Cool Hand with a Warm Lyric, Mary Cleere Haran Makes Even 'Blue Room' a New Room

updated 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

The thing to do when Mary Cleere Haran steps into the spotlight and begins to sing—not that it will be easy—is shut your eyes. A svelte and sparkling beauty with a halo of strawberry-blond hair, Haran exudes the kittenish warmth of a self-possessed Marilyn Monroe. But for a few moments, drink to her only with thine ears. Haran's buttery alto takes wing as it rises, shaping Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Waters of March" with scintillating precision and making Rodgers and Hart's "Blue Room" glow. She has, one critic has written, "a clear, lilting pop-jazz voice that suggests a much younger, sexier Ella Fitzgerald." Says another, responding to the intelligence and verve with which she interprets unfamiliar gems by Berlin, Porter and Gershwin: "She is a cabaret singer for people who shun cabaret singers."

All this praise was precipitated by Haran's three-week engagement at the Ballroom in Manhattan last month, and it has made her an overnight sensation at 36. A native of San Francisco, she began singing as a teenager, graduated from a Catholic girls school, then dropped out of San Francisco State to live in Haight-Ashbury as "a socialist, Marxist, health-food nut who also loved old movies." Her hippie wariness of careers, coupled with "a strong desire to figure out what makes something good"—inherited, she says, from her father, a college professor—imbued her with a determination "to be sure I knew what I was doing. It takes a long time to learn how to sing these great songs with meaning. They seem easy, but they're murder."

To make ends meet, she taught tap dancing, waited tables and, after moving to New York 10 years ago, sang "in joints in Jersey." The idols she still studies most closely are Peggy Lee and Frank Sinatra ("incredible control and sensuality") and Ella Fitzgerald ("flawless rhythm, beautiful timbre"). From old movie musicals, Haran formed her ideal of a style "as enticing and warm and seductive as possible." The Ballroom buzz should boost her career—she'll sing in Chicago this month, then L.A. in the fall before marrying TV director Joe Gilford—but it won't change her approach to her craft. "I would love to be a great singer," she says, "but I feel like the golden era has passed and it's all afterglow. I'm just a neo-nightclub singer. I'm going to keep taking my time."

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