Cigarette smoke clouds the dimly-lit nightclub’s air. San Diego’s young, elite, powerful, and infamous—looking to let their hair down—mob the then-small town’s most popular nightspot, Frank Harris’ Hillcrest Hide-A-Way. They crowd the twin bars at front and back. Sway on the jammed dance floor. Share drinks in one of the few booths or smattering of tables. A diminutive blonde chanteuse, fronting a four-piece band, stands at the microphone. She is very young. Wears her hair in an updo. Her lips are painted with bright red lipstick. Stylish heels adorn her feet, and a black, off-shoulder evening dress frames her figure. She opens her mouth and steals their hearts.
On any given night from nine to one a.m., the daytime secretary/radio and TV ad exec might be heard entertaining one of her daytime employers, then-Congressman Bob Wilson. Mayor Charlie Dail and members of his city council may have dropped in after a session at City Hall. Her friend, bail bondsman King Stahlman, would likely to be found on the dance floor dressed to the nines. During a break, she might share a drink with Frank Dragna, manager of the downtown Gold Rail Bar and partner with local Mafia chieftain Frank Bompensiero, to whom she once gave a ride to the El Cortéz.
That was six decades ago—in the mid-1950s, when Blu Cava, once proclaimed the city’s greatest vocalist, exuded gravel, guts, bounce, and blues; doing what she had done “since before I knew how to talk.”
Amid this backdrop, Blu raised a son, conquered a challenging daytime employment schedule, and honed her voice. And, as anyone who heard her at one of the many venues she called home could attest, she could sing. While sitting recently inside her memorabilia-adorned home near SDSU, her friend and assistant Julie McCormick convinced the perky and smartly clad former entertainer to allow her interviewer to hear the voice.
Julie slipped a disc into a decades old boom box. Blu’s interviewer stopped in mid-question. Even the poor sound quality of a digitized tape fails to belie the vibrancy of a piano-accompanied voice that sounds as distinctive as it is a dead-ringer for Billie Holiday.
“I didn’t try to sound like her,” Blu mildly protested at the comparison. “I had my own distinctive style.”