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Billy Vera: Still In The Game


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It might be safe to say that a lot of people may know a little bit about Billy Vera but only a few people know a lot about Billy Vera. Billy is a singer, writer, producer, actor, Grammy winner, and music historian. He has performed with big bands, Billy And The Beaters, solo, and everything in between. For those of us who were around in the 1960s and who took the time to read the credits on hit records, Vera might have been first recognized as the writer of hit songs for Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and Barbara Lewis. If you lived in the Northeast you might know Vera for his single, "My Heart Cries"; if you lived in Texas or Louisiana, you might know him for the single "All My Love ." He performed at the Apollo Theater in 1968 and, as a producer, has worked with artists including Lou Rawls and Ray Charles.

His acting debut came in the 1984 film, The Adventures of Buckaroo Bonzai In The 8th Dimension. He became a regular guest on the Johnny Carson Show and the soap opera, The Days of Our Lives, Knotts Landing, Alice, Baywatch, and more. In 1985, the hit television show Family Ties featured his song, "At This Moment."

Billy has helped produce, archive, and write liner notes for over 200 reissues of albums and box sets. He is one of the top commercial voice over artists in the business. Michael Buble covered "At This Moment," in his CD Crazy Love (Reprise, 2009), which has sold over eight million copies.

In November, 2012 Vera released Big Band Jazz (Robo/Manhattan Ave. Jazz), his tribute to iconic black songwriters of the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Vera performs regularly at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California.

It is impossible to condense Vera's rich history and love affair with music into a few paragraphs. His professional career in music started in the early 1960s. Through thick and thin he is still here and he is staying true to his heart and his muse. When Vera talks about his life there is also a profound sense of insight into the history of the music business and the history of the United States. Changes in the economy, social changes, and changes in the music industry, are all component parts of his story. For over 50 years, Vera has managed to stay in the game

All About Jazz: Congratulations on your recent Grammy Award. It was a long time coming and well-deserved. How does it feel to wake up every morning and see a Grammy with your name on it? What was the Grammy for and how did that project come about?

Billy Vera: The Grammy was for Best Album Notes for the Ray Charles box set, Singular Genius: The Complete ABC Singles (Concord, 2011). I've done over 200 reissue CDs, including maybe eight by Ray Charles, and this is the one they chose. It was my fourth nomination, including one for another Ray Charles box, his 50th Anniversary set [Genius & Soul: The 50th Anniversary Collection (Rhino, 1997)].

AAJ: Can you tell us what your day was like when you were getting ready to go to the Grammy Awards? Is it true that you almost missed the announcement of your award?

BV: Some friends, a makeup girl, a wardrobe stylist and a hairdresser offered to fix my date and me up for the event. The hairdresser arrived late, so we were late leaving. The limo driver was a fan of mine and, as a special surprise, pulled up in a Rolls Royce. We sped downtown, arriving just as they were announcing the award before mine. We hadn't even sat down when my name was called. I ran down the aisle, my date running after me, shooting pictures with her cell phone, yelling "You fucking won, you fucking won!" I got to the podium, out of breath, took a beat and said "Holy shit," and the audience all laughed. I kept my remarks short and sweet, thanking the two guys who hired me, Bill Belmont and David Brokaw—and, of course, Ray Charles, for being the most important musical figure of the second half of the 20th Century.

AAJ: What happened you arrived at the venue? Do you remember what was going through your head when they announced your name?

BV: All I could think of was "Finally!." Several of my friends have Grammys and now I was a member of that club.

AAJ: Let's go back to the beginning. How did you first get introduced to music?

BV: My mother was a professional singer, a local celebrity in Cincinnati on WLW, a major radio and TV station, so there was always music in the house. I specifically recall "Ghost Riders In The Sky," by Vaughn Monroe and "The Frim Fram Sauce," by the Nat King Cole as special favorites when I was in first grade.

Later, when we moved to New York, she became one of the Ray Charles Singers, backing Perry Como on his weekly TV show and on his hit records, like "Catch A Falling Star" and "Magic Moments." She had good albums in her collection, like Songs For Swingin' Lovers! (Capitol, 1956) and Songs For Young Lovers (Capitol, 1954), by Frank Sinatra and others by m: Nat King Cole 5805}} and Nancy Wilson. One that made a special impression was Ellington Uptown (Columbia, 1952), which had a spectacular version of his "Take The 'A' Train," with a vocal by Betty Roche. Today, my son can sing along with the horn parts.

My father, a staff announcer on NBC, used to bring home records from the NBC record library, mostly rock 'n' roll. One day he brought an album, Meet The Jazztet (Argo, 1960), with Benny Golson and Art Farmer, which sparked my interest in jazz with its original version of Benny's "Killer Joe" and "I Remember Clifford."

I listened to the usual rock 'n' roll of the period: Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and the doo-wop groups like the Cleftones, Heartbeats and Harptones. Special favorites were Frankie Lymon and Jesse Belvin. From Jesse, I learned how hard it is to make it look easy and set about figuring out how to do that. I realized it's not hard to sweat, red-faced, with the veins in your neck bulging out in some imitation of "soul." Any asshole can do that; the trick is to make it look easy.

In high school, I had to take two buses, changing at the train station in White Plains. There was a magazine shop, a real dump nearby, that had six-for-a-dollar bins of used jukebox 45s and I'd go through them because, by then, I was a vinyl junkie and had little money to feed my habit. If I didn't recognize the artist, I'd often pick records on labels I knew had good music and was often pleasantly surprised. That was my jazz education, used 45s, because I hadn't enough money to buy albums.

White Plains had five record stores. In three of them, guys behind the counter would play records for you and in the other two, you could play them yourself in a booth. One of those guys was Kevin Falcone, the first hip guy I ever met. He'd play things for me that weren't on the radio, like the Joe Cuba or certain jazz artists. Kevin was later a bartender at a club where I played; he stocked the jukebox, so on our breaks we'd hear things like Dave Brubeck's "Take Five," or Dinah Washington's "Where Are You" or "Maria," by Maynard Ferguson or "Song For My Father," by Horace Silver. All this was my musical education. If my music is different than that of most people my age, that's why.

My biggest influence was Ray Charles. Not to copy his singing, but his way of combining different musical styles: R&B, country, jazz and pop into something all his own. What made the Beaters different from all the horn bands that followed us was my attention to nuances and dynamics. I got that from Ray and from Count Basie. Whereas most bands followed the Stax/Volt way of playing at one set volume, loud, I liked varying it from loud to a whisper. It took several years to train my players to play that way, as it was not in that generation's nature, but when they got it, it was what set the Beaters apart. That and the songs, which are more musically sophisticated that your run-of-the-mill R&B material.

AAJ: Reading music, writing music, learning how to play, how did all of this develop when you were growing up? What came easy to you? What was the most challenging?

BV: I took some lessons on drums, piano and guitar, as well as a few lessons with my mother's singing coach, to learn how to breathe properly. We worked at the house band at The Country House aka The Deercrest Inn, on the border of New York and Greenwich, CT from 1963-67. We played two dance sets and two shows, backing hit record acts of the day. We'd rehearse, reading their music, before the show, which helped with my reading. The first weekend, we had Patti Labelle and Little Anthony & the Imperials, two great acts with very difficult music: "Danny Boy" in D flat, "You'll Never Walk Alone" in B natural, or the The Mighty Imperials "Goin' Out Of My Head" and "Hurt So Bad." It was trial by fire, but we got through it and it was all downhill after that.

AAJ: Have you stayed in touch with him over the years?

BV: I'm still friends with Kevin. He brought his family to see me perform at the Cutting Room in NYC recently and had his wife cook a killer home-cooked Italian meal for my birthday. He's still the hippest guy on the block.

AAJ: I had the pleasure of catching your show with the big band at the Catalina Bar and Grill in Hollywood, California last month. It seemed like both you and the band were in a musical zone of sorts and really driving on all cylinders. What was that show like for you?

BV: Very powerful. In the excitement, I'd forgotten the charts and had to drive home in rush hour, so there was little rehearsal time. Although they've played my charts before, you like to have a little time, but there wasn't, so they were on their toes and concentration at show time. Despite that, I was feeling relaxed and the band picked up on it and, as you said, we went into that zone.

AAJ: How important is this big band project to you? Where would you like to see it go?

BV: It's something I've long wanted to do and procrastinated, for fiscal reasons. I'd like for it to become popular enough to play big venues. We've done a couple of jazz festivals and gone over well, so I know there's a market for it.

AAJ: Fast forwarding a few years, it is the 1960's and you are a 22 years old, working at Atlantic Records and living in New York. What was significant about this time in your life?

BV: I think the early, pre-British Invasion 60s was a high point in popular music. Rock 'n' roll and R&B had evolved into something very sophisticated, as had the audience, thanks to the productions of Doug Kleiber and Burt Bacharach, mainly. The records they did with Little Cooper and the Drifters, Ben E. King, Dionne Warwick and others took popular music to an incredibly high level, while keeping that common touch that the public could relate to. I was lucky enough to come into the music business at the tail end of that era.

AAJ: What was your life like then?

BV: I made a little record with my band in 1962 that was a minor regional hit. One side, "My Heart Cries," was popular in places like Pittsburgh and Connecticut, and the other, "All My Love," which I wrote, was a hit in Louisiana and Texas. The company asked if I had anymore songs, so I played a few for their publishing guy, Larry Spier. He liked two and gave me $35 each as an advance against royalties and paid for my band to do demos. One, "Mean Old World," got recorded by Ricky Nelson and became a chart hit for him, so now I was in the club. That led to a staff writing gig at April-Blackwood Music, the publishing arm of CBS/Columbia Records, where they put me under the wing of Chip Taylor for some "seasoning." The first song he and I wrote together became a hit for Barbara Lewis, "Make Me Belong To You," which got us about 25 cover versions.

AAJ: How did you handle the success of writing and singing on these hit records? What happened next?

BV: Chip and I then wrote "Storybook Children," which we intended as a duet. We took the demo to Jerry Wexler, the legendary owner/producer at Atlantic Records and he suggested I record it myself, on Atlantic, which was a thrill beyond belief, as that had been Ray Charles' label. So we found Judy Clay, who'd been lead singer in the Drinkard Singers gospel group, with Cissy Houston and Dionne and Dee Dee Warwick. Our record became a hit, as did the follow-up, "Country Girl-City Man," and we were booked at the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem.

I think I handled it well. I'd seen newly minted hit record acts and how some handled or mishandled it, so I knew what to expect and, having parents in show business taught me professionalism.

I was signed to Atlantic and Judy was signed to Stax, which Atlantic distributed. When their distribution deal ended, we could no longer record together, so Wexler found this song, "With Pen In Hand," on a Bobby Goldsboro album and had me record it, which became my first solo hit. Poor management and major changes in popular music resulted in me having no more hits and I spent the 1970s in a musical and professional desert.

AAJ: What were the next ten years of your life like?

BV: The '70s was about survival for me. After Martin Luther King was killed, whites were no longer welcome in the black world where I had thrived before. I went back home to my mother's and put together a little trio, working local clubs. There was an oldies revival in the early '70s that provided work, as I knew the acts and was good at accompanying other singers. I was employed by The Shirelles, The Ronettes, The Chiffons and others, as well as putting together house bands for big oldies shows.

As the decade wore on, I often was reduced to gigs like Ramada Inns, where, during the week, you'd play to three people. To keep from getting depressed, I viewed it as a learning experience, developing a persona that could appeal to all kinds of audiences.

AAJ: How did the Apollo Theater impact your life?

BV: When I was a kid, I saw the greatest acts in black show biz there and longed to stand on those boards one day. When I finally did, it was thrilling, to perform for an audience who'd seen the best and be accepted by them.

AAJ: When did you first play there?

BV: Our first time was May, 1968. You did a seven-day week, five shows a day.

AAJ: What was that experience like?

BV: The new show always opened on a Friday, so after the last show on Thursday night, you'd rehearse with the house band. Honi Coles of the great dance team, Coles & Atkins, was the stage manager. He said, "Harlem hasn't seen you yet," meaning they didn't know I was white, "So I want you to enter from stage left and Judy from stage right. Wait 'til she takes three steps on from the wings, then enter, and watch what happens." What happened was, 1,500 people gasped. I could hear them saying, "that's him?"

Honi had put us on second, the worst spot in the show. Shows open with a choreographed, flash act, to get the crowd excited. Then the worst act, each one better until the star. After the first show, he came to our dressing room and said, "I'm changing up the show and putting you on right before the star, because ain't nobody gonna follow you two." We were a hit and remained a popular act at the Apollo.

AAJ: How did your relationship with Lou Rawls come about?

BV: Bruce Lundvall signed Lou to Blue Note Records after a fallow period for him. He'd been making awful, Vegas disco records and wasn't selling at all. Bruce's idea was to take him back to the type of music people had originally loved him for: blues and jazz, and surround him with great musicians. So he asked Michael Cuscuna, the great jazz producer, and me to produce him.

AAJ: How did your relationship with Lou grow over time?

BV: Lou's manager, David Brokaw, told us that if he trusted you, he'd put himself in your hands, which is what happened. He wound up doing seven of my songs over the three Blue Note albums we did together. The first album, At Last (1989), went to #1 on the jazz charts and was nominated for a Grammy, bringing back his recording career. The other two were also in the top five.

AAJ: When you think of Lou as a friend what comes to mind?

BV: Lou spent most of his time on the road, so it wasn't an every day kind of relationship. But he'd occasionally pop by the house, unannounced and park his gaudy car in front. I'd kid him, saying, "Don't park that thing in front of my house, man. People will think I've got pimps in here."

AAJ: When you think of Lou as an artist what comes to mind?

BV: He had the most recognizable voice. We'd walk down the street or in an elevator in NYC. He'd say something and people's heads would snap in recognition. That's something that can't be learned; it's a gift.

AAJ: You produced a duet with Ray Charles and Lou Rawls. What were some of the special moments and memories of that experience?

BV: Before going in, I called Jerry Wexler for advice. He said, "You don't produce Ray Charles, man, you just get out of his way and let him do his thing." We recorded Lou and the tracks in New York City. Ray wanted to do his part at his own studio in LA. So I brought the tape to Ray, a $10,000 session. He threaded the tape into the machine, a blind man, and listened. He recognized his old saxophonist, David "Fathead" Newman, and said the solo should go eight bars earlier or later, and proceeded to take a razor and cut my expensive session! I freaked, but he did it perfectly and he was right! That's why he's called The Genius.

AAJ: Did you see the movie, Ray? What were your thoughts of the movie?

BV: I saw it twice, the second time with my son. First time, I was impressed with Jamie Foxx's performance. As usual, in Hollywood bio pics, the inaccuracies annoyed me. Fathead hated that they portrayed him as the guy who turned Ray onto heroin when he wasn't. Wexler also hated how he was portrayed. I disliked the historical revisions. For example, the choir on Ray's hits, like "I Can't Stop Loving You" were white. Not in the movie. In those days, all the string players were these old Russian Jews, but in the movie they used today's string player, including blacks and women. This was false, and done for politically correct reasons. You shouldn't rewrite history. It's a lie.

AAJ: How do you compare working as an artist and working as a producer?

BV: It's mainly a question of decision making. The artist's input depends on the relationship with the producer. Is it the producer's or the artist's vision? With a Phil Spector or Mitch Miller or Motown, the artist is just a cog in the wheel. With some other artists, it's all about what they see. In between was the Atlantic Records method. As Wexler told me long ago, their idea was that the artist is the picture and the producer's job is to create the frame. Producing is all in the casting: choosing the right songs that fit the singer and the right musicians to get the sound you want. You don't hire George Benson when you want Bobby King's sound.

AAJ: Growing up in Los Angeles, I can remember a time, perhaps in the 1980s, when you were everywhere. Billy Vera and the Beaters were headlining the clubs on the Sunset Strip. You were in movies and on television. How did this come about and what was the experience like for you?

BV: We started the band to have something to do on weekends. I'd come to LA to write songs for Warner Bros Music and knew nobody but my old bassist from New York. At 34, I figured I was too old to be a rock 'n' roll star. He asked me to come see these guys he played with in Venice Beach. I did and we wound up thinking a band would be a good way to meet girls.

We got a gig playing at the Troubadour at midnight on Mondays. We chose not to advertize and figured it might take six weeks to see if we caught on. The second week, it was lines around the block. LA hadn't seen anything like Billy & the Beaters, four saxophones, a pedal steel, playing R&B in the middle of the Punk and New Wave era. We played to sold out houses for all of 1980, until we got a record deal and made our album live at the Roxy, which resulted in a hit record, "I Can Take Care Of Myself."

We won the gold prize at the Tokyo Music Festival with our follow-up, "At This Moment," but the record stalled at #79 in America, as the promotion man got in a fight with the company head and quit. I was without a record contract for the next five years.

AAJ: How many times did you appear on the Johnny Carson Show? I know that you must have some fond memories of Johnny. Can you share some of those memories?

BV: Carson was the best, bar none. Nobody comes close. His secret was, he made you the star, setting you up, rather than getting laughs at your expense, like the other hosts do. He didn't like to put singers on the couch, thinking they were mostly dumb and not able to talk or be funny. My agent, Danny Robinson's father Bud Robinson, was Doc Severinson's manager for 20 years and told Johnny I could talk and he should put me on the couch, so he did. When we came back from commercial, I began to laugh to myself, sitting next to Victoria Principal. Carson picked up on it and asked me why I was laughing. I told him, "There's a bunch of guys back home, watching us at the bar right now and I can hear them saying, 'Man, there's my man Billy, looking down Victorial Principal's blouse." The audience cracked up, Carson had tears running down his face and the camera went to Victoria's tits, and I got the couch every time after that. We did that show nine times in all.

AAJ: I understand that several years ago you bumped into one of Johnny Carson's former bodyguards and he shared something with you. Can you share that moment with us?

BV: Yes, he told me I was Johnny's second favorite singer, after Tony Bennett.

AAJ: When was the last time that you played with The Beaters?

BV: Billy Vera & the Beaters still play. Not as much as we'd like, but we still love it.

AAJ: I had no idea that you were so into cataloging and that you were an authority in music and rock history. When did this start?

BV: Ever since I started collecting records when I was 11, I was interested in the information on the labels: songwriters, publishers, bandleaders, etc. Whenever I liked an artist, I wanted to know what they'd done before and would search out those records too. Over the years, I developed knowledge as I kept going back earlier and earlier in time. In the late '80s, opportunities arose for me to utilize this knowledge by producing reissue CDs and to write notes and magazine articles.

AAJ: Can you walk us through some of your most rewarding experiences that are related to your research and writing?

BV: Digging through the vaults can be thrilling, when you come across some unissued gem and can bring it to the public, as I did with Nat Cole and others. Another thrill is when some music supervisor hears your reissue and it gives him the idea to use some 50 year-old song you've uncovered in a movie or TV commercial, as happened with Julia Lee's "King Size Papa," which wound up in a Pillsbury spot, or Joe Liggins's "The Honeydripper," which was used in the movie Malcolm X. Things like this wind up in a big payday for both the artist, the songwriter, the publisher and the record company, or their estates. I feel good about that.

AAJ: If you had to guess, approximately how many singles, albums, and CDs do you have in your collection?

BV: No idea, but I have two bedrooms full.

AAJ: What about rare music photos and reference books?

BV: Same thing.

AAJ: How important is this to you?

BV: It's an obsession, maybe an addiction.

AAJ: When we were discussing some of the people that had a major impact on your life a big smile came to your face when you mentioned Larry Russell Brown. What can you tell us about this connection?

BV: I was playing one of those Ramada Inn type gigs, three people in the audience and the waitress says this guy wants to say hello. He says "L. Russell Brown, I wrote 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round The Old Oak Tree.' Vera, you're one of the great singers, a brilliant songwriter. Everybody in the business knows it, but you never make any money. Me, I make a lot of money, but nobody respects me. I got an idea: let's write together. You can show me how to get respect and I can show you how to make money."

So I started going to his house and writing songs with him. Lots of songs, not all good but lots. One day, like everyone who does one thing well, he wanted to be a record producer and got a job producing Nancy Sinatra. He said, "I gotta go pick up my wife at the beauty parlor. See if you can start something while I'm gone." So, thinking Nancy has this famous father, I crafted a song with lines like "I love my daddy but it really don't matter what my daddy might say" and finished it in about twenty minutes. I played it for Larry and he loved it, intending to record it with Nancy. She hated the song and refused, so Larry was pissed and urged me to do something with it, to prove her wrong.

I made a record with this girl who was lazy and didn't learn the song properly. Everywhere I went, they said "Love the song, hate the girl," until the last guy on my list said, "Love the song, hate the girl, but, we're recording Dolly Parton next week. Give it to me for her and I'll guarantee you the single." I didn't trust him and told him to give me some money. He gave me a check for $2,500—a lot of money in 1978—so I knew he was serious.

AAJ: So it is 1978, you just got paid $2,500 for writing the Dolly Parton single, and you are back in show business. What happened next?

BV: I got an offer to move to LA to write for Warner Bros. As I was driving cross country in January, 1979 with everything I owned in my car, they were playing Dolly singing my song every 20 minutes and the day I hit LA it was #1 on the country charts, "I Really Got The Feeling," my first number one.

AAJ: It is now 1986. Five years have gone by without a record deal. You get a call from the producer of the hit television show, Family Ties. What happens next?

BV: The producer, Michael Whitehorn, had been to the club and heard me sing "At This Moment" and thought it would be good for an episode. I'd had songs in TV shows before and, aside from a couple hundred bucks, it meant little other than ego gratification. But this time, I got mail, so I knew there was something to capitalize on. I called various record companies, but no one was interested. One day I'm having lunch with Richard Foos, who owned Rhino Records, a reissue label. I asked how many records he needed to break even and he said they had a low overhead and could break even on about 2,000 records, so I said I'd guarantee that much if he'd put out an album with this song on it. He agreed, mainly because he liked me.

Family Ties used the song again the following season, when the girl breaks up with Michael J. Fox, and this time, the story of the song—boy loses girl—matches the episode and America went wild. NBC said they got more calls than any other time in the network's history. People called radio stations, begging to hear it. No promotion, no payola, because Rhino wasn't in the business of contemporary radio records. Yet, it still went to #1 and got me a gold album and single. The song had gone on to become a standard, recorded by dozens of people, including Michael Bublé who sold over eight million copies recently.

AAJ: At some point during this time you found out that you were nominated for a star on the sidewalk in Hollywood. How did you receive this news?

BV: In 1988, Angie Dickinson, who was a fan, nominated me for a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The Chamber of Commerce agreed and Angie gave me the news herself. They let you pick where it will be, and as I'd recently signed with Capitol Records, I asked them to put it in front of the Tower, so they'd remember I was on the label.

I feared I wasn't a big enough name to get a star, when there were so many bigger names who didn't have one. I was afraid critics might say nasty things in print, so I asked Joe Smith, then president of Capitol to introduce me, knowing he's an irreverent speaker and would make fun of me, before the critics got the chance. Joe's great opening line was, "What do you say about Billy Vera? Billy Vera has a hit record every ten years...whether he needs one or not."

AAJ: Can you comment on where jazz is today versus yesterday?

BV: Jazz, like most of the arts, has the problem of a lack of unique performers today. The old musicians, singers and actors all had something special that made them different. Today, everybody sounds the same.

AAJ: What is up next?

BV: I'm planning to play out this big band thing and see how far I can take it.

AAJ: Is there any talk of a big band album? How about a "Billy Vera sings the blues" LP?

BV: Thanks to the royalties from the Michael Bublé album, I self-financed a big band CD called Big Band Jazz.

AAJ: If you were stranded on an island and could only have ten albums with you, which ten albums would you pick?

BV: Those ten would probably change from day to day, but, in no particular order, are ten faves:
  1. Mr. Easy, Jesse Belvin;
  2. The Genius of Ray Charles;
  3. I Never Loved A Man, Aretha Franklin;
  4. The Teenagers Featuring Frankie Lymon;
  5. The Billie Holiday Story;
  6. More Soul, Hank Crawford;
  7. Songs For Swingin' Lovers, Frank Sinatra;
  8. Yesterday's Love Songs, Today's Blues, Nancy Wilson;
  9. My Jug And I, Percy Mayfield;
  10. Falling In Love Is Wonderful, Little Jimmy Scott.
strong>AAJ: Who are you favorite singers of all time? Ray Charles, Nat Cole, Frank Sinatra, Jesse Belvin, Frankie Lymon, Billie Holiday, Percy Mayfield, Dinah Washington, and so many more.

BV: Who are your favorite musicians? Again, so many: I love saxophones: m: Hank Crawford, Gene Ammons, Ben Webster, Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis, Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Paul Gonzalves. Guitar: Oscar Moore, Curtis Mayfield, James Burton. And of course, the master of them all, Duke Ellington.

AAJ: Also, what are your favorite songs that you wrote?

BV: I think my best might include, "Hopeless Romantic," "Ronnie's Song," "Let You Get Away," "Moonglows," "You Can't Go Home," "If I Were A Magician," "I Got My Eye On You," "I'll Be There For You." Obviously, "At This Moment" has touched millions of hearts, both young and old, so it must be pretty good, too.

AAJ: What are your favorite songs of all time?

BV: As with my desert albums, this depends on what day it is: "Goodnight My Love," "Pleasant Dreams," Tennessee Waltz," "Spanish Harlem," "Let It Be Me," any number of songs by Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, Percy Mayfield, Duke Ellington or Burt Bacharach.

AAJ: If you could put together a fantasy all star band to jam with for one night, who would be on stage with you and what stage would you be on?

BV: That's not a good question, because just because you like certain musicians doesn't mean they could play well together. I'd love to sing with Count Basie's late '50s/early '60s band at the Apollo.

AAJ: What were your most memorable performances?

BV: Aside from the Apollo, I did a show, just one song, at the Wiltern Theater in LA and got an ovation so long I thought they'd never stop. Sinatra saw it at the home of one of his mistresses and said it was the greatest performance he'd ever seen and made her play it over and over, each time he came to her house.

AAJ: As a music historian can you comment on the general state of today's popular music? Do you think that this will carry over and impact the quality of jazz and blues?

BV: The main problem I have with the contemporary arts in general is a lack of uniqueness, an unwillingness to be different. The old timers used to say, "If you ain't different, you ain't shit.

AAJ: We didn't get into the songwriting process.

BV: I'm not much at discussing process. It works best when I just sit down and decide to write. I bang on the piano until I hear some chord changes I haven't heard before. If I'm lucky, some words come. In my old staff writing days, sometimes I'd get an assignment to write for a particular singer. I'd listen to a few of their records, get an idea of their vocal range and the kinds of stories they liked to sing about and go from there.

Lyrics might come from a book I'm reading, a movie or TV show, a story someone tells me or even personal experience. I mix them all up into a gumbo and, hopefully, create a new story.


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