Steve Tyrell: Singing Timeless Songs that Tear at your Heartstrings
Steve Tyrell - Photo courtesy of the artist.

I’ve been around the entertainment industry for two decades, and so not too many artists make my heart skip a beat. I thought Sting would surely be the first one to do it, but as I walked into The Colony Hotel in Palm Beach last week, and heard Steve Tyrell say “Hello,” with his easy-going warmth and just-slightly-craggy voice, suddenly the lyrics “I’ve got a crush on you, sweetie pie…” came to mind.

Concentrating on the job at hand, I rehearsed in my mind the artist’s remarkable music career. In a revolutionizing music business spanning nearly five decades, he has achieved success as a singer, songwriter, producer, music supervisor, and most recently, radio host. Every Monday through Friday, Tyrell hosts “The Steve Tyrell Show” on KJAZZ in Los Angeles, California.

A Grammy Award winner and two-time Emmy nominee, Tyrell, performs regularly at the Café Carlyle at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City. He was awarded the Grammy Award as producer of Rod Stewart’s “Great American Songbook, Volume III.” He has produced 12 albums and just released his latest album, “A Song For You through New Design and East/West Records. The 12-track release features Tyrell’s takes on modern classic love songs like Van Morrison’s “Someone Like You,” to the timeless romanticism of Victor Young and Edward Heyman’s “When I Fall In Love.” Also featured on the record are songs by Leon Russell, Jackie Wilson, Johnny Mercer, and Tyrell’s friend and collaborator, Paul Buckmaster—one of the top arrangers of the rock era. Interestingly, “A Song For You” was the last song Buckmaster worked on in his storied Grammy Award-winning career.

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In support of the release, Tyrell played at The Colony Hotel’s Royal Room, performing there from February 27 – March 10. The Royal Room couldn’t have commanded a better, more storied spot to host this jazz singer. The space exudes the stylish elegance of the world’s old style premier cabaret rooms. And clearly, Tyrell and his band were in their element.

MC: Steve, tell me about your show at The Royal Room in The Colony Hotel. 

ST: The Royal Room is an intimate room, with an upscale clientele—a lot like The Carlyle in New York City. When they started this, they used the Hotel Carlyle as a model. And I’ve played at the Carlyle for the last 14 years.

MC: Yes, The Royal Room has that refined style and charm. How long have you been performing at The Colony Hotel?

ST: For 20 years. It always has a great audience and we always do well. I love it here. You just have to go to the pool every day. It’s tough, but I can handle it. You just got to make sure that you turn from one side to the other, so you don’t get too much sun on one side.

MC: [laughing] Yeah, tough job, but no worries. You’ve got all sides covered well.

ST: [laughing] Good to hear.

MC: Now, aside from enjoying Palm Beach’s sunny side, I hear you have a new album. Tell me about it. 

ST: “A Song for You” is the name of my new album and this trip is in support of it, which by the way is number one on the Billboard Traditional Jazz Charts.

MC: Congratulations! I love “A Song for You,” which is one of Leon Russell’s famed contributions. What made you pick that particular song as the title of your new album? 

ST: I thought it was the appropriate title to the album because this is my twelfth album and most of my albums are a collection of the Greatest American Songbook exclusively.

Watch an excerpt from Steve Tyrell’s Live DVD Coming Home, LIVE IN GALVESTON AT THE 1894 OPERA HOUSE. It features him and 7 wonderful musicians playing a song from his Columbia album of the same name.

MC: You’ve had tremendous success with all of your albums. I mean, where do I begin? You did an album of standards called “A New Standard,” in 1999; it was a Top Five hit on the jazz charts and was still listed in those charts two years after its release. You followed in 2003 by another album, “Standard Time,” in 2001. The holiday-themed “This Time of the Year” arrived in 2002, followed in 2003 by another album of pop standards, “This Guy’s in Love.” In 2005, you released Songs of Sinatra on the Hollywood label; it was followed a year later by The Disney Standards. Then, your seventh album, “Back to Bacharach” was released in 2008. You returned in 2012 with your homage to the Great American Songbook, “I’ll Take Romance,” and continued your salute to standards in 2013 with the Concord release “It’s Magic: The Songs of Sammy Cahn.” Nine of of your albums have reached top-five status on Billboard’s Jazz charts. How do you continue to work to reinvent the American Standards Songbook and connect classic tunes to a modern audience?

St: I see you did your homework… but to answer your question, with albums like this, which goes back to the standards and are mixed in with the more contemporary songs.

MC: And when you say contemporary, what do you mean?

ST: Songs like “Song for You” that was written in 1970. Then there are other songs like “Try a Little Tenderness,” which was a song written in 1932. “Sunday Kind of Love,” which was written in 1946. So, it’s a good mix from classic songs from 1940s to the Brill Building era of the 60s, and later.

MC: For decades you have been performing with your band and orchestras across the country and around the world—from Carnegie Hall to the Hollywood Bowl, to Buckingham Palace… Not to mention your residency at the famed Café Carlyle in New York City and your annual residency at Monteverdi in Tuscany, Italy. What is it about covering classic tunes that you love so much? And what makes those songs so great? 

ST: It’s what I do! But what makes those songs so great is that they’re open to interpretation by any given artist. I mean, there are not that many songs that you can hear and love 25 different versions of the same song. That’s why the Great American Songbook is great, because that’s what it offers.

MC: They’re timeless songs.  

ST: Yeah, you can put them in a movie 25 years ago, like “The Way You Look Tonight” in Father of the Bride, and then put them in a movie 25 years from now—the same recording, the same vocals, the same everything. And that’s what this album [A Song for You] is about. And that’s what my career is really about. Making timeless versions that are not, “Oh, that was 2013…” You know, you can’t hear 2013; if you can, then we made a mistake. These songs should be any era. And that’s what makes them great.

MC: So, what you’re saying is that they should fit any era from the time they were written on.

ST: That’s right. And they should sound right. Not like a pop song so that it sounds like a 80s song.

MC: And not like what they used to do during the disco era, when artists would take a song and spin it into a disco tune.

ST: Yes, and they would convert them into a disco song. What I try to do with my albums is the opposite of that. They should fit with any generation. And that’s what the songs do.

MC: But the songs are also nostalgic. They take you back in time…

ST: Well, I can see if it was a Frank Sinatra song, maybe. His version, because he is no longer with us. But they should just be songs that they could have been recorded yesterday or they could have been recorded 25 years ago. They don’t have a stamp, like the disco songs. You know those were written in the 70s.

Watch an excerpt from Steve Tyrell’s Live DVD Coming Home, LIVE IN GALVESTON AT THE 1894 OPERA HOUSE. It features him and 7 wonderful musicians playing a song he sung in the Father of the Bride movies when Steve Martin’s character saw his daughter dancing for the first time with her husband on her wedding day.

MC: Looking back at your remarkable career, can you name some of its highlights? 

ST: Well, I’ve been blessed to have had several, I think. Some of them as a producer, working with others artists, and some of them on my own. “The Way You Look Tonight” in Father of the Bride was certainly a highlight for my career because it took me and put me in front of the public. That movie was, and still is, a big iconic movie that people are always watching.

MC: And since then, people getting married have used that song because of that movie. 

ST: Yeah, and a lot of times they use my version of that song too.

MC: Well, the song is so romantic and sweet. And like me, they adore your voice.

ST: Well, thank you.

MC: Another movie that I enjoyed watching multiple times is “That Thing You Do. The film made over $34 million in the Box Office, and you sang some of the songs on the soundtrack. 

ST: Yes, that was written, directed and produced by Tom Hanks. And he was very passionate about showing that time when the rock & roll bands were famous. They had a jazz guy in the movie. I forgot the name of the character, but they wanted me to be that guy that the rock & roll band looked up to. It was played by Del Paxton.

MC: Yes, I remember. He was the jazz musician that the band wanted to model after

ST: I portrayed that character. It was great. I had a wonderful time and that album sold a million copies. I got a platinum album for it signed by Tom Hanks.

MC: And what did he say?

ST: He said, “Thanks for that thing you do.”

MC: Very appropriate and clever. I read somewhere that “in every life there comes a time when that dream you dream becomes that thing you do.”

ST: So true.

MC: What are some other highlights in your career in terms of working with other artists?

ST: It was a highlight to have worked with Ray Charles, Linda Ronstadt, and so many others. But definitely one of the greatest highlights is to have worked with Rod Stewart. He lives here in Palm Beach. I was very happy to have produced his only Grammy Award-Winning album. How about that?

MC: That’s awesome. What was the name of that album?

ST: “Great American Songbook, Volume III.” Then we did an album called “Soulbook” with all these soul songs.

MC: I remember that album. Listening to his voice in that album, it seems like covering classic soul songs from the 60s and 70s is what Rod was meant to do. 

ST:  Yeah, and Rod and I became really good friends. And he is such an iconic artist. He’s out on tour. Never stops working. And he never stops being great. Have you ever met him?

MC: Actually, yes, I met him in the 90s when I was a brand new journalist working for Talent Times Magazine, a fashion, arts & entertainment publication located in South Beach. We were hosting a party at Prince’s club right there on Washington Avenue and he came. I was afraid to approach him at first, but he was actually really nice. 

ST: He is as comfortable in Prince’s club or the Carnegie Hall or the Copacabana. Rod fits in anything and makes it his own. He’s out touring right now with Cyndi Lauper.

MC: Two veteran singers sharing a stage in 18 cities across the United States. Yes, I’ve read about that and how they bonded decades ago.   

ST: Yeah, I can’t wait to see them when they come to the Hollywood Bowl.

MC: You started working in the music business so young. You left your home in Texas at the age of 19 years old to go to New York City, where you worked for Scepter Records. I’ve read that you first worked with Dionne Warwick…

ST: Yes, I started with her! You know, the first two people I met where singer Carole King and lyricist Gerry Goffin. They had written “Will You Love Me Tomorrow,” which was originally recorded in 1960 by the Shirelles. They took their single to number one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Burt Bacharach and Hal David were the next people I met. They were writing songs and producing Dionne Warwick for our label. So, I got to work with with them for the first ten years of my career.

MC: And at what point did you become the head of promotion?

ST: Oh, several years after that. So, we would make the records and then it was my job to get them played on the radio.

MC: The music industry has changed so much since then. What are the biggest differences that you see between now and then?

ST: Well, the music is the biggest difference. It was much better music then, in my opinion.

MC: Without sounding like my parents, I agree with you 100 percent.

ST: The songs were written by people who knew how to write some of the greatest music and lyrics. And for the most part, what you see today is a loop that they sampled from somebody else’s record, put it together on their computer, then talk over it. I don’t think that should be considered songs. Now, there are exceptions to that rule. There are some people around today who are writing good songs.

MC: Care to name them?

ST: Bruno Mars writes good songs. Certainly, Adele writes good songs. Alicia Keys is really good. And so is Taylor Swift. Those are songs!

MC: You like Taylor Swift?

ST: Yeah, I like her songwriting and singing. I like her presentation. She writes real songs, not nonsense songs.

MC: Yes, you’re right. She’s better than Brittany Spears…

ST: I can see by the expression on your face that you don’t like her too much, but even Brittany Spears had real songs with choruses. It’s the stuff that I’m hearing now that I have trouble understanding. What anybody is getting out of songs that just talk on and on…I don’t get the poetry of it.

MC: Well, that’s because it’s not poetry. 

ST: There are some people who say it is. That’s this generation’s jazz. To me, it’s just a lot of talking. Ray Charles said the same thing. There’s some great stuff in the Hip Hop generation. I don’t want to generalize and sound like this guy…like my parents, you know. There’s some good stuff, but for the most part, it just doesn’t hit me melodically, romantically, and lyrically as real songs do.

MC: And don’t you think that perhaps the reason for that is because the music industry today is not what it used to be when you had record labels really mentoring, managing and promoting their artists? It was more than just a pretty face coming up with “nonsense songs on YouTube.

ST: There are many issues about that. I mean, like you said, we don’t have a music industry like it used to be. Not even since I was working with Rod. Everything is streamed, you can get everything on your phone, you don’t go buy it, you can buy one track, as opposed to buying a whole album. So people were just forced to make an album and sell it. Now you don’t have to do that. It’s very rare for people to buy an album. They download the songs they like and add it to their playlist.

MC: So the record industry is not getting the revenue that it used to get. 

ST: Nope. That makes it different too. It doesn’t have the money to spend. Record companies are all kind of folding into one.

MC: Your world is different, obviously. Are you on a tour in support of this new album?

ST: Well, no. A tour is when you don’t work for a while and then you go on the road to promote that new release. I, pretty much have been working, thank God, for 20 years. But there are certain times and certain places that I work year after year. Like this place right here [The Colony Hotel]. I’ve been coming here for 20 years. I never come here in August! [laughing]

MC: And where do you live?

ST: I live in L.A., but I have a place in Miami. So we play here February through March. We play New York in November and December at The Carlyle. We play in L.A. certain times of the year, as in other places. And that’s what we do. Other people do produce an album and then they book a tour, 28 days in a row playing from city to city. But we don’t do that. I want to go play to support the album, but I would be playing anyway if I didn’t have an album to promote. I have a pattern of places I play because I still have what they call, food, that I need to buy. It’s a new invention! [laughing]

MC: [laughing] Yeah, I’ve heard of it.

ST: And we try to fit in the albums into that pattern, where I can play it in New York, in Miami, Los Angeles, Palm Beach, San Francisco, and Italy. I try to coordinate the album where I have the most gigs.

MC: And in the last 20 years, what has been your favorite gig?

ST: People always ask me that and I always say, wherever I’m playing tonight.

MC: [laughing] That’s a good answer. 

ST: Honestly. Because tonight is a new day and a new challenge. It’s [the show] live and you don’t get to play what you played last night. You have to go play tonight’s music, tonight. You can have the greatest people standing on ovation and screaming last night, because for some reason the energy and chemistry of you and the band, and the songs, and the crowd was all unbelievable; tonight you have to start over and do the same thing. So, I’m always trying to be in the now about it.

MC: But have you had standout gigs?

ST: Of course, there have been a few. I’ve played at the Buckingham Palace for Prince Charles, I’ve played at Carnegie Hall a couple of times, at the Hollywood Bowl… are they your favorite gigs? Well, they’re certainly ones you don’t forget. I might forget what we played last Thursday night, but I don’t forget the Hollywood Bowl with Quincy Jones conducting the orchestra.

MC: And the musicians that you play with, are they your band?

ST: Yes, I’ve been playing with them for at least 15 years now.

MC: And that’s something different in today’s music industry too. Most musicians today don’t necessarily have bands; instead, they play with various musicians.

ST: Well, that’s mostly for financial reasons.

MC: And what other reasons may there be? 

ST: I don’t know what the other reasons there may be. But for instance, when you have a gig in New York at Christmas time everything is at the most expensive it can be in New York. Like my bass player doesn’t come to New York; he stays in L.A. because he has a young family. You have to get apartments for your guys. They can’t stay at The Carlyle or at The Colony, where the rooms are $500 a night. So, if you were to put your six guys in rooms, that’s $3000 a night. When I’m in New York, I work with local musicians, except for my piano player and my drummer, they’re always with me, and Jon, my assistant, is always with me.

MC: So the four of you are always together. How about your guitar player?

ST: He lives in New York, so when I play there, I don’t have to fly him out. He can go home and sleep in his own bed.

MC: So, Steve, I can sit here and talk to you forever, but is anything else you’d like to add? 

ST: Thank you. That’s very nice of you to say that. But I guess, I can add that I’m very happy with the way this album came out. I’ve made 12 albums and nine of them have made the Top 5 on the Billboard Traditional Jazz charts. This is the first one that has made Number one, and in the second week, so I am very proud of this album.

MC: And you are in such great company, as that’s the chart where Tony Bennett, Michael Bublé

ST: Yeah, it’s a good group of people who are considered traditional jazz artists. And even Rod was in that chart when he had those types of songs out. So, to be number one on that chart, even if it is for one week, it’s very exciting to me. There was always somebody ahead of me. I went as high as Number two, but I’d never had a Number one album until now.

MC: And what do you think of those artists like Michael Bublé?

ST: I love them. See, I love this music. I love this genre, and I totally respect it. And I totally believe that it is America’s greatest contribution to the arts or to these songs. They’ve been around for 75 years, and they wouldn’t be around for 75 years if they weren’t great. And they will be around for another 75 years, as long as people sing them. And they will never get old, and the people who are not born yet will buy these songs. They’re totally timeless. Everybody that sings it, and sings it well, gets my attention. It’s the only genre of music that you can love my version of a song, Frank Sinatra’s version of a song, Tony Bennett’s version of a song, Ella Fitzgerald…all of us singing the same song, and you like each one. You’re not going to have 25 versions of Beyoncé’s new song. You might like hers, but you’re probably not going to like 25 versions of it. This is why I say, this is the best kind of music America has ever heard. You can hear versions from Mile Davis, Nora Jones…they’re all great and their music was not sampled by someone else’s recording. The people who wrote these songs knew how to write songs.

MC: And that’s why I love these songs. They all tell a wonderful story…

ST: Great storytellers. Real poetry set to music. And I’m so honored to be a person who gets to sing them all over the world. Legends Radio here in the Palm Beaches plays theses songs. They, keep the music alive.

“A song for you” track list

1. Someone Like You
2. Come Rain Or Come Shine
3. Try A Little Tenderness
4. A Song For You
5. Sunday Kind Of Love
6. When I Fall In Love
7. Come Live With Me
8. You Are So Beautiful
9. Them There Eyes
10. To Be Loved
11. The Good Life
12. Always On My Mind