Steve Tyrell: Standard Bearer

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I think this music is America's greatest contribution to the arts. I don't think it will ever go out of style. What makes these songs standards are that singers can do their own things and breathe life into the songs.
Singer, producer, and composer Steve Tyrell was born in Texas and grew up in Houston's 5th Ward. As a teenager, he performed in local R & B bands and at 19 he landed a job as a staff producer in New York at indie label Scepter Records. Tyrell was soon promoted to head of A & R and promotions and began to work with some of America's greatest songwriters; Burt Bacharach, Hal David, Gerry Goffin, Barry Mann, and Carole King. After recruiting fellow Texan BJ Thomas, Tyrell produced his hits, "Hooked on a Feeling," and "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head." In Los Angeles he co-founded Tyrell - Mann, a music-supervision company, and continued to produce Grammy-Award winning songs for movies and also music for television. He returned to singing in 1991, with a cameo performance of "The Way You Look Tonight," for the movie Father of the Bride. That eventually led to three albums of standards and a Christmas album, A New Standard (1999), Standard Time (2001), This Time of the Year (2002), and This Guy's in Love (2003).

All About Jazz: When did you start your career?

Steve Tyrell: I started my career in high school. I was in two R & B bands. One was kind of an R & B cover band and then an all black band and me. I grew up in an area called the 5th Ward in Houston. In fact all the jazz crusaders, Joe Sample, Stick Wilson, and Wayne Henderson grew up on the same street as me. I was the only white guy for miles. I played in clubs every night while I was still in high school.

AAJ: You started out as an R & B singer.

ST: My style of singing has some blues in it at all times. That's the only music I really ever listened to and sang. The biggest influences on me were all R & B artists.

AAJ: At what age did you became a producer?

ST: I got a record deal when I was 16. I was producing my own records; I just did them on my own. I was always fascinated by writing, producing, and putting records together. I got a job working for Scepter Records, an R & B label, when I was 19. I started working as a staff producer and produced people like Chuck Jackson and Maxine Brown.

AAJ: Is that where you started to meet some of the great songwriters?

ST: That's where I met Burt Bacharach. He was just getting started at the time with Dionne Warwick. I was kind of "the kid" in the company. I felt very much a part of their success, I was involved with all of their records and I helped to promote them.

AAJ: So you were also an A & R person as well?

ST: I was. I went from being a staff producer to the head of A & R and promotions. In those days that is what people did. The record business wasn't like it is now. Everyone did everything in those days. I worked on the records with Burt, Dionne, and Hal David and B.J. Thomas who I brought to the label from Texas. This is making me sound like I am a thousand years old. That is how I got started. Because of Burt Bacharach and Hal David and my association with them, at a very young age I got an opportunity to work on movies. When I was around 21, I worked with them on several movie projects. "Alfie," "The Look of Love," "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head."

AAJ: "Raindrops" won an Oscar in 1970, right?

ST: Yes, I brought B.J. Thomas in from Houston to the label and he sang it. Burt won the Oscar for that. I went to the Academy Awards at 23.

AAJ: You were kind of a pioneer in using music in movies.

ST: At that time they weren't really doing that. It was really all rock and roll, not a lot of pop music in movies. Maybe only Henry Mancini. One of the things that occurred to me early on was that you could take a good song and put it in a movie and release it at the same time as the movie.

AAJ: Was it then that you started your company, Tyrell - Mann?

ST: Yes. Barry Mann, a great songwriter who I had met at Scepter, and I. We started a company in Los Angeles. The first thing we did was another song that got nominated for an Academy Award.

AAJ: Was that "Somewhere Out There?"

ST: Yes, with Linda Ronstadt and James Ingram. It got nominated for a Golden Globe, an Academy Award, and won two Grammys for the Song of the Year and Best Song From a Motion Picture.

AAJ: That was probably one of the first songs used in an animated feature, right?

ST: Yes. It kind of set a trend that is still going on today for songs in animated movies. I was one of the first ones to put pop songs in an animated feature with a pop artist singing the song.

AAJ: Was there a time when work was hard to come by?

ST: There was a time between when I left New York and I came to California that I went back to Texas and wasn't doing much. I guess it proves that you can't really go home again. I left Texas at a very young age and when I came back there wasn't much to do. Also when I came to LA it took a while to get things rolling.

AAJ: Looking at the artists you have worked with like Bonnie Raitt, Linda Ronstadt, Alice Cooper, and LL Cool J it really runs the spectrum. That is a huge variety of artists and kinds of music.

ST: I've written all kinds of music. Most of it has a kind of a blues aspect to it. Even if I do a real pop song, I bring someone like James Ingram to the project and it would bring a real soulful twist to it like on "Somewhere Out There."

AAJ: Who are a few of your favorite artists that you have worked with as a producer and as a songwriter?

ST: I've enjoyed working with everyone. Linda and I made two big hits together. She is a great singer. Bonnie Raitt is a legend. James Ingram, Aaron Neville, Rickie Lee Jones, all are great singers. My favorite artist of all time to work with has to be Ray Charles. He is my all time favorite artist. But I also liked working with LL Cool J. We wrote a song together for a Debbie Allen movie.

AAJ: You include a lot of musicians in your band and your recordings, like Plas Johnson and Clark Terry, who played with the original singers on some of the traditional standards that you sing. Did you intentionally plan that or did it just come together?

ST: When I started making my standards albums that was a concept that I had. I really wanted to feature the great soloists on the songs that they originally played on. So I made a conscious effort to do that. When I did, "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," I wanted to have Clark Terry on that because he had played with Duke Ellington. To take a song that was recorded in the 1940's and to have the original trumpet player play on the song again, I thought that was a cool thing. I think a lot of people that like my albums and listen to them don't realize that historical fact.

AAJ: Unless they see you in concert and hear a story or really read the liner notes.

ST: It really hasn't been written about that much. That was the reason I made these albums in the first place.

AAJ: When you listen to your albums you realize that these musicians all have featured solos to showcase their great talent.

ST: It is a conscious effort. I am a producer, so the music is important.

AAJ: What do you think your years of producing brings to your singing career?

ST: Well, it makes me make a total record that is mine. It's like having my whole painting there but within the painting is a tremendous collaboration with some great people. Bob Mann and I have been partners for years he is a tremendous arranger, producer, and guitarist. We have been working together for over thirty years. I work with Bob on almost everything I do so it is a collaboration.

AAJ: Is there anyone you think of when you are singing some songs?

ST: Everything I ever recorded I recorded with my late wife. She was the co-producer of these albums and responsible for almost all of these recordings in a sense in terms of her take on what songs to do.

AAJ: She had a huge part of you singing and recording songs again then?

ST: She was the reason I did it actually. It was her idea to record again, not mine. I probably would have never even thought about it. I basically got out of it when I started producing other singer's records and it never occurred to me to be an artist again.

AAJ: How did your singing career start up again?

ST: It was when I started singing on demos for our company. We would write a song and because we had our own studio I would just put a vocal on the song. They ended up being used a lot, way before "Father of the Bride."

AAJ: People would hear the demos and then just use your version?

ST: Yes, they would listen to it and say, "Why don't we just use this?" That really surprised me and made me start to believe more in my voice which I had totally forgotten about. I ended up singing in maybe fifteen TV shows and movies before I ever sang "The Way You Look Tonight." Producers would hear my version and like it so they just used it. I wasn't even thinking about it at the time. That is what got me back out into being an artist again. It really just happened. All of a sudden I was singing in a new movie or TV show.

AAJ: With your hits, and others like Rod Stewart and Diana Krall, why do you think this music is so popular now?

ST: I think this music is America's greatest contribution to the arts. I don't think it will ever go out of style. What makes these songs standards are that singers can do their own things and breathe life into the songs. They can do their own versions, where with pop music you can't really do that. No one really wants to hear me sing an Elton John or a Paul Simon song, you want to hear them sing those songs. The songs that are standards were written to be interpreted by different people. They allow you to put your personality into them and then they sound like an original song again. Other music doesn't do that. I love Diana Krall's version of "Let's Fall in Love," or Sinatra's. It's the same song but different versions. The song allows people a way to interpret things that makes it their own.

AAJ: Anyone that you would like to work with that you haven't gotten the chance to yet?

ST: Lots of people. I would love to work with Diana Krall. I think she is incredible.

AAJ: You have a big celebrity following now. Who came to see you recently?

ST: Larry King, Loni Anderson, and Dustin Hoffman have all come to recent concerts.

AAJ: Your shows were sold out at Catalina Bar and Grill here in LA, but is most of your publicity still via word of mouth?

ST: Yes, actually it is. Mainly it is word of mouth. That is really how my whole career has worked out. I have been discovered in restaurants and antique shops, stuff like that, and that is cool with me.

AAJ: What is next for you?

ST: I am now working on an album with a young man named Josh Stevens, from American Idol , who sang standards when he was on the show. He is 17 years old and he is great. David Foster from Maverick signed him and asked me to produce the record. I am working with Rod Stewart's manager to begin getting songs together for his next album then I am going to New York to get together with Clive Davis for future projects.

AAJ: Any chance for you to record some of your own songs in the future?

ST: I am going to try to make another album sometime in March.

AAJ: Will that be standards?

ST: I really don't know yet. I have several ideas but really won't know until I do it.

AAJ: If you can spend a day doing anything you wanted, anywhere in the world, what would you do?

ST: I would be making music. There is nothing I would rather do than either be performing or producing music. It is a blessing to be able to make a living in the music industry.

Visit Steve Tyrell on the web.


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