Billy Vera on his new album “Big Band Jazz”, Buble “At This Moment”, Ray Charles, a Grammy win and more.. by Karen A. Brown Follow @IndieStardust
I had the honor of speaking with brilliant songwriter, performer and actor, Billy Vera, about his latest album, his Grammy win last month and his musical journey though the years.
BV: I’ve wanted to do a big band album for years and the royalties from Michael Buble’s recording of my song “At This Moment” provided the financing. I procrastinated so long that now everybody seems to be doing a standards album, so I figured I’d better come up with something to make mine stand out from the pack. Someone said, “What do you know better than anyone else?” I thought about it and realized that I have a great knowledge of black music and the history of black showbiz. So I decided the theme would be songs by the great black songwriters of the 1920s, 30s and 40s.
This theme served a second purpose. I wanted to celebrate the successes of these men and women. I get so tired of seeing blacks portrayed as victims when it would be more productive to instill a pride in the accomplishments of these great composers, like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Buddy Johnson and others.
We recorded at Capitol’s famed Studio A, where Sinatra, Nat Cole, Dean Martin and Nancy Wilson made their classic recordings and hired 18 of LA’s finest jazz musicians. We recorded live, no overdubs, just like the old days, to get the proper, authentic feel for the music.
Billy Vera performing, “A Room with a View” from his new album “Big Band Jazz”
KAB: You finally and deservedly earned your first GRAMMY for Best Album Notes for Ray Charles’ Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles at the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards in February. Tell us how it felt the moment your name was called and a bit about your history with Ray Charles.
BV: This was my fourth nomination, so I knew not to get too excited beforehand. My last one was for Ray’s 50th anniversary box set. Since I consider Ray Charles to be the most important musical figure of the second half of the 20th Century, I was surprised not to win that time. I’ve annotated and/or produced over 200 historical reissues, including eight of Ray’s music. I even got to record him once, a duet with Lou Rawls. He’s long been my musical hero and greatest influence, although I sing nothing like him.
We arrived late, thanks to my date’s hairdresser, and got there just as the category before mine was being announced. We hadn’t even gotten seated when they called my name. She screamed and I ran down the aisle, afraid they might hand it off to one of the models, my date running after me, whooping and shooting photos with her little cell phone. I kept my speech short and sweet, as I’m not a fan of long-winded acceptances.
KAB: How did your connection with Michael Buble and your journey with “At This Moment” on Michael’s album “Crazy Love” come to be?
BV: I have no idea whose idea it was for Buble to record my song. Every so often, I check Youtube, to see if there’s any new action on my songs and one day I stumbled across Michael’s live version, so I did a little digging and discovered he’d recorded it.
KAB: How long has it been on the charts now?
BV: It entered the charts at #1 in October, 2009 and remains on the British charts to this day.
KAB: Are you and Michael working on any other projects together or will you be
in the near future?
BV: I’ve never met Michael or anyone from his circle. I pitched a song to his manager, but was told he co-writes his singles and the rest of his albums contain well-known standards, like “At This Moment.”
BV: I mostly write on piano, but occasionally on guitar. I wrote my first #1 hit, “I Really Got The Feeling,” recorded by Dolly Parton, on guitar.
KAB: The music industry has changed drastically from when you began, what advice would you give to new writers/performers?
BV: I honestly wouldn’t know what to do if I had to start my career today. There’s far more people competing and fewer people willing to listen to a new person. Yet, some always manage to find a way. The best advice I can offer is to find that thing inside you that makes you different and allow that to emerge. The world doesn’t need copycats. Originals always have the best chance of making it.
BV: I’m not a big fan of those shows generally. There seems to be an over-the-top formula for winning that isn’t about originality.
KAB: If you had to choose the top 6 favorite songs you’ve written throughout the
years, which would they be?
That’s a hard question, like asking which of your children is your favorite. It changes from one day to the next. But some of my favorites are “Hopeless Romantic,” “Let You Get Away,” “Someone Will School You, Someone Will Cool You,” “Room With A View,” “If I Were A Magician” and “Good Morning Blues.”
KAB: Would you tell us a bit about Lou Rawls and what it was like working with
BV: Lou had one of the unique voices ever, one of the last of a breed, the great black baritones. He trusted me and never argued over my song choices. My partner, Michael Cuscuna and I got him after a down period in his career. Our boss at Blue Note Records, Bruce Lundvall, told us to take him back to the kind of music he became originally famous for: blues and jazz. We surrounded him with some of the finest musicians of the genre. The first album, At Last, reached #1 on the jazz charts and the next two made the top five. A few years later, for Savoy Records, I produced his final album, Rawls Sings Sinatra, which remained on the charts for six months.
KAB: Any other great stories from the past that you can share? A special
recording session? Live show?
BV: My first hit record as an artist was a duet with Judy Clay, who was a member of the great gospel group, The Drinkard Singers, with Cissy Houston (Whitney’s mother) and Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick and their mother, Lee Drinkard. We were the first interracial duo to sing love songs. The first time we played the Apollo Theater in Harlem, it was quite a shock, as no one had seen a picture of us, so when I made my entrance, you could hear 1500 people gasp. I heard people saying, “That’s him?”
They had put us on in the second spot, which is the worst spot in a show, in case we didn’t go over well. But after the first show, the stage manager came to our dressing room and said, “I’m switching up the show. You’re going on right before the star, ’cause ain’t nobody gonna be able to follow you two.” We turned out to be very popular in Harlem and our photo is still on the wall in the lobby, after over 40 years.
BV: That was Angie Dickinson’s doing. She nominated me and the Hollywood Chamber of Commerce voted. To be frank, I was a little uncomfortable, as I feared I wasn’t a big enough “name” to have a star and I was afraid people might write nasty things about me, thinking I didn’t deserve it. But it turned out fine and people were happy for me.
KAB: How did you step into the acting arena and what are your most memorable roles?
BV: Jon Voight, who’s the brother of my early songwriting mentor, Chip Taylor, came in the club one night with his acting teacher, David Proval and talked me into attending his class. They thought I’d make a good actor. After a while, I was asked to be in plays and eventually a movie, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai, which became a cult film that people still ask about all these years later.
Most of my roles have been smaller ones, but occasionally I got to play parts that were more well rounded, like the TV show Wise Guy, where I was the central guest part that week. I was also in Oliver Stone’s The Doors and Blind Date, directed by Blake Edwards.
BV: I’d like to thank the fans for allowing me to make a living at what I love to do, for all these years. I feel lucky that I never had to take a real job!
Follow Billy Vera on Twitter @billybeater
Michael Buble singing “At This Moment” by Billy Vera
Ricky Nelson was the first to record one of Billy Vera’s songs. Mean Old World, written by Billy Vera for Ricky Nelson