Molly Ringwald's Jazz Roots
The John Hughes Star Emerges as a Singer
It's 9 a.m. and she is in bed with her dog. She is in Los Angeles; I am in Seattle. We are having a conversation over the phone about a jazz album, Except Sometimes, she recently released.
Most people do not know her as a jazz singer, but as the star of three films that straddle the middle of the 1980s—Sixteen Candles (1984), The Breakfast Club (1985), Pretty in Pink (1986)—and define a significant movement in American popular culture that had John Hughes as its creative force. Molly Ringwald's red hair and full pink lips form an image shared by a generation that's now in its middle age. But behind that pop image is, of course, a person who is not much like the characters she played in the '80s, particularly the one in Pretty in Pink (my favorite of the Ringwald Trilogy). The real person is instead a woman who was raised in a house filled with the sounds of a serious musician, Robert Scott "Bob" Ringwald—a jazz pianist who happens to be blind and also her father.
But here is where things get interesting: The feeling I get while Molly Ringwald explains how this early musical environment was the root of her recent emergence as a jazz singer is that she regards the movies that made her a pop icon as a much lower grade of culture than what she was accustomed to as a child. "There was nobody really in my generation that sang the kind of music that I sang, and I realize it gave me this backbone," Ringwald says. "But my tastes in jazz tend to be a lot more modern than my father's. He is of the traditional era, but he gave me an incredible education that a lot in my generation do not have." If you google Ringwald's father, you will find a video of him performing a very challenging ragtime piece, "The Pearls," at the 16th International Bohém Ragtime & Jazz Festival in Kecskemét, Hungary, in 2007. Her real father is not at all like, say, Jack—the uncultured fictional father in Pretty in Pink, who is played by one of the most working-class faces in Hollywood's history, Harry Dean Stanton.
After years and years of keeping this side of her life a "tight secret," Ringwald met jazz pianist Peter Smith in New York City, liked how he played, and decided to work with him. "I actually met Peter in a play that James Lapine was directing, Modern Orthodox. I was in it, and Peter, who is also an actor, was an understudy. And so we went through almost the whole production with no idea that the other had this background in music. We were at a party for the cast, and Peter sat down at a piano and began to play. I just couldn't believe it, because I did not know many people my age who did that, who could play that kind of music. I knew immediately he was really good, and so I decided to start working with him—this is probably in 2004. But then Peter moved to Los Angeles, and I forgot about it. Then I moved to Los Angeles, and he was the first person I called. So we started working together in 2008, and it was a matter of what songs I know, what songs he knows. And he learned my voice, and I learned his style. Around 2009, we started recording the album with a band."
The musical arrangements on Except Sometimes are solid, and Ringwald's voice is clear, easy to the ears, and moves smoothly between sexy and warm registers. The best tracks on the album are a jazz standard and a cover of a classic new wave tune. The jazz standard is Hoagy Carmichael's "I Get Along Without You Very Well (Except Sometimes)," which she sings with a kind of exhausted vulnerability, like a person who is not only tired of their lover's indifference, but also tired of the awareness that they will never stop loving this indifferent lover. The cover is of Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)," a tune made famous by one (The Breakfast Club) of the three movies that made Ringwald an American pop icon.
"I also have written two books—Getting the Pretty Back: Friendship, Family, and Finding the Perfect Lipstick  and When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories ," she says. "But I know what kind of person you are, and I think that if you ever read them, read the second one first and then read the first one second. The second one has a little more substance."
Molly Ringwald is performing at a benefit concert for Caregifted on Friday, February 28, at the Chihuly Boathouse, along with the pianist Laurence Hobgood and the poets Robert Pinsky and Heather McHugh. Caregifted's mission is to provide rest and relaxation for caretakers of disabled family members—see caregifted.org for details. For tickets to the benefit, see strangertickets.com.