At a recent show in Wisconsin, Molly Ringwald got a surprise: a fan showed up with a cassette tape of Ringwald, at just three years old, passionately singing a Bessie Smith song.
"It completely floored me, and I thought they were wrong at first," says Ringwald, by phone from her home in Los Angeles. "I was singing 'A Good Man is Hard to Find,' and totally belting it out and feeling it."
For audiences who grew up watching the pouty, smart, redheaded actress in iconic John Hughes movies like The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, and Sixteen Candles, it might come as a surprise that Ringwald started singing jazz so young. Like, just-out-of-diapers young.
The cassette recording would have been made around the time that the precocious actress-to-be started performing with her father, the jazz pianist and music aficionado Bob Ringwald. By the age of six, Ringwald had recorded a full-length album with her father's band. Released in 1975, I Want to Be Loved By You: Molly Sings features songs by Smith as well as Helen Kane, the American singer who provided the inspiration for Betty Boop. These are the standards the Ringwalds performed together at outdoor festivals and concerts in the Sacramento area, where the family lived before moving to Los Angeles in the late seventies.
"My parents were protective," says Ringwald, who now has three kids of her own. "I wasn't able to sing certain songs, because a lot of blues stuff, like 'I Want a Little Sugar in My Bowl,' was racy. Or sometimes they would just change the lyrics a little bit."
As for her own children, Ringwald is letting them go on their own musical journey. "All of my kids are very musical and they all have specific tastes in music," says Ringwald. "I've introduced them to jazz, but they are finding their own tastes."
In 2013, after a decades-long career in acting that established her as an icon of 1980s film (and after writing two books), Ringwald publicly returned to her singing roots, releasing an album of Great American Songbook classics titled Except Sometimes. The album showcases Ringwald's sultry voice, and a way with phrasing that Stephen Holden, in the New York Times, called "decisive" and "not demure."
Reared on traditional jazz, Ringwald discovered Ella Fitzgerald as a teenager, later delving into the catalogs of Blossom Dearie, as well as Susannah McCorkle, an elegant and iconoclastic American jazz singer who committed suicide in 2001.
"I had already developed my own style before I discovered Susannah McCorkle," Ringwald says. "But I really admire how she interpreted songs. She didn't have a perfect voice, but she had so much meaning and feeling into what she did."
Ringwald's debut album included versions of "Sooner or Later," "I'll Take Romance," and "The Very Thought of You." Recording songs from the Great American Songbook came as a natural progression for someone who'd been a jazz performer, and listener, at such a young age. Plus, she adds, the songs stand the test of time.
"They're just really well-written," Ringwald says. "They are incredibly witty and relevant to everything that's going on today. A lot of songs can be cliché, but I find that the songs I choose are not cliché at all."
Ringwald's musical taste also has a decidedly modern twist. On Except Sometimes, as a tribute to John Hughes, she included a slow-burning version of "Don't You (Forget About Me)," the Simple Minds song made famous as the theme to The Breakfast Club. And in a recent Twitter post, she declared: "If I had three albums to take to a desert island, I would choose The Magnetic Fields' 69 Love Songs Volume 1, 2 and 3."
"He's amazing," Ringwald enthuses about Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephen Merritt. "I'm always looking for people to be the new inductees to the Great American Songbook -- because it has to remain going -- and I definitely think he merits, excuse the pun, being added to the canon." She recalls attending Merritt's 50th birthday party recently, and how she got to meet the real Reno Dakota in the flesh. "I couldn't believe he was a real person," she says excitedly.
These days, between acting, singing, writing, and mothering, Ringwald stays busy. Her novel in stories came out to mixed reviews in 2012. She's possibly working on another book. And she's been on the road with her band for the last few months. "We've added so many new songs to the set that I think it might be time to do a new album," says Ringwald. The band's current set includes takes on the lush Billie Holiday favorite "Don't Explain" and the Rodgers and Hart ballad "It Never Entered My Mind."
As for the future, aside from a desire to learn another language, play the guitar, and direct, Ringwald would love to see her varied talents come together at some point. "I imagine that a story I've written will become a movie, and that the soundtrack will use one of my songs," she says. "I have a fantasy that everything I've done will converge into one project."