BWW Interview: John Davidson Takes Canceled Birdland Mother's Day Concert To Facebook And Begins Weekly Shows
John Davidson has been in show business for six decades. He has done everything from Broadway to game shows, from Vegas to Disney, and he has no intention of stopping any time soon. As far as John Davidson is concerned, he is still trying to get it right - every show he does is one that is taking him to the ultimate moment of a perfect performance. With his unique outlook on life and a wealth of passion for that which makes him happy, from art to his wife to his guitars, John Davidson is a man who eats life. A heart filled with love leads him in all his pursuits, particularly his children and politics. He is a modern-day Will Rogers, throwing his guitar in his truck and driving to entertain, to tell stories, to make people feel.
I saw Mr. Davidson's show at Birdland a few months ago and it was, authentically, one of the great nights I have spent in a club. So when I read he was doing a show there for Mother's Day, I reached out to him through his Instagram @officialjohndavidson and asked for an interview. The affable troubadour said yes and we got on the phone to discuss his Mother's Day show.
Then the unthinkable happened. The world changed and Birdland closed and John's show was canceled. I took my interview and filed it away for some time in the future.
Last night I was scrolling through Instagram and saw something interesting from the John Davidson page. There IS going to be a show on Mother's Day! John decided to go ahead with his proposed show on Facebook at 7 pm on Mother's Day, May 10th, with free admission, though there is a PayPal address for audience members who would like to tip John and the charity for which he is performing, Passim Emergency Artist Fund, an organization raising funds to assist musicians who are out of work during the health crisis. This concert will be the first in a series of weekly shows.
This news made a big change in my day. I dug out my recordings and began transcribing our phone call because, by golly, I was doing a story on John Davidson for his Mother's Day Show, and if there was a show being done, there was a story being done. So here, dear Broadway World readers, is my interview with that terrific troubadour, that marvelous minstrel, the one and only John Davidson - if only it were a video interview so you could all hear his ever-present laughter.
This interview has been edited for space and content.
Hello? Is that John?
It is John. Hi there!
John, I was blown away by your last show at Birdland! Your musicianship, your ability with your instruments and that funny little machine you use with your foot - to go out there all by yourself and do all of that, it was like watching a modern-day, Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.
(Laughing) That's great! I must say part of the reason that I work just with guitar and my foot pedal and my voice is that maybe I don't work well with others! (Laughing) I find that when I play with a band, it's all about getting the exact number of bars and getting the music perfect. I would rather inspire people. I'd rather inspire people to thoughtfulness or laughter or inspiration or love or something. I would rather touch people with material and be a storyteller than a hit-record act. You know, I've never had a hit record. I should have spent more time in studios but I like to take stage, I like to move all over the stage and that's why I wear the headset - I like to be in people's faces with the song. In my mind, art is nothing if it's not received by somebody. Now, a lot of people don't agree with that. They think that art for art's sake is what it's all about. I think art has to be received or it's nothing, and a lot of people would disagree with that.
Particularly as a performing artist, without your audience, you're like an unseen tree falling in the woods, you know?
Yeah. I had an early manager that said to me: "It's not about perfect notes... you sing beautifully," (I've studied voice a lot) but he said, "The point is to tell the story." So that's what I've worked on. I think that's what all the storytelling singers work on. That's what's important to me. The other thing: an early manager said to me, "Tony Bennett does one thing. He just makes that incredible vocal sound. Johnny Mathis does one thing, they make the sound. You have a chance to be not just a spear, but a Pitchfork or a Swiss army knife." (Laughing) This guy's name was Bob Banner. I was discovered in a Broadway show in '64 by a guy named Bob Banner who produced the Carol Burnett show and the Gary Moore show. He developed Carol Burnett who he saw in "Fade Out Fade In" on Broadway. He saw me in a musical called "Foxy." I played a young juvenile who was pretty clean-cut, and wholesome and square, and that's what I was. It was a David Merrick show, it was Bert Lahr's last musical and I played it. I got very lucky. I graduated from college and came to New York and got a show in the Ziegfeld Theater, my goodness, on sixth Avenue and 56 I think, it's not there anymore. This guy saw me in "Foxy" and he said, "I want to help you be a Swiss army knife." And I said, "But I just want to be a juvenile on Broadway- And then when I grow up," I was 24 at the time, "I want to be a leading man." I wanted to be Robert Goulet or Robert Preston. And he said, "No, you can do it all! You're going to be a television host. You're going to do sitcoms, you're going to do Shakespeare and theater and serious drama, as well as musicals. You're going to play Las Vegas, you're going to do recordings, you're going to do albums." And that was his idea, to be a Swiss army knife instead of just a spear. So I guess that's why I'm a master at nothing. (Laughing) I still tried to be great at something, but I can do many things.
You're very humble. Where does that come from?
I'm not humble. I really am not. I think I know when I've done a good show. I have never really made it in show business. Yeah, I was really big in the seventies and eighties but I never had a hit record - I never really made it. I was just a journeyman singer, actor, television host. I guess I just am still trying to do the perfect show. I like working at it, and I found that when I got past 50, 55, I began to ask myself, "What do you really like to do?" Well, I liked doing Broadway musicals - I've toured in Wicked and Finding Neverland and I've done Broadway. I've done a lot of shows on the road, but my favorite role to play is a character named John Davidson! (Laughing) And I'm still trying to figure out who that is! And my favorite thing to do is play guitar while I'm singing. I love the coordination between my fingers and breathing properly and making my face vibrate. (Laughing)
Well, it's funny you should bring that up because when I saw the show that you did at Birdland, I was amazed by how powerful your voice is. How have you kept your voice so strong all these years?
Well, thank you. I've worked at it. I do work at breathing. Sometimes I forget to breathe, and I do get in trouble if I don't breathe properly, but when I'm breathing right... it's supporting this column of air and using the air properly. I had an early teacher, Bill Riley in New York City, he helped me a lot with breathing. Then Keith Davis was my first voice teacher when I first got to the city. I would follow, who's the lady that had a gravel voice?
Lauren Bacall! I'm losing my memory with my age. I would follow Lauren Bacall's lessons with Keith and he would say, "Now let's try it again." She goes, "The Womaaaan of the Yeeeeear" because he was getting her ready to do Woman of the Year. He would get her warmed up for every show and she just had this raspy voice. And following me was Larry Kert, who I worked with in an industrial show -- Larry studied with Keith Davis as well - just a fabulous voice, he sang so easily and so beautifully. So yeah, it was a lot of voice lessons and I think it's breathing. I think it's all about using the air.
So you're not going to believe this, but it's completely true. Bill Riley lives about six doors down from me.
OH MY GOD!!
I've never met Bill but I've had friends that study with him and they point to the building and say "That's where Bill Riley works."
Yeah, he saved me from getting into vocal trouble. I was doing the show that... It was John Cullum that did it on Broadway and I was trying to sing like John Cullum. It was very low and I started bearing down on my chords and someone said, "You need to see Bill Riley." And so he saved me. The song went "My name is Abraham..."
Is that "Shenandoah?"
Shenandoah! Yeah. I was trying to sing like John Cullum, I just admire him so much and Bill, I said, "No, you've got to sing like yourself." He really saved me from that.
So at Birdland I heard you say that you pile into your car and you drive to all your gigs.
I try to book them in New England. Sometimes I do small theaters around the country and I fly out of Boston, but I live in the lakes region of New Hampshire and when I come in to play Birdland (I'm doing a show Mother's Day May 10th) I'm going to stay with an actor friend and I drive in from New Hampshire - It's like six hours, it's a long drive.
I love the stories you tell about your relationship with your family, about you being a big liberal and your daughter being a big conservative.
Thank you, Steve. I appreciate you saying that. I'm still working on new things. I've got a new song about Rachel Maddow that I wrote that I just love. (Laughing) "I'm Mad About Maddow" and a couple of other new pieces that I do in the audience. I love getting in their faces. I was very nervous playing Birdland because the New York audience is very hip and I do a lot of very obvious, even corny jokes. I do a lot of those, but I've taken some of them out...
No! Keep the corny jokes in! They're amazing!
(Laughing) They're great (Laughing) and I thank you, I'm glad you liked them. I'm proud of what I do, don't get me wrong about that; but I'm always working on it, always trying to find new ways to touch people. And I just assume that when people come in, they don't know who John Davidson is, that they don't know who I am. I'm not playing off my old career. I can't even remember half of my career. I'm there to touch people in some way and to sing as well as I can, play guitar as well as I can, and to make people laugh and cry and that's what it's all about.
Yes. You have great passion for the guitar.
Yes. I studied with a guy named Vance Gilbert who's also a troubadour. I admire troubadours - people who sing and play the guitars. I like working on it. And it gives me the freedom to... if I want to hold a note longer or I want to take a breath, or I want to really sit on a word or a phrase, I can do that. I can even repeat it. Sometimes I repeat phrases that mean a lot to me. I like working at the guitar.
You quite a songwriter. Do you write every day?
No, sometimes I just don't have any ideas at all. I need to have... You can't just write a love song, there has to be your reason for it, something that I'm passionate about. I don't write every day, it's not a discipline thing - something has to hit me or inspire me.
In your show, you talk about being an atheist. I read that you're the son of a Baptist minister.
Oh yeah. Both of my parents were ordained ministers. I was raised in a very conservative family and in college, actually, I became a theater arts major because I was going to be a minister and they said, "Well if you're going to be a minister, you need some theater arts." And they say "You'll get enough theology in seminary, so in your undergrad work, why don't you get some theater? Because theater is all about human problems and human relations," and I became a theater arts major. Before that, I was a philosophy major for about a year. My sophomore year I was a philosophy major and my first two courses were comparative religions of the world. You study all the religions of the world, everyone's approach to what they think god is or that thing in the atmosphere, whatever.
And the other course was logic one O four. And if you take logic and try to apply it to religion, it just doesn't work! So that was the beginning of my journey towards atheism. I've had long talks with my dad and I don't get it. Religion is just a leap of faith, by definition. It is unscientific. I finally just made a line in the sand and said, "I'm going to join a group called openly secular." I did this about 15 years ago and I found a home there. You know, the Bible puts down doubting Thomas - there's a boy named doubting Thomas - when Jesus appeared at the resurrection, he said, "I want to see, where are the holes in your side? Let me put my fingers in the holes where you were speared when they crucified you." So the Bible puts down doubting Thomas. I think we should all be doubting Thomases. I think it's good to be skeptical and question everything. Question everything!
I agree. Do you know the term militant atheist? I'm not militant. I am a devout atheist.
Yeah. Look, it's very healthy.
So your mother's day show, when you walk out on the stage do you have it all planned, or do you just sort of go out there and take a look at the crowd and say this is the way I'm going to do it tonight?
I have a very planned situation but I don't really make up that plan until that morning. I put in songs, I take songs out... what bugs me the most... I'll do something about the elections, I'm sure. I've been trying to figure out, what is love, what is this attraction between people we call love? So it's a lot of that and about getting older, which I'm always trying to figure out. I'm going to be... next December I start my 80th year, I'll be 79, starting my 80th year. I can't believe I'm still doing this, but I'm so glad that I'm still singing well. So I'll put the show together that week.
I'm very interested to hear about the house concerts that you do.
Well, that's become a fun thing. I only do them in New England because I want to be able to drive less than two hours from my house. I enjoy that - it becomes very personal. I like the intimacy of that and, let's face it, my career is where it is now and I'm certainly not filling large theaters and so it's an intimate crowd and they are usually packed. It's just usually sold out, and I love it.
John, do you still play chess?
Yeah, I love chess. I don't seem to get any better, but I started several chess clubs. I played chess backstage doing the wizard in Wicked - he doesn't come on stage for about an hour and 17 minutes, so I got in a couple of games with one of the stagehands while I was waiting to go on. Usually backstage when I'm doing a musical I'm playing chess, I love chess. I like the challenge of it.
Your brain doesn't stop moving. Does it?
I guess. I don't know. I don't think I'm that smart. I'm trying to figure things out all the time. I'm certainly not someone who has all the answers. I have more questions than answers. I don't like people who have all the answers. When someone thinks they have the answer, I tend to want to get in their face and say, "Really?"
I personally find that people's questions tell more about them than the answers that they have.
Yeah, sure. Yeah.
Your time in Wicked was pretty recently, wasn't it?
I have never done it on Broadway. I did the Munchkin tour and the Emerald City, each of them for about a year. I just loved it. Then I think I got too old for it. They kept the casting younger and younger. Then I did Finding Neverland, playing the dual role.
The Captain Hook track?
Yeah. Captain Hook, and Charles Bowman, the producer of the show. I loved that. It was exhausting, I must say, but I loved it. The only thing about being in musicals is you've got to listen to other actors, (Laughing) or at least you have to pretend that you're listening to other actors. I'd rather do all the talking myself. (Laughing)
Well, earlier on in our chat you said that you were waiting to get the perfect show, but you've also said that your favorite role to play is John Davidson. So maybe your life is your perfect show.
Oh, heavy, Steve. That's brilliant.
Here we are, two philosophers talking about life and art and religion. John, I am so happy you could talk to me today. I can't wait to see you at Birdland on Mother's Day!
Oh darn. I gotta be good. (Laughing) Alright!
It is such an honor and pleasure. I have been an admirer of your work my whole life.
Thank you so much.
All right. Hey, have a great day out in New Hampshire.