Sunday, September 14, 2014

Eric Himan: Modern Troubadour

All Photos:  Alan Mercer   Assisted by Eric V. and Psymon Imagery

Eric Himan is an award-winning nationally touring soulful/folk/rock artist based in the Tulsa area. Eric's music has recently been featured on Sirius/XM's Coffeehouse radio station with his song, "Everything To You" and version of the Simply Red classic, "Holding Back the Years". Eric has shared the stage with Leon Russell, India.Arie, Edwin McCain, Karmin, and many more. Recently Eric and band performed at the Center of the Universe Festival with OneRepublic, OK GO, and Neon Trees. He has appeared in the The Advocate, Huffington Post, OUT, newspapers nationwide, won the Singer/Songwriter Awards in London and is endorsed by Fender Guitars.

Eric has come a long way in the years since his humble beginning entertaining crowds in colleges near his alma mater, Penn State University, but his love affair with the nomadic life began much earlier when he plucked his first guitar string or struck a chord. While Eric lives by the motto "Don't ask me where I'm from, ask me where I'm going," his past has much to do with the life he now pursues with great fervor. Growing up with a father in the military, Eric constantly relocated, shuffling through cities and states without enough time to put down serious roots. It wasn't until he attended Penn State University that he picked up a guitar and became a coffee shop crooner.

Eric released his debut CD and founded his own independent label, Thumbcrown Records. He quickly gained a "cult" following and broke from the idea of being a small-town act, for his unique sound that transgressed genres as he penned songs that dabbled in Blues, Folk, Pop, Blue Grass, Country, and Rock all served up with a pinch of wit and charm. His shows are not about theatrics and superstardom, instead, his shows are intimate and fans can't help but feel as though their best friend is onstage. Eric forges personal relationships with many of his fans with his disarming charm and approachability.

AM:  Eric I know you recently opened a string of shows for Leon Russell.  What was that like?

EH:  Leon is amazing!  I got that gig because of my drummer Brandon, who has been with Leon for seven years.  Brandon played on the Elton John Tour.  So anyway he told Leon about me and played my latest album, ‘Gracefully’ for him.

AM:  I love that album!

EH:  Oh thank you.  So I started opening up for Leon last summer.  It was a lot of fun.

AM:  How did it compare being an opening act and doing your own headlining?

EH:  When you are an opening act you are at the mercy of the headliners schedule.  I’m going on tour with Ani DeFranco next.  As an opening act it’s about you, but it’s not about you.  The majority of the audience is there to see the headliner.  If it’s my show, I don’t have to win anyone over like I do when it’s an audience who isn’t there to see me.

AM:  Do you perform a different show as an opener?

EH:  Yes I do. 

AM:  You have a lot of different styles of music in your own compositions.

EH:  Yes, that is on purpose because I like a lot of different styles of music.  

AM:  What do you think of Country music?

EH:  I’m fans of the people who are actually writing the songs. 

AM:  What was it like working with Patty Griffin?

EH:  It was amazing. 

AM:  Did you ever see Robert Plant?

EH:  No he wasn’t around but her audience would ask if Robert was there while she was performing.  He is Rock Music Royalty.  Not many people make it to that realm.  People want to know that that presence is amongst them.

AM:  What was it like meeting Patty Griffin?

EH:  I met her after the show with her little dog.  She made it a point to come up to me and tell me how much she enjoyed my show.  I was petting the dog and thinking to myself, “This is Robert Plant’s dog.”

AM:  I love how you are a fan of music too.

EH:  Oh God, YES!

AM:  You relate to your fans like that too right?

EH:  Ani DeFranco is my idol.  I hate to say I have one person at the top of the pyramid of many artists because I love many different artists for different reasons, but I’m not going to lie.  She made such an impact on me as an artist. 

AM:  In what way?

EH: Lyrically for one.  She focused my attention on things that I write about more in my own music and my guitar playing.

AM:  Are you writing music for your next album?

EH:  Yes I’m constantly writing.  Brandon and Matt are writing with me for a trio project that is more in the Rock music vein.  The songs are a little more musically complex.  I’m working with the best musicians I have ever worked with in my career.

AM:  You seem to stay busy and have a steady flow of work.

EH:    I always have a steady flow because I do all my business myself.  I know I’m the only one in my way.  There’s a pressure to that but also an opportunity.  I can work as much as I want to or as little as I want to. 

AM:  You work a lot.

EH:  I work a lot because I can’t afford not to work a lot.  I’ve been blessed with lots of opportunities. 

AM:  I like the way you pump out music.

EH:  I do pump out music but I want to be consistent in a sound.

AM:  Eric you are also known for being a gay rights activist.  Are you a natural activist or is that a side effect of being a performer?

EH:  I feel like at first I was talking about my personal experiences and it just opened up conversations.  Once you’ve stared a conversation it’s so much easier to have other conversations. 

AM:  I like your song about Arizona.

EH:  I guess I am a natural activist.  You can’t tell me here is an injustice going on, write a song about it.  It never works like that for me.  It seems trite and forced.  It has to personally piss me off.  I was in Arizona at the time and it pissed me off.

AM:  You recently started performing stand-up comedy.  How did you get interested in that? 

EH:  I have always loved stand-up comedy, in fact, on my long drives when I am touring, it is easier to listen to stand-up comedy albums than music because it feels like someone is talking to you and keeps me more awake and alert. I have done a tiny bit of what you could call stand-up/storytelling in my shows but never without my guitar. That way, if I bombed with a joke, I could play a Journey song and everyone is back on my side, see how I did that?

AM: Is it harder than singing and playing in front of people?

EH:  It is harder than singing and playing, and I wonder if that is because I am new at it, without the guitar, or it is because it is never the same audience.  You could do EXACTLY the same set list for music and get a pretty equivalent reaction. You can do EXACTLY the same comedy set and get a completely different reaction.

AM:  Is there more comedy in your future or even acting?

EH:  I am not sure acting is my thing. I recently acted in a film by Steve Balderson, "Occupying Ed" that I love, and it was a lot of work for me to be somebody else. I feel stand-up isn't so far from being a songwriter because it is about being myself.  I would LOVE to do more comedy. There is a challenge in writing bits that is different than writing songs. Very therapeutic in both though. Comedy is laughing at yourself, which might be hard for some serious singer/songwriters to do, and I was like that for quite some time.

AM:  Have you always enjoyed cooking?

EH:  I was never too interested in cooking to be honest until I bought my own house and had the time and money to take cooking classes. I was scared to cook for myself and others because I was afraid I would accidentally poison someone, ha. Once I started the classes, my fears dissolved and my creativity showed up in full force. I enjoyed driving recipes to what I thought would be good together. Now, I love to cook and show others just how they can do the same with my online cooking segments, TRIAL AND ERIC.

To learn more about Eric Himan visit his web site

Sunday, August 24, 2014

In Bed With Leslie Jordan

All Photos:  Alan Mercer       Lighting& Asst:  Eric V. & Psymon Imagery

Leslie Jordan is currently in England filming 'Celebrity Big Brother UK' until September 15, but I was able to meet up with him before he left.  We had our photo session and conversation in the Mary Kay Suite at the Anatole Hotel in Dallas, Texas.  

For such a diminutive frame, Leslie Jordan has a tall propensity for scene-stealing.  He hails from the South, as his dead-giveaway drawl quickly exposes, and was raised in a highly conservative, deeply religious atmosphere in Chattanooga, Tennessee. His father, a Lieutenant Colonel with the Army, was killed in a plane crash when he was only 11. Uncertain about his direction in life, an inescapable talent for high camp, not to mention an impish mug and pocket-sized structure ideal for commercials, must have inspired Leslie enough to risk taking on Hollywood in 1982.

Following training with acting Coach Carolyn Barry, who ran the Professional Artist's Group during the 80s, he became highly marketable in commercial spots. TV would invariably be the next step. In the midst of it all he involved himself deeply in writing. Avid L.A. theatergoers will probably recognize him for such prone-to-misfit characters as Brother Boy, an institutionalized drag queen, in "Sordid Lives," and Peanut, a habitual barfly, in "Southern Baptist Sissies."

His own one-man testimonials, such as the off-Broadway "Hysterical Blindness" and the more recent "My Trip Down The Pink Carpet," show an actor quite adept at baring his soul and exposing his childhood agonies on stage amidst laughter and tears. These shows came at a price, however. A self-proclaimed substance abuser and sexaholic, Jordan spent jail time more than once for DUI before facing his inner demons and reaching full recovery since 1996.

In the end he has reaped the rewards of comedy success. In low budget film projects since 1988, he has been part of such off-the-wall material as 'Frankenstein General Hospital,' 'Black Velvet Pantsuit and Farm Sluts,' to name a few. He has also experienced the joy of seeing one of his own writing projects come to full fruition with the film ‘Lost in the Pershing Point Hotel.’  He was also given the chance to recreate his Big Brother role in ‘Sordid Lives’ to the big screen and on TV.

TV has been an exceptionally inviting medium over the years with a number of fun, flouncy roles coming his way. Noted for his catchy guest work on "Murphy Brown" and "Lois & Clark," among others, he was also a series regular on ‘Reasonable Doubts’  and ‘Hearts Afire.’  Leslie has a wonderfully wicked recurring role as a very small thorn in Megan Mullally's side on the popular ‘Will & Grace’ sitcom. Playing the snide, mincing and unconvincingly homophobic hanger-on Beverley Leslie, the actor plays the hilarity up for all its worth.  At other times his loser types have proved quite touching, if pathetic, in offbeat drama.

AM:  Leslie, it was so exciting when you won an Emmy!  I would think your stock immediately goes up after winning but you tell a different story.

LJ:  I thought I’d been acting for twenty years and I’d won an Emmy so I was going to sit back and let it come to me….well, we’re waiting and waiting.

AM:  Was that a surprise?

LJ:  I’ve been around long enough to know the way this business works.  My manager does remind me that since the day I won the Emmy in 2006 I’ve never had to audition once.  Now that is something for an actor like me, who is either really right for the part or I’m not right at all.  There’s no in between. 

AM:  You also got sober a few years ago.  That must help.

LJ:  I got sober seventeen years ago and learned to live in the moment.

AM:  What changed in your life perspective?

LJ:  I used to dream about the future and think when I get that series, or meet that perfect person or get a house in the Hollywood Hills and it’s not like that at all.  Life is a journey.  I love the Jim Carrey quote, “I wish everyone could get rich and famous so they would understand it’s not the answer.”

AM:  But once upon a time you thought it was the answer didn’t you?

LJ: Oh absolutely!  I got off the bus and that’s all I wanted for twenty years, but then I realized that unless I had a spiritual side it was all worthless.  I respect Madonna because she had everything including a home in England and she studied the Kabbalah.  All the success becomes meaningless unless you are happy from the inside.

AM:  How do you find your spiritual nurturing?

LJ:  Through a recovery program.  I still go to meetings after seventeen years.  I grew up in a very religious family.

AM:  Your family would go to church regularly didn't you?

LJ:  Our community was the church.  Everything was church.  If you went to a New Year’s Eve party it was at the church.  It’s all church, church, church.  When I got to West Hollywood, which is my community now, I still never felt like I had a real sense of community.  I need a group of people that will call me out on all my attitudes.  I need people who can look at me and say, “That’s bullshit Leslie.”

AM:  Do you feel more fully realized at this point in your life?

LJ:  I’m at the point where I am closer to my authentic self than I have ever been.    I’m happier with who I am and what I am, which was such a struggle because of my religious upbringing.

AM: Have you had any other challenges or struggles?

LJ:  I’ve also had to reinvent myself.  When you first met me I was just starting to head out on the road.  I didn’t know there was money to be made outside of LA.  My management gets me lots of out of town gigs now.  I travel all the time.  I’m booked solid most of the year. 

AM:  Most of your fans know you as Brother Boy from ‘Sordid Lives.’  You are one and the same.  How did that all start?

LJ:  I told my friend Del Shores that he could write short stories so he wrote a short story called, ‘The Dehomosexualization of Brother Boy’ and I read it and thought it was so funny.  Then he wrote one called ‘Nicotine Fit’ about three sisters in the living room fighting over burying their mother in a mink stole.  Then he wrote another one about a woman who gets high on valium and holds her husband hostage.  Then he called me and told me he was putting them all together into a play.  At first I told him it was a mess and he couldn’t have all that going on.

AM:  You told that to Del!?!  Obviously that became 'Sordid Lives.'

LJ:  Thank God he didn’t listen to me!  So he added the funeral scene at the end and that tied it all up. 

AM:  What are you proud of?

LJ:  Buying my mother a condominium is the best thing I’ve ever done as an adult.  I also bought my twin sisters a condominium next to my mother so they can take care of her.  I have a huge ship afloat. 

AM:  Leslie, I have seen every show you have ever done and I end up hurting from laughter.  You are a genius.

LJ:  Thank you!  I love performing on stage but I would also love to stay home.  

To learn more about Leslie Jordan visit his facebook page

Monday, August 4, 2014

Freda Payne 'Come Back To Me Love' album review

Photo:  Alan Mercer

Though best known for her 1970 R&B crossover smash hit ‘Band of Gold,’ Freda Payne has always first and foremost been a jazz singer, dating back to The Jimmy Wilkins Big Band at age 14. Her debut album, ‘After The Lights Go Down Low And Much More!!!’ on Impulse!, in  1963 was arranged by Manny Albam, while a more pop-oriented follow-up entitled ‘How Do You Say I Don’t Love You Anymore’ on MGM in 1966 was helmed by saxophonist/arranger Benny Golson.  Freda performed at the Apollo Theater in Harlem alongside Billy Eckstine, backed by Quincy Jones and His Orchestra, comedian Redd Foxx and the dance team Coles & Atkins. She also graced the stage with Duke Ellington for two nights in Pittsburgh, after which he composed ‘Blue Piano’ just for her. Freda Payne’s training and experience render her a rare vocal artist who is stylistically beyond category.

With her honey voice, a touch of sass, legendary and iconic beauty, and impressive vocal control, Freda returns to the recording studio with a big-band recording from Mack Records on its Artistry Music imprint.  Working with a big band complete with strings and arrangements by Grammy Award winner Bill Cunliffe, Freda sings the heart out of 14 songs, ranging from classic standards to a half dozen original pieces from the pen of Gretchen Valade and Tom Robinson.  The original tunes hold up next to the standards quite well.  The arrangements of brass and horns work together with the violins, violas, cellos, and a guitar, vibraphone, and harp.  

Photo:  Raj Naik

We begin the journey with Cole Porters ‘Come Back To Me Love,’ a swinging, scatting, on fire version of Cole Porter’s ‘You’d Be So Nice To Come Home To.’  I feel like I’m in a nightclub listening to Freda sing LIVE on stage during this number.  It’s so fresh and Freda’s voice shines.  The second cut, Kenny Rankin’s ‘Haven’t We Met’ blends seamlessly into the mix.  Next we have four of the six original numbers including the wistful and romantic ‘Lately’ and the title track, with its yearning, longing quality.  These songs sound like they were written especially for Freda and she sings them all with passion.   ‘Whatever Happened To Me’ and ‘You Don’t Know’ complete the foursome.

Then we arrive at the gorgeous Buddy Johnson standard, ‘Save Your Love For Me’ best known by Nancy Wilson.  Freda sounds absolutely sumptuous singing lyrics like ‘Have mercy on a fool like me, I'm so unwise but still I plead, darling please… save you love for me.’  Next comes the 1945 Sammy Cahn/Jule Styne poignant classic ‘Guess I’ll Hang My Tears Out To Dry.’  Once again Freda seems like she was born to sing these lyrics, so full of emotion.  We can add Freda’s version to the list of notable recordings of this song. 
Alan and Marilyn Bergman wrote English lyrics for ‘The Island’ to the Brazilian music of Ivan Lins.  Lush, romantic and full of Latin rhythms, the setting perfectly showcases Freda’s versatility as a vocalist.  This cut is definitely an album highlight. 

The next two cuts are the final original songs , ‘I Should Have Told Him’ and ‘I Just Have To Know.’  The last three numbers are all standards that most everyone knows.  ‘Midnight Sun’ was originally an instrumental composed by Lionel Hampton and Sonny Burke in 1947 until Johnny Mercer wrote the words to the song.  Most of us know the version by Ella Fitzgerald which suits Freda to a tee since she spent the last several years singing a tribute to Ella in concert.  ‘Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most’ from 1955 is an epic selection.  Freda’s version is full of plaintive emotion and this recording is another highlight from this album.  The album closes with a rollicking version of Lou Rawls ‘I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water.’  Perhaps Freda should consider a blues album next.  She definitely has the vocal chops.

I have been listening to the music of Freda Payne for over forty years and she has never sounded better than she does right now…singing jazz.  I hope this album spawns the beginning of a recording renaissance for her.  Both she and her audience deserve that.  ‘Come Back To Me Love’ is a GREAT first outing for the new-era ‘Freda.’  

To learn more about this album or to purchase it please click here

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Gene Watson: The Singer's Singer

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

It is difficult to imagine the world of country music without the vast contribution that Gene Watson has made to it.  Between his major label debut on Capitol Records in 1975 and the present day, Gene Watson has excelled with his traditional slant within country music.

Gene Watson is a singer in country music's grand tradition and has the skill to give powerful vocal performances and draw all the emotion from his selected material effortlessly. Gene has remained true to his Texas music roots for the best part of 50 years and is a standard bearer for honest, traditional country music.

Following years of honing his country music craft around Texas, Gene Watson emerged on the American country music scene in July 1975. He immediately earned himself a reputation as one of the best of the new 'real country' singers to emerge on the scene and for adhering to a traditional country sound, characterized by prominent steel guitar and swirling fiddle.

Gene Watson was born in Palestine, Texas, and began his music career in the early 1970s, performing in local clubs at night while working in a Houston auto body shop during the day. He only recorded for a few small, regional record labels until 1974, when Capitol Records picked up his album ‘Love in the Hot Afternoon’ and released it nationally. The title track was released in June 1975 and it quickly reached Number 3 on the Billboard magazine Hot Country Singles chart. Gene Watson's national success continued throughout the late 1970s and early 1980s, as he recorded several Billboard top-40 hits, including "Where Love Begins," "Paper Rosie," "Should I Go Home (or Should I Go Crazy)," "Nothing Sure Looked Good on You." and "Farewell Party" which was released in 1979 and quickly became Gene's signature song and soon allowed Gene to name his band after the tragic ballad.

Since 1975, Gene Watson has been an artist who has adhered to, and remained faithful to, a 'hard' traditional country sound. Gene Watson is truly a 'Lone Star Hero', not only within the state boundary of Texas but also around the wider country music world.

Gene Watson's 'Beautiful Country' speaks for itself. It is a music of the people, for the people and ultimately by one of the people. His music is part of the very constitution of country music. It is in Gene Watson's recordings that the tradition of heartfelt, country music is preserved for all time.

Gary Gene Watson never intended becoming a professional singer within the country music genre. Apparently, he didn't go searching for music - music found him. For those of us who love traditional country music, we have a lot to be thankful to Gene Watson for.

I had the opportunity to meet up with Gene in Weatherford , Texas when he performed at The Texas Opry.   We took these shots and visited before he went on stage to a sold-out audience. 

AM:  Gene, your newest album, ‘My Heroes Have Always Been Country’ is just fantastic.  How did you come up with this idea to record these classic songs?

GW:  Well the hardest part was picking the songs I recorded. 

AM:  I bet!  There are so many good songs to choose from.

GW:  The object of this recording was to go back and let people know who Gene Watson is, where he came from and why.  I thought what better way than to go back and record some of my favorite songs that were recorded by my favorite artists.  I used to sing these songs back in the day so I could get local bookings.  I never dreamed I’d be an artist at that time.  I would use these songs in all the places I would play.  These songs were recorded by my heroes.  Most of them aren’t even here now.

AM:  Who are some of the artists you covered?

GW:  I covered Marty Robbins, Ray Price, George Jones, Dottie West and Lefty Frizzell.  Like I said, these people are my heroes so if people hear this CD and can’t figure out where I came from, there’s no need in me preaching to them.  These are the songs that made me who I am and this is what keeps me going.  This is the reason I have sustained for fifty-two years.  I don’t want to change too much because something is gotta be going right. 

AM:  I encourage you to keep going.  I’d love a new album of classic covers at least once a year.

GW:  It’s so much fun.  I didn’t think about it at the time, but these are the only sessions that I can ever remember doing, where I didn’t need a lyric sheet in the studio.  I walked in the studio and just sang them right off the top of my head.  I had never sung the Dottie West song, ‘Here Comes My Baby’ in my life.  I thought Dottie West was just fantastic and when she got through, the song had been sung.  All I can do now is let them hear me sing it, which is what I had in mind when I recorded it.

AM:  You also covered another song a few years ago that is hard to cover and that’s Etta James version of ‘At Last.’  You made it yours!

GW:  I think that comes from the love of a song.  I’ve always been privileged and honored to be able to pick and choose the songs I wanted to record.  I’ve always had final say.  I picked that song because I love Etta’s version.  People always ask me what my favorite song is and that’s impossible for me to answer.  I saw something in every song I have ever recorded.  I have never recorded a song that I didn’t think was capable of being a single. 

AM:  I like the songs you sing that have a dark humor to them.  Is that part of you?

GW:  I think so.  A lot of people think that I am an outgoing guy and really I’m not.  The older I get, the more laid back I get, but when I get on stage all that reverses.  I have a great time on stage.  I play off the crowd and I don’t plan a show.  The band has to pay attention to what I say because that’s the only intro they are going to get to these songs.  The crowd helps me more than anything in the world. 

AM:  So your show is completely spontaneous.

GW:  Oh yes.  I’ll start telling a story and the band picks up on it just like that. 

AM:  That keeps it very fresh for you.

GW:  I have to do it that way.  I’ve worked with so many artists that have a planned set and they do it night after night after night.  It gets to be trying on your nerves just doing the same songs for fifty years, but if I can play it loose and do the requests off the top of my head it keeps it fresh for me and the audience.  I decide when is the right time to do a certain song during each show. 

AM:  Do you still get a chance to work on cars?

GW:  (laughing)  I love cars and I’ve got too many.  I love to dabble around with cars, but as far as heavy work, no I don’t have the time.  I’ve dedicated the rest of my road time to the singing business and I’m trying to hang in there as long as I can.  I said this a long time ago and I meant it.  I hope the good Lord grants me the wisdom to hang it up when it’s the right time.  When I can’t walk out there and do it the way I think it should be done then it’s time for me to pack it up and there will be plenty of time to play with cars. 

AM:  How do you maintain your voice?

GW:  I try to get as much rest as I can.  That’s one of the most important things about me maintaining.  When I first started I used to drink and smoke like a freight train.  I haven’t had a drink in 34 years and I haven’t smoked in 24 years.  I’ve really dedicated myself to taking care of my throat.  It’s all I’ve got as far as the music business goes.  When I get through performing I am tired.  I’m older now and been in the business so long so when I get through I like to sit back, relax and get as much sleep as I can.  To me, that’s the key, when I get tired my voice is the first thing to go.  The good Lord blessed me with a voice and I try to take care of it the best I can.  He can take it away anytime he wants to. 

AM:  You also did another difficult thing by re-recording 25 of your best songs a couple years ago.  I’ve heard many artists re-record songs and they didn’t turn out as good, but you changed that concept for me by doing such a phenomenal job.

GW:  That was probably the hardest undertaking I ever went through.  I was real meticulous about it.  My producer, Dirk Johnson and I went back and got every one of the original cuts and took them to the studio.  I re-recorded them all in the same key and tempo.  I tried to create the same feeling.  Some of the players from the originals are playing on the new recordings.  If there was a thought in my mind that it wasn’t as good, I’d go back and play the original and refer back to that.  I had to do that a few times because over the years you evolve and change some things.  We tried to double track the originals as close as they could be.  I’ll say this, I think I did a better job on some of them.  It pushed me, but I wanted to do it so much.  I’m like you, I don’t like covers because they are always lacking. 

AM:  You changed the rules because your covers are not lacking.  Did it take longer than normal to get the recording finished?

GW:  It was more strenuous on me because of myself.  I wanted to get it just like the original. I don’t normally spend a lot of time in the studio.  If a song is for me, I’ll hit it quick.  If I have to work on it, I’ll throw it out. 

AM:  You recorded the last album live with the band didn’t you?

GW:  Oh yes, all my albums are recorded live with the band.  That’s the only way I’ll do it.  I play off that band, even in the studio.  When they hit a lick that turns me on it makes me want to sing that much better and when I sing better they play better.  It’s the only way to do it.

To learn more about Gene Watson, visit his web site

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Frederic Forrest: Chameleon Actor

All Photos:  Alan Mercer        Lighting:  Eric V.

Frederic Forrest, the Oscar-nominated character actor, was born two days before Christmas Day in Waxahachie, Texas, the same home town as director Robert Benton. Frederic had long wanted to be an actor, but he was so nervous that he ran out of auditions for school plays. Later, at Texas Christian University, he took a minor in theater arts while majoring in radio and television studies. His parents opposed his aspirations as a thespian as it was a precarious existence, but he moved on to New York and studied with renowned acting teacher Sanford Meisner. He eventually became an observer at the Actors Studio, where he was tutored by Lee Strasberg. During this time, he supported himself as a page at the NBC Studios in Rockefeller Plaza.

His theatrical debut was in the Off-Broadway production of "Viet-Rock", an anti-war play featuring music. He made his uncredited debut in ‘The Filthy Five’ in 1968, a low-budget movie directed by sexploitation auteur Andy Milligan, but he racked up his first credit in the very bizarre screen adaptation of ‘Futz’ in 1969, a satire about a farmer who falls in love with a hog.

After starring in the off-Broadway play "Silhouettes", Frederic moved with the production to Los Angeles, intent on breaking into movies. While the production ran for three months and was visited by agents bird-dogging new talent, Frederic got no offers and had to support himself as a pizza-baker after the show closed. Eventually, he began auditing classes at Actors Studio West, and director Stuart Millar saw him in a student showcase production and cast him in ‘When Legends Die’ in 1972. He copped a 1973 Golden Globe nomination as "Most Promising Newcomer - Male" for the role. For the first time in his film acting career, Frederic Forrest looked like he was poised for stardom.

A small part in "Godfather" director 
Francis Ford Coppola's ‘The Conversation’ in 1974 would later pay dividends. Except for a small role in the disappointing ‘The Missouri Breaks’ in 1976 and his TV turn as Lee Harvey Oswald in CBS' ‘Ruby and Oswald’ in 1978, Frederic had little to show in the first part of his career. Coppola was about to change that.

Playing "Chef Hicks" in ‘
Apocalypse Now in 1979 garnered Frederic the best notices of his career, and he parlayed that into Academy Award and Golden Globe nominations as Best Supporting Actor for ‘The Rose’ in 1979, his second hit that year. He was named Best Supporting Actor by the National Society of Film Critics for both films, and once again he seemed poised on the verge of stardom. Like the first time, stardom did not come.

His aspirations were to do quality work and play a romantic lead. "I would like to not have to fit into somebody else's story and have my scenes cut because I'm too strong", he told a journalist circa 1980. "And next time, I'd like to get the girl instead of the horse".

He did get the romantic lead he pined for, but it was a case of "Be careful what you wish for, as you might just get it". Coppola, so instrumental in propelling Forrest into the first rank of character actors, cast him as the romantic lead in ‘
One from the Heart’ in 1982, a picture that proved to be one of the great financial debacles of all time. It bankrupted Coppola's studio, American Zoetrope, and engendered a fierce backlash against the director and the film in Hollywood.

In 1983, he played a supporting role in ‘
Valley Girl’ in 1983 in an unmemorable performance, a role that could have been played by any actor, something one couldn't say about his "Chef" in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Increasingly, Frederic began appearing on television and, by 1987, was in the cast of the series ‘21 Jump Street’ in 1987 on the new Fox TV network, lasting only one season before being ignominiously replaced.  In addition to an appearance in the mini-series ‘Lonesome Dove’ in 1989, Mr. Forrest's fine portrayal of "Lomax" in ‘Die Kinder’ in 1990, showed the ability which has been too often unrealized.

AM:  Frederic  I love how your character talks about Waxahachie when you first appear in the film ‘The Rose.’  Did you do suggest that?

FF:   We wanted a joke for a light moment since the movie was heavy. It was an awkward moment.  Someone had just told me that joke so I asked the director, Mark Rydell about saying it in the film.  People in Waxahachie got a little upset, but it was just a joke.

AM:  When was the last time you were in Texas?

FF: It’s been three or four years now.  I was there in the summer and I’d forgotten how hot it can be.  I remember going to school and playing sports against all the other teams.

AM:  Did you enjoy playing sports?

FF:  It was fun but I wasn’t that good at any of it.

AM:  What sports did you play?

FF:  I played football and ran track.  I enjoyed the spring days and running the track and meeting other guys from other places.  In those days it was more about sportsmanship and the game.  There was less animosity.


AM:  Were you always interested in being an actor?

FF:  Not consciously, but I would act out movies when I was a kid.  All we had was the picture show.  There was no television so we’d go see all the movies.  We had three movie theaters in Waxahachie.  Back in those days, actors would tour with the movies, so we’d get some Cowboy Stars that would come through.   B movies were big in little towns because you had the Saturday matinee.  

AM:  You must have seen all the serial films.

FF: Yes they always kept you hanging.  You couldn’t wait to get back the next week to see how they got out of trouble.  Movies were great back then!  Kids would line up for blocks. 

AM:  So did you struggle to get in movies or did you fall into it?

FF: I fell into movies.  I never thought about it.  I didn’t think I was good at anything.  I didn’t feel like I had a “so called” talent.  I wasn’t good at anything people considered important.  I really didn’t know what I was going to do.  I felt if I could make a living doing something I liked, I’d be very blessed.   I kept going back to acting in Community Theater. 

AM:  So you were acting for fun.

FF:  Yes I thought it was fun, but after I saw James Dean in ‘East of Eden,’ I got the acting bug to go to New York.   I knew he was from a little farming town in Indiana so I identified with that.  Then all I heard about was the Actors Studio.

AM:  What year did you get to New York?

FF:  I got some guys to give me a ride to New York in 1957 for my first visit.  I remember very vividly standing across the street from the Actors Studio thinking I would see Marlon Brando coming in or out.  I was scared to death.  I thought, “What am I doing here?”

AM:  Did you come right back to Texas?

FF: Yes I had to go into the army.  You had to back then.  You could get drafted or choose to join on your own and then only do six months, so I did that.  A lot of guys in college did that just to get it over with and then you had six years in reserve. 

AM: Did you like being in the military?

FF:  While you are in it, it’s so mad.  The army is so full of life.  It’s such a tapestry of human beings.  So many different personalities are everywhere.  You could think you were in a nut house.  It did seem quite surreal, but I did it.  We had to do basic training in Fort Knox, Kentucky. 

AM:  So you did your military time before there was a war?

FF:  I was lucky as I got out just before Vietnam started. 

AM:  So after the army you went back into acting?

FF:  Yes I decided I wanted to act more and get my equity card.  I went back to Houston to the Alley Theater after being in New York for a couple of years.  I got a scholarship so I didn’t have to pay them. 

AM:  Did you do a lot of stage work?

FF:  I did as much as I could.  I felt like the more acting I could do the better I would be at it.  I would do anything or any character.  I actually got stranded in Dallas after Kennedy’s assassination.  I would go to the Dallas Theater Center and see all the plays. 

AM:  How did you get back to New York?

FF: I hitched a ride with an antique dealer who went to Boston routinely.  We got to the outskirts of New York City and there was a big snow storm so we couldn’t get in the city.  He had to drive me to Albany and I took a bus back into the City.  My sister met me at the bus station. I had a big black cowboy hat. 

AM:  So it took a while before you made it into films in the middle 70’s.

FF: Oh yes I was old already.

AM:  You look so young in ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Rose.’   Did you always look young for your age?

FF: I did.  Hollywood never knew how to peg me.  I had to learn to lie and ask them how old do I look?  They’d tell me I looked 24 so I’d say no I’m 25 and they’d go, “I thought so.”  If I had been honest and said I was 35 they would have told me I was too old.

AM:  You have played a few Native Americans.  Do you know why you have been cast like that?

FF:  I have no idea.  I turned down ‘Lonesome Dove’ three times because it was written as a full blooded Native American.  I knew I could do the character once I read the novel. 

AM:  Is that one of your favorite parts?

FF:  It is one of my favorites.  I got incredible reviews.  Better than anything else I ever did. 

AM:  So you knew you were talented. 

FF:  That part did change my life.  Suddenly I was the new Brando, the new Newman and the new James Dean. 

AM:  You became a household name.

FF:  I was lucky because ‘Apocalypse Now’ and ‘The Rose’ came out at the same time.  People saw me in both films and I got the National Film Critics Award for both of them.  It was a strange new era where I was wanted for all the movies.  

Monday, June 23, 2014

Vivian Reed: Renaissance Woman

All Photos:  Alan Mercer

Vivian Reed is a multi-award winner with two Tony Award nominations, Drama Desk Award, Theatre world Award, Outer Critics Circle Award, Dance Education of America Award, NAACP Award and several others. Vivian began formal voice training at the age of eight at the Pittsburgh Musical Institute, later continuing at New York's Juilliard School of Music followed by years of extensive dance training.

 She became a polished performer under the guidance of Honi Coles and Bobby Schiffman of the Apollo Theater. Vivian received critical acclaim for her work in 'Bubbling Brown Sugar' on Broadway and Europe. She captured the attention of Pierre Cardin who booked her into his theater and held her over for several weeks. Through Cardin she went to Japan for the first time and later made her first European TV special. Later she was invited by the Prince and Princess of Monaco to perform in Monte Carlo.

Vivian has appeared on many TV variety and talk shows both nationally and internationally including ‘The Tonight Show,’ ‘The Today Show’ and the ABC-TV daytime drama, ‘One Life To Live.’ She has shared the bill with such notable performers as Bill Cosby, Pattie Labelle, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Elaine Stritch, Alan King, Sammy Davis Jr., Quincy Jones, Ashford and Simpson and Charles Aznavour just to name a few. Her film credits include ‘Heading for Broadway,’ ‘L'Africaine’ with Catherine Deneuve and ‘Le Rumba,’ in which she portrayed Josephine Baker. Recently she produced and starred in a short film ‘What Goes Around’ written by Angela Gibbs.

Vivian has also brought her nightclub act to major gatherings of organizations and dignitaries, including Mercedes Benz, IBM, Top Fashion Designers Gala at the Theatre Champs Elysees and the American Film Festival in Deauville. She appeared at the Festival del Vina in Chile along with other top performers and received the coveted ‘Torch Award,’ an honor bestowed by the mayor and citizens of Vina for only the most exceptional and stirring performances.

Vivian has been featured in the world's most read and influential news and fashion magazines such as Vogue, Elle, Paris Match, People, Ebony, Cover of Jet and Time Magazine. Her personal style and taste for designer clothes have won her a place on Mr. Blackwell's Best Dressed Women List and she was selected by People Magazine as one of the ‘25 Most Intriguing People of the Year.’

Vivian has received critical acclaim in major productions of ‘Sophisticated Ladies,’ ‘Roar of the Greasepaint,’ ‘Smell of the Crowd,’ ‘Blues in the Night,’ ‘Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope,’ ‘High Rollers’ and ‘Show Boat’ in which she portrayed the role of 'Queenie' and Tintypes. Her recent plays include ‘Blues for an Alabama Sky,’ ‘Crumbs from the Table of Joy,’ ‘Pork Pie’ and ‘Cookin' at the Cookery.’ Vivian was featured in the highly anticipated ‘Marie Christine’ at Lincoln Center. She also portrayed Lena Horne in a new piece, ‘More Than A Song’ with the Pittsburgh Ballet Company at the Benedum Theater in Pittsburgh.

Vivian contributed her talents to the Lena Horne Awards Show hosted by Bill Cosby honoring Rosie O'Donnell and Quincy Jones at the Ford Center for the Performing Arts in New York. She appeared in ‘Three Mo' Divas,’ the follow-up to ‘Three Mo' Tenors’ at the San Diego Rep. and Arena Stage in Washington, DC and as an actress received critical acclaim for her portrayal as Gloria Franklin in ‘The Second Tosca.’  Vivian has also given back of her talent by teaching nearly three years at Berklee College of Music in Boston where she created a performance class teaching the many aspects of performing and also establishing a yearly concert event called Singer's Night. Recently she presented her nightclub act to two sold out houses and concluded two book musical workshops ‘One For My Baby’ and ‘The Countess Of Storyville.’

Vivian took a few years off from performing to help care fro her elderly parents in their last years. Now she is back to her career full time.  Besides her theatrical career she has made a total of six albums, done voice overs and TV commercials and she is a professional photographer and scarf designer for VJR scarves.  

AM:  Vivian you are what I think of as a Renaissance woman since you do so many things.  How did you get started designing scarves?

VR:  My mother was an incredible seamstress.  She made all our clothes as we were growing up.  Even the gowns for my first concerts.  She taught me how to sew.  I always wanted to design scarves, but because I was taking care of her, my heart just wasn’t in it.  Being the Gemini that I am, I wanted to launch into it with passion and everything.  After she passed, I said I was going to start doing some of the things I really wanted to do.  I took three months off and went to the fabric district and bought a bunch of fabric and started sewing.  I sew every scarf myself.  I painted every one of the 30 inch square scarves.  I like to paint in the abstract and see what comes out.

AM:  So you have a lot of creative energy.

VR:  Yes I do.

AM:  Do you notice if this creative energy has stayed the same all your life or has it increased or decreased?

VR:  The only thing that has decreased is my passion for building things.  I can rival any contractor with power tools.  I have every tool imaginable. I’ve built cabinets.  My father was a Mr. Fix-It person.  I think I got this from him.  When I bought my brownstone up in Harlem, I wanted to build cabinets for my television and things like that.

AM:  How did you even get started learning about building furniture?

VR:  I went out and bought a lot of power tools and read a lot of books until I became very good at it.  That energy has decreased in me because it takes a certain amount of strength when you are dealing with heavy, large pieces of wood.  But that would be the only thing that has decreased.  I’m so creative and I love doing things with my hands.  The scarves and photography will go on for a while.

AM:  You’re an amazing photographer too and I don’t get to say that very often.

VR:  I feel honored that you would say that.  Thank you.

AM:  How did you get started with photography?

VR:  I didn’t start off wanting to be a photographer but I had a bad experience with a photographer in New York.  To this day I didn’t get a photo I can use out of the session.  I had a feeling the photos wouldn’t be right after the session was over and they were not.

AM:  That can actually hurt.

VR:  I got angry and cried because it cost a lot of money.  So I pulled my little camera out of the closet and moved my furniture around.  I started shooting with my remote control and one shot turned out.  I was surprised that it looked good.  So that’s how it started.  Once again I bought lots of books and took thousands of photos.

AM:  That’s how you get good!

VR:  I would bring people over and shoot them for nothing.  At first I didn’t light the background but I learned how important that is so I started lighting it.

AM:  What is your favorite type of photo to take?

VR:  I love dark, creative, dramatic, theatrical lighting.  I understand it because I come from the theater.

AM:  I love that style too.  So did you buy a bunch of photography equipment?

VR:  Yes I did and as you know it is expensive.

AM:  People don’t always realize how expensive photography is.  You have certainly mastered the art of taking portraits.

VR:  Thank you!

AM:  You will always be an amazing singer since that is how I first knew of you.  I know you had an album out before ‘Bubbling Brown Sugar.’

VR:  I had a couple of albums out there.  I don’t even like to talk about my recording career.

AM:  That album on Epic is stellar.

VR:  I was a baby then.  When you look at the cover you can still see the baby fat in my face.

AM:  You make every song on that album your own.  You always do cover songs in a special and unique way.

VR:  When Bobby Schiffman and Honi Coles owned the Apollo Theater and became my managers, I was eighteen and still going to Juilliard.  We talked about when you have music that everyone knows you have to take that piece of music and see how you can put your stamp on it.  Otherwise, why else would you do it?  I teach this same thing to my students now.  Now that I’m doing my show at 54 Below I met with the musicians and one of them said, “Oh I know that song.” and I said, “No you don’t.  You only know the title.”

AM:  Your arrangements and phrasing are always very specific to you.

VR:  Yes I will sometimes work with arrangers to get the right key so it becomes a collaborative work but the phrasing is all me.  Nobody can tell me how to sing it.

AM:  It seems so innate for you.  It’s like it magically happens.

VR:  Well a lot of times it does.  A lot of people believe that if you are African American you can automatically riff and that’s not true.  That is crazy.  I tell my students don’t do what isn’t natural because then it will sound like that.

AM:  One of your most famous songs is ‘God Bless The Child.’

VR:  I put a different stamp on ‘God Bless The Child’ for 'Bubbling Brown Sugar.’  There were some jazz enthusiasts that were upset because I had touched the great Billie Holliday.  I didn't even want to do the song.  It wasn’t my kind of thing.  I didn’t want a bunch of heavy jazz chords, and I like jazz, but just not for that song.  So we changed some of the chords and that’s how my version of ‘God Bless The Child’ came out.  Now I can’t do a show without including it some 30 years later.

AM:  What makes your version different?

VR:  I sing it with a bit of R&B and Gospel so it’s not how people are used to hearing it.  One time a few years ago I did a pre-Grammy show with Merry Clayton and Darlene Love for Clive Davis and I sang 'Wind Beneath My Wings.'  When I was done singing the song, Clive came up to me and told me it was the best arrangement and I made him forget Bette Midler’s version.  I said that was the whole point.  He loved it and I got a standing ovation.

AM:  You can make us forget all other singers when you are singing.

VR:  I think that’s the approach any artist should take if you are doing covers.  I’m all about keeping the integrity of the piece.  That is essential, but you have to find a way to make it yours.     

To learn more about Vivian Reed visit her web site and facebook page