International superstar Michael Bolton has taken on another extraordinary challenge with Bolton Swings Sinatra (PASSION MUSIC CO. /Concord Records). The collection finds him singing classics like “New York, New York,” “Night and Day,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Girl From Ipanema” and “That’s Life,” and bringing in special guest Nicollette Sheridan for a duet on “The Second Time Around.”… MORE
ABOUT MICHAEL BOLTON
Supervising the arrangements and orchestrations down to the last note, he’s created an affectionate, dynamic tribute to some of the greatest recordings of the 20th century. “In spite of everything we’ve read about Frank’s life, it’s his music that endures – his stamp, his voice, his delivery,” the singer reflects. “That’s what puts him everywhere we travel.”
Fired up by a spectacular big band of what he calls “A-plus musicians,” including 17 horns and 35 string players, and working with top-flight arrangers and audio technicians in the legendary Capitol studios where the Chairman of the Board and countless other icons have put down tracks, he went to work on a batch of songs he’d loved since childhood. The result will be a revelation even for longtime fans – passionate, playful, boisterous, intimate, and everything in between; it’s a dazzling pairing of a singer and material.
He was strongly aided in this endeavor by co-producer Alex Christensen (Paul Anka) and engineer-mixer Al Schmitt (Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Henry Mancini, Steely Dan). “They’re brilliant,” Bolton asserts of these aural architects. “They helped make everyone feel happy – the players loved the creative environment. Al’s like the doctor who’s delivered 200 of the most famous babies in the world,” he adds, referring to Schmitt’s extraordinary track record in the studio, which has earned him 15 GRAMMY Awards.
The process went so smoothly, Bolton reveals, that they finished the musicians’ parts with time to spare. “I’ve never sent string players home early,” he insists. “It just came together so beautifully – like it was meant to be.”
Bolton admits to feeling awed, at times, by the task. “There are some songs on this record that are so indelibly printed on my mind that I couldn’t get his delivery out of my cells,” he insists. “There are some with this very restrained, light, airy, breathy voice – I love singing these songs that way. But if you don’t get up and throw these roundhouse, knockout punches on ‘New York, New York’ and ‘That’s Life,’ for example, you’ll never deliver the songs.”
Yet he forced himself to put Sinatra’s looming shadow to one side as he approached the material. “I just put my heart in it and tried to be worthy of the material,” he says.
Of his duet with Sheridan, he relates, “Nicollette always sang around me until she thought I was listening – then she’d get self-conscious. But I always told her she had wonderful pitch and beautiful tone. I played her ‘The Second Time Around’ and suggested she sing it with me, and she just lit up. The song just captured what we’ve been feeling – that love really is better further down the road, like the song says, with both feet on the ground.”
Still, considering Sheridan had never presented herself as a singer, the experience was a bit overwhelming. “She had to walk past the photo of Judy Garland on her way to the vocal booth,” says Bolton. “But she was just fine.”
Ultimately, Bolton Swings Sinatra is a loving testimony to a master. “Frank sang with such power and such vulnerability,” marvels Bolton. “He was a great storyteller. I just tried to tell some of these stories in my own way.”
Putting his own stamp on beloved songs is a big part of what Bolton does, and he’s never taken it lightly. “Every night, I get to pay respect to the pioneers, the masters who’ve been such a great inspiration and influence on all of us,” Bolton says of the classics in his repertoire. “That’s a great part of what I do for a living, and it’s an incredible honor.”
Still, Bolton is keenly aware that some of the sharpest criticism he received, when his hits began dominating pop radio, questioned the right of a white singer to perform such cherished R&B songs as “Dock of the Bay” and “When a Man Loves a Woman.”
“There’s a certain polarization that happened fairly early in my career, and I realize that my response to it played a role. I can’t do anything about that,” he reflects. “But what I can do is what my continuing career has allowed me, and what the work I’ve put in has earned me.”
Part of what he’s earned has been the opportunity to share stages with the likes of Charles, his all-time favorite singer (and singing “Georgia on My Mind” to him when Charles was inducted into the Jazz Hall of Fame), Patti LaBelle, Sledge, King, and other greats, to sing at the Apollo and at the Ebony Awards, and to be the only white artist asked to perform at Motown’s 35th Anniversary gala. “It twists your head around, to be invited to participate in this way,” he says.
Indeed, Bolton’s reception by the community of artists who influenced him has been virtually unanimous. Otis Redding’s widow, Zelma, told Bolton that hearing him sing “Dock of the Bay” on Showtime at the Apollo brought her to tears; she wrote him a letter proclaiming his rendition “my favorite version of my husband’s classic,” adding that Otis himself would have approved. The song’s co-writer, legendary soul guitarist Steve Cropper, echoed her praise. Billboard reported that Percy Sledge, who originally recorded “When a Man Loves a Woman,” declared, “I think Michael Bolton is
one of the greatest singers I've ever heard. For him to do my song, it was really an honor.” Bolton recalls meeting another of his idols, Tina Turner. “She said, ‘When I first heard you on the radio, I thought you were a brother,’” he relates.
Bolton’s sense of connection to the African-American community goes back to his Russian-Jewish father’s experience as a survivor of intolerance, and extends beyond his music. Through the Michael Bolton Charities organization, which he founded in 1993, he created a United Negro College Fund scholarship, as well as a music class for the Harlem Boys and Girls Choir, who joined him in singing Bill Withers’ classic “Lean on Me” during a post-9/11 tribute to firefighters and police at Yankee Stadium.
On a more personal level, his work as a Democratic political activist cultivated in Bolton a spiritual kinship with the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. “One thing I grew up with was this: don’t ever judge people based on their ethnicity or background,” he remembers. “Martin Luther King, Jr., was a heroic figure in our house. Many years later I met the late Coretta Scott King, and we became friends. When she invited me to sing to her at the Recording Academy’s Heroes Awards earlier this year, I thought about what a rock she was for him, standing behind him through all these historic, dangerous times, and that’s what inspired me to write ‘The Courage in Your Eyes.’”
Bolton’s achievements as a songwriter may surprise those who are only acquainted with his singing career. In addition to hits for Streisand, KISS, and Cher, he’s written songs for Joe Cocker, Marc Anthony, Kenny G., Peabo Bryson, Greg Allman, Wynonna Judd, and many others; over the years, he has earned multiple honors in this field, including BMI’s Songwriter of the Year, Song of the Year, and Million-Air awards, ASCAP’s Writer and Publisher Awards, and a Hitmaker Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame. “I got to watch fans lift their lighters to KISS’s last big hit, ‘Forever,’ which I wrote with Paul Stanley,” Bolton relates with satisfaction. He’s also collaborated with such hitmakers as Diane Warren, Robert John “Mutt” Lange, Desmond Child, and Babyface.
Still, sitting down to compose a song with Dylan, he admits, was a daunting experience. “I’d studied his lyrics since I was a kid,” he says. “When I was writing with him, I couldn’t get it out of my head: ‘I’m writing with Bob Dylan!’” Their collaboration, “Steel Bars,” was the fifth single from Bolton’s album Time, Love and Tenderness, which sold more than 15 million copies.
Meanwhile, Bolton had just received his multi-platinum award for rapper/producer Kanye West’s College Dropout album (which sampled his “Maybe It’s the Power of Love”) when he learned a sample of his music would appear on a live DVD by another hip-hop star, John Legend.
Late 2005 saw him embark on a world tour encompassing everything from a sold-out show at London’s Albert Hall to a packed arena in Taiwan to performing for a capacity crowd of 5,000 in Bucharest, Romania, that included the country’s Prime Minister and his wife. His international itinerary includes performances in China; Bolton, an activist for women’s rights worldwide, is particularly keen to help spark greater openness there. And with every show, he reiterates, “It’s my honor to share this music – and these moments – with my fans.”
After his extraordinary successes in the pop arena, Bolton might easily have rested on his laurels. Instead, he threw himself into a new challenge: opera. In the midst of a tour to support his Greatest Hits album, with a scant couple of weeks to prepare (and study Italian), he joined Pavarotti onstage for a series of demanding arias and then recorded an album, 1998’s My Secret Passion: The Arias, which sat atop the Classical charts for six weeks. That album features, among other operatic selections, Puccini’s “Nessun Dorma”; Bolton’s live performance of the piece appears on 2005’s Til the End of Forever.
“I fell so in love with the body of music Pavarotti introduced me to,” he insists. “When I started listening, I couldn’t get my head out of it. There were so many beautiful moments. I started studying these songs and discovered so many new places I could go with my voice. I’m a tenor, and I had the notes, but opera forces you into training mode. Even so, it’s important not to allow technique to take over your singing. You have to learn technique to sing arias, but you cannot bring the sound of technique into pop music and you can’t get it anywhere near R&B.”
The singer’s musical diversification, however, has not dampened his commitment to making his voice heard in the social sphere. Through MBC, Bolton has also been deeply involved in, among many other campaigns, the struggle to raise awareness about domestic violence. To that end, he served as executive producer for the Lifetime Network’s documentary Terror at Home: Domestic Violence in America, for which he wrote and recorded the song “Tears of the Angels,” which was nominated for an Emmy Award. “I got more deeply involved with this issue because I have daughters,” he says. “I feel such outrage about the scourge of violence committed against women, particularly in America.”
Bolton’s organization has enabled him to testify before both houses of Congress, notably as a champion of The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) and an advocate for the safety of women and children generally. “Of all the access that my career has afforded me, this is probably the most important,” Bolton reflects. “I’ve been able to add my voice to the chorus of support for bills to spend billions on a national level, not to mention millions regionally. Advocates of women’s rights have tremendous allies on both sides of the aisle, real leaders who have dedicated themselves to passing legislation like this. I’m just grateful to be part of the process.”
Here, as in all of his endeavors, Michael Bolton combines heart, soul, and hard work to make a difference in people’s lives.