A very diva weekend with Jennifer & Latifah

This weekend just past in San Francisco was a good one for those of us who savor larger-than-life lady singers.

On Saturday, Jennifer Holliday, the Tony Award-winning original Effie Melody White in Dreamgirls, made a rare concert appearance in San Francisco.

The Herbst Theatre was jam packed with Holliday lovers, though the show started out on shaky ground. The band launched into a slow version of “One Night Only” from Dreamgirls, and after about 15 minutes the audience was wondering where the star was? The musical director kept looking back into the wings to see if Holliday was ready yet.

Finally, one of the three backup singers offered a subtle nod, and out came Holliday. For the next two-plus hours, this former Dreamgirl detonated one musical explosion after another. She dusted off some older solo material, like “I Am Love” and “Come Sunday,” and shined up some standards (“Come Rain or Come Shine,” “A Tisket, a Tasket,” “The Nearness of You,” “How High the Moon”).

Everything Holliday sings, she, in her words, “Jenniferizes” it, which is to say, she sings the bloody h— out of it. She has to choose her material carefully (and she does), because she loads up a whole lot of vocal weight and interpretation on the song’s framework. And the song has to be strong to bear up. Holliday almost becomes possessed when she sings, and she takes a song to places you had no idea it could go.

I lost track of the standing ovations. At first it was fans in the first row (and my date) standing after almost every song. Then it was all of us, standing, cheering, whooping and hollering. She did a tribute to Stax records and threw in a little Elvis love with an extraordinary “The Wonder of You.”

Holliday threw in a Christmas tune (“This Christmas”) and, of course, sang her Dreamgirls songs: I am Changing (all I can say is this: wow) and, as her encore, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going”).

I honestly can’t tell you why this woman isn’t a superstar. She’s had bad luck, bad timing and, if rumors can be believed, some true diva moments. But there are undboutedly more difficult people out there who have a lot less talent than Jennifer Holliday.

Someone please get her an extraordinary career.

And on Sunday night at Davis Symphony Hall, Queen Latifah, the Oscar-nominated star of Chicago and Hairspray, made a stop on her mini-tour in support of her latest disc, the standards collection “Trav’lin’ Light.”

Dressed in a black blouse, black slacks and spiky black heels, the warm and funny Latifah impressed with her selection of standards (“I Love Being Here with You,” “Lush Life,” “I’m Gonna Live Til I Die,” “Trav’lin’ Light”), rough blues (“Baby Get Lost”), gentle blues (“Georgia Rose”), funk (“Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”) and the tunes we call show (“I Know Where I’ve Been” from Hairspray).

She also made some missteps. She ended the set with a limp “California Dreamin'” and stretched out “Simply Beautiful” to interminable length and allowed her backup trio (all terrific, but do they all really need solos?) their moments in the spotlight. But it was, frankly, boring.

And she didn’t sing “When You’re Good to Mama,” her song from Chicago. She had time for Phoebe Snow’s “Poetry Man” but not for Matron Mama Morton? Come on, Queen!

Read our music critic Jim Harrington’s review of the Queen Latifah concert here.

Jennifer Holliday: Happy at last

For Jennifer Holliday, the original Effie White in Broadway’s Dreamgirls, life has had its share of nightmare moments.

Only 19 when the tumultuous Dreamgirls development process began, and 21 when the show opened in 1981, Holliday became an instant Broadway legend as soon as audiences heard her sing the show’s standout anthem, “And I Am Telling You I’m Not Going.”

Holliday stayed with the show for three years, and though she won the Tony Award for best actress in a musical, she was unhappy and isolated — a long way away from her Houston, Texas, roots.

And her weight was an issue. Holliday has estimated that at her heaviest, she was 330 pounds or more.

After a string of failures — her recording career never took off, a Broadway-bound show about Mahalia Jackson self-destructed, her nine-month marriage ended in divorce — Holliday attempted suicide on her 30th birthday.

“I caught a lot of bad breaks,” Holliday says in a phone interview. “Some of it was bad luck. Some of it was other people’s stuff. And there’s my accountability for my own faults and mistakes. I’m making no excuses for anything.”

Diagnosed with clinical depression, Holliday began to turn her life around. She lost nearly 150 pounds (through diet and, later, gastric bypass surgery) and bounced back.

The bounce didn’t take her to Dreamgirls heights, but she has managed to eke out a career.

“My primary living has been through corporate dates — private concerts — and events for the gay community,” says Holliday, 47. “A lot of people think I disappeared, but I’ve been working.”

When the movie version of Dreamgirls finally came out last year — 25 years after Holliday’s splash on Broadway — she was back in the news expressing unhappiness about having been shut out of the movie (only Loretta Devine, another of the original Dreamgirls, made a cameo in the film).

“My anger was directed against Paramount and (director) Bill Condon, the people who tried to say: `She’s too old, let’s forget about her and everything she did and built and struggled for and fought for.’ ”

But Holliday has let her anger subside. One thing that helped was singing “And I Am Telling You…” on a BET awards show earlier this year with Jennifer Hudson — “the other Jennifer” — who won an Oscar for playing Effie, the part Holliday helped create.

The two divas stood side by side and belted out the song as if their lives depended on it.

“That was a victorious thing for me,” Holliday says. “More like an Ali-Frazier fight. I was like, `OK, we’re gonna part as friends, but one will leave with the other’s ass kicked.’ For me, this was a victory bout — one for the veterans, the people my age and older who don’t want to be forgotten. We can still do what we do and not be put out to pasture.”

All the attention from the Dreamgirls movie has given Holliday’s career a bump. She’s performing more concerts now, and Saturday (Nov. 24) she’s at the Herbst Theatre in San Francisco.

Of course she’ll sing her Dreamgirls songs, as well as some of the R&B selections from her various albums and some jazz standards, including a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald.

“Whatever I’ve gone through, for whatever reason, I sing better now because of it,” Holliday says. “I would have liked to have not gone through a lot of those things, but I have to admit, my music and songs have more meaning for me now. I think I sing from a different place.”

A resident of Harlem, Holliday does not have a manager or a publicist. She doesn’t have a cell phone or a computer. She does have a MySpace page (www.myspace.com/thejenniferholliday), and she checks it during weekly visits to Kinko’s.

“I’m rebuilding my career,” she says. “I’m finally learning how to make my life work as a human being, even with my depression, even with my career not being where I’d like it to be. Through MySpace and YouTube, I have made new fans, young fans. I have a new lease on life, if not success. The true success story is that I’m alive. That’s the greatest thing I can tell you at this point.”

This Dreamgirl, Holliday says, is happy at last.

“What the future holds, I can’t tell you,” she says. “But I do know at this moment, I’m the happiest I’ve been for so many years.”

Jennifer Holliday performs in concert at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco. Tickets are $37.50 to $77.50. Call 415-392-4400 or visit www.theempireplushroom.com for information.