He’s sold more than 53 million albums. He’s had eight Top 10 albums, nine No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts as a myriad of other honors and hosannas, awards and accolades. Yet Michael Bolton insists he will never forget the time he calls “that long, long walk out in the desert,” those years he spent writing songs that become hits for other performers, before his own solo singing career took off.
“I became a songwriter by accident,” he recalls. “A friend was working for CBS Songs’ publishing company told me he was making a good living writing songs and asked me to come to California. He said, ‘You’ll be able to work on your solo career, and you’ll stop worrying about your rent check bouncing and get that thing you haven’t seen in years---a paycheck.’ So CBS flew me out, I wrote five songs that were recorded by different artists and they signed me to a long-term deal. That was the beginning of my journey, the ‘becoming years.’”
It’s a journey that has taken Bolton into the arena of fame and fortune. And it’s rather becoming, perhaps more so since Bolton committed a “mane event,” cutting off his cherished, trademark locks.
The 60-year-old father of three (he won custody of Isa, Holly and Taryn, from his 1975-1990 marriage to Maureen McGuire) who promised me he'd marry Nicolette Sheridan---the 50-year-old actress, best known as the step-daughter of Telly Kojak Savalas, as well as for her roles as Paige Matheson in Knots Landing and Edie Britt in Desperate Housewives, duets with her love on the Sinatra salute. The result, Bolton says proudly, “is pretty special.”
Bolton is appearing at Heinz Hall tonight at 7:30 p.m.. For Holiday and Hits, call 412.392.4900 or visit pittsburghsymphony.org. If you don't want to spend the big bucks ($108!), buy his recent autobiography The Soul of It All: My Music, My Life, watch his small-screen Honda holiday commercials and/or toss on a CD, perhaps his latest, Ain't No Mountain High Enough: A Tribute to Hitsville.
Here, Bolton speaks about the love of his music . . . and the love of his love.
How did those early years as a songwriter shape your own singing career?
I got to work with established, supportive writers who taught me that the whole world revolved around a song. In real estate, it’s location, location, location. In music, it’s material, material, material. It’s the quality of a song that delivers a career. I was fortunate that during the time I was making a living writing songs for Streisand, Cher, Kenny Rogers, The Pointer Sisters---it was a different kind of crazy diversity that I never really dreamed of---I was learning song structure. I was learning storytelling. I learned that everything important has already been expressed and that it was about finding a new and different way to express it. I learned how to be tough on myself. All these things I learned as s songwriter came into play as I decided what was going on my first album. In a way, I became my own record executive, a tough approver of what I was going to sing.
Your third album, 1987‘s The Hunger, spawned two hits: “That’s What Love is All About” in 1987, but your career really made a splash, so to speak, with your cover of “(Sittin’ on the) Dock of the Bay.” Yet some people were up in arms a white man tackled Otis!
A lot of people had said, ‘No one should be going near Otis Redding territory. It’s kind of sacrosanct.’ It was his wife who gave us this incredible review that brought the walls down. She said it was her favorite version since her husband, and suddenly my name started showing up as the artist instead of the songwriter. I just was trying to make a living doing what I love. I never thought my music would become the soundtrack for peoples’ lives.
People still talk about Bolton Swings Sinatra, your old CD homage to Frank!
That’s something I will never get sick and tired of. I am hoping that this is the just beginning of what I think is a direction for the next four or five years. We are integrating the big band and the horn sound in the hits---there‘s so much room for that in their arrangements. People who come to see my live show expect to hear the hits. We’re just playing around with the arrangements, so the people who have embraced me as an artist for a long time and the people who have driven a long way to hear the hits will still hear them, with the energy of live horns and a big band swing element. It’s amazing how it feels---it feels like I have been performing these songs for years.
Were you daunted by the inevitable comparisons to Old Blue Eyes?
I’ve always considered it a challenge when I step up to new terrain. I wanted to reinterpret these songs, but reintegrate them from the outside. From the inside, it’s my obligation as an artist to bring my own interpretation to a song no matter how many times it’s been done or no matter how big the original hit was. When I was invited to sing with Pavarotti, I wanted to learn Italian because I wanted to do justice to what was a great opportunity. It was very intimidating knowing I was going to sing with him. So I studied his body of music, and I learned that Caruso sang a lot of the songs Pavarotti sang, as had di Stefano, Corelli, Bjorling, Gigli . . . all of them great tenors in their time, and every one of them had a different delivery. I listened, I did my homework and it reconfirmed that my duty as an artist is to bring what I am to the microphone. It’s my prerogative as an artist to reinterpret the songs and my responsibility to myself and my audience. That’s what Frank did; as I listened to him through the years, his vocal performances, his approach, is different; lines are phrased differently depending on his mood. But the one thing he did that I do is that out of respect to the composers who were gifted enough to bring these songs to the world. I always respect the melody and lyrics that made the song outlive generations decades after they were written. Before doing the album, I had a great time speaking with Frank Junior about the different arrangements he did with dad; he knows well every note and every version his father has done.
Even the Sinatra clan even you praise.
I heard from everyone of them. I got great kudos from Frank Junior, Barbara, Nancy and Tina. They called or sent letters that were really sweet and very supportive. I reminded them that I am far from the first person to pay tribute to Frank---and certainly not the last.
So many songs! So many covers! Can you name your favorite?
I can’t. But I will mention the most important: a woman named Laura Branigan, who passed away last year, way too young. She recorded a song of mine that a very famous record mogul passed on---she heard the song, but wanted the chorus changed. My publisher came to me and said, ‘Laura Branigan had a great hit with “Gloria.“ She heard “How Am I Supposed to Live Without You,” it means a lot to her personally and she wants to record it. When you’re a songwriter, you want to hear that Sinatra or Streisand wants to record your songs--- Streisand is still a big coupe for me because she’s tough on her material. But this was a relative unknown on the scene. She had one hit and really wasn’t proven. We didn’t know what would happen. So we gave to her and she cut it, and it became the first hit I had ever written. That’s when I learned that an artist who resonates with what you’ve written---when your work speaks to that artist--that will make its way to the microphone and is more important that having a big name who doesn’t get it.
Are you aware you have a gay following.We swooned when you cut off those luscious locks!
[Laughs] I guess I should have it earlier! Gay audiences are definitely an important core for me, not that I get large amounts of fan mail or mail from organizations like GLAAD. I have gay friends and they’ve told me, though sometimes my friends give me too much information! I’ve never sat down like a politician thinking, “Who are my constituents?” I knew I had a large female audience, and I knew the basic age group demographics based on what the record company was evaluating. The first time I learned this was when a woman who is close friend of mine and who works for my film company told me how many of her gay friends were huge, die-hard fan and how they have every record. I knew kd lang had a big gay following, but it never dawned on me. I’m very happy about it.
Few people know that you’ve also acted--- perhaps most notably and most briefly as a drummer in the extended DVD version of Dune. I hear you want to do a talk show. True?
I think so. It is such an unbelievably difficult area. Maybe one or two people can do it. Oprah is one, probably Ellen [DeGeneres] is the only other. They both have fun with guests, though Oprah gets into deeper subject matter and heals people.