What is the real deal? It’s experiencing something exactly the way it was meant to be. It’s seeing Balanchine dance or your grandmother cook or baseball at Fenway. Audiences at The Event in a Tent will get to experience The Real Deal, perhaps many times over, but certainly when they hear Moonlight Davis sing “Ol Man River.”
The iconic song from “Show Boat” has dignity at its core, and that’s just what Moonlight brings to it. “There should be some honoring of the authority of the song,” Davis told me during a break from rehearsing it with Maestro Hugh Keelan and brass musician Jacob Mashak. “Ol’ Man River” has been performed many times by many singers – Frank Sinatra, Sam Cooke, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Bing Crosby, Judy Garland, even the Beach Boys have tried their hands at it. But Paul Robeson, who performed the song in productions of “Show Boat,” in the film version, and countless times in concert, is the man to whom Moonlight turns for inspiration.
“Paul Robeson was a different type of pioneer in the world,” said Moonlight, reminding me that Robeson was ahead of his time as a civil rights activist and was made to pay a steep price for standing up for his beliefs. That experience showed in the way he sang the song. “He sang that song from his heart. … The song brings to me a sense of keeping that piece of history alive. I’m very proud that I can even attempt to sing the song,” he said. “My approach is a little bit softer. It has a little bit of today’s feeling.” A little, but it still retains its power when Moonlight sings it. In his voice, it remains The Real Deal.
Moonlight grew up singing gospel in the Pentecostal Church, and his sound retains a gospel feel, with overtones of jazz, blues and other influences. He has shared stages with Billy Preston and Evelyn Harris of Sweet Honey in the Rock, among others. On June 30, he will share the stage with all of you in the collaborative Event in a Tent.