The Cabaret Chronicles: Spotlight on William Blake!
William Blake, "a shy young Texan with a powerful tenor" (LA Times), has been taking the NYC nightlife scene by storm. Since his move to New York in 2007, he's racked up performances at just about every club in the city, including Birdland, Feinstein's at Loews Regency, The Metropolitan Room, Don't Tell Mama, and Uncle Charlie's. He's also graced the stage at Carnegie Hall (where he was invited by Michael Feinstein to perform in Mr. Feintsein's show, "Standard Time"), as well as Town Hall, where he shared the stage with Liza Minnelli, Lucie Arnaz, Chita Rivera, and Marilyn Maye, among others. In May 2011, he released his first live album, Live From New York City, which was recorded at Birdland in September 2010). Currently, he's hard at work preparing a tribute to Etta James (which he will perform at Birdland on Monday, June 4th), as well as co-starring alongside Andrea McArdle and Constantine Maroulis in the new Air Supply Musical, Lost In Love. Cabaret Chronicles author Jenna Esposito had a few minutes to chat with this rising star about his upcoming projects, his move to NYC, and more!
Jenna Esposito: So, William, you have had yourself quite a year! A new CD, being cast in Lost In Love [the new Air Supply musical], preparing your Etta James tribute, rave reviews across the boards…how does it all feel?
William Blake: It’s feeling good, it feels like things are happening, which is nice. The Etta James show has been a lot of fun for me and also very rewarding, because I’ve been doing a lot of research. I think it’s the most important show I’ve done so far. It’s been very fulfilling learning about her, selecting songs, working with Michael [Michael Thomas Murray, the musical director for Echoes of Etta: A Tribute to Etta James]…
Lost In Love is still in its early stages but I think it has a lot of potential; I could see it being the next Mamma Mia! It’s interesting having it set in England in 1915 but it works! I think Graham [Russell, of Air Supply] said it best – the songs are timeless. I think the show definitely has somewhere to go.
JE: You’ve done a few staged readings of it, right?
WB: Yes, we did 2 industry readings at Ripley-Grier, with Constantine Maroulis, Andrea McArdle, Justin Matthew Sargent, and a slew of other really talented people. The book and music are great, and the arrangements that Josh Freilich & Jonathan Ivie did are spectacular. And we have another reading at the Triad next month, which is a benefit for the Actors’ Fund – such a great cause. Haha, it’s right after the Etta James show! I’m going to be exhausted – singing my butt off in the Etta James show one night and then belting out ‘80s power ballads the next!
JE: I want to talk a little bit more about the Etta James show. Can you tell me a little bit about how the project came about?
WB: Well, last year, around October or November, we were thinking of going into the studio and doing an Etta album. But I didn’t know what was going on with her, health-wise. I knew she’d been ill, but I didn’t know how serious it was. And then in January, she passed away, so we thought it would be too soon to do an album. But then Michael and I had the idea to do a tribute show – one night only, just a tribute to her. At first, we were going to make it small, no backup singers, just a rhythm section, but after listening to all of her recordings, we couldn’t do it that way. You have to DO it! In addition to Michael Murray (who did all the arranging for the show) on keys, we have Steve Kelly on drums, Oscar Bautista on guitar, Mike Preen on bass, Matthew Polashek on sax, and Stephany Mora, Shira Elias and Ashley Betton on backup vocals. I call them (the backup vocalists) my Peaches because that’s the name of the group Etta sang with when she was younger. We’re all getting together to rehearse this weekend, and I’m so excited – it’s going to be amazing to hear it all come together. As far as the show, there are songs that people haven’t heard before, songs that people haven’t heard for a long time, and of course the classics – I think people would throw things at me if I didn’t do “At Last.” I think it’s the way she’d want it to go.
JE: How did you narrow down the song list? That must have been hard!
WB: It WAS hard! I wanted it to be extensive, from 1955, when she started with the Peaches, through her last album, which just came out last year. I really wanted it to be from the start to finish of her career, picking the songs I like. You look at this one part of her life, though, where she was doing some funky R&B stuff, which was great, but when you’re doing a show about Etta James, and trying to stick to people’s general idea of who she was, you’ve got to be a little more streamlined. It has to have a good arc, and there are certain songs that just didn’t work, and unfortunately, we had to put those on the back burner. And hopefully, we’ll do another show where we can cover that period of her life. But basically, we’re trying to maintain that comprehensive show I’d envisioned from the beginning, but we DO have to condense it into an hour and 20 minute, hour and 30 minute show!
JE: What’s been your favorite part about putting this show together?
WB: My favorite part has been the research. I love watching interviews and concert footage - what did we ever do without YouTube? It’s been so helpful! I’ve read her autobiography, spoken with people who knew her and worked with her...I had the chance to speak with Cedar Walton, who worked on her jazz albums. I asked him if he knew that her first Grammy win was for the album he worked on with her (Mystery Lady: Songs of Billie Holiday, which came out in 1994) and he didn’t - I even took him by surprise! Growing up, she listened to Billie, Dinah Washington, all those great ladies of jazz – she really looked up to them, even though she was more R&B. But the two styles really have such an influence on each other, so it makes sense that she listened to and looked up to the jazz greats…and I think it makes a whole lot of sense that we’re doing the tribute to her at a jazz house. Getting to speak to people like Cedar and doing the research has been amazing. I just wanted to get her in my brain. I knew if I could just get her into my mind, my heart could come into play as well, getting the show together. And if a song doesn’t mean anything to you, you shouldn’t be doing it. And with her, every song meant something, because she lived it all. Heartbreak, sorrow, the wrong men, drugs and alcohol abuse…she sang about it, she knew it, and she earned it. I do connect with her in certain ways on certain things, but I haven’t had nearly the life she had. But when a song would tug on my heartstrings, when I connected with it and I knew that she had connected with it, then that song had to go into the show – and stay!
JE: I know you’ve only got the one night booked for now. If it’s a smashing success (which I know it will be), would you consider bringing it back for a longer run or maybe making that CD?
WB: Of course – both. Michael and I would both love to see if it has a life outside of this one night. We’d love to package it, travel with it…you never can tell. And I do want to go into the studio – I’m dying to get back into the studio. The live album (Live From New York City, recorded at Birdland in September 2010 and released in May 2011) was a tremendous amount of fun – I was the executive producer, had the final say, everything! And I’d love to do that again, but in the studio. And I wouldn’t do it with anyone other than Michael – he’s just amazing.
JE: You have such an incredible voice – I often refer to it as a “freak-of-nature” voice (in the best possible way, of course!). When did you first discover you could sing the way you do?
WB: I always knew that I could sing; there was always music in my house growing up. I started doing musical theater when I was 9, but I didn’t know I could belt a song until I was around 12. I was in an audition for a show on a stage I’d been on many times before, and something happened. All of a sudden, I was able to send my voice from the stage to the back of the room with no problem. Also, I have a good ear; I listened to a lot of artists and tried to emulate them.
JE: Who did you listen to?
WB: Otis Redding, Sm Cooke, The Temptations, Patti LaBelle, Ike & Tina, Whitney Houston, Etta James… my mother had this 1987 Cadillac Fleetwood and she’d always turn it to the oldies station and I love her for that! I really enjoyed listening to her music, which became my music. Later in life, I became a more well-rounded musician for having listened to those songs.
JE: What’s on your iPod now?
JE: You moved here from Texas 5 years ago. What prompted the move, and are you happy you made it?
WB: Well, I felt like while I was in Dallas, I did everything that I possibly could. I did theatre, American Idol [he made it to Hollywood!], gigs here and there, and I said to myself, “I’m ready for more. “ It was hard leaving my family, but I knew if I wanted to keep doing what I loved to do, I had to be here. Am I happy? Of course! I live in the best city in the world, where I can go see any kind of show I want and be inspired, be enthralled, and remember why I love this profession so much.
JE: Since moving to New York, you’ve gotten to work with some pretty incredible people. In fact, one of your first performances in New York was with Michael Feinstein at Carnegie Hall. What was that like?
WB: It was a very cool day, haha! He is just so kind and he’s so inspiring AND he’s a gifted, talented performer on top of it. He plays his butt of at the piano, sings his heart out…so to be on his stage for one night was just amazing. Looking back on it, it was a very cool evening. There was a lot of electricity on that stage. And the audience was warm & welcoming as well.
JE: Out of all of the performances you’ve done, is there any one that sticks out in your mind as a defining moment for you?
Wow, that’s a hard question! There are a few …the last show I did at Birdland, which was my CD release, our closing number was “A Little Help From My Friends.” That was my tribute to the audience, and I just became transported on that song. And the audience just lifted up from their seats and I immediately started crying. There was a night at Cast Party – thank God for Jim Caruso and his Cast Party – there have been so many amazing nights! I’ve gotten to sing with Ann Hampton Callaway, Jane Monheit, Larry Gatlin…people don’t know what they’re missing if they haven’t gone. Magic happens there! Carnegie Hall was great, too, but we’ve already covered that, haha!
JE: If you could hang out with any performer, living or dead, who would it be?
WB: Etta James. I’d like to sit down and talk about everyone she’s ever worked with in her entire life. I feel like I know her now, but to actually talk with her would be amazing – and I never had that opportunity.
JE: So, what’s next for you?
WB: An album – whether it’s Etta James, or songs that I write or somebody else writes, I really want to get into the studio. I love live performance, but the studio is just as enthralling and enriching as live performance, just in a different way.
JE: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! Before I let you go, is there anything else you want the world to know about you?
WB: I love, love, love, love, love movies. I adore movies, and am a big movie buff. I can tell you who won what Oscar, when…I am an IMDB-er to the max! The app is on my iPhone. I’m a geek.
"Echoes of Etta: A Tribute to Etta James" will play at Birdland on Monday, June 4th at 7:00 p.m. (doors open at 6:00 p.m.). Tickets are $30 and may be purchased at www.birdlandjazz.com. There is a $10 food/drink minimum per person.
Photo by Derek Storm