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Denver chanteuse Lannie Garrett’s long road and huge talent

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Article by William Porter, The Denver Post

Awash in a spotlight’s white glow, a woman with a shocking pile of curly red hair works the packed floor of Lannie’s Clocktower Cabaret, sporting a sequined cowgirl outfit that would make Dale Evans smile and spouting a bawdy banter that would make Roy Rogers blush.

This is Lannie Garrett, the longtime Denver chanteuse. She is holding court at her namesake nightclub in the Daniels and Fisher Tower at 16th and Arapahoe streets.

Garrett is performing as Patsy DeCline, her rollicking take on and affectionate parody of classic country music, with all the classic schtick and earnest audience interaction the genre is known for.

She has the crowd in her palm, and no wonder. For between the riotous jokes, some classic, others topical, she belts songs in a soaring voice that channels Nashville’s greatest female singers: Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn, Tammy Wynette. Backed by a crack band, this is music for grownups: three chords and the truth.

The show is in its 25th year, but Garrett’s career in Denver began in the mid-1970s. Along with the fans and financial benefits, it is now paying off in other honors. She was just inducted into the Colorado Tourism Hall of Fame. Come April 16, she joins the Colorado Music Hall of Fame.

Her cabaret is decorated in gilded fixtures and rich brocades that recall an Old West bordello. It is her retreat, a fun room. Beyond that, it is the safe haven she lacked growing up.

Garrett has reached an age when many people retire. While she is considering slowing down a bit — there is a lot of traveling she would like to do with her husband of four years, 5280 magazine founder Dan Brogan — the stage still exerts a powerful tug.

“I’ve been a working girl a long, long time,” Garrett said on Friday at her club. “I’m thinking about pulling back a bit. But I don’t want to give up singing. I love entertaining.

“I picture myself as an old singer with rouge and too much lipstick, singing bawdy songs by a piano like Alberta Hunter or Sophie Tucker.”

Opened in January 2006, her cabaret is decorated in gilded fixtures and rich brocades that recall an Old West bordello. It is her retreat, a fun room. Beyond that, it is the safe haven she lacked growing up.

If any woman has fuel to sing the blues, it is Garrett.

She grew up in a middle-class home in the Chicago area. Her father was a raging alcoholic who routinely dealt out physical abuse to Garrett, her two sisters and his wife, who was a chronic depressive.

Denver night club singer Lannie Garrett and 17 year old buddy Vickey Payne, who was still in her Montbello High School basketball uniform, as the two got together on Monday night, November 19, 2001 at Garrett's Denver home. Garrett has volunteered with Payne, now a senior at Montbello, for 8 years.
Denver night club singer Lannie Garrett and 17 year old buddy Vickey Payne, who was still in her Montbello High School basketball uniform, as the two got together on Monday night, November 19, 2001 at Garrett’s Denver home. Garrett has volunteered with Payne, now a senior at Montbello, for 8 years. (Denver Post File)

By her early teens, Garrett spent as much time away from home as she could. “I had great girlfriends, and always had a nice boyfriend with nice parents I could go to,” she said. “I just needed a place to stay where I didn’t get beat up.”

High school was a wash. “I was homecoming queen my sophomore year but never went to school,” she said. “I don’t think I ever passed a class.”

At 17, she moved out on her own. She would not earn a high-school degree until years later, although she was always an enthusiastic reader. Books were an escape to, well, anywhere but the hell of her adolescence. In 1973 she moved to Colorado.

“I just wanted to dance and sing,” she said. At first, she dreamed and waitressed.

Garrett landed a gig singing backup for Ron Henry and Pride, a soul group she bluffed her way into by claiming she was a singer from Chicago. (Until then, she had never sung a professional note.)

Like Bette Midler, who she much admires, Garrett credits gay bars with launching her career. “Having that audience to encourage me and bring me out of my shell was huge,” she said. “They were kind and enthusiastic and laughed at my jokes. It was a great training ground for me.”

There were flirtations with the big time, including a stint on “Star Search.”

But her career remained in Denver, where devoted audiences have embraced her flaming red hair and a voice that is like liquid smoke.

“I burst into tears when I learned that I was being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. You’re still always that kid who had no support, but to be acknowledged by your community was very meaningful for me.”

“Patsy DeCline” is just one of several shows Garrett has created and mounted.

Her last one, a tribute to the big-band era, is “Swing Sets: Benny, Basie and Beyond.” “Screen Gems” is an homage to Hollywood musicals. Sinatra gets a nod with “The Chick Sings Frank.” “Under Paris Skies” salutes the French jazz of Django Reinhardt and Edith Piaf.

Pop divas are explored in “Great Women of Song: From Billie to Bette.” In “Funk You,” she romps as disco diva “Gloria Half-Gaynor.” She’s honing “Garrett Sings Garland.”

Still, “Patsy DeCline” is her bread and butter.

She was inspired after watching “Spinal Tap,” the mockumentary film about a hapless rock band, and thought it would be a gas to spoof country music. She created the show in 1991.

“I’ve been really lucky that all the shows sell out, but it’s the one in which I get to act,” she said. “And it’s a comedy.”

Her latest “Patsy” show runs through April 9.

Garrett’s influences are all over the place. She grew up watching “The Ed Sullivan Show,” the long-running Sunday night television revue. Her musical heroes include Mahalia Jackson, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and Louis Armstrong. She was probably the only kid on her block who knew who Eddie Cantor was.

“All the people who were really entertainers and could hold an audience in their hand, they influenced me,” she said. “I feel very blessed I got exposed to that.”

After so many years in the business, Garrett has found herself pondering what her stage career has given her.

“I was thinking about that the other day,” she said. “I think it gave self-worth to a little kid who didn’t have much of it. It gave me a family, something I always wanted but never had.

“I burst into tears when I learned that I was being inducted into the Colorado Music Hall of Fame. You’re still always that kid who had no support, but to be acknowledged by your community was very meaningful for me.”

She doesn’t quite know what slowing down might look like, much less retirement.

“But it makes me curious,” she said. “I’m pretty happy here and really madly in love with my husband. Still, I’m at a place in my life where I’d like to explore. I don’t have to take every gig that comes along because of fear that I’ll become a bag lady.”

“I think Vickey’s my legacy,” she said. “I think Vickey’s going to be how I get into heaven.”

Garrett views her legacy as twofold.

She mentored two girls through Denver Kids Inc., an organization aiding at-risk children. She remains close to one of them, Vickey Linder, who is now a mom; Garrett enjoys showing off pictures of Vickey and her child. “I think Vickey’s my legacy,” she said. “I think Vickey’s going to be how I get into heaven.”

Still, there is the music.

“I love to make people laugh, which is not something I set out to do,” Garrett said. “Just to have helped people have fun — that when they were with me, we had fun.”

William Porter: 303-954-1877, wporter@denverpost.com or @williamporterdp


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