Singer-songwriter Steve Tyrell

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The Grammy-winning headliner at Manhattan’s storied Café Carlyle performs two tracks from his new CD—a tribute to legendary lyricist Sammy Cahn.

Grammy winner Steve Tyrell has achieved success as a producer, songwriter, music supervisor and performer. He's produced hits for a long list of diverse and legendary artists and worked with distinguished directors as a music supervisor/producer for film and TV. His voice has also been featured on TV and in movies, and he's appeared with symphony orchestras. Tyrell grew up in Houston's 5th Ward with a mixture of music, including tunes from the neighborhood. He later became a fixture in NY and has played the Café Carlyle to record crowds. On his 10th album, "It's Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn," he celebrates the iconic American songwriter's centennial birthday.


Tavis: Grammy winner Steve Tyrell’s introduction to popular music started way at the top. At the age of just 19 he was already working with Burt Bacharach and Hal David, producing hits.

He went on to work with Rod Stewart, Chris Botti, and Bonnie Raitt before striking out as a performer in his own right. His latest CD is called “It’s Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn.” Steve, good to have you back on this program.

Steve Tyrell: Tavis, it’s a pleasure, man.

Tavis: Good to see you.

Tyrell: You’re the man.

Tavis: Oh, please. I was so delighted to have been invited by you to be in the audience at a little sneak preview you did for this –

Tyrell: Right.

Tavis: – before the record even dropped, remember that?

Tyrell: Right, right, last year.

Tavis: Yeah.

Tyrell: I had worked on it for about a year. It was Sammy Cahn’s centennial, so I wanted to get the party started for him, you know. (Laughter) He was a great writer. He wrote – first of all, he was nominated 27 times for the Academy Award, which is unbelievable.

Tavis: Twenty-seven times.

Tyrell: Twenty-seven times. He used to say that people would ask him, “What comes first, the music or the lyrics,” and he’d say, “The phone call.” (Laughter) That’s where he got his inspiration.

He won four Oscars and five Golden Globes. Just an amazing lyricist. I’m extending that this year, Tavis. I’m about to start my ninth year at the Café Carlyle, and last year I did Sammy’s thing the whole year and I’m going to still have Sammy.

But I’m going to call my show “Wordsmiths,” and I’m going to do a salute to the lyricists, the great lyricists of the Great American Songbook, who nobody, most of the time, don’t even know who they are.

Tavis: Run some names, other than Sammy Cahn, obviously.

Tyrell: Well, I don’t know, Hal David. People don’t talk about Hal David.

Tavis: Sure.

Tyrell: One of the points that I’m going to try to make is that people will say, “Steve, why don’t you sing some more Frank Sinatra songs,” or “I love it when you do Ray Charles songs.”

Or “Billie Holiday songs are really,” they didn’t write any of those songs. Most of the time the writers are overlooked, or they get confused as to who did what. Like I’m going to do a couple of songs from my friend Carole King, and people will say, “She wrote the best female songs of all time.”

I’ll say, well – (singing) “You make me feel, you make me feel like a natural woman,” and “Will you still love me tomorrow.” Her husband wrote those songs. (Laughter) She wrote the music –

Tavis: Sure, absolutely, yeah,

Tyrell: – but Jerry Goffin wrote the lyrics. That kind of thing goes on and on and on. Dorothy Fields was a fantastic – she wrote “The Way You Look Tonight,” and so many great songs.

She was kind of the first lady of the lyricists of the Great American Songbook. She wrote like 400 songs or something. So I’m going to get into all that this year. Then there were some people that wrote both, like Cole Porter.

Unlike Sammy and so forth he wasn’t born in a poor family on the Lower East Side or in Brooklyn.

Tavis: But he is from Indiana, where I’m from.

Tyrell: He was – oh, you messed up my joke. (Laughter)

Tavis: Oh, I didn’t know. (Laughter)

Tyrell: No, I was going to say he’s from Peru –

Tavis: Oh, yeah, from Indiana.

Tyrell: Indiana.

Tavis: I went to high school right around the corner.

Tyrell: Yeah, yeah.

Tavis: I know the Cole Porter story – Cole Porter, Hoagie Carmichael

Tyrell: Right, exactly.

Tavis: Got a few good ones out of Indiana.

Tyrell: Axl Rose.

Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Okay.

Tyrell: Michael.

Tavis: Yes, Michael Jackson, of course, a lot of good folk out of Indiana.

Tyrell: Yeah, Indiana got some good something out there.

Tavis: Yeah. Good water, good water. Speaking of, though, speaking of persons, great artists who perform this stuff but don’t necessarily write it, since you mentioned Sinatra, Cahn was like his muse.

Tyrell: He wrote 87 –

Tavis: Eighty-something, 87 –

Tyrell: – Frank Sinatras.

Tavis: Isn’t that amazing. One guy –

Tyrell: Or Frank Sinatra did 87 of his songs.

Tavis: But think about that – as great as Frank Sinatra – Blue-Eyes was the man, Chairman of the Board. But he sang 87 songs from the same guy.

Tyrell: Yeah. One thing I can say about Frank Sinatra, which I’m going to say in my show, he always acknowledged the writers.

Tavis: Yeah.

Tyrell: If you ever noticed any of his live performances –

Tavis: Absolutely.

Tyrell: – or whenever you hear a live album –

Tavis: That’s right.

Tyrell: – Frank Sinatra always says who wrote the song and who arranged it. He always gave them credit.

Tavis: You do the same thing.

Tyrell: I try.

Tavis: Yeah. What is it like doing the Carlyle – I’ve seen you everywhere but the Carlyle, and this holiday season I hope to get there to finally see you. I saw Bobby Short there when he was holding court for what, 30-some years.

Tyrell: Thirty-seven, 36 years.

Tavis: Thirty-six years at the Carlyle.

Tyrell: Something like that. He was there 36 years, and then I’ve been there nine. I’ve been there every year since he passed away. By the time I catch him, I’m going to be almost 60. (Laughter) If you believe that, Tavis, I got a bridge that I’ll sell you that goes all the way over to Brooklyn.

Tavis: I assume, though, you must like that room. It’s an historic room.

Tyrell: Oh, it’s fabulous, and the hotel. The whole thing, the whole vibe of the – I was honored to be asked to do that. I got a call that Bobby had passed away, and he always did that holiday season.

Tavis: Always.

Tyrell: That’s wonderful. Now I’m doing what he also did. I come back in May for a couple of weeks every year. He used to do that too. He used to play the holidays and New Year’s Eve and come back in May. So I’m flattered and honored to have had that gig all this time.

Tavis: What is it specifically about the writing of Sammy Cahn that turns you on as an artist?

Tyrell: Well, he used to say, he said that he wrote words that sang, and there’s something to that. It’s poetry, but it’s poetry that sings. I know my friend Burt Bacharach; we were talking about Hal David, too.

Burt was always interested, he would tell me, on how the words hit the notes that he was writing. I don’t know, there’s just some talent that these guys have that they know how to write, rhyme, and roll it off and make great emotional sense, but they hit the melodies. It’s not like writing poetry. Lyric-writing is married to the music.

Tavis: Let me ask an impossible question, a strange question. Do you think that if you lived – you were joking earlier about how long you’re going to, how many more years you have to catch up to Bobby Short at the Carlyle.

Tyrell: Right.

Tavis: If you live to be, like, the age of Methuselah, if you live to be 900 and some years old, do you think that the songwriting could ever, in the future, could ever match up to what’s in the past?

Tyrell: Well, I think that the songs that I’ve been blessed to sing and discover, they were my parents’ music, as most of – I know my friend Rod Stewart was the same way.

This was our parents’ music. But this is the greatest contribution I think America’s ever made to the arts. Once you get into these songs, you go my God, these things are incredible.

No, I don’t think that we’ll ever match that. There was a thing that went on in those days that was kind of wonderful. Songwriters wrote, singers sang, and then it went kind of into the singer-songwriter, where some really great people came out. I saw James and Carole King – well, she was a songwriter first.

Tavis: Sure, first, exactly.

Tyrell: But Paul Simon and Elton and Stevie and people like that became – where they sang their own songs. But before that, hardly anybody sang their songs. Nat King Cole didn’t write songs that I know of.

Tavis: You and I know that’s where the money is, though.

Tyrell: Well yeah, but I don’t know, I don’t know. I think Sinatra did all right.

Tavis: Sinatra did all right, yeah.

Tyrell: Barbra Streisand ain’t doing too bad. (Laughter) Elvis did pretty good.

Tavis: Yeah, he did pretty good, but –

Tyrell: Ray did all right.

Tavis: But if you can write and perform –

Tyrell: But you know what, I think that’s somehow where things get a little diluted.

Tavis: Right.

Tyrell: Because if – it works both ways. Like probably if Cole Porter had to sing his own songs, maybe he wouldn’t have had so many great songs. It’s two different talents, and it used to be more separate back in those days.

The songwriters were, man, they’d get in there and write songs, and that was their craft. Then the singers would just knock ’em out. Billie Holiday didn’t do too bad.

Tavis: No, she didn’t do bad either, yeah.

Tyrell: All these people, it was two different things. They didn’t write those songs.

Tavis: Since you’ve raised it a couple of times –

Tyrell: Although she did write a couple.

Tavis: Yeah. Since you’ve raised it a couple of times, and I find myself always coming back to this because I miss it so much in the stuff that comes out today, what do you make of the invisibility, the absence of melody these days?

Tyrell: Well, it’s a shame. I think the technology and the technical world that we live in has contributed to that, because you couldn’t go to a piano back in the day and just tell it to play two chords over and over again like you can since we started sampling and taking music and putting it in a computer.

I think it’s great and a lot of creative – it’s almost like that’s our version of jazz or something. But the actual learning how to be a musician is kind of a lost art. Those people, they wrote these incredible chords and melodies and sophisticated yet simple, complex – soulful and yet sophisticated stuff, because they knew how to play, a lot of them. They understood harmonies, which is kind of lost with this new music.

Tavis: While I always look forward to any new project from you, and I’m glad you did this one, this “It’s Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn,” in case you’ve just tuned in, Mr. Tyrell’s going to do not one but two songs for us a little bit later in this program. But even though, again, I celebrate whenever you put a new project out –

Tyrell: Thank you, man.

Tavis: – I always regard you, more than anything else, as a live performer. Back from “Father of the Bride,” people see you or they hear your name, they think of a live performer. What is it that you so love about the actual –

Tyrell: Well, I love – like I’m talking to you. It’s a communication. There’s an audience. It’s a totally different thing. I was and have been most of my life a record producer, which is like being a director of a film or something. You make it, you do another take, you put it together. But live, man, you got one take.

You’ve got to communicate to the people, and you’re looking at them. I have a new DVD that’s coming out that I’m very proud of. Finally, after 10 albums, I’m making a DVD of my live performance which I did in this historic – it’s called “Coming Home.” It’ll be out in a month or so. I did it in Galveston.

Tavis: This is back in Texas? Galveston, yeah, yeah.

Tyrell: At the oldest theater in Galveston. It was built in 1890-something, and it’s intercut with interview stuff of my life and stuff, and so – that’ll be the first time you can see me live on a DVD.

Tavis: Yeah, yeah. But you have such a wonderful way with the audience, too, though. It helps when you’re going to be a live performer to have a rapport with the audience that you’ve developed, obviously, over years of doing this.

Tyrell: I don’t know. If you say so. (Laughter) We’re comfortable talking to each other. I like people, and I think – first of all, I’m very appreciative that they’re there, because they could certainly be somewhere else spending their money.

People come back year after year after year, and I really appreciate that. Make a little thing out of it, going to the Carlyle at the holidays, and I’m playing in L.A. this week at that same place that you came.

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Tyrell: Pretty much have this kind of performing career where I go back year after year to certain places.

Tavis: When did you know that you had, although it wasn’t part of your plan per se, when did you know that you had turned the corner from being – I think you always will be a record producer. You did Rod Stewart’s great album that got him so many awards and accolades, speaking of the American Songbook.

Tyrell: He’s my man. I love Rod, man.

Tavis: He did a really good job doing the American Songbook.

Tyrell: Oh, he’s a great artist. Look, you think about Rod Stewart – I’m having dinner with him tonight. He’s like –

Tavis: Take me, take me, take me, take me. (Laughter)

Tyrell: He’s like – well you guys should – you’d love each other. But he’s a real guy, and he’s an incredible artist. He’s sold something like 250 million albums. He’s been making hits since –

Tavis: Since before I was born.

Tyrell: Yeah, since the ’60s, late ’60s and ’70s, and he just keeps coming up with new things. He’s a great performer. I learned a lot from Rod, learned a lot.

Tavis: What I was trying to get to was when you knew that you had made the turn from being a record producer, from being a guy behind the scenes to being the guy out front.

Tyrell: You know, Tavis, I didn’t even know I was making a turn. I just – it’s like everything in my life kind of has happened, and I don’t even know why. Everything is backwards. You don’t get a job working in New York City in the Brill Building when you’re 19 years old, but I did.

Everything goes backwards. That’s usually when you’re trying to be an artist. When I had no desire and no idea to be an artist, I was working on movies, is when “Father of the Bride” happened, and all of a sudden people started to say, “Man, you should go on the road.”

Tavis: That changed everything, didn’t it?

Tyrell: Yeah.

Tavis: That movie, one movie changed everything.

Tyrell: It did. It also highlighted the Great American Songbook. That song, “The Way You Look Tonight,” from that film, started a whole thing which I’m proud of. Now the Great American Songbook, at least it’s underlined – Michael Bublé has done incredible, Rod did incredible.

Tony always – he’s never gone away. But I really do believe these are the songs, like I said, are America’s greatest contribution to the arts, and as long as somebody sings them, they will last forever.

Tavis: With Frank doing 87 Sammy Cahn songs along – that’s just Frank Sinatra doing it – you’ve got 13 tracks on here. What was the process for figuring out which ones you were going to record?

Tyrell: Well, the hardest thing was which ones I was not going to record. But he’s got so many good stories, and I know his family. Tina Sinatra – not Tina, but Nancy Sinatra wrote the liner notes, and Deana Martin, who grew up with him, and Tita Cahn is my friend, so a lot of stories kind of influenced some of the songs.

Like the song he’s the most proud of is a song called “Call Me Irresponsible,” and the reason he is is because he said it dealt, as a lyricist, with five-syllable words, and he said it was a five-syllable song written by a guy from a one-syllable neighborhood. (Laughter)

Tavis: I like that.

Tyrell: Every line – you don’t think about it, you heard it a million times, but every line’s got five. Irresponsible, unreliable, you know. He was a genius.

Tavis: I got to get out of the way for your performance. I got a minute and 30 seconds. You’re going to do two songs for us tonight, and I’m going to ask you to say a word about each, why you love these songs so much.

You’re going to do “Come Fly with Me,” so tell me something about “Come Fly with Me.”

Tyrell: Well that was an album; that was a song he wrote for Frank that was a title of his album, “Come Fly with Me.” I think it’s – I don’t remember the year.

Tavis: It’s a great album cover. I know that cover well.

Tyrell: Yeah, yeah. That song has – it’s in the consciousness of America. It’s been in commercials, everything you could think of. But that wasn’t written for a movie.

Tavis: The other song you’re going to do for us tonight is “The Tender Trap.

Tyrell: “The Tender Trap,” yeah.

Tavis: Yeah.

Tyrell: That was from a movie of the same name, and I always say you see a pair of laughing eyes, and suddenly your sighing sighs. I always send that out to the guys in the audience, that they’d better beware, because they’re liable to be in a tender trap when you get home. (Laughter)

Tavis: All right, so now that I’ve told you what Mr. Tyrell is going to do, let me shut up and make way for these great performances to come in just 20 seconds here.

The new project from Steve Tyrell is called “It’s Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn.” In just a moment, he will perform live for us “Come Fly with Me” and “The Tender Trap.” I will see you here in L.A., but I’ll see you at the Carlyle I hope this winter.

Tyrell: Tavis, I love you.

Tavis: (Unintelligible)

Tyrell: Thank you for having me, man.

Tavis: Stay with us.

From his new project “It’s Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn,” here’s our friend Steve Tyrell performing “The Tender Trap” and “Come Fly with Me.” Good night from Los Angeles, thanks for watching, enjoy, and as always, keep the faith.

[Live musical performance]

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Last modified: November 14, 2013 at 12:28 am