Her husband is named Irwin Berkowitz. He is a percussionist. He is sitting across the room as his wife, Beckie Menzie, who is a pianist and singer, tells me that the man sitting next to her, singer Tom Michael, has been her “musical husband” for many decades and all three of these people nod their happy heads.
“I think, and it’s true for all of us, that we just want to keep growing as artists,” says Menzie. “We want to get better and to find new audiences. We have so much affection for music and, needless to say, for one another.”
Menzie and Michael, and Berkowitz too, will be together Wednesday evening at The Alley at Carnivale, performing their successful and entertaining show called “Re-Imagine The Beatles.”
It is the latest stop in what has been a fascinating collaborative musical journey that began one night long ago at a long-gone nightclub called Boomba.
Menzie was there, playing the piano. She had come to Chicago from Ft. Wayne, Indiana, and was making her musical mark in theater and on the cub scene.
Michael walked in the door. He was a Texas native, working for American Airlines and willing to give Chicago a chance but, he said, “only for eight months; that was going to be it because I hated cold weather.”
But he had musical ambitions, having been a member of that touring singing group Up With People (actor Glenn Close was also a member), and had started exploring open-mic nights at some local clubs.
“I only knew two appropriate songs,” he says.
He sang those songs, “God Bless the Child” and “All of Me,” and so impressed the club’s owner that he asked Michael to host the next open-mic night. The $20 he received for that was “the first money I ever made as a solo performer.” He still has that bill tucked inside a scrapbook. He has lived in Chicago ever since.
He and Menzie began working together. “I had to adjust to his… his perfectionism,” she says. “And I had to adjust to her… her spontaneity,” he says.
Within a few years, they headlined, much to their pleasant surprise, a cabaret convention in New York City. That was when they decided to make their match permanent.
“It was a magical night,” says Michael.
“I think the world was telling us to become partners,” Menzie says.
That was more than 20 years ago, and it has been a rewarding journey since.
It takes months to create their themed shows, each focused on different music, composers and performers. They have debuted them at Davenport’s, that delightful and active venue at 1383 N. Milwaukee Ave.
They have delivered such concerts as “The Piano Men,” featuring the music of Barry Manilow, Billy Joel and Michael Feinstein; “That ’60s Show,” with the music of many, including Petula Clark, Janis Joplin and some Motown folks; “The Highs and Lows of Musical Duos,” exploring the relationships of such musical pairs as Simon & Garfunkel, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gormé, The Carpenters, Fred and Adele Astaire.
Please do not mistake these two for a cover band. They dig deep to interpret songs and pepper their performances with stories. They are both charming performers. Menzie does all the arrangements. “I sometimes will lie awake at night and a song will be in my head and I start asking myself, ‘Now, how would I sing this song, how would Tom sing it,” says Menzie.
“Every new show gets to a certain point that the arrangements and concepts simply can’t grow much more in the rehearsal process,” says Michael. “For the rest to happen, we need to be in front of an audience.”
They have traveled the country with their shows and praise has been lavish. My former colleague Howard Reich wrote, “Beautifully sung … Only singers working together as long as these two could have achieved such naturalness of phrase, synchronicity of expression and buoyancy of shared rhythm.”
Their shows are spiced by stories, such as Michael’s poignant and spooky tale of James Taylor running into John Lennon assassin Mark David Chapman.
Creating this latest show was not easy.
“It took some arm twisting,” says Menzie.
That is because Michael had never been a fan. But he was finally won over and now he “he loves the Beatles.” He and Menzie performed the show last year at the Martin Theater at Ravinia with some 30 songs.
“It was a dream place to perform,” says Menzie.
Neither has yet seen The Alley, but they are optimistically enthusiastic.
That’s justified. In an entertainment landscape battered by the pandemicany sign of vitality (a new club) is a sign of hope.
It’s always been a rough business, running a nightclub. The aforementioned Boombala was a great club, for a short time. long ago Phil Johnson, one of its owners, told me, “You don’t just open the doors, book some acts and fight off the crowds. I can’t imagine a tougher business.”
Menzie and Michael have heard that lament before.
He says, “From my earliest years here people were always telling me, ‘Everything’s closing.” This club or that club, but as Beckie long ago told me, ‘Places may close but something new will open.’ That’s been so true.”
Menzie and Michael have performed in many places — Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center among them — and will tell you that there is little difference for them between the audiences at libraries, senior centers, nightclubs or theater because, says Menzie, “the point is to share what we do.”
The same is true for Berkowitz so, if you go to the Alley Wednesday, as you should, look for him. He’ll be easy to find, playing the drums. And smiling.
“Re-Imagine The Beatles” is 7:30 pm at The Alley at Carnivale, 702 W. Fulton Market; tickets $50 at carnivalechicago.com