Monday, December 13, 2010

Dear Mark Burnett,

I was reading my news online this evening and noticed an article by Reuters about a new singing competition show that is being produced by Mark Burnett for NBC. The same Mark Burnett that brought Survivor, The Apprentice and Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader to TV.

The article notes that in this case, the judges would also serve as coaches and would be four currently popular performing artists. The cool thing about it is that the contestants would have to perform while the coaches had their backs to them; because in the end you have to have the voice before you have anything else. Hence, the title of the show is The Voice.

It would be great to actually find singers who can sing live. So many of today’s most popular singers are pro-tooled within an inch of their life. So, as soon as I read that article I wanted to find Mark Burnett’s phone number and text him four letters…C L A Y. But something tells me that Mr. Burnett’s number is unlisted so in today’s electronic age, I am composing this internet plea.

Dear Mr. Burnett,

*You will need a recognizable name to both the music audience and the television audience. Who better than the person who helped put American Idol on the map in 2003 and became a household name? And how sweet would it be to give Idol a run for their money with one of their own.

*The article states that the coaches will have to perform too. How about a guy who had to sing live under pressure for sixteen weeks? Have you seen some of the music award shows lately and heard these people without their autotune? He’s got the years of experience performing on live television as an entertainer, a talk show guest with comedic flair and even a co-host.

*You’ll need someone to bring ratings and Clay Aiken brought pretty big ratings to your Fifth Grader show when he was on during celebrity week. Think of the buzz of him competing against the show that gave him his start.

*You need someone who can help your contestants as both a judge and a coach. Clay served in this role for David Foster’s Star Search and did a great job. He was funny, he was insightful and he gave sound advice from a perspective that only one performer can give to another. Plus, who better to help them go from being an ordinary citizen to handling sudden fame?

*He’s a touring machine and could offer exposure to your contestants as a potential opening act.

As an added bonus, you’ll get a fandom that is very organized, tech savvy and loyal.

All I ask is that you give him a stylist who has a personal aversion to spiked hair. This look will do.

How 'bout it, Mark?

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Sunday, October 17, 2010


Every now and then, a singer whose voice fills my every sense, will offer a performance that stands out from all the others. Sometimes it is a rocking performance that gives you chills for the power and control, like the ones I have shown in my last few blogs. And sometimes it is a ballad where you don’t breathe until it’s over. There have been a number of both kinds of performances over the years. They fill my memory bank and trickle into my days on long drives or whisper to me in quiet moments before I drift off to sleep.

I can hear him and I can picture myself, right down to where I was sitting. In My Life from the PBS taping in March, 2010. How do you sing with a lump in your throat? Meadowbrook in Gilford, NH (2005) where I cried silent tears for an acoustic version of I Can’t Make You Love Me that he sang directly in front of me from about the 10th row. The Mann Center in Philadelphia in 2006 where we heard Lover All Alone for the first time, and I rubbed Nan’s back as the song took hold of her. Wilkes-Barre, PA in 2004 for Measure of a Man that the audience sang to him, followed by the most tender version of Fields of Gold imaginable. You could almost see his voice as if it was a summer breeze caressing the tops of wheat stalks bending gently to the music.

This weekend was the annual fund raising gala for Clay Aiken’s National Inclusion Project. As with all the galas, they offered awards to those Champions for Inclusion and auctions to raise money for this incredibly worthy cause. He ends the event with a short performance as a way of thanking the donors. He’ll sing from whatever album is out and and then add a song we've never heard from him before. At this gala he added a special song, a Joni Mitchell song made his own through changes in key, tempo and melody. A song beautifully signed by volunteer Deb Leicey and he positioned her right beside him, because inclusion is always in his heart. Her hands became another instrument on the stage.

Those songs that were classified as pop (or folk) back when pop wasn't a four letter word thanks to today's singers who can barely sing, are as suited to him as the pop/rock style of Alone. I heard someone say recently that he has a theatrical quality voice that sings contemporary pop better than anyone. And it is so true. I felt like I heard Both Sides Now for the first time on Saturday. Granted, I was in elementary school when it was released but I remember vividly my twenty-something mother sitting on an orange shag carpet in the living room trying to learn the chords on her guitar. I can’t wait to send her this clip.

I know there are people out there who can still write like this. He’s one of them. I hope someday soon, he’ll believe it too.

Visit those other performances here:
In My Life
I Can't Make You Love Me
Lover All Alone
Measure of a Man/Fields of Gold

Friday, September 24, 2010

Stretch Armstrong

Can being too good be a bad thing? Clay Aiken noted in an interview this summer that his most recent album was recorded in Germany and he did 15 full vocals in 3 days. The songs were comfortable for him and he found it easy to sing them. Some might find this rather impressive, after all there are a few songs on the album that not every singer can do. The odd thing is that I found it left me with a rather unsettled feeling.

I don’t necessarily want him to sing songs where he’s too comfortable. Why? Well personally, I think he sounds best when he’s stretched. Listening to Clay sing old standards reminds me of watching a major league baseball slugger playing in a minor league ballpark. Sure, he’ll hit it out of the park-but so what. He should. And after 4-5 home runs in a row, even though you're impressed with the skill, it risks losing its punch.

Of course, I don’t want him to sing where he straining his voice. But are those few notes in Boston’s More Than a Feeling much different than the entire last chorus of his All is Well Christmas encore song?

He’s stretched when he sings pop rock songs and simply he nails them.

He's stretched when he sings funky/bluesy sounding songs like Everything I Don’t Need. He even described how the song was a stretch for him but his performance at the 2008 Gala for his charity was one of the best performances of any song I’ve ever seen him sing.

He’s stretched when he dances a little; until you watch him on stage and you realize how naturally his body moves to the music and how he can’t really help it.

So, why should he stretch?

Because he can. Because a talent this big deserves something better than songs half the world has covered and that are somebody else’s signature song.

Because it makes for a more interesting performance.

Because after awhile, it won’t be a stretch any more.

I’m sure I’m projecting personal preference here but I saw more joy and fun when he was on stage singing songs that weren’t standards. When he’s singing contemporary music, it’s all about the performance where singer and song matter at least equally or if anything the vocal ability matters more. When he’s singing standards, it seems to be more about the song itself. Like, "Listen! Isn’t this song timeless?"

They say those songs can stand the test of time. But at what point does a standard become just an old song, sounding dated rather than timeless. (I'm talking the song here, not the performance. The man can sing like no other.) His interviews talk about how nobody will be singing today’s songs in 50 years. My response is why do they have to? Why can’t we just enjoy them now? Sure, there’s a lot of auto-tuned crap on the radio right now, but there’s still good material there. He’s already proven he can write with the best of them. His song Lover All Alone is probably one of the best written and most haunting ballads in the last decade.

In three weeks, I’ll have the privilege of sitting in a Chicago theater as I enjoy a PBS fund raising concert of songs from his album of standards, Tried and True. I’ll enjoy it immensely, as watching him sing is a complete extra sensory experience. I was at the taping of his PBS special for Tried and True, Live! and it was a magical night. I've got tickets for three shows of his full Tried and True Tour next February.

But on the flight home, I’ll set my ipod to contemporary songs that made him reach beyond his comfort zone and proved just how good he is. Here's a little taste, courtesy of Scarlett's video from Hampton, New Hampshire.

Reach, Clay.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Born to be Wild

I spent most of the last week on the road to see Clay Aiken’s Timeless Tour, put on for appreciative crowds with good buddy Ruben Studdard. I saw three shows in three very different venues and left each one with three different memories. And images that I cannot get out of my head.

Before I tell you about these images and thoughts, I’d like to thank the rest of the gang who worked tirelessly on this show that was part walk through the history of music, part variety show and part night club dance.

Ruben: I never knew you had such a mischievous funny bone in you. Your voice is like smooth, chocolate silk and even though no one can replace Karen Carpenter’s version of Superstar in my heart, I do recognize the passion that you bring to it. Thank you for loving him and letting it show.

Quiana: Effortless singing with perfect pitch combined with just the right amount of sass. I can’t imagine a Clay Aiken tour without you.

Casey: Welcome to controlled chaos. It’s hard not to hate you for being a size 1.5 when you are up there singing your heart out with a sense of wonderment on your face. I hope you enjoyed it too. Oh but we do have to hate on you just a little bit for this.

Band: With a little bit of Ruben ( bass, guitar and keyboard) and a little bit of Clay (musical director, drums and backup singers), you guys were great. And a special thanks to Felix Pollard, one kick-ass drummer and the best Clay has ever had. You make every song better. We’ve missed you!

So back to my concert memories.

Foxwoods: I brought my husband who isn’t a “fan” but does think Clay puts on a great show. This venue was large, packed and just a little bit sterile. Maybe because the ceilings are so high but it’s not small enough for an intimate concert and not large enough for that loud arena feel. My husband liked the melodies but the sound was not great where we sat and he had trouble hearing the comedy. He did hear enough to say that Clay talks very fast! Funny thing for a life long Northeast man to say about a guy from the South. Clay proved once again that he can pick a situation in the audience and make comic gold out of it, by finding a man in the front row who appeared to be sleeping and running with it.

New Hampshire: A day driving along the Maine coast ended with seeing this concert in a “large, dark and divey” venue that was filled to the brim. It’s amazing that this venue gets some well known acts every year. The bad news is that we were packed in there. The good news is that my fourth row seat at a table meant we were six feet from the stage. We saw the smirks, the asides (Ruben saying to Clay “I can’t hear, man”) and how they worked to make the set-up something you forgot about when the first note was played. The venue felt like it had quite a large percentage of the non core fanbase and we managed to find a way to dance in our tiny little cracks of space in between tables. There is something about seeing that face up close when he is performing that increases my joy at a concert about 1000 fold. And I scooped a drumstick left by Felix at the end of the show.

New York: A screw-up by Live Nation/Ticketmaster of biblical proportions because they messed up the seating arrangement on Ticketmaster when they sold the tickets (by stating the non orchestra was standing room only, which was not only false but likely deterred ticket sales) and again by changing the venue at the last minute to one that could not possibly accommodate the amount of tickets sold nor the configuration in which they were purchased. Our seating was disappointing but the guys seemed to know that there were many unhappy people and they cranked it up a notch. The gold lame Hammer pants were a nice touch. When Ruben walked out, the crowd was enthusiastic and appreciative in our applause but when Clay walked out the crowd was on their feet en masse. Decca Records was there. I hope they noticed that. Actually, I hope it was one of many things they noticed that night.

Clay can sing just about anything and he does it even better live. (The production on his latest CD is quite good but there hasn’t been a sound engineer yet who has been able to capture the magic of his live performance. )

He’s had me dancing and snapping my fingers to a big band version of It’s Only Make Believe. He’s had me holding my breath through a wistful version of Moon River. But , he sings with his whole body when he is singing contemporary pop and pop/rock. And by contemporary I don’t mean the Pro-Tooled crap that is out there now, just not standards of a bygone era.

I’ve already written a blog about my ecstasy over Boston’s More Than a Feeling (and would love to hear Long Time too, he can leave off the Foreplay if he wants ;-) But he also just nailed it on Heart’s Alone, Chaka Khan’s Through the Fire or Kenny Loggins’ Footloose. When he sang Footloose with a growled “you’ve got to turn me around”, it just got my heart pumping faster than it already was after dancing in my 3 inch Anne Klein heels. Wednesday night they had the crowd dancing so hard, I thought we were going to stomp our way right through the seven stories of that old Hammerstein Ball Room.

If he can nail such recognizable covers like that, why can’t someone write songs for him with that same spirit? Ballads and uptempo songs that can appeal to many generations with a contemporary sound. Aren’t there any other songwriters out there besides Rob Thomas who can write for a strong male voice?

I said in my Boston blog that I’ve had my taste of it after watching video and I can move on.

I saw three shows live.

I lied. I want more of it.

Decca Records was there at the New York concert. I hope they saw it all. They love of the fans, the incredible vocal talent and stage presence. The way the fans love to move to Clay prowling around the stage, moving to the beat. The way Clay seems to love it too.

So while David Novik is out looking for songs and songwriters to make my wish come true, I’ll just wait for my local PBS station to show Clay’s concert special and hope some smart TV producer puts Clay and Ruben on a summer variety show in 2011.

Heck, they could also show commercials of Clay selling Armani suits. Hasn’t any one noticed this man wears a suit as good as any model out there?

In the meantime, go ahead and watch this and I dare you not to head bob toward your monitor and tap your finger against your mouse.

Thanks, Clay. It was a blast. You can let Ruben have the bigger stool now. Yours is going to be so tall, you might get a nose bleed.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

More Than a Feeling

The first time I heard that voice, I had more than a feeling that something good was going to happen to him. His voice is distinctive, strong and rich with texture. I suppose if I drank coffee, I could compare it to some blend but all I know is I’ve never heard anything like it. And seven years later, it’s even better. Maturity in both age and wisdom have enriched it. Experience has provided even more control.

People have said that they would pay him to hear him sing the phone book. I like to think I’m a little more discriminating than that, I always want to hear hear that voice wrapped around a good song.

But I think they use the phonebook example to demonstrate that he can really sing just about anything. And he probably can with the little quirks that are so very Clay Aiken. The fact that he sings the word love as low or that his accent creeps in when he sings Orleans' "Steel" the One. I find I sing along with his unusual pronunciations in my head, to the point where if I heard someone else sing it, I would feel that they were singing a stripped down version of the same song. What’s the matter with them? Don’t they know that last line of Crying is suppose to be sung Crah-ying?

We’ve heard him sing pop, with either a ballad like his hit Solitaire or more uptempo stuff like Invisible. We’ve heard him take a pop song and give it a more new age production, like his haunting version of Broken Wings off the 2006 album, A Thousand Different Ways. . He offered up a wonderful blend of many contemporary genres with the original album On My Way Here. And this year, he’s bringing a big band sound to Tried and True classics like Mack the Knife and It’s Only Make Believe. (Even a rap parody he did in 2007 of OPP was actually pretty decent for a tall, skinny white guy.)

He's also written and recorded the very indie sounding Lover All Alone. I’ve referred to this song as heartache in the form of a poem set to music.

But a part of me has always wanted him to rock out a bit every once in a while. Not for a whole album or even in a new direction, his voice is too distinctive to compete in the Hinder Nickeldaughtry space. It would be a waste of talent. But he teased us a bit in 2004 by opening a concert with a U2 song and he nailed it. It left me hungry for just another taste, like that last dessert before the diet that you will finally conquer. The pop and pop/rock songs are more to my liking than a standard like It’s Impossible, even if it is sung by the best voice in the business.

Currently, he’s on tour with Ruben Studdard in a show that has brought the house down every night. They take the audience through four decades of music, combining solos and medleys with a comedic camaraderie that’s as funny as it is charming.

Last Friday, about two-thirds of the way through their set, it happened. They were in the middle of the 70’s medley, after a bunch of dance music. Wait! Is that Boston I hear through my headphones as I watch a piece of captured video? The volume button on my computer is begging for elevation. I have this album on my ipod and I still have the original vinyl. He starts More Than a Feeling and manages to hit an extremely low note before three seconds later transitioning into falsetto and then a full fledged Tom Scholz would be proud Drift Awaaaaaaay rock sing/scream! Holy vocal chords, Batman!

Tell me which male singers out there can sing Boston, Lover All Alone and Mack the Knife and do it all well, and where it’s just about the music. One Voice. Live. No spare parts needed.

OK, I’ve had my taste. And what a taste it was. It was like those breakapart Tollhouse cookies right out of the oven where you need to keep the milk handy because you’re eating the cookies while they are too hot. And you don’t even care about the stomachache that is headed your way or the chocolate all over your face. This Massachusetts girl is happy.

The concert plays until August 14th, with cities listed here and some potentially additional ones to be announced in the fall. I still have to wait until August 7th to lose myself in a familiar song. In the meantime, I’ll watch the video, close my eyes and slip away.

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Friday, June 25, 2010

Traveling the Tried & True Path on Pandora

You all know how much I adorePandora Radio and the whole idea of discovering music based on what your own likes and dislikes are without any "genres", "user ratings" or what's considered "cool" or "radio-friendly". Back in 2006 I first explained how Pandora works in Follow The Clay Path To New Music and since that first blog I always did at least one from each new Clay album: A Thousand Different Ways, and then two for One My Way Here Part 1 and Part 2 - and imagine my excitement when Pandora added in Clay Aiken's Tried And True.

To refresh your memories - from Pandora's About page:

When was the last time you fell in love with a new artist or song?

At Pandora, we have a single mission: To play only music you'll love.

To understand just how we do this, and why we think we do it really, really well, you need to know about the Music Genome Project®.

Since we started back in 2000, we have been hard at work on the Music Genome Project. It's the most comprehensive analysis of music ever undertaken. Together our team of fifty musician-analysts has been listening to music, one song at a time, studying and collecting literally hundreds of musical details on every song. It takes 20-30 minutes per song to capture all of the little details that give each recording its magical sound - melody, harmony, instrumentation, rhythm, vocals, lyrics ... and more - close to 400 attributes! We continue this work every day to keep up with the incredible flow of great new music coming from studios, stadiums and garages around the country.

With Pandora you can explore this vast trove of music to your heart's content. Just drop the name of one of your favorite songs or artists into Pandora and let the Genome Project go. It will quickly scan its entire world of analyzed music, almost a century of popular recordings - new and old, well known and completely obscure - to find songs with interesting musical similarities to your choice. Then sit back and enjoy as it creates a listening experience full of current and soon-to-be favorite songs for you.

You can create up to 100 unique "stations." And you can even refine them. If it's not quite right you can tell it so and it will get better for you.

The Music Genome Project was founded by musicians and music-lovers. We believe in the value of music and have a profound respect for those who create it. We like all kinds of music, from the most obtuse bebop, to the most tripped-out drum n bass, to the simplest catchy pop tune. Our mission is to help you connect with the music YOU like.
We hope you enjoy the experience!

So I decided to start my second exploration with one of the songs I've become addicted to on Tried And True - It's Only Make Believe. A quick check of the attributes for this song, Pandora lists:

  • jazz influences
  • acoustic rhythm piano
  • intricate melodic phrasing
  • busy horn section
  • thru composed melodic style
  • acoustic sonority
  • major key tonality
  • mid-tempo swing feel

And right off the bat, the first song Pandora chose to get a feel for what I like was a song by the Brian Setzer Orchestra. I love Brian Setzer! This song was Love Partners In Crime and the attributes they list are: jazz influences, demanding instrumental part writing, intricate melodic phrasing and busy horn section. Starting off great - thumbs up for me!

Next came - Van Morrison. Now everyone who knows me knows how I feel about Van Morrison - but who'da thunk he'd be the second song on my Clay Aiken It's Only Make Believe path? They suggested This Love Of Mine from Van's Magic Time album and it was one of two covers he did on that eclectic album.  It's also one of the few songs Frank Sinatra wrote the lyrics to. I can definitely hear the similarities to It's Only Make Believe. A quick check of the attributes and sure enough - it's got: jazz influences, mid-tempo swing feel, major key tonality and busy horn section but it's also adding in:

  • blues influences
  • dynamic male vocalist. 

Pandora does this to see what other attributes you might like so it can suggest additional music for you. One person may give this a thumbs down and after enough thumbs down to a blues influence, Pandora won't suggest any more. But for me? I'm a blues fan so of course, thumbs up! A quick click on the song title and it brings up additional information about This Love Of Mine. Similar songs . . . well in addition to Pick Up The Tab by Chris Cain Band and Ain't Gonna Worry No More by Wayne Hancock and How Sweet It Is by Michael Buble . . . two Clay Aiken songs show up . . . There's A Kind of Hush and Mack The Knife. Be still my heart . . . Clay and Van. Now that's a connection most people won't make but that's what is so fabulous about Pandora. It's about the music. Not the hype.

Continuing with the blues influence, the next song in Pandora's selection was You Are My Sunshine by Marva Wright, the Blues Queen of New Orleans, and she's terrific.  But Pandora is smart - and they move closer to the attributes we started with by now suggesting I Love Being Here With You. I know this song from one of my Diana Krall albums . . . but this was Queen Latifah's version and no hesitation - thumbs up for sure. I wasn't familiar with her album Trav'lin Light but a quick stop at iTunes added this terrific version to my iPod. Checking in on the song I can see we're back to the jazz influence, busy horn section and mid-tempo swing feel that I found irresistible in It's Only Make Believe.

Sugar Pie by Nelson Adelard is next up and keeps with the attributes originally discussed but also adds some r&b stylings. I've never heard of Nelson Adelard before but with Pandora it's easy to find out background information on the singers they have selected. Wow - how did I miss him? I love this guy but can't find anything on Amazon or iTunes . . . luckily I found his Official Website and was able to pick up some songs there. Now you see why I love Pandora? How else would I have ever heard of Nelson Adelard?

Roomful of Blues brings more blues and electric instrumentation to the mix and I love this next song, Jona Lee Again, it's a group I'm not familiar with (shame on me!) - so I clicked on them to find out more: A nine-piece outfit for the majority of their existence, Roomful of Blues was founded in Westerly, RI, all the way back in 1967, by guitarist Duke Robillard and pianist Al Copley. I really love them - and downloaded the whole Standing Room Only album from iTunes. What a great find!

Obviously there's a reason why I love It's Only Make Believe because song after song is getting a thumbs up and the next one is no exception . . .Duke Robillard. Guess what? He's a founding member of Roomful of Blues! OK - this is making sense. I couldn't buy When Your Lover Has Gone on iTunes but I was able to buy the mp3 from Amazon off the album, Swinging Session with Duke Robillard.

So my path is heading in a very interesting direction and because it's MY path - and mine alone - I'm probably going to get presented with different songs than another person might - even though we'll both start at It's Only Make Believe. It's all based on what I've given a thumbs up or thumbs down to. But I have to admit - I'm way more thumbs up than down on this ride I'm taking.

Next song with a big thumbs up was Keb' Mo' and Wake Up Everybody. This brought back some more r&b influences (and another trip to iTunes) to pick up the entire Peace...Back By Popular Demand which is an album of 10 protest and peace songs from the 1960s and 1970s. For me, a hippie who participated in my fair share of protest marches - this album as a gorgeous rending of some important songs like The Times They Are A Changing and Imagine with some wonderful soul-jazz-funk added to them. Am I glad to have discovered this gem!

After my quick trip to iTunes I'm about ready to try another song off Tried and True. I chose What Kind of Fool Am I - which in general terms seems quite different from It's Only Make Believe. But a quick check of the attributes of this song and I see that there are many similarities as well:

  • jazz influences
  • laid-back swing feel
  • intricate melodic phrasing
  • through composed melodic style
  • prominent percussion
  • acoustic rhythm piano
  • major key tonality
  • orchestral arranging

So my journey starts with Ketty Lester and Lonely People Do Foolish Things. Ketty Lester is a wonderful singer who had a hit in the early 1960s with Love Letters but who's career never really took off. What a treat for Pandora to start off with this little gem who's additional attributes were: r&b influences and vocal-centric aesthetic

Next up is Brian Setzer (remember him from my previous path with It's Only Make Believe?)! This song is Lonely Avenue from the album Songs From Lonely Avenue . . . A Soundtrack to an Unwritten Film . . . an ode to film noir - great album. Lots of similar attributes and of course, thumbs up from me. I love his version and the guitar solo is fabulous.

Beyond the Sea - but not Bobby Darin's version - is up next. Matt Belsante - that's a name I'm not familiar with. He's a young man - only 26 now and this song is from his album Blame It On My Youth, recorded when he was only 23! He has a kind of Michael Buble feel to him but I find his voice and style more authentic. I picked up a couple of tunes off this album from iTunes.

Ohhh - this is fun . . . Harry Nilsson singing Makin' Whoopee!  off his A Little Schmilsson in The Night album and just terrific. It's got the usual attributes but also some new ones: string section beds; a light swing groove and orchestral arranging. I just had to pick up this tune!

Oh look . . . Linda Eder is up next singing This Time Around from her It's No Secret Any More album. Yummy - Linda's version was one my father absolutely adored and played all the time. He discovered her late in his life and her music brought him great pleasure. No hesitation - thumbs up for me!  I guess possibly because Linda's voice is theatrical - the next suggestion is a bit too Broadway for me with Pal Joey's Happy Hunting Horn - but that's an easy fix. Click thumbs down and move on to Bonnie Raitt's Everything That Touches You. This song adds to the jazz influence and string bed attributes with acoustic rock instrumentation and acoustic rhythm guitars. Thumbs up and I'll be eager to see what this new song does to my path . . . but not tonight as I'm ready to close Pandora down for the evening.

I know I'm going to be continuing on these musical journeys discovering fabulous old and new music - old and new artists -- familiar and unfamiliar singers -- all from the kernels there were It's Only Make Believe and What Kind of Fool Am I. And what better way to end this blog than a performance of What Kind of Fool Am I by Clay Aiken at Bringing Broadway Home.

Next trip down Pandora I think I'll check out where Unchained Melody and Mack The Knife lead me. This is addictive!

DISCLAIMER: The photos of Clay Aiken have nothing, zero, nada to do with Pandora or singing these songs or anything . . . they are just simply gorgeous and begged to be used! Thank you to Diana Levine, photographer.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Destiny's Child Part 3

Two years ago when I started the Destiny’s Child blog that has turned into a Destiny’s Child series, I marveled at what some may think is just a bunch of coincidental events. While I do believe in the occasional coincidence, there’s something to be said for a series of intertwined events, days apart or even decades apart that set your life on a path of higher learning or bigger experiences. I believe life is a series of fateful events influenced by our own decisions and commitment. That feeling of coincidence is really just reinforcement of the fate that awaits you. Or there may be an event that seems like part of every day life that will eventually reveal itself as a connection between past and future.

A few months ago, I decided to change jobs. I had heard of a new job opportunity at an iconic international company that would allow me to work in an industry that has always fascinated me. The word on the grapevine was that it is extremely difficult to get hired at this organization. I networked hard and was able to secure a phone interview which ended with an appointment for an onsite interview. Thirty minutes after I hung up the phone, I received a call from my daughter at college. She is studying Public Relations and had to create a mock press release based on an assigned company and she had emailed it to me for review. I opened my email and saw the logo of the company that had just invited me onsite. I had four more events like that happen to me in a ten day period of time. Coincidence? Or was this my own personal version of The Force?

Earlier this week, a number of entertainers who were either native to Raleigh, North Carolina or who had a deep connection to the North Carolina Theater in Raleigh performed at a benefit concert. Performers included Broadway legend (and former NCT director) Terrence Mann along with Broadway singer/actress Lauren Kennedy. Also in the “cast” were actress Sharon Lawrence, and singers Quiana Parler and Clay Aiken-Multi-platinum recording artist, Broadway actor and Raleigh’s unofficial tourism ambassador.

He opened the show singing Home from The Wiz. How appropriate. He talked about sitting in the Memorial Auditorium for the first time, while watching a production of Big River starring Marty Moran as Huck Finn. Years later Clay was invited to play Sir Robin in Monty Python’s Spamalot on Broadway. The actor preceding him? Marty Moran. I discussed that Circle of Life in Destiny’s Child Part 1.

There was a lot of talent in this benefit concert that night. But in the video and audio of the show, a few things were clear to me. First, Clay can sing anything. Fans have always laughed that he can sing the phone book but he seemed determined to prove it. He dueted with various performers and easily slid from Broadway singer to pop singer depending on song and partner. As Nan said, she watched three different Broadway songs from three different shows and saw three different singer/actors. He embodied the song and morphed that embodiment to suit the mood. He sang traditionally and then he played with his voice as if it was an acoustical guitar and a trumpet all rolled into one. In Those Magic Changes from Grease, he seemed to be having a jamming session with himself and all of the Clays were thoroughly enjoying it.

And then there was his performance of Mack the Knife. This is such a strange song, it’s about a killer sneaking around slitting people’s throats and yet it's performed with this jazzy flair. What does this have to do with Destiny? Clay sang this song on American Idol in 2003 in the show that put him in the final. He needed to nail the performance, they had changed the words to his previous song at the last minute and he had stumbled a bit. That night found a young man on stage who was feeling the pressure to nail it.Sing it big and they will like it. This week it was the seasoned professional who sang a sadistic song with a sassy, grooving ease. He felt no pressure to nail it because he owned it the minute he opened his mouth.

As an aside, what is UP with his voice? The man has always had a voice better than 90 percent of the singers out there and it improves when he’s live on stage. But 2010 Clay? His voice is even better technically and the notes are effortless as always but there’s something more there now. I feel a joy and abandonment in his singing that I haven’t seen in a few years. I was thinking about it today as I was driving home from work (at that iconic new company that ultimately hired me last month). He sings with a sense of freedom to explore and experiment. He sings with no pressure, likely born from working with a new record label that finally, in his own words, gets him. He sings with hope. Does he sense the hand of destiny too?

So what else did our sister Destiny have in store for him this week? Sure, he stood on that very stage three months ago as he recorded a PBS special that had a smashing premiere in Chicago this month and will be airing on PBS stations nationwide in August. Interesting, but by itself probably a mere coincidence at best. But the memory, the event, the intersection of dream and reality began a lot earlier. It began when a 17 year old Clayton entered a regional performance competition and stood on that Raleigh stage in a sparkly blue vest and sang a song that was too big for most adults. He sang it with little nuance, just the “all in” naiveté of a teenager, but the judges rewarded him for the raw talent of it all.

Fast forward (or flashforward as Clay said that night) fourteen years to that very spot where the untamed wild pony had impressed a group of local educators and parents. He’s a household name now, about to embark on his ninth tour in seven years. He returned to sing that same song, not because he had a choice but because there was no other choice. He had to close that circle. I’m sure Miss Destiny has a few more waiting. I wonder if he has an aunt named Emmy.

Many thanks to GBB, Fountaindawg, Brightstar and toni7babe for their talents and treasures in the pictures and film clips on this blog. Check out Destiny’s Child Part 1 and Destiny’s Child Part 2 to see this amazing life.

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Monday, June 07, 2010

The Classics - and The Classy!

Everyone knows I have eclectic taste in music. I like my rock to really rock (not the Daughtry-kind) so I still play Ten Years After and Pink Floyd and The Doors. I still go to cafes to listen to folk music and I see Tom Paxton every single time he's playing near me - even as recently as a few months ago and at 72 he's still funny, warm and emotionally touching. And over the holiday weekend I was thrilled to be sitting in a wine bar in my little town, sipping a martini and listening to the fabulous jazz guitarist and legend, Bucky Pizzarelli still dynamite at 84 years young. I don't know why it is that I don't gravitate to one kind of music only but I feel fortunate that I don't. I know music is subjective and some people simply don't "feel" anything but pop or classical strikes them right. I have a million moods and a million songs to fit them. I think I'm lucky that way.

I've been thinking a lot lately about how musical history gets diluted by a constant drumming of media spin. Voices that were once called "golden" or "legendary" now can be sneered at by using the two dreaded words "easy listening". Is listening supposed to be hard? Sure there is music that sounds like it belongs in an elevator. Hey, the Beatles music has been converted into that. And some singers do have ordinary voices or predictable phrasing and aren't very interesting - some from the 50s and 60s . . . and even some from the "contemporary 2000s". All one has to do is turn into American Idol every now and again to be convinced that there are hundreds of ordinary voices out there.

I do realize that many people simply do not like "standards" or "those kind of arrangements" or "that kind of voice" and I understand as I've never understood the appeal of Madonna or much pop music for that matter. Or rap. Give me blues and rock any day but I have zero interest in hearing Shakira or  Katy Perry.  And while I love r&b - it's the voices of Sam Cooke or Otis Redding I long for - not much of what is contemporary r&b. So I do understand when people listen to standards and just don't care for it.  But I also think that many others simply don't really know the music they are quick to dismiss. Sometimes sounding "easy" is really really difficult and takes considerable talent.

I've been thinking a lot about this particularly since Clay Aiken's new album Tried and True arrived at my doorstep. Now I love Clay's voice but I've never been one who's said "he can sing the phone book and I'll be happy". I have zero interest in hearing the phone book sung by anyone - including a voice as interesting as Clay's. Music matters to me. I wasn't happy when I heard he was singing "covers" but I became much more interested when I heard he was singing "standards". I never tire of hearing Ella sing "They Can't Take That Away From Me" and Kenny Rankin's version of 'Round Midnight will be on my deserted island.  So I was excited about this album - and it didn't disappoint me at all. And Clay's rendition of Misty keeps inching over on Sarah Vaughan's which shocks the heck out of me!

I intend to write more about Tried and True later, especially since it includes some amazing arrangements -- and Linda Eder's vocals on Crying and David Sanborn's sax on What Kind Of Fool Am I (two artists I adore) - but today, listening to some recent interviews with Clay about why this album means so much to him and why he wanted to sing what he has been calling "singer's songs" - I've been drawn to hearing some of the voices Clay has mentioned: Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. WHAT?????? Snoozy Andy in his cardigan? Boring Johnny of the lush romantic elevator music? Nope. Not those people because I don't know who those people are. I've been thinking and listening to the real Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis. That's right.

Andy Williams, the man who in the 1960s was one of the most popular vocalists in our country. The man who, at the time, was signed to the biggest recording contract ever and who earned more gold records than any man other than Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and . . . oh yeah, Johnny Mathis. Andy Williams, who's television variety show ran for nine years and won three Emmy's.  That Andy Williams. So I relistened to some Andy Williams music and remembered why he was so popular. The ease of his vocals, the smoothness, the control. His lovely vocal ability shines in this version of Scarborough Fair with Simon and Garfunkel:

. . . or the way he can mix it up with the likes of Antonio Carlos Jobim in The Girl From Ipanema:

And then I thought, I haven't really listened to Johnny Mathis in a long long time. I mean everyone made out to Johnny Mathis music - but had I really listened? I admit I don't own any Johnny Mathis songs. I wasn't a fan although I recognized his beautiful voice. So I needed to really listen. And once I did I had my "aha" moment. Put that voice together with a great song like Michel Legrand's Pieces of Dreams and I'm lost in it.


And it's perfection when connecting so emotionally to a song like 99 Miles From LA:

So Clay - if you want to show your wonderful vocals and your sublime interpretative skills singing "singer's songs" - like you did in this version of Unchained Melody on The View - please do.

I know a great song by a great singer will never go out of style.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

What a Difference a Decca Makes

As we countdown to Clay Aiken's album dropping on June 1st, I think most fans are still trying to get used to all these constant teasers of songs, tidbits of information, firsts class PBS special, beginnings of videos for viral marketing and just overall respect from his record label. And the full scale promotion hasn't even started yet. I can now forget he who shall not be named and the old label that I've always said should be a Harvard Business Review case study in how to boot the marketing of a sure thing.

Why?-because someone finally gets it. And pretty soon the whole world is going to get it, again. They are going to remember why they liked Clay Aiken in the first place. They are going to wonder why he hasn't had been allowed to explode in song like this before, probably because they never even know about his last album.

Here's a taste of some of the music, the great arrangements and the voice that launched a thousand redials on my cell phone just about seven years ago this month. (If you get a Rufus Wainwright video, just hit refresh.)

Clay said in that video that they chose songs from the best singers of our time. Perhaps that's because he's the best singer of HIS time.

Want to pre-order the album? You've got all kinds of options.

Go to itunes and hear snippets from the tracks plus a bonus song of You Don't Have to Say You Love Me. If you're like me, you want instant gratification at midnight on June 1st.

Go to Live Nation and pre-order the album and get an immediate download of Suspicious Minds.

Go to Amazon and have your choice of an album, a deluxe album with two bonus songs or a DVD.

The album is up on other sites including Best Buy and Barnes and Noble too.

Thank you, Decca. Thank you for fulfilling a lot of my wish list blog back in October right down to the non use of that Claymate tag. Thank you for the foot tapping at my desk when I can't get a 30 second snippet out of my brain. Thank you for the smile that lights up Clay's face more than usual. Thank you for getting it.

UPDATE 5-27-2010
Check out the new (and very nicely done) Clay Aiken fanclub site. It has three full songs from the new album and snippets from all of Clay's albums.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Smell of Lilacs

I arrived home from work last Friday, eager to see the nice new landscaping for which my condo association had collected all those exorbitant special assessments. And it didn’t disappoint. Rusted-out iron fence gone, new sod, freshly planted flowering shrubs, trees trimmed back. Everything looked great. I walked up my front steps, put my key into the lock, and burst into tears.

Now, I guess you couldn’t be blamed for chalking it up to one of those hormonal things. Maybe that was part of it. But mostly, it was the smell…

…of lilac bushes. New ones, on either side of my front door.

Lilacs were, hands down, my mother’s favorite flower. My grandmother’s, too. For as long as I can remember, there was a big lilac bush monopolizing our front patio, the product of one of my mom’s few successful forays into the world of horticulture. (I’m reminded – as I’m sure my mom would be -- of the famous Dorothy Parker adage “You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think.” That phrase was pretty much the sum total of our collective knowledge on the subject, because in that one respect, I'm a chip off the old block.)

Just about everything my mom planted quickly died. Her tomatoes shriveled on the vine, her peonies laid their rosy heads in the grass and gave up the ghost, her lilies held their own funeral. Her attempts to maintain an herb garden were a running joke. About the only vegetation that seemed to thrive, ironically, was poison ivy. Our house would have made a great “before” picture for Better Homes and Gardens.

But that lilac bush was truly a triumph. Even my father’s occasional clumsy slips with the lawn mower couldn’t vanquish it –- it bloomed faithfully every year with zero effort on my mom’s part, making it the ideal plant. Its scent would get stronger and its branches fuller and purpler until one day my mom would gleefully venture out with a basket and a pair of shears and cut herself some nice big bouquets that perfumed the entire house for at least a week. I think this made her as happy as it was possible for her to be; she felt genteel out there cutting her own flowers, Jane Austen-style. Those lilacs were evidence that despite what she evidently saw as her miserable fucked-up life, she had created one thing that was really beautiful.

A couple of decades sped quickly by; my mom fought cancer and lost. Her beloved lilac bush survived her, but somehow it seemed to sense that its biggest fan was gone forever – it hung on but was never quite the same. My dad sold the house and moved across town, and the new owners decided to demolish it to make room for one of those huge ubiquitous “McMansions” springing up all over suburbia. A corner lot that had once comfortably accommodated a smallish ranch house with a horseshoe pit, badminton court, sandbox, picnic table and numerous fruit trees would now only have room for this aluminum-sided behemoth with its golf weathervane and lawn jockey, laughably out of place alongside the flat cookie-cutter stucco houses populating the rest of the block.

A few days after our old house was razed, my dad and I bravely drove over to take a look. It’s hard to describe what it’s like to see your childhood reduced to a surprisingly small trench in the ground, surrounded by nothing but piles of dirt. Not a trace of our lives there remained -- no grass, no trees with our initials carved into them, no handprints in the cracked sidewalk leading up from the driveway, not even the cracked sidewalk! And no lilac bush. It had, finally, taken a big yellow bulldozer to put an end to its hardy existence. As I stood with my father contemplating that dusty vacant lot, I was thinking that in many ways I mourned its loss most of all.

We heard a happy shout and swung around to see Hank and Marian, our former next-door neighbors (and my parents’ weekly bridge partners) ambling toward us. Marian had been a beautician who worked out of her kitchen – when I was a child, my mom used to funnel her seven bucks every few months to give me (bad) pixie haircuts. Hank was a retired cop who was missing a finger – he always claimed, thrillingly, that he lost it in an armed robbery at a liquor store; my dad privately slipped it to us that an accident with a circular saw was the real culprit.

After we exchanged pleasantries, shared a few pithy comments about the stark change in the landscape and joked about the monstrosity to come, Marian made a touching confession:

“I hope you don’t mind, hon,” she said, giving my shoulder a friendly squeeze, “but the night before your house was knocked down, Hank and I came over for a last lil’ look-see, and we ended up digging up your mom’s lilac bush.”

I was speechless for a second. Swallowing hard, I croaked, “You did?”

“Yeh, well…it was just gonna get plowed under anyways, and I figured your mom wouldn’t mind. So we—“

“Where is it now? I asked.

“Over there,” Marian replied, pointing. We walked a few yards toward their house, and sure enough, there it was next to their back fence, its purple blooms nodding at me in the breeze. I wanted to throw my arms around it.

“You don’t want it, do ya, hon?” she asked, concerned. “’Cause if ya do, I can stick it in a pot or something and ya can plant it somewheres else.”

“No,” I assured her. “It’ll be much better off with you. Knowing me,” I told her with a shaky laugh, “I’d probably kill it.”

Marian let out her unique gravelly three-packs-a-day chuckle. “Hey, if your mom couldn’t kill it, NOBODY could.”

Good point. Still, it looked content where it was, so I left it. I hope it got lots of sun and Marian enjoyed it as much as my mom had.

My dad and Hank and Marian are all gone now – I like to picture them, and my mom, as they were back in the 1960s – playing bridge on Hank and Marian’s screened-in porch on a hot summer evening, knocking back Miller High Lifes and happily chain-smoking their Parliaments.

And me? I have a lilac bush next to my front door again. I think my mom would have loved that.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Back in Town

You know when you have a great experience and you try to hold the memory in your mind as time tries to erase it? The more time that elapses, the more it fades and at some point you wonder if it was even as good as you remembered it. Was I just caught up in the moment? Did I have a bad week and that was just something better than everything else?

Back in March, I wrote a blog describing a trip to Raleigh where we saw the taping of Clay Aiken’s PBS Tried and True: Live! concert special, which will air in August of this year. Fans have described it as the OMG concert because that’s the phrase that punctuated the Memorial Auditorium in words, thoughts and exhausted but excited chatter well into the early morning hours back at the hotel.

I tried to focus on the fact that the album drop date is right around the corner on June 1st. I focused on the Ticketmaster Tango for his upcoming Timeless tour with friend, Ruben Studdard. I must have done a pretty good job of describing the Raleigh event and its sound of big band with a modern twist because my husband agreed to attend the show in Foxwoods.

But every few days, someone who wasn’t there asks us to describe the concert. What was that new note like in Unchained Melody? How did Clay and Linda Eder sound in their duet of Crying? People who know Clay has a great voice figured we were exaggerating when we say he never sounded better.

International Media is producing the PBS special for Decca Records. Today, they gifted us with a three minute montage of some of the highlights. (They did not include the aforementioned songs; it might be too much to handle.) What I love is that the band is just as into it as the audience. Hang on to your headphones and give a listen.

Oh and Clive? Who’s Sorry Now…

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Sunday, April 04, 2010

Male Call - A Clay Aiken PBS Concert

It was going to be a stormy ride down to North Carolina for the PBS concert last week with my wife and NY/New England friends in more ways then one. Not only was the weather going to be a factor on the drive, but my confidence for what we were going to witness wasn’t all that high either. Could it be the result of my faith in any record label was non-existent? After all Clay had recorded what I believe was the best music I had ever heard on the cd On My Way Here and got no promotion by that old label (I refuse to use their name) and no air play. I bummed out further knowing that I would probably never hear any of those songs sung live and never get to feel the excitement and energy Clay infuses in his songs and delivery when on tour.

I was more concerned Clay had hit his musical plateau. I couldn’t blame him after the past few years of struggle he’s endured with his career. He’s been subjected to a label that wouldn’t support him, negative press and little promotion of his music. I knew the guy could take a punch both metaphorically and physically but after hearing he had to have his jaw broken twice to correct a very bad situation, I could understand a desire to hang up the vocal chords. I fell into that Andy Williams, Moon River trap, and I was sure he was going to sing sappy middle of the road songs that I doubt I would like or ever want to buy. How does that make his new label Decca Records any different from the last? Ok his press had taken a sudden turn positive lately and he was finally getting the opportunity to put his music on tape, and PBS no less. But covers? No please not covers.

So on the night of the concert I didn’t have the usual excitement I feel when seeing Clay live. Sure some of the spark was still there but more worry than anything else. You could feel it in the crowd as we gathered prior to the opening of the Raleigh Memorial Auditorium. Things didn’t get better either. When we got to our seats, right in front of us at eye level was a huge PBS floor camera. Oh yes, the night was going downhill quickly.

Convinced by others to do something about our seats I made my way down to the usher now talking with a couple of people. Using all the charm and sex appeal this guy could muster I informed her of our plight and asked if she could do anything for us. She had a few envelopes with tickets of people able to move seats, but we weren’t listed and it ended up I would have to go to the box office and throw myself on their mercy to see if they could relocate us. As I was moving towards the door to go to the box office the usher ran up and said hold on I have seats for you and took me to a young lady with a bright orange t-shirt. She was dealing with someone else and said hold on, so I waived to my wife to come down and we began a long walk down the side aisle of the dress circle. My heart sank, she was going to seat us in one of the side sections of the dress circle, when all of a sudden we got to the first row and turned. I’m convinced she was an angel of mercy because she took us to the 3rd row where there were open seats and said in a pure angelic voice, “Sit where you want to”. Ah, excuse me but any seat and she replied “yes”. We ended up third row, dress circle, center seats. Great the best seats we had ever had for an indoor Clay concert and he was going to do standards. It was like fate was saying “you’re going to hate this and I’m going to rub it in your face”.

Then the curtain came up. The 10 piece jazz band burst into the opening number (with 2 cellos & 2 violins) Clay with his back to the audience, turned, approached the microphone and that voice that’s sweet to the ear, blew me away for the next couple of hours. A totally new sound and direction, this is the start of something good.

So what have we learned so far? Never underestimate Clay Aiken. I knew that. How did I let myself forget it? Never again!

My hats off to Decca Records, to Clay’s positive management, to those amazing arrangements, and some of the most outstanding lighting I’ve seen. The staging and song selection was unique and the jazz band behind Clay was oh so sweet. Don’t miss this PBS special when it airs this summer and do pick up Clay’s new cd Tried and True when it releases in June. These “standards” are anything but standard.

Oh and Clay sang the dreaded Moon River so simply and wistfully, it still haunts me.

Should a known!

UPDATE: For a look at Clay Aiken's new album cover, check out this blog:

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