I first heard Toni Rae Salmi sing at the 2012 Capital Fringe Festival. The show was Cabaret XXX: Love The One You’re With, the second in a much-loved series of annual rock cabarets by Pinky Swear Productions, and the infamous Fort Fringe Baldacchino Tent Bar was on fire.
Not literally, of course, but the temperature inside the tent matched the intensity of the vocals on stage. Toni stormed through a blazing cover of “The Way You Do” by Devil Doll and I was completely blown away. You don’t expect that kind of voice to come roaring out of someone who seems so… sweet.
Toni’s talked about creating a one-woman cabaret the entire time I’ve known her. While anyone who’s seen her perform knows she can sing, creating and performing a solo show was the Big Dream. “Someday I’m going to write my own cabaret,” she’d often tell me, “And when I do, you should direct it.”
One night, joking that I might be too busy to direct her non-existent project, I gave her a deadline for the first draft of a script. Toni isn’t one to back down from a challenge, but her first obstacle was the same as it had always been: inspiration. She needed to find something to motivate her to take that first leap, to stop dreaming about what she wanted to do and just do it.
Then she discovered Wanda Jackson.
The moment Toni first heard the First Lady of Rockabilly, she became obsessed with a woman who’d pushed through barrier after barrier to make her own dreams a reality. Despite major labels telling her “girls don’t sell records,” Wanda Jackson tore through the male-dominated rockabilly movement of the 50’s and 60’s, sharing the stage with the likes of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash. As one of the first women in rock and roll, Wanda paved her way with a raw, signature growl that earned her the nickname “the sweet lady with the nasty voice.”
Now 79, Ms. Jackson still tours and lives the rock and roll dream, experiencing a renaissance over the last decade through collaborations with Jack White and Justin Townes Earle. Discovering Wanda Jackson still kicking ass so late in her music career negated Toni’s fear about it being too late for her own rock and roll dream. In fact, Toni has been going through her own renaissance since first creating this show, but I don’t want to give too much of that away.
I want you to experience it, live and loud.
Help Me, Wanda! is first and foremost a rock and roll show, featuring songs from Wanda Jackson’s extensive catalog and creative twists on modern rock hits. It also reunites Toni with Felix Pagés, the band leader from Pinky Swear’s Cabaret XXX series. Most importantly, it’s a show about Toni, interweaving stories from her path with stories from Wanda’s path, all which led Toni to finally stepping up and into the spotlight.
Early in the process, Felix and I met with Toni to choose songs for the show. Without giving her warning or time to prepare, I asked Toni to sing some of Wanda’s “Let’s Have A Party.” Always up for a challenge, Toni let out her first Wanda growl, and there was only one way to describe it:
Sweet lady. Nasty voice.
Come join the party and you’ll know what I mean.
Shane Solo is a multidisciplinary producer, director, actor, playwright, and sound designer.
He is a company member of Pinky Swear Productions, in addition to leading the DC performing arts collective DISTRICT MISFITS.