Difficult to notice over the din but spreading some of the joy is vocalist Nicole Henry. A willowy young woman, she sways from side to side on a stool in the corner, her strong shoulders jutting from a body-hugging powder-blue strapless dress. On her right Lou Duvin sits casually strumming a Heritage electric guitar. To her left, a set of cupped hands belonging to Ignacio Nuñez caress congas and bongos. Guarded by a huge fishtail palm tree, Henry unleashes her voice and it bounces off the polished terra cotta floor: "Here I am, baby/Signed, sealed, delivered, I'm yours." Only her cohorts and the six overhead ceiling fans that sit absolutely still give her their full attention.
No matter. Henry has her banter down pat, joking about having to "break out the disco ball" for a double-time rendition of Donna Summer's hit "Bad Girls," which she sails through smoothly and soulfully. A jazzy cover of the Rufus tune "Tell Me Something Good" highlights her amazing versatility and supple voice, which stretches from a soft whisper to low grunt -- and everywhere in between -- imparting shades of Whitney Houston.
The road to being a saloon singer hasn't been easy. And luckily it's not the occupation to which Henry wants to devote her life. Her ambition is to act, and so far she has filled her résumé with appearances in local commercials, industrial training films, theater productions, movies, and TV shows. If Amtrak manages to stay afloat, she'll soon mark her first national appearance in an ad for the train carrier.
But if the thespian gig doesn't work out, she'll always have singing. "I never thought of doing music as a career," Henry admits. "I think because of my parents. They never said no. They just always pushed college." And attending the University of Miami on a full scholarship to study architecture is what brought her here from her Pennsylvania home eleven years ago. A few years into the program, designing buildings was discarded in favor of a double major in theater performance and advertising communication.
Graduating in 1997 led to a job coordinating events at the local chapter of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the organization that presents the Grammy Awards, but that's not what got her on a microphone. She met dance producer and DJ Noel W. Sanger and recorded "Miracle," which struck the Billboard dance music charts for eight weeks in 1998. From 1997 through 2000, she'd take off spare time and tour with Sanger in nightclubs and at raves. In 2000 a background singing job with blues rockers Robert Bradley's Blackwater Surprise at SunFest led to her hitting the road with that band for six weeks. "It was awesome," she recalls. "I love planes, I love buses, I love per diems!" Back from touring, she resigned her position and spent five more months with the band, performing across the country and even appearing on CBS's The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn.
Off the musical grind in late 2000, Henry returned to Miami determined to perfect her acting and songwriting skills. She commenced acting classes and sang with the bands the Specialists and Fortified, which included Lou Duvin. Meanwhile she was going on auditions and castings, and singing occasionally on weekends to CD tracks at Palm Beach clubs. Short of money in the fall of 2001, she did a stint at Jazid and moved on to short-lived gigs playing with some thunderous funk outfits. "I realized, I don't want to be one of these diva women onstage screaming their heart out," she says. "It wasn't suited for me."
What fit her just fine was pairing with Duvin at the Palms in November 2001. "The duo thing, it's a lot of work," she says. "It's just two instruments that have to sustain the whole evening, but it's fun." Duvin concurs: "We're naked! It's naked." On any given night guest musicians sit in. Their diverse repertoire can range from Stevie Wonder's funky "Superstition," to Howard Jones's contemplative "No One is to Blame," to one of Duvin's originals, "Red, White, and Blues," an account of vaguely discontented patriotism.
A fellow chanteuse slogging away in the local trenches once advised Henry she had the ability to go beyond singing in Miami. And the way things look, Henry may. She recently earned another notable credit when "My Love for You," a track she sang and co-wrote with DJ Patrick Green, came out on Lazy Dog, Volume 2, a compilation of cuts chosen by London DJs Jay Hannan and Ben Watt -- the latter of noted U.K. duo Everything But the Girl -- in honor of their deep-house dance party of the same name. She's also created a video and logged hours in the recording studio under the direction of Juan Pablo Manzanero, son of famed Mexican composer and crooner Armando Manzanero, whose magic touch helped make a superstar of Latin balladeer Luis Miguel. Perhaps the famous offspring's guidance may one day do the same for her?
"She has such enormous talent and charisma," effuses the soft-spoken Manzanero. "A lot of presence and a beautiful voice. I thought she was already on a label and had been produced. She's a complete artist. She can be whatever she wants because she has that thing you can't learn, you just have it."
Henry plans to leave Miami this winter and storm Los Angeles -- CDs, DVDs, and headshots in hand. Sustaining her will be prodigious gifts and unflagging optimism. "I'm not afraid of what other people have," she says emphatically. "I only know what I have and what I can do, and I think it can measure up to anything that's out there."