It’s Her Party
Every year my buddies host a live show where a famous songwriter gets covered en masse. Our most recent subject was Neil Young, and beloved local crooner Randy Walker chose the tune “A Man Needs a Maid” for his female alter ego Carletta Sue Kay. On the night of the tribute, Carletta crept onto the stage wearing an ill-fitting wig and fawn-colored overcoat and began singing one of my least favorite Young tunes. She filled the air with such a touching and evocative voice that I quickly reconsidered my stance. Every word unfurled beautifully and rang with a sincerity that I don’t hear often. When Carletta got to the line “a man needs a maid” she shook the walls of the Make-Out Room with her powerful tenor and ripped off the overcoat to reveal a French maid outfit complete with feather duster. The room erupted in screams and I will never hear this song the same way again.
Randy Walker is a San Francisco music vet who has put over a decade into the local scene, but it’s the Carletta alter ego that’s stealing the spotlight now. With a persona loosely based on Randy’s ne’er-do-well cousin, Carletta has performed everywhere from the Eagle to the Independent, and released her solo debut, Incongruent, in May.
Incongruent combines Carletta’s theatrical delivery with whimsical, and occasionally psychedelic, arrangements. She brings a sense of humor and sophistication to San Francisco’s more serious-minded garage rock scene. On “Joy Division,” my favorite tune on Incongruent, Carletta sings of a vinyl-obsessed boyfriend who locks himself in his room to listen to records (a passion I can identify with). The songwriting is like Randy’s stage performance: expert, hilarious, and heartfelt.
I’ve seen Carletta perform in some random outfits – a black Raiders hoodie, ruffled skirts, unfortunate wigs. The threads, makeup, and hair don’t look so pretty on Randy’s husky frame, but this never matters the moment Carletta opens her mouth. Still, I can’t help but wonder why this giant dude with such brilliant talent chooses to come on stage under the name Carletta – the same big brute who clogs his Facebook feed with sweat-drenched images of building out the newly opened Tenderloin vintage shop called Vacation.
So I went down to Vacation, where Randy was curating an installation of punk rock memorabilia to figure out what Carletta is all about.
It turns out Randy just likes to perform as someone else so the spotlight is on the music and not him. He told me he grew up listening to country and gospel and started singing at his church in the Southern California town of Fontana. His mother would trot him out “like a prize chicken” to sing the classic gospel song “The Unclouded Day” when they had visitors. Though he’d always been a performer, he remembers running and hiding whenever he knew that he was going to be put on the spot to sing something like Lynn Anderson’s “Rose Garden” for his grandparents.
The first time he ventured out of his church, Randy’s talents landed him in the junior high glee club and in musical theater. His talents blossomed as he got older and he was able to put himself through college performing in and around Los Angeles doing plays. He moved to New York City after school, where he joined his first rock band and began singing in a much more primitive scene than he was used to.
Randy told me it wasn’t until he got to San Francisco that he found a place for his theatrical style and big stage presence. He had a band called Mon Cousin Belge where he performed in character as a Belgian man who didn’t speak any English. In 2007, Randy started taking the stage as Carletta Sue Kay, sometimes opening for Mon Cousin Belge, which required a fair amount of costume changes.
No matter the band though, Randy makes his time on stage an experience – for himself and for everyone in the room. In this way, he’s really free to get into the songs a little deeper than most.
This past spring, when I invited Carletta to sing at my semi-annual soul party, I wasn’t quite sure what was going to happen. Carletta came to the stage in a form-fitting gown holding a blonde pixie wig. She greeted the crowd by offering them a choice of hairstyles – “Ziggy Stardust David Bowie?” she asked, putting the wig on backwards, “or Mission-hipster fat chick?” The audience howled with laughter and the band began to play a raging Etta James rendition of “Something’s Got a Hold on Me.” Carletta’s powerful voice quickly shifted the laughter into howls of joy, and people started dancing frantically.
No matter what tune she’s belting out, Carletta Sue Kay’s power over an audience is epic.