California Is a Cabaret

In this week’s newsletter, we laud four critically-acclaimed Golden State performers still in search of the big time.


Why isn’t Paula West more famous? That was one of the questions Marcus Crowder explored in his profile of the internationally acclaimed jazz performer for the latest issue of Alta. Crowder reveals why West is far more than “a singer’s singer” and why, after decades, well-deserved fame is finally in her grasp. Read his article here

West will join Crowder for a conversation and performance on November 13 at the Sweetwater Music Hall in Mill Valley. Tickets are $20 (reserve yours here) or free for Alta members (email Not a member? Sign up!

Music is a hard business, sure. And West has earned a following in a field where most singers go unheard. Here are four other performers who’ve flirted with fame and who seem to be teetering on the verge of a breakthrough:

Spencer Day was touted as the next Michael Bublé. The Utah-born, ex-Mormon cabaret charmer has struggled to break into the really big time for a couple of decades, with limited success. Day has seven albums under his belt, including 2009’s Vagabond, which peaked at No. 11 on the Billboard jazz albums chart. He’s opened for Rufus Wainwright at the Napa Valley Opera House and performed at the San Francisco Jazz Festival, Yoshi’s, the Monterey Jazz Festival, Joe’s Pub in New York City, and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. His most recent album, Angel City, was inspired by Los Angeles and funded through an online crowdsourcing campaign. We can’t help but root for him. 

Val Diamond began performing in San Francisco’s Beach Blanket Babylon in 1979. She starred in the campy cabaret show for the next 30 years before leaving abruptlyin 2009. While headlining BBB, Diamond also took small roles in big-budget films, even performing (infamously) at the Academy Awards in 1989. I worked with Diamond—dressing her backstage at BBB. For the three years I spent backstage, I watched from the wings as every night she shed a tear while nailing Burt Bacharach’s “Anyone Who Had a Heart.” (Read an oral history of BBB in Alta, Fall 2019.) Today, Diamond keeps a low profile, but as BBB performs its final show on December 31, many of her fans are wondering if she’ll show up for one last goodbye. I doubt it—but her husband, Steve Salgo, will likely be there. He’s been in the BBB band for 34 years. 

Tammy Hall’s résumé reads like a bestselling novel that’s been translated into multiple languages: jazz stints in Belgium, Japan, and Turkmenistan, credits on over two dozen albums, awards from the Human Rights Commission and the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and performances at the Monterey Jazz Festival and SFJazz Center. In addition to her work on her own music and with underserved Bay Area children, Hall pops up in unexpected places. Her trio played both a wedding and a funeral I attended. “You know,” I whispered to my date, “that pianist is a little bit famous.” 

Whitney Shay’s huge voice is a thrilling surprise when it emerges, both onstage and on her two albums. The 2019 San Diego Music Awards Artist of the Year channels soulful legends like Janis Joplin and Amy Winehouse through her music, although Shay credits Etta James as her biggest influence. And while the San Diego resident can most often be found performing close to home, the rest of the world has come calling. Shay, who recently signed with the Ruf Records label, is slated to tour Europe early next year. The iron is getting hotter—and Shay is striking.   

Perhaps “a little bit famous” is just the right amount of celebrity, but I’d like to see these singers get their just rewards. And perhaps Crowder will ask West about straddling the line between critical acclaim and fame when they sit down on November 13. We hope to see you there!

Beth Spotswood is Alta's digital editor, events manager, and a contributing writer.
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