I'm Lovin' It!

In Harrogate recently I needed to come up with a few words to sum up my show, something to go underneath my name to give people an idea of what they'd be getting if they bought a ticket – a strap line, if you will. Sitting in Betty's chewing my pen, searching for inspiration, I noticed a local bus driving by, “The Little Red Bus,” it said, "Getting you there". Well, I should hope so.I began to notice 100s of useless, redundant and plain silly strap lines. Bankers, never ones to skimp on irony offered some delicious examples. Nat West, for example, assures us they provide “Helpful banking”. The Royal Bank of Scotland used to be the bank to “Make it happen,” well, it certainly did that; and Northern Rock apparently "Works for me," which is reassuring since they owe me and every other British tax payer £1.4 billion.

As a former HSBC customer, I once popped in to their branch in Montevideo to deposit a cheque in my UK account. “That may be difficult,” they told me. I asked them what their strap line “The world's local bank,” actually meant. “We don't know about that,” they said, “but you will have to take your cheque home and bank it locally.”

The TSB used to be the bank that liked to say “Yes”. As it happens they said yes a little too often. Now Lloyds TSB, like every other bank, prefers to say "no". You wouldn't guess that from their new strap line though: "For the journey". Well, I don't know where they're going but I am not sure I want to go with them.

Bankers are, I hear, the most hated people in England, but there is an individual who is more despised still: Andie MacDowell. A fine actress, but if I have to hear her tell me she's “worth it” one more time I swear I will throw my Smooth Intense Anti Frizz Serum at the telly.

L'Oreal are constantly telling us buy their super-thickening-eye-lash-enhancer because we're all worth it. Don't worry if your credit cards are maxed out and you can barely fit your over inflated sense of self-entitlement through the door, buy it anyway. Perhaps they'll consider a more honest alternative: "Because I'm can't help it."

Pear's soap had a more gentle approach for more gentle times: "Preparing to be a beautiful lady."

Apparently, lyricist Charles Hart was once commissioned to come up with a strap line for the city of Birmingham. The best he could come up with was, "There's plenty to do." At least you can understand that, unlike Dartford who's strap line is: "If only all Councils were like Dartford". Chorley Borough Council gets my vote for "Making Chorley Smile". Bless them.

In Chicago once I ate at Jilly's Steak house. Right under their name outside there's a quote from Frank Sinatra, or rather half a quote: "My favourite restaurant..." It makes a nice strap line but I've always wondered what actually followed the dot, dot, dot. "My favourite restaurant... is two blocks from here”? Who knows.

KFC is of course "Finger lickin' good", which does give fair warning to the uninitiated fast foodie that cutlery is not provided. It reminds me of the first time I visited a MacDonald's. Though is was the new big thing in Grimsby and everyone who was no one had already been, it took my mother six months to eventually take me. Kudos to her. I remember getting my food and going back to the counter to ask for a knife and fork. "Sorry love, you just use your fingers." I was shocked. Genuinely. Even back then I couldn't get over how this glitzy American import has taken dining back to the stone age. All around me people sat hunched over polystyrene boxes shoving chips in their gobs with their fingers. Apparently though we're all “lovin' it”.

So here I am looking for my own strap line. I've tried “Gary Williams – Because You're Worth It”, and “Gary Williams – Finger Lickin' Good” but in the end I decided to follow the example of Harrogate's Little Red Bus and choose something simple and to the point: “Gary Williams – From Big Band to Broadway.” That's the best I've got.

Warning: Live Performance Can Seriously Damage Your Health (and Ego)

The fourth wall, theatre's invisible barrier between the audience and the performers, is something most actors are trained to observe at all costs. As a cabaret singer it's been my wont to dismantle that wall and get down and dirty in the laps of my audience. Audience participation can be a dangerous business. I'll never forget doing a corporate in Jersey walking around the tables crooning "Everybody Loves Somebody", looking for a nice lady to dance a few bars with. Spotting just the one, I offered my hand and asked her up. "No, no," she said, "I can't dance." "Of course you can dance!" I said, getting everyone else to give her an encouraging round of applause as I took her hand. "No, no, really I can't," she protested, but I took her hand anyway and started to forcibly pull her up from her seat. "No!" she said, as her eyes bore into mine, "I can't dance. I'm disabled." At this point I had two choices: gently lower her back to her seat and publicly apologise, or ignore her and carry on. To my shame, I chose the later.

In other moments of doomed audience interaction I have been told to "f*** off" (by a representative of the Arts Council no less), had missiles thrown at me, and had my inners torn out and fed to rabid dogs. The last one's actually a metaphorical description of an incident in 1990 when members of the Liberal Club in Scunthorpe didn't take to my Alec Wilder medley.

Once, in Ireland's National Concert Hall, I was singing Dean Martin's "Volare" and at the Neapolitan section decided to kneel on the stage and, in a rash gesture of romance, held my arm out towards a sweet old lady on the front row. She, with bandaged legs, returned the gesture by grabbing one of her crutches and pointing it towards me. It just reached. So there I am, singing a Neapolitan love song holding the rubber stopper on the end an Irish nana’s NHS crutch. "What would Dean Martin do?" I thought. Have a drink, probably.

Sometimes the audience can participate in a show without even realising it. I remember performing the classic "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" on the QE2. The lights dimmed, the room hushed, and as the band waited for me to sing the first line you could hear a pin-drop. Then, just as I drew breath, the magic was broken by a loud "Beep...Beep...Beep." We all look up wondering where the noise from coming from. Then I realised. An elderly gentleman in a motorised scooter had decided he'd had enough and was reversing out of my show. I wouldn't have minded but we suffered two more interruptions as he executed a three-point turn.

At least we get paid for all this kind of indignation. Danger money, you might call it. That is unless you suffer the deepest shame known to any club singer - being "paid off". This means they hate you so much they pay you to go away and leave them alone. This happened to me only once. I thought they liked me so much they were paying me early. Alas, no.

Audience interaction and the unpredictability that comes with it is of course part of the appeal of live theatre, and something that television and radio are trying cash in on. "We want to hear your thoughts,” they say, constantly nagging us to phone in, email, video-message and press red buttons. Does anybody really care? I’m not so sure. In the theatre you know instantly what your audience thinks, and believe me, a cheer or a boo has much more impact than a belated tweet.

My own totalitarian state

Take a quick glance over any performer’s website and you’ll find that they are the “most exciting”, “most talented” and generally “the most remarkable” talent that ever walked this earth. Every click of the mouse reveals yet another page of reviews and testimonials bursting with superlatives. Mine certainly does. No sooner has anyone in earshot uttered three words of faint praise about me, it’s on the website for all to see. The Internet’s capacity knows no bounds – safely containing the egos and self-obsessed musings of every singer, actor, dancer, after dinner speaker and comedian on the planet. Including me.

Having complete editorial control over your own website is rather like how the dictator of a small country must feel. The power to silence dissenting voices and quash unfavorable reviews, with a knife so sharp Goebbels would be proud, is irresistible. Though not always accurate, it is comforting to present the world with a one-sided, rose-tinted view of your own career.

There was a time when I made an effort to include every single one of my reviews on my website, good or bad, until I got a rather cutting one from The Stage’s very charming Mark Shenton (who has made stellar contributions to Cabaret Secrets), who after seeing me at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival, described me as “the bland leading the band”. Bill Stephens of Cabaret Hotline more generously said the same concert was, "impeccably sung by Gary Williams, who, in the best tradition of those BBC radio broadcasts, happily allowed the songs to shine." Guess which one I was rushing to put on my site?

All this leads me nicely on to two reviews published a while back, one by Albert Killman of ‘The Robert Farnon Society’ who generously said, “There are many so-called ‘tribute’ singers who just seem to go through the motions. Gary, however, shows how it could be and should be done”, and just as I was smugly adding that to my website, Rob Lester offered an alternative opinion in his review for New York’s ‘Cabaret Scenes’. Here are some choice extracts:

“At last! Just what the world has been waiting for: a Frank Sinatra tribute album for people who kinda don’t like Frank Sinatra. “

“This automatic-pilot flight, despite the talents involved, sounds… well, karaoke-ish.”

“With the old Sinatra record-ings so voluminously and easily available, this seems like the caffeine-free Diet Coke version.”

Ouch! As I vowed never to mention it’s existence to a living soul, I realised I did actually rather agree with him. Why bother buying an album of someone singing Sinatra’s songs, when for £1.99 you can buy the original and the best? Indeed, recording this Sinatra tribute album was not the most artistically creative process to work on, with the songs, arrangements and orchestrations all being very standard, and though I certainly try to sing in my own style, I am reminded of Janet Leigh’s quote: “After Sinatra, if you sounded like him you were imitating, but if you didn't, you sounded like you were doing it wrong.”

Trying to imitate Sinatra is an accusation any male singer of the Great American Songbook will be familiar with, and in my experience it’s one that’s hard to avoid. After one show Jack Massarik of The London Evening Standard said:

“Music to Watch Girls By also got the ring-a-ding-ding treatment from Williams, for whom an OBE must mean the 01? Blue Eyes slot in a Rat-Pack tribute show. Indeed, with so many Frankophiles around, the time has surely come for Las Vegas to host an annual convention for them, Elvis style. A Sinatrathon.”

I was in no way trying to sound like Sinatra. In fact, the version of Music to Watch Girls By he mentions was a bossa nova recorded by Matt Monro. He just saw a guy wearing a tuxedo singing with a big band and looked no further.

This is precisely why I had waited so long before recording a Sinatra tribute album. I wanted to get the balance right between the familiarity of the songs, the authenticity of the orchestral sound and hopefully induce a modicum of originality by way of my voice. I made a point of not recording the over done (and still much requested) anthems like New York, Strangers In The Night, My Way and Mack The Knife and tried instead to feature some of the often overlooked gems like Moonlight Serenade and The Girl from Ipanema in Portuguese. So in the interests of free speech and the right for even dissenting voices to be heard, click here to read Mr Lester’s full review.

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Cabaret Secrets (c) 2013