The Singing Cab Driver Show

at Bruce Anderson’s Hairdressing

Big Wil, Lucky Strikes & God

at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Ray St. Ray, the self-proclaimed singing cabdriver, is just the sort of person the media love. He’s colorful. He’s a tad offbeat, without ever challenging the status quo. And he’s very photogenic, dressed in gray pants, gray jacket, and red tie, with neatly trimmed black hair slicked back a la Jack Nicholson. Perched on his head is a rakishly tilted cool hat like the ones gangsters and reporters wore in old movies. It seems St. Ray is always ready for his close-up, Mr. De Mille.

And St. Ray’s gimmick–that he’s a cabdriver by day and singer-songwriter by night–has proved to be irresistible to that segment of the media that wants a quick hit of urban romanticism, just a touch of working-class authenticity, before dashing back to the comfort and safety of the suburbs or a well-secured high-rise. Handsome, clean, polite, articulate, English speaking–yes, English speaking–this cabbie cruises through Chicago composing songs while looking for his next fare. His story is even inspirational: he’s walking, talking, singing proof that you can find creative release even while doing the most hateful work. Julia Cameron would be so proud.

For his efforts St. Ray has been featured in the Sun-Times and Chicago magazine, on Wild Chicago and the Today show. He was even crowned “international taxi driver” of the year by a worldwide cabbie organization.

As a performer, however, St. Ray is interesting only in ten-minute spurts–coincidentally, the same amount of time it takes to set up a camera and shoot a quick interview before running off to cover the next wild Chicagoan. Given two hours to fill, St. Ray quickly shows us why, after nearly ten years, the singing cabdriver still drives a cab. For one thing he just doesn’t have the range or depth as a performer to pull off his songs. In his flattened version of a faux-Sinatra lounge-lizard act, he stands onstage, mike in hand, belting out–or trying to belt out–his tunes while Mark Burnell accompanies on the piano.

The songs themselves are better, though St. Ray (working with Burnell) still hasn’t discovered his own voice as a tunesmith. He doesn’t say so, but it seems he may be a “hummer”–the Hollywood term for a composer who hums a tune and then asks a trained musician to write it down. Nothing wrong with that. Charlie Chaplin was a hummer–he could play the violin but had had no formal training–and he composed his own film scores that way. But if St. Ray is indeed a hummer, it might help explain why all the numbers in the show are reminiscent of other, better songs.

As Ray tells us, his roots are in rock and roll. Until recently he performed these songs with his band, Chameleon World, modeled so closely on the Talking Heads that St. Ray joked their motto was “More than a tribute, it’s a blatant rip-off.” Certainly these tunes–with their sort of funny, sort of trite lyrics and always eccentric take on life–sound a little like the Talking Heads, though without that band’s suburban-kid rage or art-school love of ambiguity, fragmentation, and obscurity.

St. Ray’s claims to be a self-taught performer are completely believable. And there is something charmingly amateurish about the way he prances around the stage–set up in the front of Bruce Anderson’s hair salon–imitating in near perfect detail the choreography of a torch singer, head tilted back, microphone held just so before his lips, eyes shut tight during the song’s most moving moments. But the truth is, St. Ray really does need a full band to hide his merely adequate singing and put some oomph behind the sometimes flat lyrics.

Between songs St. Ray talks about his life, and it’s during these brief autobiographical sketches that he reveals his true talent, storytelling. St. Ray, who must be in his 40s now, has led a full and complicated life. He has a thousand and one tales to tell about his three marriages, his adventurous single life, and his weird, wandering career–among other things, he’s been an army paratrooper, a nurse’s aide, a meat packer, a graphic artist, and a failed science fiction author.

St. Ray is relaxed and appealing onstage. He makes you want to like him. His calm demeanor contrasts nicely with his stories, which describe a life filled with frustrations and false starts.

But these stories are meant to be only the icing between the layers of St. Ray’s songs. And in his case, the frosting is more nourishing than the cake.

Unlike St. Ray, writer-performer Jim Jarvis knows that his autobiographical stories can carry the show, even when they concern situations as seemingly mundane as his parents’ courtship and marriage. Of course, uneventful courtships are as rare as albino squirrels–every family has its funny stories about how the parental unit got together. And a good storyteller can make even the most mundane tale interesting.

Jarvis is not a particularly good storyteller. He isn’t bad, but he does drone a bit at times, and–with the exception of a few key scenes, such as his imitation of his father being shot in World War II–he’s basically a neck-up actor. But the story he tells is so fascinating, so full of the sort of weird twists that could only happen in real life, that it more than makes up for his unpolished performance.

Beginning with the generation before his folks, Jarvis follows both sides of the family as they emigrate from Lithuania, settle in Chicago, and set about the sometimes cruel business of making it in America. Wisely, Jarvis spares us none of the gory details, telling us about his grandfather’s work in the meat-packing industry and his mysterious death–he was found floating in the Chicago River–and about his grandmother’s struggle to survive as a widow with three children: during prohibition she made bathtub gin for Al Capone. Eventually Jarvis gets around to his parents and their spooning, interrupted as it was by World War II, his mother’s stint in a convent, and a medical condition discovered at the last minute. These events prove every bit as fascinating and suspenseful as his grandparents’ attempts to gain a foothold in America.

Jarvis illustrates the performance with a slide show of photographs culled from the family album, adding a much needed visual component. But at times the slides detract from the show, making it feel more like a soporific business presentation than the thoughtful, humorous family portrait it is most of the time.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): The Singing Cab Driver Show still uncredited/ Big Will, Lucky Strikes & God still uncredited.