It should come as no surprise that an accomplished thespian – one with over 100 appearances in television and cinema – can act the part of a jazz singer. That is unless he just happens to be a gifted jazz singer who busies himself with the “occasional” acting gig.
When he’s not playing FBI Special Agent Johnson in “Die Hard,” Franz Sanchez in “License to Kill” or Jake Fratelli in “The Goonies” – not to mention Goran Vogner in the soon to be released “The Expendables 3” – Robert Davi uses his prodigious musical talents to record the “much too occasional” compilation of brilliance.
The veteran actor may be recognized as one of film’s best-known tough guys, but Davi has also won the respect and admiration of fans, critics and fellow artists with his expressive singing of the American Standards.
Davi’s new release, “New York City Christmas,” follows in the style of his acclaimed 2011 album, “Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance” (produced by the late Grammy-winner Phil Ramone), which hit No. 6 on Billboard magazine's Top 10 Jazz Chart.
The jazz master recorded the new effort in the legendary Capitol Records Studio A, where Sinatra, Nat “King” Cole and The Beatles made some of their greatest music. A tribute to Swing, the record was arranged by noted composer, arranger and conductor Chris Walden and is a sterling display of Davi’s deep commitment to jazz singing as well as his lifelong passion for music.
The versatile artist recently chatted with me about the new record and that remarkable passion – surprisingly unknown to some of Davi’s fans – as he wrapped up the latest project with his favorite jazz sextet, or something like that. Davi recently completed work on “The Expendables 3” on location in Bulgaria with Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Swartzenegger, Jason Statham, Mel Gibson, Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren.
Davi was thrilled with the new single. “It’s a tribute to New York,” he professed. “I was looking for something new. It’s very hard to find a brand new Christmas song that one can feel can catch on. And this year because New York has gotten hit with Sandy and it’s gotten hit with 9/11, it’s uplifting.”
“I grew up in New York and ‘New York City Christmas’ is something that’s magical. I’ve even played it for the guys in Bulgaria. It makes people want to go to New York. If you’re not from New York, you want to go there. And if you are, you get to reminisce about it.”
“And also the attack on Christmas is something that – look, people can believe in a stone column, I don’t care. But I wouldn’t say, ‘Remove all of the stone columns,’ you know what I mean? And I wouldn’t say, ‘Don’t call it a Christmas tree.’ So there was an aspect of that that I wanted to supply – not only that but a traditional feeling of Christmas in a song.”
Notwithstanding his remarkable acting talent, Davi readily confesses that singing is his first love. As a young man, he garnered much acclaim for his musical abilities, studying classically under several top vocal teachers, including Samuel Margolis and Danial Ferro of Juilliard and later, opera great Tito Gobbi.
“(Laughing) Well, a long lost love who never really left. It’s more like me being let out of jail. And I’ll tell you why. Because while acting is fun, you’re confined by the character in the script and everyone’s perceptions of who they are or who they think you are and who the character is. So in that respect, I’m able to perform as myself. It’s absolutely freeing.”
Davi’s extraordinary singing talent will no doubt also free up fans’ perceptions as to his matchless versatility. But don’t expect everyone to be surprised. “Well you know, if you have family members or people that knew me when I was growing up, they would say, ‘He’s gonna be a singer.’”
“I studied opera and classical at Juilliard and I won awards. I won awards as a singer as a young kid, as a teenager. Had American Idol been around back then (laughing), I would’ve been on it and it would have been something, who knows?”
“But most people do not know that. So it’s surprising. It’s surprising because in our own heads, even though you know your life intimately, inside and out, it’s always a surprise when you feel, ‘Well, they don’t know that I do this and they shouldn’t know that I do this.’ It is very satisfying to be able to perform like I did in New York for 10,000 people August 30th.”
Given the common lament of music fans of all ages as to the dearth of meaningful music, Davi certainly isn’t the only one that appreciates his musical contributions. “It’s one of the reasons why I felt so compelled to go back into the singing,” admitted Davi.
“The Great American Songbook for me is the Shakespeare of America. It’s the golden age of American music. It’s what made the world fall in love with our country and us to each other. It got people through – I know my parents and grandparents – world wars and depressions and very difficult times, but in a gentler, romantic way.”
“When you think about in 1957, the song that won Oscar for best song by Sammy Cahn and Jimmy Van Heusen was a song called ‘All the Way.’ We know that song. Well, in 2006, ‘It’s Hard Out Here For a Pimp’ wins. There isn’t the orderly sustained lifting to a higher level.”
Davi’s appreciation for the Songbook – and Sinatra – goes beyond Ol’ Blue Eyes’ musical contributions. As a young actor, Davi learned to be a dual-threat from one of the very best.
“I did my first film with Sinatra but I had trained extensively. I went to Hofstra University on a drama scholarship. I won a ton of awards. I studied with Stella Adler for three or four years and then got into the Actors Studio, all as a young guy. And then I did the film with Sinatra, which Sinatra did as an Italian-American.”
“You gotta realize, back in that day for an Italian-American, especially in my parents’ era, you had Rudolph Valentino and that was about it. The rest were either ignored or looked at not too favorably, like a lot of the immigrants over the years, whether you’re Irish and German and Scottish, or Jamaican or from Lebanon.”
“Sinatra was the first superstar that really gave an identity to the immigrant population. He was also the first guy to come out against anti-Semitism and racial bigotry. And it’s in that response that he taught me something.”
“Stella Adler – who used to teach the players at MGM in the ‘40s – I’m sure she coached Sinatra. And it was Boris Karloff who helped Sinatra in the ‘50s, working with the lyrics of the song, believe it or not. Sinatra had Bing Crosby early on when he was a kid. And then he developed his own style.”
“But what I got from Sinatra was friendship and the business aspect, the business sensibility of Hollywood – also his authenticity, remaining authentic to who you are, irrespective of whether everyone will embrace it or not.”
The honesty of Davi’s work sings volumes as to importance of the lesson learned. And whether he learned it from Sinatra or somewhere else, Davi definitely knows how to effectively move between the two artistic disciplines.
“Absolutely. The sense of timing is so important in musicality. I can do accents. I can very easily pick up an accent and at least someone will feel authentic. Whenever I’m doing an accent, they say, ‘Hey, I didn’t know you were… ‘ I’m an Italian kid from New York, so the musicality helps with a sense of timing, a sense of rhythm, the sense of loving language. And then that goes to the acting, of course.”
“Then vice-versa, the love of language and the love of digging through the lyric of the song to have it touch you personally and be able to communicate that. Because it’s when you do that that you’re affecting people. It’s like the songs become the diary of your life. And if you can communicate that, it connects to everyone else.”
“I remember seeing Sinatra in concert when I was younger and there must have been 5,000 people, 10,000 – who knows how many people were there. It was in Forrest Hills, Long Island and you felt he was singing to you.”
“I’ve sung to 1,800 people and a 1,000 people and 500 and 2,000. When I did this in August and there were 10,000 people on Long Island, for me it was would I be able to have that affect whereby the intimacy is not lost? That’s something you continually you strive for.”
The muliti-talented Davi’s gifts as an actor and a singer are readily apparent to even the most casual observer. But anyone that takes the time to look a little closer will see his genius as a director, writer and producer.
“I’ve always looked at film as a totality and the same thing with music. You’re looking at it as a totality, not as an isolated portion of who you are in it. So that is how I would approach the thing.”
“Of course when you’re given the task of having to direct, that’s much more involved because you’re getting ‘pecked to death by ducks.’ It almost feels like that, you know? You’re getting questioned on every single thing, making split decisions. But if your vision is strong enough, you’re already worked those out. So you at least have those answers.”
“And then as an actor, you’re able to help a director. I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the films, but even ‘Goonies’ for instance – that was (Steven) Spielberg and Dick Donner. Well I look at it again, I come up with different things out of the realm of that film or the scene.”
“So being able to have that ability to say, ‘Okay, with the opera singing, I’d like to make this character a frustrated singer who only the brother listens to in the basement. And every time I open my mouth, I want my mother to slap me. And they went with that.”
And that my friends pretty much sums up Robert Davi’s prodigious gifts as a performer. Because convincing someone to slap you for brilliantly singing the classics exhibits some pretty serious acting talent…