“This is a blessing,” says LaDee. “It’s my blessing to be here sitting with you right now.”
It’s the second time I’ve dined with American jazz and R&B singer LaDee Streeter. The first was at the Windsor Plaza Hotel for dim sum. On that occasion, she turned heads in the restaurant when she arrived and made her way across the floor to the table. She has presence and smacks of showbiz.
This time we’re poring over the breakfast menu at Jaspas when she asks our waiter: “What’s in the huge omelette?” “Three eggs,” replies the waiter. “Oh, it’s a regular omelette,” quips LaDee. Her sharp sense of humour is on display.
“Does it have any cheese in it or what? I don’t want any bacon.” The waiter brings back an English-language menu. “Okay then, that’ll work!” she says before breaking out in laughter. “I’m trying to stay with my programme a little bit. I’m preparing for my photoshoot with you guys tomorrow.”
My suggestion of muesli receives an equally snappy return volley. “What’s muesli?” she replies with a grin.
LaDee is about to wrap up her residency at The Reverie where she’s been singing six nights a week to diners in the hotel’s Italian restaurant, Romeo & Juliet’s. It’s her second time in Vietnam after a short stint back in the early 2000s.
“I’ve got some Vietnamese friends and they’ve been wonderful,” she says. “When I tell my friends in the States that I’m going to Vietnam, they think I’m coming to some third world place, but this here, Saigon, is a thriving metropolis, it’s cool.”
A year ago in New York City, she was in a much darker place.
“I woke up in the middle of the night to get some water from downstairs but tripped on the way down,” she recalls. “At the bottom, there was a mirror and my face smashed into it. There was a lot of blood.”
Understandably, LaDee is nervous about her shoot the next day because it will be her first since the accident.
LaDee was born into a Baptist family in North Carolina. Her mother has been a pastor for more than 30 years. From the outset she was surrounded with gospel music.
“When they would say ‘Amen’ and ‘Hallelujah’ in church, I thought, ‘Hey, I kinda like this! This is great!’” Since then, she hasn’t stopped singing.
When she was growing up, Motown was in full swing. “I’ve been around for a minute or so,” she says, alluding to her age that she keeps a closely guarded secret. “I loved the Motown sound and loved good old R&B, but when I moved to California to live with my uncle and aunty, they introduced me to jazz.”
As a young woman, LaDee moved around a lot. After graduating from high school she couldn’t wait to get out of small-town America “to do something with my life.”
“I didn’t just want to stay in a small town,” she explains. “I wanted to be out on my own and to use college to get out there — anything to get me closer to show business and showbiz people.”
Her parents were divorced by then, after which her mother moved to Connecticut. LaDee is now based in New York when she's not performing overseas.
“My mother was brave. She knew that life would be better for us up north where there were better jobs,” she says. “And she did it as a single parent. I’m really proud of her. She’s going to be 82 in September, still active in the ministry, preaching, teaching and driving her car. I want to be like her too. Age doesn’t just have to be a number when at a certain age you pull up a rocking chair. It doesn’t have to be that way.”
At college, LaDee had aspirations of being a broadcast journalist or in anything media related “because then I would be on TV and that’s part of show business”. So she enrolled in a communications degree at college in Ohio. Before that, she had been living in Connecticut after moving up from the south. A semester and a half into her degree, she quit.
“I dropped out because I said to myself, ‘This ain’t me!’ I had this thing then that I wanted to be a model because I thought that it would get me closer to what I really wanted to do, which was sing, it’s all I ever really wanted to do.”
It just happened that her aunt had a modelling school in California. LaDee quit college and packed her bags for the west coast. Before long she was living in Los Angeles with her aunt and her uncle, who was a saxophonist.
“When I went to California, I had the Motown background and the gospel background, but living with my aunty and uncle is when I developed a love for jazz because they had jazz playing all the time, and I thought, ‘There’s something to this. Something just resonated with my spirit, whether it was the swing grooves or the boss grooves or the sultry ballads, I just wanted to sing it.”
The Wonder Years
The move to California turned out well for LaDee, but she regrets the many stupid mistakes she made along the way, something she’d rather not discuss. It coincided with her name change from Pamela Denise to LaDee, a portmanteau of her given names that came about during a studio session one day.
“Everyone called me Pam, but to me it’s a boring name. I wanted something melodic, something more musical. LaDee is like singing do re mi fa so la ti do, that’s how it came about.”
Around that time Stevie Wonder’s studio called.
“I got this call at about two or three in the morning,” she recalls. “On the end of the line was Stevie Wonder’s assistant asking if I’d like to come and help him finish up his Hotter Than July album. I was in a daze. I was like, ‘Whoa, let’s back up a bit.’ I ended up singing on the Happy Birthday track off that album.”
LaDee recalls the brief conversation she had with Stevie when she met him in a downtown LA nightclub.
We exchanged pleasantries and I said, 'It's a pleasure to meet you' and everything like that. Someone told him that I was a singer and he asked me if I had any tapes of my singing he could listen to,” she remembers. “And I said, ‘No, I don’t have any tapes, but I have pictures.’ I wanted to crawl into a hole. I said to myself, 'You silly girl, Stevie Wonder can't see!"
But LaDee’s most precious memories are those of Whitney Houston.
“In the early 2000s I had a contract with a hotel in Bangkok. Whitney happened to be staying at the same hotel,” she fondly recalls. “Every night after her concerts she would come down and sit at the bar and listen to me sing. She was so down-to-earth. One day I ran into her by the pool and she said to me, ‘Hi, I’m Whitney’ and I said, ‘Oh, I know who you are!’ That’s when she invited me to one of her concerts.”
Over the years LaDee has had some breaks, but “you get a break and then nothing, then nothing for a long time, then a little break, then more nothing.” But LaDee has faith in her talent and what is still to come.
“There’s so much more in store. I’m getting older, but I’m not old, there’s a lot more to see happen in my career, so the prayers are still out there.”
LaDee’s final performance in Vietnam is on Sunday Sep. 3 at Romeo & Juliet Italian Lounge & Restaurant, 57-69F Dong Khoi, Q1, HCMC. For more info, go to facebook.com/rj.italian
Photos by Olga Rozenbajgier