William Blake delivers his songs with sass, sensuality, and soul—sometimes all three in one number! Manhattan Digest’s Ryan Leeds caught up with this explosive rhythm and blues artist about his upcoming Etta James tribute show at NYC’s finest jazz club, Birdland. Just don’t talk during his set- or he will call you out!
RL: This is the third engagement of your Etta James tribute at Birdland. What drew you specifically to her?
WB: My parents had great taste in music. R&B was really their “bag” so I grew up listening to Sam Cooke, Otis Redding, Ike and Tina Turner, and others. I think what really attracted me to Etta James was the kind of woman that she was. She went through a lot of hardships and struggled for a long time in the music industry. I just really found her life story fascinating.
RL: What do you want your audiences to know about Etta James?
WB: That she had more songs than just her popular ones (“At Last, “Sunday Kind of Love”). More importantly is the pure joy that she had in performing. She was vivacious and captivating and really knew how to rouse an audience.
RL: Is there one particular song of hers that is your absolute favorite?
WB: Probably “Fool That I Am.” It’s a song that describes how it feels to love someone when they don’t love you back. We’ve all felt that way at one time or another. Anyone who says they haven’t is lying. So I think that this song really tugs at my heartstrings.
RL: Your show will have back-up from “The Peaches.” Tell me a bit about how they were formed and the origin of their name?
WB: The Peaches were actually Michael Thomas Murray’s idea. In addition to being my best friend, he is my musical director and arranger. Initially, it was just going to be a rhythm section and me. When we started working on “Echoes of Etta”, Michael was trying to create this “doo-wop” girl group so we decided to add them. Etta James had two backup singers known as The Peaches and I have three (Ashley Betton, Shira Elias, and Stephany Mora.) They will also be presenting some songs from their own tribute show to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.
RL: Your background is primarily in theater . How did you get into the cabaret scene?
WB: I went to college for theater but left after my sophomore year. I was fortunate to be getting so many singing gigs. After I was on the fourth season of American Idol my gigs picked up even more. It’s really been rewarding to play such esteemed rooms. Returning to Birdland with this show is the biggest thrill we can ask for. We love playing this club so much because it’s our home and the best club in the world!
RL: What other music legends have you drawn inspiration from?
WB: In terms of contemporary artists, Kurt Elling and my great friend and colleague, Jane Monheit. Past artists would include Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday.
RL: What is your assessment of the popular singers today in terms of their style and techniques?
WB: I don’t really listen to newer artists. I’m really an “old soul” when it comes to music so I don’t get into “Glee”, Demi Lovato, Miley Cyrus, or Lady Gaga. I think that those artists are still finding themselves and are growing up. But we’ll continue to find them interesting in adulthood if they stay in the industry. In terms of vocal style, leave the pyrotechnics at home because you know, if you play with fire, you’re gonna get burned.
RL: Who is the absolute one singer you would give anything to meet and/or sing with?
WB: Nikka Costa. She is a funky, solid, well-rounded musician. I would give my right arm to be on stage with her!
RL: If you could go back in time and see any live performer who would it be?
WB: Judy Garland- either at The Palace or Carnegie Hall. Her Carnegie Hall recording is still in print. To have been a fly on the wall of that space for that concert would have been a dream come true.
RL: What is your advice to those seeking a career as a vocal artist?
WB: Stay true to who you are. Sing what you know and be passionate about it. The Etta James songs are songs I connect with. If you don’t connect, trash it and move on. Also, find a great musical director you trust.
RL: Do you have any pre or post show rituals?
WB: I don’t really sleep well the night before a show because I’m so excited. I put on a lot of music and jam out. And before my show, I have to have bourbon on the rocks- but just one!
RL: How do you take care of your voice?
WB: I have an ENT I see once or twice a month, especially since I suffer from allergies. I also stay practical in rehearsals by not over singing and try to stay quiet on the day of the show.
RL: Cleary your audiences love you, but are there any particular pet peeves from a live audience that really annoy you
WB: Not really. I’ve been heckled by the best of them. I will just heckle right back. I remember one night, there was a loud audience member who kept yelling from his seat. After every song he would say, “Oh my gosh! This is the best show I’ve ever seen!” It was flattering, but he was pretty obnoxious. At one point, I looked at him and said, “I know this is the best show, right?!!? Now will you please sit back and just be quiet!” The audience just loved it. Talking during my set is also a pet peeve. But I know how to deal with it; I just call them right out on it!
RL: So what’s on your docket after the Etta James show?
WB: I started out singing in piano bars at 19 years old. Next month, I’ll be returning to do that again on a week long cruise to the Mexican Riviera. I’m really excited about it because I need a vacation! After that, I’ll be performing private engagements through the end of the year.
WHAT: Echoes of Etta II featuring William Blake, Mike Murray & The Peaches – 7PM, Doors open at 5PM
WHEN: Monday, Oct. 28th 2013
WHERE: Birdland Jazz Club, 315 West 44th Street New York NY 10036.
Price: $30 Cover, $10 minimum