DIVA TALK: Reminiscing with Betty Buckley Plus News of Clark and Ebersole

Diva Talk   DIVA TALK: Reminiscing with Betty Buckley Plus News of Clark and Ebersole
News, views and reviews about the multi-talented women of the musical theatre and the concert/cabaret stage.
Betty Buckley and the cover of
Betty Buckley and the cover of "Betty Buckley 1967." Photo by Ben Strothmann

When Tony Award-winning Cats star Betty Buckley was in her late teens in Fort Worth, TX, listening to the songs of Joni Mitchell and Janis Joplin, the young performer hoped she would someday release her own solo album.

"I had great aspirations to be a recording artist," Buckley recently said, "but I wanted to be a relevant recording artist. I was a child of the sixties, and the music in the sixties was just so fantastic. . . And then there were the great lady jazz singers. That was what I wanted to do. I had no real appreciation for my own voice except that I knew that I could sing, but I wanted to sing better."

Nearly four decades later, Buckley's never-before-released solo debut album, "Betty Buckley 1967" — recorded by the celebrated singing actress toward the end of that tumultuous decade — has arrived in stores on the Playbill Records/Sony BMG Masterworks Broadway label. Buckley — known for her powerful Broadway belt with its seemingly endless range as well as her ethereal upper register that is as emotionally potent as her biggest belt — recently spoke with me about the recording's 40-year journey to the record stores.

In 1967, Buckley — who would go to earn accolades and an Olivier nomination for her performance as Norma Desmond in the London and Broadway productions of Sunset Boulevard — had just finished a year as Miss Fort Worth ("a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine and a staunch feminist," Buckley says she was recruited for the pageant) and was also the head cheerleader at Texas Christian University. She was also "the girl singer around town," who, from time to time, displayed her vocal gifts at the small Fort Worth jazz club Casa Del Sol.

The album cover of "Betty Buckley 1967."

"I would go and do a late-night set with them," remembers Buckley. "I would yell at the football game as loud as I could to make my voice really husky because I thought my voice sounded too pure. . . I thought a lady singer should have a really dark, beautiful [voice], and all the singers that I loved had darker sounds to their voices than my little mezzo-soprano voice." Her inspirations at the time included Judy Garland, Ella Fitzgerald, Nancy Wilson and Della Reese. It was actually her mother, Betty Bob Buckley, who once had her own singing aspirations, who thought her daughter should make a recording, since Betty Lynn was receiving more and more offers to entertain. "My mother is thrilled that this [record] is out there," Buckley laughs, "because she promptly took responsibility for [picking] 80 percent of the songs. She picked 'C'est Magnifique' and 'Quando Caliente El Sol' and 'They Can't Take That Away From Me.' She had been a singer-dancer, and she had taught me [that song, which was] one of the early standards that I learned. 'They Were You' was one of the songs that I [picked] because I loved the musical The Fantasticks. She picked 'Call Me'; I picked 'One Boy' from Bye Bye Birdie because I also loved Bye Bye Birdie. I was a teenager and I wanted to be in [that musical]. I was so excited that there were kids on Broadway. I thought, 'I can go to New York and be on Broadway!' I also picked 'I Want to Be Free' and 'Where Is Love?' and 'Who Can I Turn To?' My mother pointed out 'My Funny Valentine,' and 'When I Fall In Love' was my choice. The songs that I picked kind of reflected my enthusiasm for Broadway . . . [and some] were reflective of the moment of having fallen in love for the first time and having it not work out the way they tell you it's supposed to. My mother's songs are really of that moment, pop tunes of the era and some of the great standards."

The album, which was recorded in one day — mostly in single takes — was engineered by T Bone Burnett, who has gone on to enjoy his own legendary career as a famed record producer. "His mother, Hazel Vernon," Buckley explains, "knew my mother. My mom said, 'You know, we really need to record this, Betty Lynn.' She called Hazel, and Hazel called T Bone, and T Bone called us to come on in, and he engineered it. I had been working with this little jazz trio at a jazz club, so we had sung these songs in performance a lot."

When the recording was finished, Buckley sent one copy to her then-boyfriend ("I wonder if he kept it," she muses) and later a second to Rodger Hess, the former ICM agent who convinced a young Buckley to try her talents in the Big Apple (she scored her first Broadway show, 1776, at her first audition on her first day in Manhattan). Hess, knowing a good thing when he heard it, kept that vintage recording and years later loaned it to the Bravo network when they produced the documentary, "Betty Buckley in Concert and in Person." It was this Playbill writer and long-time Buckley admirer who heard snippets of that recording on the Bravo broadcast, who first suggested to Buckley that she release the 1967 recording on CD.

Betty Buckley

"I was always very charmed by the fact that you liked it," Buckley told me, "but, to me, it was just this fledgling endeavor. The voice sounds too young, too pure, and I just dismissed it. If you hadn't persisted [as well as] [Playbill publisher and president] Phil Birsh and [Playbill Records executive producer] Richard Jay-Alexander, I never would have attended to it."

Buckley says her opinion of the '67 recording changed when she listened to it again one evening with her mom. "I heard it with my mother, and I kind of heard it for the first time through her delight in listening to it," Buckley says. "I started hearing things about my essential young girl self and my approach to music and how effortlessly I sang and with such abandon and such joy. I thought, 'Oh, my God, I'd forgotten about her!' Of course, that's always been my approach, but this other self of me, my younger self, did things with such a 'Whatever! [attitude]' She just sings it. It's so funny, and I just thought, 'Damn, I need to remember that.'

"It's been an enormous life lesson for me, and I feel that I'm embracing this part of myself in a way that I really wasn't aware of. . . . It's been really, really good for me. It's been a growth experience and a spiritual experience … kind of an epiphany about life and a singer's journey."

And, Buckley is equally thrilled with the reception the recording has received. In fact, "Betty Buckley 1967" is the first of her solo albums to have placed on the Billboard Charts. In its first week in release, the CD was #2 on the Top Heatseekers (Middle Atlantic) chart, #19 on the Top Internet Albums Chart and #33 on the Top Heatseekers Chart.

"I am blown away! I cannot believe this," was Buckley's reaction to hearing about the Billboard news. "When Richard Jay-Alexander kept saying, 'We're gonna chart,' I honestly thought it was some major positive thinking, but pie in the sky. I am amazed..."

Buckley fans have another treat in store: On Valentine's Day 2008, Playbill Records will release the actress' latest solo recording, "Quintessence," which celebrates her 18-year working relationship with musical director and pianist Kenny Werner. Backed by a quintet of musicians, Buckley offers beautiful renditions of "Amelia," "Blame It On My Youth"/"I've Grown Accustomed to His Face," "Dindi"/"How Insensitive," "Get Here," "Heart Like a Wheel"/"The Water Is Wide," "No One Is Alone," "So Many Stars," "Something's Coming," "Stardust," and "Where Do You Start?"

"I think ['Quintessence' is] the best studio recording I've ever done," Buckley says. "I worked tediously on that and redid the vocals over and over and over to make them exactly the way I wanted them to be. The effort that has gone into that album versus ['Betty Buckley 1967'], which was sung straight down, is just so funny." (To order the "Betty Buckley 1967" CD, click here. To order the limited edition vinyl LP of "Betty Buckley 1967," click here.)

On Nov. 26 Tony Award winner Victoria Clark will celebrate the recent release of her debut solo recording with 7 and 9:30 PM concerts at the Kaplan Penthouse in the Samuel B. and David Rose Building at Lincoln Center. Clark will be backed by musical director Ted Sperling and an 11-piece orchestra and will offer selections from "Fifteen Seconds of Grace," which is now available on the PS Classics label. The new CD includes such tunes as "I Got Lost in His Arms," "Before the Parade Passes By," "Right as the Rain," "It Might Be You," "How Can I Keep from Singing?," "Life Is But a Dream" and "Someone to Cook for," among others. "The songs I've chosen for my debut album and this special concert engagement are all about opening up and letting love and adventure into our hearts – and our lives," Clark said in a statement. "Many of the songs are about finding the courage to love and be loved – all kinds of love: for lover, for child, for God, for friends, for oneself. And of course I always have to balance the courage with humor. It is our great life-saver. It was important to me to offer these songs as a gift to the listener, so that he or she could hear them in a very personal way. That meant finding new material that touched me deeply, and taking the older standards and theater songs and resetting them in new surprising ways. And I think we have done that, with the help of some of the best musical arrangers/orchestrators in the business: Ted Sperling, David Loud, Jeff Klitz, Alex Rybeck, and Jeff Blumenkrantz." Tickets, priced $50 and $90, are available by visiting www.victoriaclarkonline.com.

Tony Award winner Christine Ebersole and her 42nd Street co-star Billy Stritch will perform four evenings at Birdland in December. From Dec. 5-8, Ebersole — accompanied by musical director Stritch on piano — will offer a holiday show entitled Winter Wonderland. Part of the Broadway at Birdland series, the concerts will feature a mix of holiday and wintertime standards, including "White Christmas," "All I Want for Christmas Is You" and "The Holiday Season." Ebersole will also debut songs from her forthcoming CD, "Sunday in New York." Birdland is located in Manhattan at 315 West 44th Street. There is a $40-$60 cover charge and a $10 food/drink minimum. Call (212) 581-3080 for reservations or visit www.birdlandjazz.com. [Upcoming Broadway at Birdland concerts include Patrick DeGennaro (Dec. 9), Darius de Haas (Dec. 10), Sam Harris (Dec. 16-17) and Melissa Errico (Dec. 18).]

A host of Broadway favorites will perform on the upcoming R Family Vacations Mexican Riviera Cruise, which departs from San Diego March 15, 2008. Gregg Kaminsky, who co-founded R Family Vacations with Rosie and Kelli O'Donnell, told me earlier this week that the week-long adventure will include entertainment by a wide variety of comics and singing actors, including Rosie O'Donnell, Cyndi Lauper, Sam Harris, Seth Rudetsky, Kevin Chamberlin, Shoshana Bean, Marya Grandy, Holly Cruikshank, Anne Steele, Brian Nash, Jessica Kirson, Ant, Ross the Intern and Julie Goldman. Additional performers will be announced shortly. The itinerary for the upcoming cruise follows: depart from San Diego (March 15), day at sea (March 16), Cabo San Lucas (March 17), Mazatlan (March 18), Puerto Vallarta (March 19), day at sea (March 20), day at sea (March 21) and San Diego (March 22). Call (866) 732-6822 for reservations. For more information, Click Here.

Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to agans@playbill.com.

Victoria Clark
Victoria Clark Photo by Susan Schacter
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