BWW Interview: Billy Stritch of LET'S START THE NEW YEAR RIGHT at Birdland
Anyone who doesn't agree that Billy Stritch is the hardest working man in the nightclub business should spend a week with him. The regularly in-demand musical director and pianist can be found on a different stage, in a different club, every night of the week, even if it means playing a show in Manhattan and rising at dawn the next day to fly to another city to play a different show there. On some occasions, he has been clocked playing a 7 pm at Birdland and a 9:30 at Feinstein's/54 Below. How he does it is a mystery, but why he does it is apparent to the naked eye. One has only to sit in the audience and watch Billy Stritch behind the piano for any one of the multitudes of artists for whom he plays to see true love in action. Billy Stritch truly loves the singer, and he truly loves the song. Like blood flowing through veins or oxygen through lungs, music permeates the person of this musician fabulous and fine. That is the gift that Billy Stritch brings to his colleagues, his followers, and his fans.
A child prodigy, Stritch started out behind the family keyboards, playing songs from memory and committing to the music book in his mind a catalog of melodies to rival the ASCAP archives. Having built a thriving career in the clubs and the recording studios, on Broadway and in Nashville, Billy Stritch is the diamond in the center of the crown that is the cabaret community of the world, and he is shining particularly brightly as we transition into a new year and a new decade.
On New Year's Eve, Billy Stritch will begin a week-long run at Birdland alongside his long-time collaborator, Marilyn Maye. On New Year's Day, Billy Stritch will begin a four-night run of his own show LET'S START THE NEW YEAR RIGHT at Birdland. Eleven days after ending his solo show's performances, Billy Stritch will begin a four-night run of STRAIGHTEN UP AND FLY RIGHT - the Nat King Cole Tribute show that he does with Clint Holmes at Birdland. Even while performing in these three shows, Stritch will continue his work at CAST PARTY, the open mic night that takes place at Birdland every Monday night. One suspects an Equity cot has been installed at the famed jazz club with Billy Stritch's name on it. Whatever vitamins Mr. Stritch is taking to get through the month of January, they should be packaged and sold, because he is the undisputed Boy Wonder of the nightclub scene.
Before going into the final push for New Year's Eve, Billy Stritch was kind enough to spend half an hour on the phone with me, chatting about his life, his work, and how, like Old Man River, he just keeps rolling along.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Billy, I've often heard people say music is their life, but watching your weekly appearances for the last half of this year, I can see that that is really the case with you. I think there have been weeks when I've seen you play for a different show almost every night of the week. What is the secret to staying so active in your work?
I realize how lucky I am to do what I really enjoyed doing. I don't know if there's a secret to it per se, but I think that when you do something you love and you put it out there as often as I am able to it just seems to steamroll and come back to you. This past year's been one of the busiest years I've ever had, sometimes I don't even know what's happening from week to week, but I'm awfully grateful to have the work and to be making a living doing music that I love -- not only my own music, but playing for a long list of fantastic singers, and also from the singers that I get to play for a Mondays at the open mic, Cast Party. That's always a trip, and it's a lot of fun, it keeps me on my toes because it's nothing planned and that actually really is something I have to put a lot of energy into. But it's great. It keeps me on my game. So as far as the secret, I'm not sure there's a secret. I just kind of keep my eyes forward and keep moving ahead. I'm just thrilled to be working. What can I say?
I'm sure that for every artist for whom you play, you have a music book and everything. But even with that guidance, do you have nights where you just kind of have to shake your head clear so that you can figure out where you are and what you're doing?
Some nights are easier than other nights. I'm lucky that I have a real innate sensibility of how I feel the music should go. I get inspired once I show up at the gig and I see the people ready to see the show. It really puts me in a great space. I just stop and all of a sudden I'm transported and I hope that I do that for the audience as well because when I'm on stage and doing what I love to do, it's like there's nothing else in the world, that hour there is just nothing else on my mind. It's a great connection that I have with the audience, with the performer I'm working with, with the fans I'm working with. That's one of the wonderful things about performing is that, for whatever time you're out there performing, you're able to elevate yourself above whatever you've been going through, whatever is happening in the world, whatever forces might be working to bring you down. It's just incredible energy that brings you up. I just love it when I've finished a show. I'm just high as a kite because it's such a great energy. It's a great flow that goes through me.
Billy, this started for you at a very early age, didn't it?
I was hooked into music from the time that I could... well I was lucky we had a piano in the house. Some of my earliest memories are of climbing up on the piano bench and banging on the keys and being surprised by that and by being able to pick up melodies. I can't really remember what the first melody is that I picked up but I know that I always heard music. I was aware that I heard music on TV. I imagine it was because, like most kids in my generation, I was watching TV all the time. So I started when I was five or six, and then I started really being into the music of the Great American Songbook at a very young age too because luckily I grew up at a time when there was still a lot of variety shows like Carol Burnett and Sonny and Cher and I got on the very tail end of Ed Sullivan, where you could hear all this. I remember when I was 10 years old, my grandmother gave me a Gershwin songbook and I really devoured that. It's just music that I really resonated with and that I really had a feel for. It's something that I had an ear for and developed this encyclopedic knowledge of -- these great songs. I can't remember a time I didn't do it.
You're also one of the most gifted singers in the business. At what point did the piano playing lead to you learning to be a singer as well?
Well, I always sang in the church choir... and when I did my first sort of professional gig I was 15 and playing piano at the local country club. And I realized that if I got requests, it was a piano bar. I would get requests for songs and the people would sing along and they would encourage me to sing. I was a little hesitant at first but then I realized that if you knew the lyrics to a song that it just opened up a whole world. So I started singing in my gigs when I was 15, 16, 17. And then I was in a vocal group all through my twenties and that's when I really took it seriously. I spent nine years singing in clubs and cabarets and concert halls all over the world. And then when I went solo I was 29 -- when the group broke up. That's when I started studying voice seriously with a great teacher. That's when I really decided to take vocal parts seriously. I just love it so much - nothing makes me happier than to sing. I'm just a big ham when it comes to that. I think as you get older you realize you're able to delve deeper into lyrics. Love songs you might have heard when you're young but don't mean anything, all of a sudden take on a whole new meaning when you get older. So, it's my pleasure to do wonderful standard songs and interpret them and bring them to the audience... songs that hopefully will live forever.
How many different vocal groups have you belonged to?
Well, I was just in the one vocal group. I was in a group called Montgomery, Mayes, and Stritch with Sarah Montgomery and Sally Mayes. And then when Sally Mayes left the group, we had another girl name named Rebecca Plant, and we became Montgomery, Plant, and Stritch. So we did this, all told, for almost nine years. And I always loved singing harmony. I still love singing harmony. I'm able to do that with Christine Ebersole, with Linda Lavin, and with Marilyn Maye, nothing makes me happier than to sing with somebody and to jump onto the harmony parts. And I always think, someday, if I find the right group of people, it would be fun to do that again because I love vocal group singing. I love listening to Take Six and Manhattan Transfer and any sort of really great vocal blending is fantastic. There's a real art to it of course, but it makes me very happy to jump up on the harmony parts for sure.
You just mentioned three of your regular collaborators. Your collaborations with artists -- are they friendships that become work relationships, or do you take on clients and the friendships are built out of the work relationship?
Usually, they're friendships that become work, and certainly in the cases of the three that I've mentioned. Marilyn Maye was the first nightclub performer that I ever heard. I was turned on to her when I was 17 years old. She was working a lot in my hometown of Houston and people that knew older musicians encouraged me to go see this woman who was a fantastic singer. I didn't know what nightclub singing or cabaret singing was even about at that point, but she changed my life! Seeing someone take the stage and really entertain the crowd. Up to that point, I'd only seen people who sang songs kind of in sets. But I saw that and I was like, "That's what I want to be a part of." So I kind of forced my friendship onto Marilyn. We laugh about this now, but I sort of showed up every night, and I sort of would follow her around the place and just kind of stalk her a little bit. I just had to know this woman, and so we became friends. She came to hear me, shortly after, at a gig that I was doing and she approved for what I did. And by that point, I had already heard her act so many times that I had committed a lot of her special arrangements to memory, which I think impressed her too. Within about a year and a half, I was doing work with her, when her regular pianist wasn't able to be there. She hired me to work, work with her. So I started playing with her when I was 19. So that was certainly a friendship that's lasted, lo, these almost 40 years. In the case of Christine Ebersole, we met while we were both performing in the revival of 42nd Street. We struck up a great friendship and a couple of years later our mutual lawyer, Mark Sendroff, suggested that we put an act together, that we'd be a good match. And he was certainly right. And certainly, in the case of Linda Lavin, we met years ago, we became instant friends and she had started to do a nightclub act, a cabaret show, and she did it for about a year with another musical director. I went out of town to hear her and she gave me a ride back after the show, back to New York and I just said, "Why am I not playing the show?" And not that I was trying to horn in on it, but she said, "Well, I just thought you'd be too busy or that you wouldn't be interested." And I said, "God, we will be fantastic. We would have great times together." And we certainly have -- it's been about 16 or 17 years. So, I'm lucky. Usually, these collaborations do come out of friendships and in almost every case, I've been able to thankfully work with people who I really enjoy being with, who I really enjoy traveling with, who we really have similar sensibilities. I think all those elements are what goes into making a great collaboration.
You just mentioned 42nd Street. Did you ever for a second imagine yourself on Broadway?
Well, I did. I didn't ever think it was going to happen, but it certainly was a dream that I wanted to happen. I had been very good friends with one of the book writers for that show, Mark Bramble. We were really good friends for years. When I was still living in Houston, he had come down to direct the show at the University of Houston that I attended. He was my New York pal and my major connection to anything on Broadway. And then around 2000 when he said that the show looked like it was going to be revived on a grand scale, I said, "Hey, is there a part for me?" And he said, "Well, there's the part of Oscar the onstage pianist, but he doesn't do anything. It doesn't have any lines. I mean, it's always been cast by just musicians." And I said, "Well, you know, hey old buddy, old pal, don't you think you could maybe beef that up a little bit?" So he did. So luckily I didn't even have to audition. The part was just mine. And it wasn't a huge part, I had a couple of little features here and there. I always joke that if you blinked you would have missed me. But the greatest thing that came out of that was these great friendships with about 50 people. It was a huge cast. And I made some wonderful friends, I looked forward to going to work every night. And certainly performing on a big Broadway stage, bringing back kind of joy, seeing what kind of joy that performance, that production, brought to people night after night -- it never got old. Then I had another experience with Liza, onstage with Liza's At The Palace, and, boy, to hear that audience go crazy every night, night after night, it sold out every night, was just amazing. There's nothing like performing on a Broadway stage and with any luck maybe that will happen again to me in my life.
You have two shows sitting down for runs at Birdland in January, a solo show called LET'S START THE NEW YEAR RIGHT and a Nat King Cole Tribute Show with Clint Holmes. What made you decide to take on two shows in the same month?
Well, I didn't, (Laughing) I didn't... They didn't come at the same time. Actually, Clint and I did a run of this show back in May and we had decided that we wanted to do it again. So we had talked to Gianni Valenti, and we were looking at the calendar, and in the meantime, he came to me later in the summer and said, "You're doing the week with Marilyn May the first week of January and she's just doing the early shows. Do you want to do the late shows?" And my first impulse was to say, "Look, I'm not going to do much business for the late show, especially if people are coming to the early show." And Gianni was like, "Don't worry, it's a great week, you'll do fine." So I said "Ooooookay" and I knew that was going to be a hard week, next week, I mean it will be a great week, but it's going to be a hard week. Cause I have two shows with Marilyn on New Year's Eve on Tuesday, and then on Wednesday through Saturday, at seven o'clock with Marilyn, then 9:45 is me. Then, some a few weeks after that was set, Clint and I honed in on a date that was mutually agreeable, not only to him and to me, but also to our musical director, Christian Tamburr. I'm not the pianist for that show, although I do sit on a couple of songs, but Christian is a fantastic pianist and also a great vibraphone player. So what makes that show really special for me is that I get to stand up and I get to really be away from the piano for about three-quarters of it. So the week we settled on was the first week of January. So when I look at all this on the calendar, I'm like, "What the hell was I thinking?" But work is great. I'm very blessed to have work. Usually, January is a pretty light time of year and it certainly isn't going to be that for me this month. So I'm happy, but I didn't plan it that way. It's, that's just the way it's happened.
Oh, it's going fine. You know, I've been working so much with other people, with Linda Lavin on recording a new album and also her last show. I've also been doing work with Ann Hampton Callaway on her Linda Ronstadt show. And almost every weekend this past fall I was going out of town to do these crazy shows that I do with Countess LuAnn de Lesseps of the Real Housewives of New York, that's a whole other animal because it's so unlike any other show, any sort of cabaret show that I've ever done. She's a social media, reality TV star and totally attracting a different kind of audience. It's been keeping me really busy. So what the show I'm going to do... I'm finally able to sit down and settle in to figure out the show, just in the last couple of weeks. Nothing like waiting till the last minute! It's going to be a real mix! It's going to be some songs that I've done before in previous shows, and a couple of songs by Peggy Lee because this next year, 2020, we'll be celebrating her centenary year. So that's a reason to do some Peggy Lee tunes. I always include a little bit of Cy Coleman in my show, so I'll be doing that this time around. And I'm just throwing in some standards that I've always known, but I've never actually performed. So there's no real theme to it. It's just some really wonderful material that the audience will enjoy.
Are you singing anything that you wrote?
I'm not, I'm not singing anything that I wrote. I mostly really stick to the great writers -- Rodgers and Hart, Irving Berlin, Gershwin, people like that. Most of the stuff that I've written honestly has been more pop or more country, and it sits better on other singers than it does on me. That would be a great goal for me, to really concentrate on writing for myself. But no, this show doesn't have any of my original stuff in it.
You wrote a Grammy-winning country song. Did it surprise people to have this great jazz musician writing country music for Reba McEntire?
Oh, well the song was not written for Reba McEntire. It was written for my group, Montgomery Plant and Stritch because it's a duet. The song is called "Does He Love You?" and it's a duet for two women -- one plays the wife, one plays the mistress. At that point in the 80s, we were doing a lot of club work at the gay clubs, so naturally, it was high drama. It was a very dramatic song and the audiences just ate it up. Flash forward to seven years after it was written, my co-writer, Sandy Knox had moved to Nashville and started writing songs as a staff writer for a publishing company there and had heard that Reba McEntire was looking for a two-woman duet to feature a singer named Linda Davis that she and her husband were managing. So by a really strange chain of events "Does he love you?" got into Reba's hands and Reba put a hold on it. She said, "Don't give it to anyone else." And within six weeks it was recorded. And then about six weeks after that, it was number one on the country chart. So that was a surprise to me. I don't think people in Nashville had any awareness of what I did in my career. I think it was more like, "Oh, this guy, Billy Stritch, wrote a song." So there wasn't any surprise there. What really was a surprise, I think, was that year, when we started going to all the award shows, the CMA Awards, and the Grammy Awards... I was hanging out a lot with Liza Minnelli, so when I took Liza to Nashville to the Grand Ole Opry, that's what got a lot of attention for me, actually bringing a big star to the Grand Ole Opry. And it was a fantastic year. We went to Nashville, we went to the Grammys, we went to the ACM Awards in LA and really made the rounds. It was just fantastic, but it really was kind of a stroke of luck -- someone hearing the song at the right time for the right artist. It's hard to get lightning to strike twice, but I'm certainly happy that it struck once.
Billy, do you constantly have music running through your mind or can you turn it off? Do you get time to just get away from it?
I can turn it off. When I'm not really working on a specific project, I can go without working on music or even playing music. I'm lucky in that way because I know people who really have it in their head all the time. And I'm not sure that's such a good thing. Everybody's different. But I know people that, they wake up with songs in their head. When I'm working on a show or a project for someone else, then my mind starts to swirl like that. Everything starts to spin and I've got music... even in the last week or so, just working on this show, I'm getting ideas all the time, I'm changing things and rearranging things. But I'm not one of those cursed people who cannot be in a room and hear music in the background and be distracted by it. I can pretty much turn that off if I need to.
Billy, do you remember the first time we met?
I feel like it was in New York... or was it in Texas?
It was in New York. You know, you're not going to remember this but in 1988 we came here to see my friend Steve Barton in Phantom of the Opera. And after the show he said come on, the cast is going over to the Algonquin to see Montgomery, Plant, and Stritch. And that's where we met the first time.
At the Algonquin!
As fellow Texans.
Wow, Steve, what a great guy he was.
Also a Texan. He was one of the good ones.
He really was.
So I was at Cast Party recently and I watched Joseph C. Townsend just say, "I'm going to sing The Man That Got Away" and you didn't have any charts, you didn't need any charts. You just played it and he sang it and the two of you slayed, on the spot, unrehearsed. It was amazing. Can you do that with every song?
I could do with a lot of standards because, like I said, I've got this kind of mind that retains the song if I've heard it a few times. I kind of know it in the back of my brain, which has served me really well, certainly in a case like that. Many times at Cast Party, a lot of people don't have music, they don't know the key they do it in and I'm able to take that. And also the band! I'm lucky I've got Steve and Daniel because they can go along with it as well. So that serves me really well. I've certainly been in the audience for situations where, for whatever reason, that doesn't happen. So I think what I bring to Cast Party really elevates the whole thing, and the fact that we have such a top-notch band and a fantastic host -- it really is a team. All four of us, I think, are a great team, Jim Caruso, and Daniel Glass and Steve Doyle. You know, we really create an evening unlike any other
It's fascinating to watch because the four of you are a living, breathing organism and you just sort of manage to take whatever is thrown at you by the wildcard factor and run with it. One of my favorite things about coming to see a show that you are playing is watching you watch the singers. Is that something that you've always had a knack for? Is that a gift that you find-honed with time?
I think it's come over time honestly. Certainly, when it's a singer I haven't worked with, you have to watch them all the time. And I've noticed, when I've watched other performers, other bands behind singers when they don't look at the performer, it's almost a distraction, you know? I really encourage the sideman and everybody, let's really give our focus to the performer who's in the spot because I think that's where the focus needs to be. It's all about how things look and you don't want to be with your head down. I've seen bands that, they can care less about what's happening with the singer... the drummer has his head down or the bass player's scowling or whatever. Honestly, it doesn't look good, and I'm all about how things look. Plus it brings me a lot of joy to watch the singer. That also makes my company better, I think because I'm able to read where they're going. It's never quite the same night to night. I love to feel like I'm really part of the whole thing.
When you get to the end of January, are you taking a vacation?
No. I mean, I would like to. I would like to... every time I think I'm going to take a vacation, something fills up on my calendar. So I get time off here and there, but you know, it's all about the work right now.
Photo of Billy Stritch in performance by Stephen Mosher