Rediscovering my love of music

I've just bought a record player and with it rediscovered my love of music. I have over 30,000 tunes on my laptop, 8000 on my iPod and access to over 17 million on Spotify. I'm overwhelmed.

Until recently I didn't own a single vinyl record so I've started building my collection from scratch. I'm choosing carefully.

I've just idled away three hours in the old record shops of Buenos Aires listening to dozens of discs, making new discoveries and finding old friends. Oscar Peterson, Bob Dylan, Astrud Gilberto, MJQ, CCR, Neil Young, Terry Gibbs, Stan Getz. I can't wait to get home.

And that's the thing about records - you have to be home to play them. Fragile, bulky, non portable - they're a pain in the arse. They demand time, care and attention and all this investment makes you listen to the music more closely. Until recently I hardly ever just sat and listened to a whole album start to finish; now I do it all the time.

It's like cooking. You can easily go to the supermarket and buy a decent ready made meal for a tenner but buy the ingredients yourself and take time preparing the same meal from scratch and it will taste much better. Much of the pleasure is in the journey not the destination. I could take a car from Biarritz to Santiago but walking the 500 mile Camino de Santiago makes the destination all the more profound.

On iTunes I can hear any song I want within seconds of clicking “search”, but browsing through a fusty record shop, discovering a special disc, cleaning it and carefully lowering the needle encourages me to sit back (or dance around the room) and really appreciate the music.

Stop Press! Woman Wears Trousers Shocker

I did my first show with Clare Teal yesterday and she's as friendly as she is talented. Lovely woman. It was a great gig. The Len Phillips Big Band was on form and the audience were terrific. During the interval, as we sat signing CDs (actually Clare signed while I looked on wishing I was as popular as she is) an old woman lunged into my space and said,

"You're both nice singers but I'm disgusted with her," she spat.

I wondered what Clare could have done to provoke the woman. Tread on her petunias? Slander Alan Titchmarsh? No, apparently there are worse things.

"Doing a show in trousers! I've never seen anything like it. Normally the girl singer would change at least half a dozen times in a show. Disgusting."

I wanted to say, "Things are different these days. Women have the vote now and l believe they've been allowed to wear trousers for years," but I was too scared.

In the second half, Clare (who looked fabulous by the way), told the audience what went off and how for her the music was more important than the outfit. Everyone applauded in hearty agreement. Well, almost everyone.

I thought how this is just the kind of woman family members send away on a Christmas cruise. "Goodbye auntie, have fun!"

Come December I'll probably be stuck with her half way to the Canary Islands. I might wear a dress just to see what she says.

In Cabaret Secrets there's a section on what to wear on stage. I never thought to add how offensive a trouser suit can be. I suppose it's up to the act to consider audience expectations and decide whether they care.

42nd Street's Al Dubin wrote, "What do you go for, go see a show for? Tell the truth you go to see those beautiful dames," in Clare's case she'd rather sing like dream than shuffle on looking like a meringue.

Photoshopping Tony Bennett

Fewer wrinkles, whiter eyes, a better hairline. Photoshop can work wonders on vane, insecure show-offs like me. It can even transport an awestruck autograph hunter from a grubby London back street to the Royal Albert Hall. Sometime in the 1990s (I barely remember decades never mind actual years) I took the train from Grimsby to London. I had great seats for a Tony Bennett concert and was excited. I collected my tickets and walked behind the theatre to find a bar. As I passed the stage door, a black Mercedes pulled up and out stepped Tony Bennett.

It was my lucky day. Me, three anoraked autograph hunters, and a living legend. He signed my ticket, posed for a photograph and told me 'I Wanna Be Around' was one of his favourite songs.

I knew a photo of me with Tony Bennett would look good on my website, but as a starry eyed autograph hunter? Probably not. Back then Photoshop was a pretty specialised piece of software. I paid a fortune for someone to take the pen out of Tony's hand and change the background from the grubby stage door of the Dominion to a glittering reception room in the Royal Albert Hall. Which brings us to last week.

There I was again, watching my hero give life to ninety minutes of great standards: The Boulevard of Broken Dreams... Fly Me to the Moon... Stepping Out... For me it's a master class in how to sing and work a room.

Then it was over. The crowd jumps to their feet as our man waves goodbye and gives us his trademark salute.

As I'm heading out I heard someone call my name. It was my publicist Rosie Bartlett. "Come with me," she said. Five minutes later I'm in the Artist's Bar shaking hands with my hero.

Rosie took a picture and as I rattled on to Tony about what an influence he'd been on my career, I remembered the last time I met him and the photograph I'd had Photoshopped.

Now, fifteen years later, I really was inside the Royal Albert Hall enjoying a conversation with my hero.

I didn't have this picture digitally enhanced, but comparing my real life hairline from what it was to what it has become, maybe that was a mistake...

Obrigado Brasil!


Bem vindo ao meu site! Se você está lendo isto provavelmente já assistiu meu show no Splendour of the Seas. Eu gostaria de lhes agradecer por terem sido uma platéia incrível, e verdade - eu amo a cultura e o povo brasileiro. Por favor deixem um comentario sobre o show aqui, em português ou em inglês. Se tiverem fotos ou videos do show eu adoraria vê-los! Cliquem aqui para compartilhar-los em minha paginá no Facebook.

I have just finished my second season performing on Royal Caribbean's Splendour of the Seas in Brazil. The show features a mixture of well known English standards and the hits of Louis Miguel, The Gipsy Kings and Roberto Carlos. Obviously, since it's a 100% Brazilian audience I had to learn all of my "chat" is in Portuguese. It was a real challenge last year, my first season, but 2013 was easier and we made some improvements to the show. If you've seen the show and want to leave a comment, please do so on this page. If you have photos or video you want to share, click here to visit my Facebook page - 'like' me and you can upload them there.


You know you're getting old when...

You know you're getting old when you see paraphernalia of your youth exhibited in a museum. Taking respite from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, I spent a few happy hours in the National Museum of Scotland. Newly refurbished, it's a wonderful collection representing the nation's industrial endeavours and the natural world.

As a child I remember walking around such museums with my parents. They'd coo with delight on seeing post-war chocolate wrappers, a kettle from their childhood home, or the same washing machine used by their grandparents.

Memories can be powerful. Seeing a cottage shaped teapot or hearing a few bars of music can, in an instant, reconnect us with all the multi-sensory emotions of a long forgotten moment. Even the smallest, most prosaic item can summon smells, colours, faces and feelings.

In the design section of the museum I found a Sinclair ZX81. Proudly (and bizarrely) British, the ZX81 was on the front line of the home computing revolution. For only £49.95 anyone could own one. Soon siblings could ignore each other for hours at a time whilst tapping a digital white square against a wall. Now that's progress.

I hadn't seen one for over 25 years. I was immediately taken back to my auntie Margaret's living room, sitting on the floor with my cousin playing Ping Pong and wondering why the most basic graphics imaginable bore absolutely no resemblance to the very exciting picture on the box.

Next came the all colour ZX Spectrum closely followed by the Commodore 64 on which I spent four weeks programming a quiz to test the user on the capital cities. What an interesting child.

I am typing this on a fancy new Macintosh computer. Before long it too will end up in a museum cabinet, bemused kids pressed against the glass wondering how on earth we used to survive with such antiquated machines.

In 1899 Charles Duell Commissioner of the U.S. Office of Patents said, “Everything that could be invented has been invented.” He should have known better. There's no stopping progress, and sooner or later we'll all see our the substance of our lives consigned to the museum.

If it’s advice you need, Chief Sitting Bull has the answer.

At a party the other week I was introduced to a recent graduate of a well-known musical theatre school. You know the type: bright eyed, desperately ambitious and somehow able to give you their full resume and hat size within thirty seconds of "hello". And then the inevitable question comes: "so what are you doing at the moment?" I hate this question because what they really mean to say is "are you worth talking to and can you help me with my career?" My favourite response to this is "I sell fire extinguishers". To which they pause, look blank for a moment… then say, "That's awesome. Facebook me", and walk away in search of Simon Callow. To be fair, given a choice between Simon Callow and a fire extinguisher salesman I’d do the same. Meeting one of your heroes can be a real thrill and whenever I get the chance I live in hope they’ll give me some great anecdote or nugget of advice I can impress my friends with, something like: “I see you’re admiring my bow tie. Pierce Bronson taught me how to do that,” or “Yes, Barbara Streisand recommended this particular avocado peeler”.  Sadly it doesn’t usually happen like that. Many years ago I was thrilled to meet the great Tony Bennett; the conversation went like this: “Hello Mr. Bennett, may I have your autograph?”, “Yes”.

Once, after a performance of Mack and Mable I bumped into Jerry Herman, “Congratulations!” I said, “Thank you, ” he said, “goodbye”; and I once introduced myself to George Martin in Abbey Road studios who completely ignored me. Just last year, immediately after doing a concert in Los Angeles I walked off stage to be introduced to the great arranger Johnny Mandel, “It’s a thrill to meet you Mr. Mandel!” I gushed, “Oh,” he said, “and what do you do?”

I suppose that’s better than what happened to the UK’s number one Elton John tribute act, who after months of letter writing and begging, managed to set up a meeting with the man himself. He was told to wait in the wings during a sound check and to introduce himself to Elton John as he left the stage. Eventually the moment arrived, and gathering all his nerve our man seized the moment, “Hello Elton, this is a big moment for me. I make my living impersonating you and it’s such a genuine thrill and honor to meet you, sir,” to which the great man said, “f**k off”, and left.

I did have a bit more luck recently. A few weeks ago I asked John Prescott what advice he could give me on life in general after his years in Government, he said, “Be yourself, play to your strengths and always admit it when you’ve made a mistake”, (I wonder if he told his old boss that) and when trying to connect with an audience, Des O’Connor told me simply, “be like them”. Wise words.

The best career advice though must be credited to Chief Sitting Bull in ‘Annie Get Your Gun’: “Keep bow tight, keep arrow sharp and never put money in show business”. Now that’s advice worth taking, even for a fire extinguisher salesman.

A dream come true at Sinatra's home

It’s the early hours of the morning. A car screeches to a halt outside a stylish Californian bungalow. Angry footsteps take us inside and the place erupts in one of showbiz history’s most famous ‘domestic incidents’. The couple in question is Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner. She was convinced Frank was sleeping with Lana Turner and swung by hoping to catch them in the act. What she found was Frank, innocent, but so enraged he threw her clothes out in the driveway and a champagne bottle across the bathroom, cracking the sink. I’ve just washed my hands in that sink and yes, the crack is still there. Being here, in the famous Palm Springs home of my hero Frank Sinatra is dream come true and I can scarcely believe it. I got the call a few months ago from the Los Angeles Jazz Institute who were putting together a weeklong festival celebrating the music of Sinatra and my name came up. Luckily for me I was available and so here I am, soaking in the same atmosphere enjoyed by countless guests before me like Cary Grant, Dean Martin, Bob Hope and Greta Garbo.

Designed by Stewart Williams in 1947 it is a perfect example of contemporary architecture of the period, but what strikes you most is what a lovely, comfortable home it is. This is no cool Hollywood showpiece – it’s a modest, cozy hideaway, a place to relax and enjoy friends. Outside by the piano-shaped pool wait three stellar musicians, two of whom played for Frank. It’s a warm starry night, the audience is seated and I take my cue for one of Frank’s favourite songs ‘In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning’. I’ll certainly be counting sheep, and my blessings tonight.


Dogging Around with Jackie WIlson

I just discovered the wonderfully named 'Dogging Around' performed Jackie Wilson, who suggests his girl had "better stop dogging around". I must admit that at first I misread it as Nancy Wilson, and wondered what had happened to her between  'Fly Me to the Moon' and 'The Best Is Yet To Come' but that's by the by. Now those of you not familiar with the activity currently referred to as 'dogging' may want to look away now. The Urban Dictionary tells us it "derives from the term 'walking the dog'. It is a pastime that has evolved from blokes taking their dogs for walks and stumbling across couples at it in bushes etc." you can guess the rest. It does give a contextual use: "I'm just taking the dog out for a walk love", "Okay, don't be 5 hours this time, and try not to get so muddy". Mr Wilson had a hit with his song in 1960 when I dare say "dogging" meant something else, though judging from the rest of the lyrics I'm not so sure: "Now you know you go out nights, to have yourself a ball, sometimes you don't make it home at all." Either way, Mrs Wilson is clearly a tart.

Changing definitions is a can of worms the Great American Songbook is always poised to prize open at a moment's notice. The most obvious explain being the word 'gay'. Examples are too numerous but I particularly remember being mortified as a self-conscious teenager in an am-dram production of ‘South Pacific’ singing 'Younger Than Springtime'. Dressed in a very cheeky US Army uniform belting out "younger than springtime am I, gayer than laughter am I" still makes me wince.

For my personal amusement I always enjoy singing the verse of Harry Warren's 42nd Street standard 'You're Getting To Be A Habit With Me': "I just wanted someone to be gay with... [pause to observe repressed teenage sniggers]... to play with, someone." As a side note, I once read a suggestion that the word 'gay' be reclaimed by those who mean simply 'joy' and that homosexuals should invent their own word. He suggested "homex".

There's a lovely little ditty "How d'ya like to Spoon With Me", a charming duet with little answer phrases from the object of desire, the spoonee so to speak: "How d'ya like to spoon with me? [I like that] How d'ya like to spoon with me? [Well rather}" etc. To "spoon" of course, means to canoodle, but I rather prefer to think of it as a song about sharing a tub of Benny and Jerry's Chunky Monkey in front of the telly.

Some words a so deliciously out dated they simply need to be sung. One of my favourites 'Why Shouldn't I?' has the line "all debutantes say it's good" and since we've recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the last debutante season it maintains precisely zero relevance today. But who'd dare change Cole Porter's lyrics, and why? Actually Frank Sinatra probably would, he often did.

If that fails you could copy Jamie Cullum and just stick the odd "fuck" in here and there. Not exactly the sophisticated wit of Ira Gershwin but the young people do seem to like it.

Should standards be subject to reworking with a modern twist? There's always someone doing 'Macbeth' set on a council estate or 'The Mikado' on roller-skates. Personally I think not. These songs are crafted by true masters and it's a brave man who'll meddle with Mercer or contemporise Cole Porter.

Naturally, singers do like to try and inject a little modernity in to their repertoires. Ralph Freed's 'How About You' originally read "and Franklin Roosevelt’s looks, give me a thrill" which given the time (1941) and the movie (Babes on Broadway) made sense. Nowadays you'll find any number of alternatives. I've personally heard the great president's name replaced with "and Katie Price's looks" or "and David Beckham's looks" and I myself once sang "and George W Bush's looks, make me quite ill". I immediately regretted it.

As John Wilson once told me as I added an extra word during a recording of 'More Than You Know', "what's wrong with the original? If you're going to start making up words you might as well sing 'I've Got A Lovely Bunch of Coconuts." Quite.