Oklahoma's Darla Z left her career as a legal assistant to sing in the bright lights of Las Vegas 

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It doesn’t take a lot to get Darla Z talking. Within the first minute of our conversation, she’s already reminiscing about the time she met Frank Sinatra (“I was 21. I was so nervous that my lips were shaking.”), setting the scene and recalling details like it happened yesterday. Next thing you know, she’s discussing her set at OKC Jazz Festival, her early life in Stillwater and the time a light fixture fell on her head at a hotel in New Orleans.

But you can’t blame her for her eagerness to share these anecdotes. When you’ve lived a life as varied as Darla, it’s hard not to.

At first, Darla Zuhdi led a fairly ordinary life. She grew up in Stillwater and sang in church. She met her husband Bill when she was 19 and married him when she was 20.

“I started working with him in law practice, and I was a legal assistant for years,” she said. “In doing that, I learned that I liked writing because I really loved writing briefs, which evolved into the Cat Detectives books.”

Darla began writing the series about a group of mystery-solving, globetrotting cats in 2000.

“The Cat Detectives books are so rewarding to me because the motto of the characters is to always protect others, no matter how big or small, and to have integrity when they would travel the world, solving mysteries,” she said. “I think being able to impart that wisdom for the children is the most rewarding thing for me.”

Happy notes

No matter how much Darla loved writing and her paralegal job, she had an unfulfilled passion. She was driving with her husband one day when he turned to her and asked what made her truly happy.

“I said that when I get on stage to sing, it’s just really something else because it’s such a special feeling getting to being able to make people sing and smile,” she said.

Her husband encouraged her. She definitely had experience with music. Growing up, she sang with the Christian Women’s Club with her mother.

“We always used to make the little old women cry when we sang together,” she said.

Her first break came when she and Bill ran into the promoter for an upcoming Willie Nelson show.

“Bill told him I had written a country song and that it was gonna be a huge hit,” she said. “I stood up in the middle of this restaurant and sang the song, and he asked me right there to open for Willie at the Zoo Amphitheatre.”

After performing for over 10,000 people at that concert, she pursued music with more force.

“The next one I opened for was Wayne Newton, and it evolved to me performing in Vegas,” Darla said.

There, she met Bob Rozario, Bobby Darin’s main conductor and pianist, who became a mentor as Darla’s career progressed.

She became a fixture in the Vegas circuit, making multiple appearances, filming two televisions shows and even headlining the iconic South Point Hotel, Casino & Spa.

While Vegas is certainly a highlight of Darla’s career, her favorite performances have been the countless concerts she has done in Oklahoma. Last month, she opened for the iconic Gap Band at OKC Jazz Festival.

Iconic aspirations

Darla’s throwback style is akin to traditional vocalists like Jo Stafford and Connie Francis. Her wardrobe of gowns and silk gloves and her set list reflects this aesthetic. Tunes like “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Unchained Melody” and “As Time Goes By” are sprinkled throughout one of her Vegas specials.

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While there are modern-day artists that Darla admires, she is the first to admit she’s an old soul.

“When I was young, I would sing with my parents the music from the ’30s and ’40s to the point that I could compete neck-and-neck with any old-timer,” she said. “With Sinatra, his phrasing and the way he handles a lyric is something every artist wants to replicate, so I study a lot of his music and the way he breathes.”

Her love of yesteryear extends to her love of film.

“I really want to make a movie, a masterpiece that affects generations instead of just another movie,” Darla said, mentioning that the project she has in mind is already written. “It’s the next progression toward my goal of making something that’s in the style of Gone With the Wind, which is my favorite film.”

Her relationships with Academy Award-nominated directors like John Avildsen, her experience with screenwriting and her passion might also make her film dreams a reality.

For now, Darla keeps herself busy performing and working with Bill at their law firm. At the core of Darla’s drive is her passion for what she does, whether it’s writing, singing or performing.

“There’s always going to be stuff that comes along in your life or naysayers that’ll try and divert you,” Darla said. “But if it’s something you really love and stay focused on — you visualize it, you believe it, you say it and you focus on it — it’ll become a reality.”

Print headline: Dauntless Darla, Oklahoma paralegal Darla Z has made a name for herself as a writer and Las Vegas singer.

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