The Grammy-winning artist-producer-songwriter highlights his career and his R&B background and reflects on developing his own sound as an artist, as heard on his newest CD, “I’ll Take Romance.”
Singer-songwriter Steve Tyrell
Tavis: Steve Tyrell is a popular singer who is out now with his latest project. It’s called “I’ll Take Romance.” The disk is a collection of covers from the Great American Songbook featuring artists ranging from Etta James to Linda Ronstadt to Sam Cooke. From the new CD, some of the video now for the classic, “Just the Way You Are Tonight.”
Tavis: Sounds so good, Steve. You’re sounding good, man.
Steve Tyrell: Hey, thanks, man.
Tavis: It’s good to see you in Los Angeles for a change.
Tavis: The last time we saw each other, we were at the Larry King Friar’s Roast in New York City.
Tyrell: That’s right, right, right.
Tavis: You killed it that night, as you always do.
Tyrell: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: You brought on the young guy from “America’s Got Talent” who you introduced.
Tyrell: Yeah. Landau Eugene Murphy, Jr.
Tavis: That brother can sing.
Tyrell: He can, man, he can. He’s doing great. The album we made, I think, has sold a couple hundred thousand. Last year this time, he was washing cars. He loved that show that starts out with that Sinatra song, “Love and Marriage.”
Tavis: “Married With Children.”
Tyrell: Yeah, “Married With Children.” He got this idea to start singing Sinatra songs and he looks like Bob Marley.
Tavis: He’s a Black guy with long dreads, yeah [laugh]. Frank Sinatra, man.
Tyrell: Yeah, and he started going around places in Virginia, you know, karaoke places and, everywhere he’d go, he saw he’d knocked people out. So he got this idea himself to go audition for “America’s Got Talent.”
He went on his own. He said there was about 5,000 people there, took him all day and they finally let him in and he walked in and the first thing he sang was “I got you under my skin” and they said, “Over here, please” [laugh]. He won the million dollars, the Sony contract.
Tavis: I was watching that night. You got a room full of white folk, room for my Jewish brothers and sisters in New York honoring Larry King, and this Negro stands up with all these dreads and they had no idea who the guy was.
Tyrell: Well, I brought him on.
Tavis: I know, you brought him on.
Tyrell: Yeah, ’cause his album was coming out the next week. So when Larry had asked me to do it, I said, “Well, I want to bring a friend of mine on too.”
Tavis: I have never seen somebody – Matt Lauer and I were sitting together that night and I remember saying this to Matt, “I have never seen somebody transform a room so fast.” I mean, this guy walks up looking the way he looks, you do not expect Frank Sinatra. He stood up and killed it.
Tyrell: I know. You expect him to go like [singing]. He comes up, you know, “Night and day, you are the one.” Great, great.
Tavis: Enough of his story. It’s a great story, but his story is no greater than your story. Your story’s no less great than his. You are that rare person who starts out on the A&R side. You start out as a producer. You start out as a guy helping to make other artists successful.
Tyrell: Well, actually I started out as a singer first.
Tavis: Right, way back when.
Tyrell: Way back when. I was in two bands in Texas. I don’t know if you know that I grew up in the hood.
Tavis: Fifth Ward, Houston.
Tyrell: Fifth Ward, Houston, yeah. My family had a grocery store. They were Italian immigrants that had a grocery store in the Fifth Ward and I grew up there. That’s all I ever remember.
So I was in a all-Black band, you know, and then I was in a cover band that did all Black songs [laugh]. So I was always into rhythm and blues, you know. Then I got a job working for Scepter Records. I started producing records in Houston, different artists and a couple of my things started getting national attention.
Like I worked with this great lady named Barbara Lynn. You remember her? “If you lose me, oh, yeah, you lose a good thing.” I worked a lot in New Orleans with Dr. John. This was before I got my job working for Scepter Records.
Tavis: Dr. John’s still killing it.
Tyrell: He’s still killing it, and Allen Toussaint, man.
Tavis: Oh, love it.
Tyrell: All those guys, we all grew up together in New Orleans, and Aaron Neville and the Meters and all those guys. I got a job working for Scepter Records and they were an R&B label, you know, producing Chuck Jackson was the first and Maxine Brown and the Shirelles.
Then just about that time, Burt Bacharach and Hal David and Dionne Warwick were kicking it. That changed my life. I decided I’d rather do that than be an artist.
Tavis: I’m gonna talk about being an artist in just a second. But you mentioned Dionne Warwick. There were so many people that you worked with ’cause, you know, you got Bacharach and David. These guys are two of the greatest composers of all time.
Tyrell: Right, and Dionne. I was in that trio.
Tavis: So Dionne, obviously we know famously related to Cissy Houston who sang background for Dionne on her records.
Tyrell: Right, on all those records, yeah.
Tavis: And would bring her little baby to the studio named Whitney.
Tavis: So you saw Whitney when she was just a baby.
Tyrell: Yeah, that’s right, that’s right, and her husband, John Houston. The Bacharach sessions back then were like events. His mother and father would be there, John Houston and Cissy and Dionne’s – Cissy is Dionne’s mother’s little sister. So she’s more like Dionne’s sister and Whitney is more like her niece instead of her cousin.
But they were all there and Burt would be out there with the whole orchestra in those days. There was no like we would record today pro tools and tune it up. No, man. Everybody was playing at the same time, you know, and Dionne was in the booth and Cissy was in there and Dee-Dee Warrick, her sister, sang on those and Valerie Simpson sang on a lot of those records too.
Tavis: Did you ever hear or sense that Whitney had any talent way back then?
Tyrell: I didn’t know, but I didn’t hear about her until she became a teenager being an artist. But she was singing in church. Cissy is a great singer, man.
Tavis: Yeah, no doubt about it.
Tyrell: You know, after Dionne’s success, Cissy had a group called the Sweet Inspirations and then they went out with Elvis.
Tyrell: I was kind of focusing on Cissy, you know.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah, yeah. How did you decide or how did it happen that you went from being on the A&R side to back to the singing part?
Tyrell: Well, because of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, I got to work on a lot of movies as a young man. You know, we had “Alfie,” we had the theme from “Valley of the Dolls,” we had “The Look of Love.” All those songs came from films.
So very early on, I saw as a record guy that you could take a good song, man, and put it out at the same time with the film and you could have extra marketing, you know.
So when I moved out to California, Barry Mann and I became partners and we started working on movies. We thought that’d be a cool thing to do in Los Angeles. You know, we’d see if we could get us a little place on a lot somewhere, you know, and walk around at the commissary.
Tavis: Like everybody else in Los Angeles.
Tyrell: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: Wants a little spot on the lot [laugh].
Tyrell: Yeah, we want a spot on the lot. So we started working on movies and television shows and we would make demos. Barry’s one of the great writers of all time. I mean, he wrote songs like “On Broadway,” “You Lost That Loving Feeling,” “Just Once,” “Here You Come Again.”
So sometimes we would write and make demos and pitch them to different movies and television shows and I would sing the demo. A lot of times, people would just say, “Well, man, who’s that?” I’d say, “Well, that’s me.” “Well, man, let’s use that.”
So I started getting my voice on television themes and on movies just because it’s cheaper than Tony Bennett, for sure [laugh]. Then sometimes if Warner Bros. would call me, certain people, I started getting loaned, that I could sing in films. I started being used that way.
Tavis: Do you recall any of those television themes that we would remember?
Tyrell: Yeah, the famous Teddy Z, “Frank’s Place,” you remember that show with Tim Reed?
Tavis: I loved that show.
Tyrell: Oh, man, lots of different ones. “The Client,” I sang in front of that. You remember that movie? I sang the opening.
Tavis: Susan Sarandon and Tommy Lee Jones.
Tyrell: Yeah. It was done in Memphis.
Tyrell: I think I sang “Heartbreak Hotel” or something. Lots of different things would just show up. I never took it very seriously, but it gave me a career working in television and movies. I was working on “Father of the Bride,” the movie.
Tavis: Yeah, I was about to go there.
Tavis: At 54 years of age, I mean your career…
Tyrell: Well, that’s when my album came out.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. You weren’t quite 54 then, yeah.
Tyrell: Yeah, people think I sang in “Father of the Bride” and the next week I put out an album [laugh]. Yeah, they do. Like, oh, man, you always wanted to be a star. No, it wasn’t like that at all [laugh].
I got together with the director and the producer, Nancy Meyers and Charles Shyer, and I said, “Where do you want your band to play at the wedding? You want like an R&B band?” When you see a band, Tavis, playing in a film, you have to do the music first. All the other music is done after.
Tavis: The score, yeah, yeah.
Tyrell: Yeah, but if they’re gonna be playing, I used to love to do that. You have to use your imagination. Well, what kind of band is it gonna be? Then you have to go to the set and make sure the cats that are miming it do it correctly, you know. I did a lot of that kind of work. I did “The Five Heartbeats.” You remember that movie?
Tavis: Love it, yeah.
Tyrell: Yeah, I did all the music for that too. So I used to love – that was my favorite thing to do, do music in advance, you know. So she said she didn’t know, but they wanted a soulful version of “The Way You Look Tonight,” which was a Sinatra song.
Tavis: Oh, Lord, yes.
Tyrell: And I’d never sung a Sinatra song in my life. I was an R&B guy, you know.
Tavis: Hold on! Prior to that time, you had not done Sinatra’s stuff?
Tyrell: The first standard I ever sung in my life.
Tavis: Oh, come on, Steve!
Tyrell: I swear to God.
Tavis: You’re lying!
Tyrell: That’s the first song of a standard I ever – I was from Otis Redding and Ray Charles and Sam Cooke and, you know, BB and Jimmy Reed and Bobby “Blue” Bland. When I was in a band, that’s – and Etta, you know. All of those artists were the artists that really influenced me.
Now my parents being Italian, you know, there was God and Frank Sinatra, not necessarily in that order ever either, you know [laugh]. So I had all that music in my consciousness as long as I can remember, but me, when I started my…
Tavis: As to singing, though, yeah.
Tyrell: When I started singing, I wanted to know what Otis was doing, what Ray was doing.
Tavis: So how did this movie part come along and what do you make now in retrospect? That’s like 1991, I think.
Tyrell: Yeah, yeah.
Tavis: That kicked your career.
Tyrell: Totally. Well, let me tell you what happened. So I go and they tell me they want a more soulful version. See, Frank’s version was swinging, you know. He’s going like that.
They loved those words, “Someday when I’m awfully low, the world is cold, I will feel a glow just thinking of you and the way you look you look tonight.” They wanted those words over the scene when Steve Martin saw his daughter as a bride dancing. It’s chilling, you know.
Tavis: It’s a great lyric too.
Tyrell: Oh, yeah. Dorothy Fields, yeah. They wanted that, but they wanted it to be a little more soulful. I said, “I mean, man, you know.” We went in the studio and made that version that you just played that became kind of a classic now. But we made that version sort of like as a fox trot that people at a wedding could dance to, but that was a little more soulful.
Tavis: Slow that thing down a little bit, yeah.
Tyrell: I went to the set to play. I called them the next day and I said, “Okay, I got something I want to play for you on that song and see what you think.” So they said, “Well, come over and play it for us on break, you know, when we’re lighting another scene.” So I went out in the car in the parking lot with the director and the producer.
You know, when you’re trying to sell something, loud is good, man. I had the radio on 11 [laugh] and it starts out, “Someday when I’m awfully low” and the next thing I know, Marty Short’s walking out there and Diane Keaton. You know, it’s so loud, they can hear it from the set.
They come over and said, “Man, what’s that?” I said, “Well, that’s what I did for your reception scene.” “Oh, man, that’s good. Who’s that singing?” I said, “That’s me.” They said, “Well, you got to be in the movie.” So that was it.
Tavis: Bam [laugh].
Tyrell: There you go. I said, well, I think I can handle that.
Tavis: And the rest is history.
Tyrell: Yeah. But I was in the movie. It even goes further than that. I mean, the day we shot that scene was the biggest day of the movie because it’s the reception, so all the actors are there. You know, everybody that’s in the movie is there, plus 200 extras.
Tavis: 2,000 extras, yeah.
Tyrell: Every time we played that song, young kids would come up to the bandstand and say, “Sir, did you write that song? Is that gonna be on the soundtrack?” It was obvious that we’d done something good.
So I told the director, I said, “Why don’t you put that over the end of the movie too? You know, we get Ray Charles or Rod Stewart or Sting or somebody to sing it and I’ll produce it with them and I’ll be the guy at the wedding and they can sing it over the end of the movie and that’ll be your song for the movie.”
So they thought that was a good idea and, you know, when they do the screenings, Tavis, they put temporary music in? Well, the put me over the end too.
So every time they previewed the movie for audiences, people would say, “Who’s that guy singing?” and I ended up singing in both spots.
Tavis: Wow. You mentioned Ray Charles, and I’ve read this more than once. Ray Charles, of all the great singers we’ve had, for whatever reason, Ray Charles is your absolute number one favorite.
Tyrell: The man, the man, he the man. He could sing anything. You know, people will ask you sometimes. It’s a kind of a cliché question, but if you could go on an island and you could only have one person’s music, who would that be? What do you think? Well, hell, two seconds, it’d be Brother Ray. I got everything he ever recorded.
He could sing anything, man. He could sing my name and your name. You know, “Tavis Smiley” and we’d be like, “I want that, I want that.” [Laugh] He could sing jazz, he could sing blues…
Tavis: Gospel, country.
Tyrell: Country. You know, whatever it was. When I hear the sound of Brother Ray’s voice, I’m feeling better, man.
Tavis: Whenever you hear Ray Charles, I mean, one or two notes, I can get it in an a note. You’re like a half note. You’re better than I am.
Tyrell: One word. I mean, it’s the same.
Tavis: I raise that to ask how confident you feel now, confident and comfortable you feel, in having developed your own sound now, particularly given that you sing so much standard stuff from the American Songbook, how comfortable now? When I hear your voice now, I know that’s Steve Tyrell. But are you comfortable with this?
Tyrell: Well, I’ve never considered myself like a great singer or anything, you know. I just sing from my heart.
Tavis: But your stylings are cold, though. The way you style those songs.
Tyrell: Well, it just comes out that way, you know. People tell me all the time. I think that I owe that to my upbringing in the hood, you know, because that’s the way I talk, that’s who I am, and everything in me has a little bit of rhythm and blues in it, you know.
Tavis: Your soul.
Tyrell: Yeah, a little blues. I mean, anybody that talks cool to me sounds like that. Anybody that sings sounds like Etta or Aretha, Otis. Ben E. King killed me, man, when I was a kid. You remember him?
Tavis: Absolutely. When you got into the Sinatra style, again, you come from an Italian family, so your parents love Sinatra. I get that. You had never sung Sinatra ’cause you’re doing the R&B thing.
Tyrell: Never sung a standard in my life.
Tavis: But when you got into…
Tyrell: Never thought about singing one.
Tavis: When you got into Sinatra’s stuff, to his songbook, what did you – I know what you think of Ray Charles – what did you then come to later appreciate about Sinatra?
Tyrell: Oh, man, he’s fantastic, the greatest. See, he’s got that thing that Ray has and all the great artists. He’s got that – there’s a whole lot of people that try to sound like Frank Sinatra. They imitate him. He’s probably the most imitated, especially in the world of the Great American Songbook.
He’s the most imitated person ever in the world, you know, but he got that little funky edge to his voice if you really listen to it. He’s got that street thing Sinatra does that nobody else has, man.
He was a great singer, great singer and his sound is his sound. He owns this music. He took the Great American Songbook and owns it.
Tavis: So for a guy who started out – I know you still love R&B, of course – but for a guy who starts out making his way in the world via R&B, how did you end up being the guy that so many of us know and appreciate as the guy who makes us appreciate the American Songbook?
Tyrell: Well, you know what I think? I think it was for me a kind of lucky break because it introduced the world, these songs, to me.
I knew them from my parents, but what ended up happening is, after “Father of the Bride,” everything thinks that I ran out and now I’m gonna make an album. I didn’t make an album for seven years. I didn’t make an album until after the second “Father of the Bride” movie.
But people were telling me you should make an album. I remember Steve Martin. “You should make an album of this stuff,” he said. I said, “Who the hell would buy it?” me singing standards. It was like preposterous to me.
Then when we did the second movie, I sang “The Simple Life” and “The Sunny Side of the Street” in that movie. Val Azolli and Ahmet Ertegun are really responsible for me having a career.
Tavis: The late great Ahmet Ertegun.
Tyrell: They were the co-chairmen of Atlantic Records. He went to see “Father of the Bride,” part two, Val Azolli did with his wife. I came on singing “The Simple Life” at the beginning, “Folks are blessed to make the best of every day, give me the simple life” and he calls me the next day.
He said, “Man, I got to tell you, I was at the movie last night. This voice came on at the beginning of the movie and my wife started punching me. Man, who’s that? Who’s that?”
Then in the middle, he said, “The same guy came on and, in the end, the same guy. It was you!” He said, “She made me go buy the soundtrack album” which at that point had three standards I had sung, “Simple Life,” “Sunny Side of the Street” and “The Way You Look Tonight.”
He said, “You should make an album of this stuff.” I said, “You know, you’re the right guy to be saying it.” So I played it for Ahmet and he said, “If you’ll make an album for Atlantic, we’ll put it out.” So that’s how it happened.
Tavis: Wow. I’m laughing listening to this ’cause I shouldn’t say rare, but it tickles me when I hear people who end up being pushed into their greatness. I mean, you got everybody around you telling you, Steve, how hard is your head, man? Everybody around you says, “Steve, put an album out!” You’re like, “Who would buy, who would buy?”
Tyrell: Man, I was like 50 years old at that time, 52 or something when I recorded it and 54 when it came out. Who the hell makes an album when they’re 54 years old? You know what I mean?
Tavis: [Laugh] Steve Tyrell.
Tyrell: I think I’m gonna become an artist now. Yeah, that’s it [laugh]. It just like totally seems ridiculous, but, man, it really changed my life. It changed a lot of peoples’ lives because that album came out, it did really well, it was on the charts for a few years, you know, and then Rod Stewart heard that album and, next thing I know, he starts coming to my gigs.
Tavis: He puts a project out of the Songbook, the American Songbook.
Tyrell: Yeah, right, and I produced three of his albums.
Tavis: Those did very well too.
Tyrell: Yeah. Well, the first album I produced for Rod of the Great American Songbook was his first number one album in 25 years. But he starts coming to my gigs like I don’t know who he is [laugh]. “Hey, mate, it’s Rod.” “Really?”
He told me how always his parents played that music. It’s something he always wanted to do and how much he really loved it and he knocked it out of the park. He sold like 16 million of these albums or something. It made a friendship between one of my most treasured friends is Rod Stewart.
Tavis: You got Stewart hanging out, Bill Clinton’s hanging out.
Tyrell: Oh, yeah. Great stuff is happening, man. I mean, they used that song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” President Clinton told me, to dance with Chelsea. I mean, I told him.
I said, “You know, that song’s taken me to more weddings than you can ever imagine.” He said something like, “Well, you should make an album of wedding songs.” I said, “That’s why you are the president.”
Tavis: Speaking of which, so tell me about “I’ll Take Romance.”
Tyrell: Well, that’s how that happened. One night at the Carlyle, I took over for Bobby Shore.
Tavis: I saw Bobby there a couple of times.
Tyrell: Well, he was there for 36 years, never missed. He did every New Year’s Eve and every holiday season for 36 years. When he passed away, they called me and asked me if I would take that spot.
Now I’m gonna go back for the first time and play in May ’cause Bobby used to do that. After 20 years or something, he would go back and play in May. So this year is the first year I’m gonna go back also.
Tavis: I’ll see you in May.
Tyrell: Yeah, be there May 15.
Tavis: I’ll be there.
Tyrell: But they gave me a call to come down early. Well, usually when they tell you to come down early at the Carlyle, something cool’s going on. I walked in and there was President Clinton and Chelsea and Mrs. Clinton. They had come down to hear me and he told me that he danced with her. “My version,” he said, of “The Way You Look Tonight.”
Tavis: So “I’ll Take Romance” is…
Tyrell: A collection. Well, I called the record company. I had just signed with Concord who love, by the way, and John Burk is the head of the label. I called John Burk the next day. “Well, John, listen, man. President Clinton dropped by last night…[laugh].”
Tavis: And said I should do a record [laugh].
Tyrell: Like he comes by every week.
Tavis: I’m impressed that you’re finally catching on faster now. Somebody tells you something, you start listening.
Tyrell: Yeah. I called him next day and said, “Yeah, yeah, he dropped by last night with the family and told me that he had danced to my version of “The Way You Look Tonight” and thinks maybe a wedding album dedicated to people getting married would be a good idea.” John said, “Yeah, yeah, that’s a good idea.”
So this album is a collection of songs that are some of my favorites. It goes back a little bit more. It’s a standards record, but it goes back a little bit more to my R&B roots like, you know, “Sentimental Reasons” is on there.
Tavis: “At Last.”
Tyrell: “At Last,” which I’m so happy. And “Trust in Me” is an Etta song too. I didn’t want to start the album with “At Last.” I thought, man, that’s Etta’s song. You better be careful.
Tavis: If Beyoncé can get some, you can get some.
Tyrell: But no, no. I’m proud of the version we made. Etta encouraged me when I first started. She was one of the first people that came out and told me she liked that first album and that kind of knocked me out. So we made that the first song before she passed away, so now it’s a fitting tribute to the great Etta James.
Tavis: 12 wonderful tracks, 12 wonderful tracks by the great Steve Tyrell. I love this guy and I’m so honored to finally get him in Los Angeles to talk about his wonderful career and he’s still going strong.
The new one is called “I’ll Take Romance” and you will want to add it to your collection for all you lovers and all those folk getting married this summer and all of you who need wedding singers who cannot afford Steve Tyrell in person.
Tyrell: I’m your man – or Adam Sandler [laugh]
Tavis: Or Adam Sandler, exactly [laugh]. Bam! There you go. You put the soundtrack and everything’s cool. Steve, good to have you here, man.
Tyrell: Thank you, man. Thank you for having me, man.
Tavis: It’s my delight. That’s our show tonight. Please download our new Tavis Smiley app today in the iTunes app store. See you back here next time. Until then, keep the faith.
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