I have recorded with many wonderful singers in my life, but maybe none who can inhabit a song the way the actress Gia Mora does. When we set out to make her second album, Gia Mora Sings Charlie Barnett, I gave her total access to my catalog, including my film and stage work as well as pieces I’ve written over the years for my jazz band, Chaise Lounge. It was amazing to see what she picked and why. Her ideas on some of the songs completely transformed them. For instance, on “One Thing I Have Learned About the Weather,” which I wrote for a documentary about a fallen soldier, she suggested that we take a simple 4/4 folk-ish song and twist it into a slow Cajun waltz with some stray bars left in for dramatic effect. The result was startling, even to me. I couldn’t be prouder of this record. We will debuting some of these songs in Los Angeles on November 20 at Vitello’s Jazz and Supper Club. If you’re in the area, I hope you can come by.
Last week I was lucky enough to do some recording in Los Angeles at the legendary Capitol Studios. Yes, that one! The one in the iconic Hollywood building whose architecture is meant to evoke a stack of 45s.
My singer was late—no big surprise there—and I found myself warming up on the nine-foot grand piano in Studio A. The soundproof door of the studio opened, and an older man with a big smile walked in. “Sounds great,” he said.
“I’m just playing scales,” I replied.
“Hey,” he said kindly, “there are scales, and there are scales.” And then he introduced himself: “Steve Lawrence.” That took a second to register. It was indeed Steve Lawrence of Steve and Eydie. He looked terrific—or should I just say that, at 79, he looked exactly like Steve Lawrence has always looked.
Steve and his wife Eydie Gormé were a part of my show business education in the ’60s and ’70s. Back then, I was in the thrall of a lot of sub-par ’60s rock, so it took me a while to admit how very good Steve and Eydie were. But I finally got there. Eydie was an amazing singer, and Steve was the perfect partner for her, in music and in life. She died last year. They were married for 56 years.
After gushing over how great he looked, I grabbed an opportunity that will only come once. I asked him to sing a song with me. He walked to the piano and said, “Sure, give me a B flat.” I did, and without a pause he began singing “The More I See You.” Luckily, I know that song. And for the next three minutes I was living in a 1962 dreamscape where I was suddenly part of the hippest fraternity on Earth—call it Sigma Alpha Hepcat—made up only of great musicians who know terrific songs and perform them in Studio A or at The Sands in Vegas. It was a fantasy, but for those three minutes, it was also very real. Steve’s voice is still young and strong and perfectly his own. And I really do know that song.
Then it was over. My singer arrived. She had no idea who Steve Lawrence was. I was forced to return to 2014. It was a great moment, though. Thank you, Steve.
For our session, we used one of Capitol’s classic microphones. It was the Neuman U-41 that has the tin Capitol emblem on it. It has been there since 1963. I have pictures of that exact microphone on at least three record covers. The one I like best is from a June Christy album called June’s Got Rhythm. The microphone is a faint drawing at the bottom right. It always seemed to me that only true insiders would know which mic that was. The true insiders are, of course, thousands and thousands of people who have seen pictures of Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. singing into that exact same mic.
We also used the famous reverb tank underneath the studio. I later posted on Facebook a picture of the patch bay inputs that tied the vocal track to that analog reverb. One of my favorite responses to that picture was: “Capitol Recording Studios, where it’s always 1962.”
A few years ago, I wrote a seventeen-minute-long orchestra piece named 1348 after the worst year of the bubonic plague that wiped out nearly one-third of Europe’s population and nearly one-half of England’s. In many ways, I could see parallels between that time and ours.
Unsurprisingly, this rather dark piece has had a difficult time finding a performance. But Dr. Patrick Miles and Dr. Leslie DeBauche at the University of Wisconsin at Stevens Point stepped up to remedy this. This spring, Dr. DeBauche’s film class made a zombie movie to go along with the seven movements of 1348. A zombie movie! I was thrilled. The final performance, which took place on April 23, 2014, was a screening of the film with the university orchestra, conducted by Maestro Miles, playing 1348 as a live soundtrack.
At the taping of Carl Kassell’s final Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me episode a couple of days ago, I ran into my old friend Amy Dickinson, a writer and frequent panelist on the show. And seeing Amy reminded me of the radio piece that sparked our friendship: her terrific July 2002 All Things Considered report on a nostalgic summer symphony of mine called The Blue Chevrolet.
You can hear the radio segment, which my mom basically stole out from under me, here: Blue Chevrolet NPR Story. If you’d like to listen to the third movement of the Blue Chevrolet symphony, you can stream it here: The Blue Chevrolet – Movement III: The Detour, The Argument, and Finally, The Map.