Bistro Award-Winner Clint Holmes Looks Back
In 1973, Clint Holmes shot to fame for singing lead on the Top Ten smash "Playground in My Mind." Since then, his career has taken several interesting turns: he became a busy nightclub singer and was Joan Rivers' musical sidekick on her "Late Show" from 1986-88 (after she left Johnny Carson). He was a correspondent for two years on "Entertainment Tonight;" hosted his own variety/talk show, the Emmy-winning "New York at Night" on WWOR-TV; and capped his career as a headlining act in Las Vegas, where he still resides and performs monthly at the new Smith Center for the Performing Arts. In Vegas, he has been honored with the Entertainer of the Year Award three times, Singer of the Year four times, and the Sammy Davis Jr. Foundation Award. Holmes has also written two musicals, "Comfortable Shoes" and "Just Another Man."
On March 4th, he will be given the Bistro Award for Major Engagement at Gotham Comedy Club in New York. The Bistros Awards, in its 28th year, honors excellence in New York nightclubs. Winners are chosen by a committee of critics, journalists, and experts in the field. [This writer is on the committee.]
Holmes was born in London to an American father and British mother, and raised outside of Buffalo, New York. He is currently married to Las Vegas entertainer Kelly Clinton-Holmes and has three children from a previous marriage.
Holmes spoke with EDGE about his remarkable career and his recent success in New York cabaret.
40 years on
EDGE: It’s been 40 years since you burst onto the scene with "Playground in My Mind (My Name is Michael)." How did that song come about?
Clint Holmes: Wow, has it been forty years? I was living in DC at the time, but I was performing my nightclub act in the Bahamas. Back then, I used to do a Johnny Mathis impression. After the show, this guy came up to me and told me he was Mathis’ producer and that he had a song for me. I thought the song was cute, but I wasn’t crazy about it. We recorded two songs. I preferred the other one, but Clive Davis, who was with Epic Records at the time, picked the one with the kids. This was back in the summer of 1972. Nothing happened, but when I went home to Buffalo around Christmastime, a friend from Wichita called me and said he was hearing my song on the radio. With the kids on the track, I guess a few radio stations thought it sounded Christmasy, so it was becoming a regional hit in the Midwest. By the spring of ’73, it was on the Hot 100 and was #2 by the summer.
EDGE: I guess it’s considered a novelty song, but was one of the great one-hit-wonder songs of all time. Did that hit record lead to any recording contracts or bigger offers?
Clint Holmes: I was close to Roberta Flack at the time, and her records ("The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Killing Me Softly") had burst onto the scene. That’s the direction I wanted to go. But as a follow-up, they gave me a song called "Chittle-Dee-Dee," which was even more bubble gum than the first. [Laughs.] It sold about eleven copies. Then disco was in. It was a timing thing. The reason songs are one-hit-wonders are because they don’t define the artist. But it did open up the world of more live performing venues, and I was booked for several years.
Couldn’t say no to music
EDGE: You are the son of a jazz musician and an opera singer. Musical pedigree doesn’t get much better than that.
Clint Holmes: It gave me an appreciation for any music done well. It was clear early on that I could sing. Mom taught me vocal technique and Dad took me to hear jazz at a very young age. I couldn’t say no to a music career. I like to say that my mother taught me how to sing correctly and my father taught me how to have fun with it.
EDGE: I was surprised to learn that in the Army Band, you played trombone.
Clint Holmes: It was during the Vietnam War. There was an Army music program, including a chorus-but that was full. But if you enlisted and passed the music test, you could get into the band program, which is what I did. While I was there in Norfolk, I would tell everybody I was a better singer than trombone player. At a ceremony for my Captain’s promotion, they asked me if I could sing "Alfie"-that was his mother’s name, and she was flying in for the ceremony. Well, they all cried. I got promoted to sergeant and they let me sing whenever I wanted to. Around that time, General Westmoreland noticed that there were no people of color in the U.S. Army Chorus and he wanted that changed. They sent seven or eight of us over and I was one of the few who could read music, so I got in. That led to performing at the White House and all the other official functions.
EDGE: You have similarities to President Obama, in that you are biracial, with parents from different countries. In such a race-conscious country as ours, how has your mixed heritage affected your outlook?
Clint Holmes: It was a huge deal in my life. When my Mom and Dad met, he was with the army stationed in England during World War II. After they got married and started a family, we settled in a ghetto of Buffalo. They wanted to continue their dreams of singing, but Dad was working two or three jobs just to make ends meet. Then we moved to a small town outside of Buffalo, but then we were the only people of color in that town of five hundred people. We were vilified for being different. Dad was a man of few words, so not much of a role model in terms of what it meant to be an African-American young man. That’s where singing came in, which really directed my life. I had a place to go where I wasn’t weird.
It was a constant learning experience. When I was in high school and college, Black Power was in, but as a small-town kid, there was nowhere for me to hang my hat with that movement. And my music of choice at the time was Simon and Garfunkel and James Taylor. People would ask me why I wasn’t singing Sly and the Family Stone.
You grow up with no place to be but hopefully you find your talent and make your way.
EDGE: You’ve opened for some of the biggest comedians in the biz-Don Rickles, Bill Cosby, and of course you were a sidekick for Joan Rivers. As a singer, what did you learn from them?
Clint Holmes: Great question. Especially from Cosby, I learned that the more honest and real you are, the stronger the effect on stage. He was a master. We could be talking backstage, while he was waiting to go on, about where we’d go to eat after the show. Then his name would be announced and he’d walk onto the stage and say "Good evening." He was the same guy onstage as he was offstage. So that gave me permission to be myself. You can fail and people will accept it if it’s true.
I also learned work ethic. Joan always was writing down new jokes on index cards, and constantly trying them out. If she tried out ten jokes for the crew and three worked, she’d say, "OK, these three are going in the monologue tomorrow night." Even at their level, they were constantly developing.
EDGE: When did you decide to go to Vegas, and why?
Clint Holmes: It was 1998 and I was working in New York and living in New Jersey at the time. Steve Wynn from the Golden Nugget saw me and said he had a room that he had built for Sinatra and that if I came out there he’d guarantee me eight months-even if we closed after two weeks, he’d pay me for eight months. So I went out there and I headlined there from February to September in 1999. I had become established enough that other casinos were giving me offers to be the resident artist. I took a one-year contract with Harrah’s that turned into seven years. And Bill Cosby was the one who told Steve to see me.
Adjusting his style
EDGE: Do you have to adjust your style at all when moving from the big showrooms of Vegas to the more intimate clubs like the Carlyle?
Clint Holmes: The short answer is yes. I do an exercise before I walk on stage. I stand in the sweet spot just offstage and hold my arms out, close my eyes, then open them. It gives me a sense of the physical size of the venue. In Las Vegas, the crowds are from all over the place-some are dressed up and some are in shorts and flip-flops. You have to find the common denominator. When I play a cabaret room, there is a slight elevation of sophistication-people are paying good money and dressing up to come see you and hear you. In terms of the size of the stage, when I’m at my best, I only move for a reason. In the end, you just hope people buy in and enjoy it.
EDGE: Your show with music of Cole Porter and Paul Simon ("This Thing Called Love") worked remarkably well. How did that concept come about?
Clint Holmes: I liked the old and new. I believe the Great American Songbook is still being written. Both were writers of their generations. I had a great team with my director, Larry Moss, my musical director, Jeff Nyman, and my producer Cecilia Johnson. We winnowed through the material and decided to focus on the viewpoint of love. Eventually, Larry came up with the idea that it was about a young guy in love, and then all the phases he goes through. So we turned it into somewhat of a play instead of the standard act. It was developed over several months.
EDGE: Does your recent success in NYC feel like a renaissance in some way?
Clint Holmes: It was a goal. One reason I stopped being a resident artist in Vegas was that I had cancer eight years ago. It was a wake-up call. I wanted to perform in New York and on Broadway. So I set out to get there in a good way. Larry taught me the art of cabaret singing. I took an apartment in New Jersey so I could spend more time in New York. I ran into Michael Feinstein and told him of my plans and he gave me his number. We got a positive review for our first show at Feinstein’s, but it left room for improvement. That review taught me how deeply critics here look at what’s going on. They are looking at the underbelly of the piece. Then we did the Bobby Short show, and the reviews were better. Then with "This Thing Called Love," we got our best reviews. I’d like to think it’s attributable to the hard work we did.
EDGE: How does it feel to be honored with a Bistro, given by a committee of critics and experts in the field?
Clint Holmes: It’s incredibly exciting. To be honored in New York by people who see it every day is fantastic and amazing. This is so satisfying. I’m going to deliver the Tony Award speech that I’ve been working on since I saw "West Side Story"! And Lainie Kazan and Maurice Hines are friends, so to share the stage with them . . .
EDGE: Outside of music, what hobby or interest do you have that might surprise us?
Clint Holmes: I’m a tennis nut. I used to play on a celebrity tournament level. I won a doubles tournament in the ’90s and Prince Albert of Monaco was on the opposing team. We won and I have that trophy proudly displayed! And if I couldn’t sing anymore, I would definitely devote my fulltime work to writing.
Clint Holmes will perform at The Bistro Awards, along with several other winners, on March 4 at Gotham Comedy Club, NYC. For information, visit www.bistroawards.com