In a slightly smoky voice that brings to mind 1930s and '40s nightclub singers, Mary Koth Lutton sings, "You've Lost That Loving Feeling," accompanying herself on a large keyboard in the living room of her Toms River home. Switching to guitar, the slender woman with short, dark hair softly sings a folk song, her body rocking just the smallest bit from side to side, one foot tapping. Her voice moves effortlessly from deep and low to clear and high.
At age 72, the retired public school teacher of vocal music has returned to the dream of her youth; performing.
Lutton performs for free at libraries, assited-living centers, nursing homes and at fundraisers for nonprofit groups. She also plays professionally, including at a recent regional convention of the Red Hat Society, a global social group for women age 50 and older, held in Harrisburg, Pa.
"Her voice is velvety and perfect for her selection of songs," says Paul Krauss of Toms River, president of the Friends of the Library, a nonprofit citizens group that supports the Toms River Branch of the Ocean County Library.
Her repertoire is "a mixed bag of music," says Lutton, who briefly performed professionally more than 40 years ago. She sings everything from traditional folk and blues, ballads and classical music to rock 'n' roll.
The library group heard about her and invited her to meet with them, Krauss says.
"She delighted us with her life story and with her music," he says. "We all liked her very much so we sponsored a concert with her last spring in Mancini Hall (at the Toms River branch). The response was very good. She tells a story with her performance. She has great audience appeal," says Karuss, retired superintendent of the Tewksbury Townhip School District in Hunterdon County.
Since then, Lutton has performed several times at the library. She also performs at area coffeehouses. And, she's produced two CDs in a professional studio, the music reflecting her eclectic tastes. Her daughter Sage, 35, of West Windsor is a guest vocalist on both. Her elder daughter Jennifer, 38, lives in Edmonds, Wash.
"As a musician, she's excellent," says Patrick Karwan of Toms River, a professional musician with whom Lutton has studied guitar for two years. "Mary was pretty far along as a guitarist. We're working on more intricate chords. A lot of guitarists get to a certain point and feel content, but she's always striving. She'll take on songs that have a more complex chord structure," Karwan adds. "As a fellow guitarist and singer, I give her a lot of credit for choosing songs many wouldn't. For instance, she'll choose a bossa nova and sing it, too, and to play bossa nova really is a lesson in itself."
"Her singing is very nice. She manages a wide range without a break. Many people who sing get a break when they move from the low tones to high tones, or high to low, or they stay in one register," says her husband, William "Bill" J. Lutton Jr., a retired dentist who sang in choirs and choruses in his youth.
"She has an incredible range," Karwan agrees.
Such accolades are appreciated, but for Lutton, the real reward is performing, something she gave up decades ago. In the early 1960's, she was teaching school and also performing. A gig at a hootenanny in 1963 led to meeting several people involved in the folk music world, which led to becoming part of a trio, the All Night Singers. The trio recorded an album in 1964 on the Reprise label and performed at the famed Blue Angel nightclub in Manhattan, but performing wasn't paying the bills. "I was worn down. I ended up in the welfare ward of Beekman Street Hospital (in New York City) with pneumonia, unable to pay a doctor's bill. It's a tough world out there in show biz," she says. "I went back to teaching."
She moved to Ocean County, married, raised two daughters, taught elementary and middle school students. But the dream never died for the woman who played flute in high school and had loved to sing all her life. "I sang my head off in the classroom all those years," she says, laughing. "It was very hard for me to conduct concerts and keep my mouth shut."
In 2005, five years after retiring, she learned of the Acoustic Musicians Guild, a nonprofit group based in Ocean County that is open to musicians who want to preserve and advance acoustic music. "Through them, I started singing again," she says of the group, which meets monthly at Green Planet Coffee Co. in Point Pleasant Beach."
Now, her living room is more rehearsal studio, jam-packed with a piano, keyboards, giant speakers and a Yamaha Clavinova, which is a digital piano. Her husband calls himself her "roadie," packing the car for her performances.
"It feels great. I love it. I'm having the time of my life," she says, smiling. "I've been extremely shy all my life. Now, when I sing, I feel like it's the real me."
Next up is composing. "I'm going to try to write some songs of my own. I've rented a place in Vermont for the fall. I'm going up there with my guitar and a recorder," she says.
Mary Koth Lutton: Press
I wholeheartedly recommend "To Vermont With Love." There is an underlying emotional sincerity running throughout this excellent recording which transcends any ordinary work. From the exquisite packaging to the entirely original musical content, this album is like a breath of fresh Vermont air. Not unlike the picturesque streams and rivers of Vermont, the musical compositions possess a beautiful and distinctive melodic flow. I found the mesmerizing lyrics to range from the deeply romantic to expressing the composer's longing for and love of the natural beauty of the Vermont countryside. The "Lake Champlain Suite" is truly outstanding. It effortlessly inspires one to sense the bucolic atmosphere of this magnificent lake and its surroundings. I believe that is would make a wonderful soundtrack for a motion picture about this region. This is an extraordinary recording which one will wish to repeatedly play.
Roy Everett - President: Pinelands Cultural Society/Albert Music Hall, Waretown, NJ
" Mary Lutton's performances transcend the ordinary; they're not what one expects in a local setting. Rather, Mary is polished; her elegant style lifts you from a coffee house and sets you gently down in a concert hall. Her music draws you in; you find yourself captivated by her guitar and focused on the words of her song. When the song ends it takes one a few moments to come back down from the heights she brought you to....... "