recently graduated from Juilliard and had written the music for a short song cycle. Blau wrote the lyrics and entitled it The 104 Bus. It premiered in 1982 as the second act of one of Stone’s concerts at The Bottom Line, and featured such vocalists as Joseph Neal and Kitty Hendrix. Later, when Stone premiered a concert at Symphony Space in ’83, it emerged as her opening act.
It was shortly thereafter that Stone drew the professional veil as a stage presence for the most part, and expanded her work teaching voice. She’d inherited valuable manuscripts that Lillian Strongin had inherited from her own teacher, William Earl Brown. These were the sayings and teachings of Giovanni Battista Lamperti, the nineteenth- century master, whose name is synonymous with Bel Canto. He and his father, Francesco Lamperti, are still revered as being among the greatest teachers of all time. Stone feels that in teaching and editing the manuscripts for publication, she found her calling.
She has also directed quite a few legit stage productions of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris for over the last three decades, including one at Town Hall in 1983 which starred Karen Akers. Another most notable of these was in 1986 at the Beacon Theater, where the show opened with her singing “My Childhood” as an unannounced surprise on the first night, and drove the crowd to stupendous ovation. And there was her handling of the twenty-fifth anniversary production of the show at the Village Gate in 1993, starring Karen Saunders, Gabriel Barre, Joseph Neal and Andrea Green.
Though Elly Stone will never confess to having no regrets, she does look back on her past with nonchalance. “It’s life,” she says. “All I did was live it.” And live it she has indeed. Thank goodness.