Billy Stritch Finds ’Witchcraft’ With Cy Coleman
From the time he was a teenager, pianist and singer Billy Stritch has been on an upward career trajectory that, thirty or so years later, shows no signs of leveling off. In addition to accompanying the likes of Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Maye, Linda Lavin, and so many more, Stritch has carved out a solo career, and even co-wrote a #1 country song in the '90s. He is the frequent musical director at his friend Jim Caruso's Cast Party, Monday nights at Birdland.
With two solo shows about Cy Coleman coming up at Birdland (March 3 and 10), and a special edition of Cast Party coming to Lincoln Center's Allen Room on March 7, EDGE decided it was a good time to catch up with Mr. Stritch.
The Sugarland express
EDGE: Besides you, tell me what Sugar Land, Texas, is famous for.
Billy Stritch: The reason it’s named Sugar Land is because it was the home of the Imperial Sugar Company. The original building is still there; I think it’s landmarked by the state of Texas. When I was growing up, it was a small town, maybe three thousand people. My parents are still there, but now it’s about eighty or ninety thousand people. It became this really big bedroom community right outside of Houston. It’s quite different than when I was growing up, when it had a small town vibe. There was an ice skater, Tara Lipinski, who was from Sugar Land.
EDGE: Oh wow, I think she won gold!
Billy Stritch: Yes, but she’s a lot younger than me so I never met her. The political pundit, Paul Begala, from the Clinton administration, as well. We went all through school together.
EDGE: Did you come from a musical family?
Billy Stritch: I really didn’t. We had a piano in the house and I started banging away on it when I was about four. By the time I was six, I was taking lessons and started to play by ear. There was music in church so I played for the services, and sang in youth choir and adult choir. Then I went to a high school that had a pretty hip music department, with jazz band and marching band and symphonic band and choir. And being so close to Houston, I had access to some great musicians who I took lessons from when I was in high school. They tell me my mother’s father, who died before I was born, could play by ear and he would entertain at parties, but he never did it as a profession. But he’s the only family link I can find.
Meeting Marilyn Maye
EDGE: That whole church experience, especially in the south, seems to be a fertile ground for launching a lot of music careers.
Billy Stritch: Right. I went to a Presbyterian church, so it was pretty whitebread. I know some who went to churches that were more gospel. I was aware of that, but I gravitated toward other music. When I was nine or ten years old, I used to live for ’The Carol Burnett Show’ and the ’Sonny and Cher Show’ and the variety shows. At the end of the episode, there would often be a ten or fifteen minute musical section. She’d have Steve and Eydie on or someone like that. That’s where I first heard the Great American Songbook, the Irving Berlin songs and Gershwin songs. I was hooked. My grandmother used to take me to every show that came to town, every musical. When I was ten, she gave me the George and Ira Gershwin songbook. I devoured it. That’s what I got into from a very young age. If you’re into it, you find it.
EDGE: I interviewed Marilyn Maye two years ago and she said she started working with you when you were nineteen.
Billy Stritch: That’s exactly right.
EDGE: How did that come about?
Billy Stritch: It was probably 1980, and she would work at this club in Houston for four or six weeks at a time. People told me I needed to see her. I started going to hear when I was eighteen, and she just blew me away. It was all this music that I loved, with a great jazz trio. Also, I had never seen a nightclub performer before, someone who knew how to be spontaneous and entertain a small room of people. I’ve seen hundreds of performers since then, but for me she is still the best. There is nobody more adept at being able to get up on stage and be in the moment and be funny and sing her ass off! I’d go see her almost every night and then I’d badger her piano player. He’d say, ’Who are you?’ And she’d say the same thing: ’This kid keeps following me around.’ But he became a good friend. A few months after I met her, I was playing in the cocktail lounge of a really nice restaurant in Houston, and I invited her to come hear me. So she brought a group. I think she was impressed that I could play, and I invited her up to sing. She said, ’Oh honey, I’m here to listen to you, and you don’t know my arrangements.’ And actually I did, because I’d heard them so many times. A few months after that, she was doing a gig on a cruise ship and there was a three-week leg that her piano player couldn’t do. So she invited me to do it. I turned twenty on the ship. I’ve worked with her a lot ever since then. I adore her.
The Nashville connection
EDGE: You had phenomenal success with ’Does He Love You?’ (recorded by Reba McEntire and Linda Davis) in 1994. It went platinum and won a Grammy. Wasn’t Nashville knocking on your door after that?
Billy Stritch: You would think, right? The song came about because Sandy Knox and I had written the song for this vocal group I was in, Montgomery, Plant & Stritch. It was two girls and me. It was for the two girls to sing. And we were doing all these clubs in Houston and in the south, mostly gay clubs, and it was a really dramatic song that we’d close the show with it, and the guys would love it. They used to call it ’The Bitch Fight’ because it was the wife and the mistress. They’d sing away from each other and then when they’d get to the bridge, they’d sing right at each other. It would bring the house down.
Flash forward a few years. Sandy had moved to Nashville, and got a writing job at a publishing company. The call went out that Reba was looking for a duet to do with another woman. There weren’t that many around, and we happened to have a demo available. The publishing company got it to her, she put a hold on it, and six weeks later it was released.
It was very fast. It was a real whirlwind, a great ride. We won awards, we went to #1. I really thought Nashville would come knocking on my door, but as I found out later, Nashville is very political, and you have to really be down there, writing and networking to show them that’s what you’re about. And that’s not really what I was about. I was about New York, not Nashville. I made subsequent trips down there to write with Sandy and we demo-ed a few things, but it’s that elusive thing of trying to catch lightning in a bottle again.
I always thought that if I’d gotten a place down there and split my time between here and there, it could have happened again. But it wasn’t meant to be. I’m more of an arranger and performer than a writer, but I’m very glad that happened. It’s been recorded a few times since, and Sandy always says, ’A good song can happen anytime.’ So it could happen again, even with the same song.
The Liza thing
EDGE: You seem equally content to play a supporting role on piano and let the singer shine, or you can take the spotlight yourself. Do you enjoy one more than the other?
Billy Stritch: I don’t really enjoy one more than the other. They both have things that I love. Sometimes I think I should have focused on one thing. People don’t know where to put me in their head. I love this relationship that I’ve had with Liza Minnelli for so long, because she always features me and she’s always promoted me. It’s been a great boost to my solo career. And I love collaborating, I love working with Marilyn. And Linda Lavin is another one I’ve worked with a lot. We’re all good friends. We get the same things, we like the same things, and that shows on stage. I love that camaraderie.
But I do love doing my own shows. For the last six years, I’ve been doing a show on Mel Torme, who has been a big influence on me. I love it when people come up to me and say they didn’t know that about him, and then it causes them to seek out his music. That’s why I’m doing this Cy Coleman show. I knew him. He’d come to hear me play, I’d go hang out at his house. He was a great person to know.
EDGE: Because you do both things, in my mind you are one of a handful of piano players who is also a celebrity in his own right.
Billy Stritch: It’s mainly the Liza thing, getting to know her and working with her since 1991. I’ve gone all over the world with her. It increased my visibility and put my name out there. I’m very grateful for it. But I think you’re right. There aren’t a lot of guys like me who do the solo thing and the accompanying thing, and are as well known for both things. That’s kind of cool. I’ll take it.
EDGE: When you’re working with these stars, it must take a certain amount of confidence to assert your opinion and push back on musical matters. Can you say something about that?
Billy Stritch: What’s great about these ladies--
EDGE: [Laughs] I was going to ask you about that. Where are the guys?
Billy Stritch: Well, I worked with Paolo Szot, but he’s really the only guy. I’m very simpatico with women. Most of my best friends throughout life have been girls. But these ladies make me feel it’s okay to say whatever I want. Marilyn has a great confidence and I’ve always looked up to her, but I know she values my opinion. Linda Lavin is the same way. She’s mainly known as an actress, and as a stage actress, nobody can touch her. But I think she really leans on me for opinions on things musical, so it makes me feel very valued and appreciated. And Liza is very much the same way. I’ve learned a lot from her, but I bring a lot to the table. That’s why I love the collaboration. There really isn’t any time when I feel I have to hold my tongue.
EDGE: I understand you and your partner, Doug Major, have been together for quite a while.
Billy Stritch: Yes, fourteen years. It wasn’t anything I was really looking for. I was on the road all the time so I wasn’t looking to settle down with anybody. I still travel a lot so my life is still very much on the move, but I love having the security of a home life and someone to share that with. When you’re together as long as we’ve been, it gets deeper. We’ve become friends. The immediate attraction wears away, but it becomes something more.
EDGE: What can we expect at the Cy Coleman show?
Billy Stritch: What makes the show different from other compilations of his music is that I’ve really focused on a lot of his songs that were not from musicals. He was such a spectacular jazz pianist. He was a child prodigy. When he became a teenager, he got into jazz and then he was playing all top nightclubs when he was in his twenties. He was trying to have his success on Broadway, but that took about ten years. Those great songs like ’The Best is Yet to Come’ and ’Witchcraft’ were big radio hits before the Broadway shows. I’m doing a lot of songs that he wrote for people’s nightclub acts back in the ’50s and ’60s. It’s wonderful to present those. Many of the lyrics were by Carolyn Leigh, and she was great. And knowing him as I did, there’s a personal connection. So, it’s mostly jazz that I’ll be doing. Perfect for whom I am as a performer.
EDGE: Can you say a few words about your friendship with Jim Caruso and about the ’Cast Party Goes to the Movies’ show on March 7th?
Billy Stritch: Jim and I have known each other from back when I was working with Montgomery, Plant and Stritch. He had a group as well, and we were playing a lot of the same clubs. It was thirty-one years ago. We hit it off. He’s my closest male friend, for sure. We get the same things and laugh at the same things, and we have so much history together. We always joke that if we’d been attracted to each other, we’d have probably been together that way too, because we can really be like an old married couple sometimes. He created the idea of Cast Party about twelve years ago at a party at Danny’s Skylight Room, and we’ve been at Birdland for ten years. He’s created this brand that we’re trying to take all over the place.
We have a home in Las Vegas now, and we have a venue in Los Angeles. So when Lincoln Center asked us to be part of this American Songbook thing, it was great. I mean, it’s Lincoln Center! The show is a version of Cast Party, but this is set and rehearsed. Hopefully, it will still have that feeling of being informal, like being in someone’s living room. Everybody has solo moments, but we also have duos and trios. It feels like a little repertory company. We’re excited about it. We’ve been working really hard at it and creating some new arrangements. And we’ll be in the gorgeous Allen Room. It doesn’t get more New York than that. If I can speak for Jim, it’s kind of what we dreamt of as little boys, playing in a room like that.
Dreams come true?
EDGE: You’ve worked with some of the greats, toured with a popular group, you’ve done recordings, you wrote a platinum-selling song, been in a Broadway show. Has it all been beyond your wildest dreams?
Billy Stritch: It’s not really beyond my wildest dreams. It feels like the natural progression. I’ve been doing this a long time and paying my dues. Meeting Liza Minnelli and becoming close with her? That was beyond my wildest dreams. After we’d been together for about a year, I flashed on this picture of myself as a boy up in my room listening to ’Liza With a Z.’ Then we went on tour with her Radio City shows. We went to Houston and my whole neighborhood showed up. My Dad had a barbecue at the house the next day and Liza came, and I took her up to my room and showed her where I had listened to her album. So little moments like that are things you don’t dream would ever happen. But the overall arc of the career . . . it’s kind of what I expected. It’s what I wanted. I don’t think there’s anything else I’d be good at doing. I feel very blessed to be given this God-given talent that I’ve always had. At a very young age, I was drawn to music. It chose me, I didn’t choose it. All I had to do was honor it and go along for the ride. I just needed to show up. I don’t take it for granted.
Billy Stritch headlines I’ve Got Your Number: The Jazz of Cy Coleman at Birdland on March 3 and 10, 7:00 pm. Go to www.birdlandjazz.com for details. Jim Caruso & Billy Stritch (with special guests) present "Cast Party Goes to the Movies!" at the Allen Room at Lincoln Center, on Friday, March 7, 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm. Go to www.americansongbook.org for more information.