There's a noticeable Texas twang to singer/producer Steve Tyrell's speaking voice. He came by it honestly: Tyrell grew up in Houston's Fifth Ward. "I was the only white guy around for miles," he laughs. He wasn't, however, the only musician. Houston Music Hall of Famer pianist Joe Sample lived down the street and several other musicians who went on to create the Crusaders with Sample lived in the neighborhood.
Tyrell's parents were fans of Frank Sinatra, but, like his friends, he was into rhythm and blues. That changed when an already established Tyrell was asked to produce a song for the soundtrack to the 1991 comedy Father of the Bride. Tyrell sang an emotional version of "The Way You Look Tonight" and his career as the new standard bearer of the Great American Songbook was born. "That was the first standard I ever sang," Tyrell says.
Tyrell went into the recording studio soon after the success of "The Way You Look Tonight." Joe Sample, who is godfather to Tyrell's son, went with him. "For my first two or three albums I wanted to do arrangements that were modern and at the same time include the soloists from the era that the songs were written in. Like my first album had Harry "Sweets" Edison on it, along with Clark Terry, Plas Johnson and Toots Thielemans. It was all of these wonderful soloists that were 90 years old by then."
It's an all-star line up: Clark Terry played with Duke Ellington, Plas Johnson with Frank Sinatra and Toots Thielemans with Count Basie. "Joe Sample and I were sitting in the studio and I had the idea to have a trumpet duet between Sweets Edison and Clark Terry on "Don't Get Around Much More Anymore." We were trying to figure out what arrangement would accommodate that. Joe said, 'Well, you've got Duke Ellington's trumpet player [Terry] and Count Basie's trumpet player [Edison]. Use that.' So we took a Duke Ellington song and we put it in a Count Basie grove. So it started off with [Terry], doing what he used to do with Basie and then Sweets comes in and plays just one note, just like he did with Sinatra a million times."
With more than ten bestselling albums of standards to his credit, Tyrell says he's still discovering the beauty of these songs. "These songs have been interpreted and reinterpreted over and over. They've been around 70, 80 years and they'll be around 700 years if we keep singing them. [This] is the only art form where you can love 25 versions of the same song. That doesn't happen with pop music. With these songs, there is no one definitive version. If you bring something new, something personal to it, it's like it's a brand new song.
"There's a Sammy Cahn song, "Kick in the Head" and he wrote that for Oceans 11 probably. Sammy Cahn really spoke for the Rat Pack era, with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy [Davis, Jr.] and all the other cool daddies from Vegas. "A Kick in the Head" is a great example of what he was able to do musically.
"There wasn't ever a song from the old masters like it. Gershwin and Irving Berlin never had a song with lyrics like, "She's telling me we'll be wed/She's picked out a king size bed." That's what makes Sammy Cahn stand out.
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"He was this little Jewish guy that looked like he was there to do the books, but he had this incredible sense of humor and music. He put some of the hippest words in music for some of the hippest guys of all time. On "Come Fly with Me," he says, "We'll fly down to Peru/to llama land/there's a one-man band/and he'll toot his flute for you." That's Sammy Cahn."
The Houston Symphony presents Steve Tyrell & Friends, a one-night show featuring the Grammy® Award-winning Tyrell and guests singer/pianist Diane Schuur, trumpeter Lew Soloff and singer Judith Hill. (Tyrell had hoped Joe Sample would be able to appear as one of the Friends from the show's title, but that wasn't possible.) The program includes "You're So Nice to Come Home To," "Bewitched," "I Get a Kick Out of You" and, of course, the song that started it all, "The Way You Look Tonight."
Tyrell has appeared with the Houston Symphony before, and says performing with a large orchestra allows him to recreate the lush, full music heard on the soundtracks he has recorded. "With a big orchestra, you can sound just the way it does in the movies. You can't get that kind of sound from six guys in a nightclub," he says, laughing.
See Steve Tyrell and Friends at 7:30 p.m. March 13. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana. For information, call 713‑224-7575 or visit houstonsymphony.org. $29 to $129.