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Savalas returns to jazz -- and her roots in Duluth

Ariana Savalas, daughter of Telly Savalas, rehearses with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center on Thursday night. (Clint Austin /

It took making a pop song with a super-sexy video featuring a prime time male lead for Ariana Savalas to confirm something she might have suspected about herself:

"I don't really see myself as a pop artist," she said in a phone interview. "I don't want that necessarily to be how I define myself musically. I wanted something much more authentic and much more live -- for people to feel the intimacy that they see in shows."

That meant returning to her niche: jazz.

Savalas, the daughter of Duluth native Julie (Hovland) Savalas and late "Kojak" star Telly Savalas, will perform holiday songs during a concert with the Duluth Superior Symphony Orchestra at 7 p.m. today at Symphony Hall. The Three Altos also are on the bill.

Return of the jazz singer

This isn't Savalas' first show for a Duluth audience: Last year, she was a last-minute substitute and performed a song during the DSSO's New Year's Eve concert. She performed Duke Ellington's "Don't Mean a Thing."

"She was really excellent and people loved her and it was great to work with her," DSSO music director Dirk Meyer said. "We decided: Let's do it again. This time with more notice."

Gloria Hovland, Ariana's grandmother, said it is the singer's ease in front of an audience that most brings to mind her famous father.

"She's fantastic with the people," the Duluth woman said. "When you go see her show, you're part of the show with her. And Telly, of course, he loved his fans."

Last year Savalas released the pop-friendly single "Perfect Man" with a darkly funny video co-starring Eric Dane, "McSteamy" from "Grey's Anatomy."

It was an amazing experience, Savalas said, but ultimately she wanted a less-packaged, more authentic sound. She returned to the jazz scene and has been playing clubs in Los Angeles, Chicago and New York.

Savalas said she considers her father an inspiration.

"I look at my dad's legacy and who he was and how he treated people and how seriously he took the work he did and instead of saying, 'I'm going to ride his coattails,' it inspires me to be the best person I can be," she said. "To never be satisfied and make sure I honor his legacy the best I can."

The Hovland-Savalas story

It's a story Ariana Savalas calls one of her favorites: How her parents met.

Julie Hovland, then a travel agent, took a trip to California with family in August 1977. There was a hiccup with hotel scheduling and the party ended up crammed in a single room at the Sheraton Universal.

Then there were the news reports that Elvis had died, which further dampened moods.

"So my mom says, 'OK, we have to forget this evening and make the best of a bad thing,' " Savalas said. "So they get all dolled up and go downstairs to the restaurant."

And there was Telly Savalas, dining with a group of friends.

Telly Savalas had a 10-point ranking system, and it was rare for a woman to score higher than 7 -- until he saw Hovland in that restaurant, Ariana Savalas said.

"He says, 'Guys, I think I just saw an 11,'?" she said. "After that night, they spent no more than a few days apart in 18 years," she said.

Savalas and Hovland married in 1984. They had two children together, Christian, also a performer, and Ariana. Telly Savalas died of prostate cancer in 1994; Julie Savalas lives in Atlanta.

The relationship captured the imagination of Duluthians, who were quick to spot the bald star at Chinese Lantern or golfing at Northland Country Club when the couple visited Hovland's relatives. There was chatter: Savalas owned a house on Park Point (false); Savalas was secretly the owner of Lakeview Castle ("Not unless it's a secret to me," he told the News Tribune in the early 1980s). In 1982, he worked with H.T. Klatzky & Associates to create a 30-second commercial with the theme "Who loves ya, baby? Duluth does."

"The pace is very different here in Duluth," Telly Savalas told the News Tribune in 1982. "In Duluth you have green grass. In New York, you have streets and subways. ... If Americans can travel to places like Mexico and the French Riviera, then they can come here."