Idols of yore stay vital by updating sound
Paul Anka and Petula Clark have new albums. Clint Eastwood‘s’ documentary on Tony Bennett is being released this month. And Keely Smith, who debuted in 1949, has been earning raves for her re-enactment of her 1958 Vegas show.
But don’t call it a revival.
These hitmakers, who formed the pop music bridge between big bands and rock ‘n’ roll, are more a study in perseverance, having found ways to keep up with changes in the music biz over the last five decades.
For Anka, the new world order in the business means considering the acquisition of music publishing catalogs; for Pat Boone it meant creating a label and, to commemorate his 50 years in showbiz, releasing five genre-specific albums in one year. The nostalgia-averse Clark finally agreed to do a historical show, for PBS, that positioned her as part of the British Invasion — before returning to recording and touring.
“There should be some cachet for those who endure, the way it was for Bing Crosby and Jimmy Durante,” says Boone, whose Beverly Hills office is a shrine to his pop-music success, family and religious beliefs. “While it’s remarkable what Tony Bennett has done, there was a time when he couldn’t get arrested. … There are so many artists still performing who bring an experienced viewpoint, but record companies are only interested in (promoting) young singers who become one-hit wonders.”
So while Michael Buble, Rod Stewart and Harry Connick Jr. are filling venues performing pre-rock repertoire, stars who were there at the beginning are fighting for visibility.
Anka, a businessman as much as he is a songwriter and singer, has his sights on China and India. “Those places are the real deal,” he says. “Technology has created a unilateral sophistication in (new venues). There’s a new model being developed — the halls are smaller, about 3,000 seats, making shows a safer bet for everyone, and they’re hitting a tougher benchmark” in terms of sound quality, construction and accommodating artists. “It has made international touring much easier.”
Gary Bongiovanni, president and editor in chief of Pollstar, the publication that tracks the concert business, concurs, noting “there are a lot of acts who can make a very good living in Japan that have been forgotten in the States. It’s a big world out there now.”
And these veteran acts are noticing that the international fan base is changing.
Clark, who recorded in several languages in the 1950s and ’60s, including French versions of Beatles songs, performed a recent show in Paris that was split evenly between English and French tunes.
“Three years ago, that would not have been possible,” Clark says. The French audiences wanted music they felt was their own. Nowadays, audiences want what you’re associated with, the originals. They only want to hear Madonna sing a Madonna song, not somebody’s interpretation.”
Clark, 74, attributes her staying power to avoiding being associated with a particular time period and doing a 2½-hour show that includes hit singles such as “Downtown” and “Don’t Sleep in the Subway,” songs from her stage career (“Sunset Blvd.”) and tunes she has composed over the years.
“I was a little timid before — I would spend most of my energy defending others’ material and not mine. Now I’m happy to do my songs.”
Clark, who has sold more than 70 million records, has released “Solitude and Sunshine: The Songs of Rod McKuen”; she has theater shows in the U.K. and casino shows in North America booked, and is in talks to do a few shows with McKuen. “We have to find a meeting place, artistically, onstage.”
Boone, 73 still owns a label to release his work and the works of other veteran singers. He is re-releasing his career-spanning book “Pat Boone’s America,” working at promoting his five albums from last year and plotting a new album — a set of standards, “sophisticated with a swinging combo that’s just having fun.”
Anka, 66, spent the summer performing in Europe, and his second album of big band arrangements of modern rock songs, titled “Classic Songs, My Way,” was released Aug. 28 by Universal Music’s Decca Records imprint.
Boone, Clark and Anka are hardly alone in filling their calendars.
Frankie Valli, 70, has seen his bookings become more high profile — November’s four-night run at Jazz at Lincoln Center is a good example — since the success of the Four Seasons biotuner “Jersey Boys” on Broadway and on the road. “The audience is getting younger,” Valli wrote in an email. “The concerts are sold out. Who would have thought, at this stage in my career, that I would be hot again. ”
Jack Jones, 69, is plotting the recording of his current jazz-club show and a Brazilian album with Ivan Lins, while Patti Page, 79, whose 1952 hit “Conquest” was covered by the White Stripes on their latest disc, is doing a couple of shows a month through March. Frank Sinatra Jr., 63, made his first solo album in 10 years in 2006.
And Bennett, now 81, is approaching the end of a celebration of his 80th birthday that will close with the Sept. 25 release of the documentary co-produced by Eastwood, “The Music Never Ends,” and a Sony Legacy catalog release “Tony Bennett Sings the Ultimate American Songbook, Vol. 1.”
Jones, whose early ’60s pop hits “Lollipops and Roses” and “Wives and Lovers” connected him with fans of the Sinatra-Como-Crosby era, is balancing so-called “music of your life” concerts at venues such as the McCallum Theater in Palm Desert, Calif., and the Eissey Center Theater in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., with jazz trio shows at L.A.’s Catalina Bar & Grill and Gotham’s Oak Room.
The material is the same in both, Jones notes. His concerts, which have received rave reviews in recent years, “tell a story of a boy meeting a girl, and the songs represent every phase of a romance. Bringing back (these standards) coupled with the concept, makes it something special to experience.”
Jones says he isn’t concerned about playing the hits or figuring out how to get his version of “The Impossible Dream” into the set list. He remembers the days — the late ’60s, early ’70s — when performers went to great lengths to be “hip.”
“A lot of us didn’t know what to do (for those auds). Sammy Davis Jr. had a field day with it, but I remember being kind of ashamed going onstage with Buddy Rich in Nehru jackets. You have to credit Tony Bennett with staying true to this music.” Trying to adapt rock songs “didn’t make for good records.”
Times clearly change, as Anka and Boone have learned.
Boone’s “In a Metal Mood: No More Mr. Nice Guy” has sold 61,000 copies since its release 10 years ago. The cost to Boone at the time was the loss of support from Christian book stores that had been key to promoting his products and appearances. Those stores have been a key outlet for his recent releases, among them “We Are Family: R&B Classics” and “Hopeless Romantic.”
Anka’s first collection of big-band versions of rock tunes, “Rock Swings,” has sold 86,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan, since its release in June 2005. Anka, who tours with a big band, figures a third of his show is now dedicated to music from his two most recent albums.
“While I have a record deal,” Anka notes, “I own my own masters. I’m in the copyright business, and I’m very concerned with the overall picture (of the music business). I have a lot of respect for what Prince is doing — he’s giving away the music, but breaking attendance records with his concerts. In the future, I see CDs, or however we get music out to people, as calling cards. They will be there to support the fan base and not necessarily to create stars.”
Boone knows first-hand the struggles of trying to run a label. He founded Gold Records in 1999, and asked 15 artists if they were interested in recording. A dozen said yes. “We had a different concept — proven artists and a standard budget of $50,000 per album. Within three years, we had 26 albums.”
The label’s distrib, however, went bankrupt and the label’s chief chose to retire. Boone is ostensibly the head, but he continues to look for the right team to run it.
“It’s difficult to regain momentum when you lose it twice. I can’t guarantee these artists distribution and sales, but I can at least record my own music.”