William Blake remembers Etta James
To meet singer William Blake in person is to get a glimpse of the mild-mannered Southerner behind the sensation one sees and hears on stage. Don't be fooled by the cherubic, boyish looks (he'll be turning thirty this summer) or gentle speaking tone. Blake transforms into a fiery, soulful tenor on stage, complete with gospel wails, hungry growls and unrestrained riffs.
On June 4th, Blake takes on none other than legendary Etta James in a concert at Birdland, 315 W. 44th Street. Entitled "Echoes of Etta," it's a show that Blake had been mulling long before her death in January. In fact, he recorded "At Last" for his first CD, "DayDreamer," back in 2004.
"Why not?" Blake says, regarding the tribute concert. "I've spoken with both fans and people who have worked with her to prepare for this, but I want the music to speak for itself." He claims to have listened to every song she recorded.
Galvanized by Etta
Blake recalled seeing the movie "Sister Act" as a ten-year-old. There is a scene where Whoopi Goldberg’s character goes to the jukebox and puts in her coin. Out comes Etta’s "Roll With Me, Henry." Blake was galvanized by the voice and thought, "That’s what I want to do."
Blake was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. While his twin sister became a tomboy and grew up riding motorcycles, he gravitated toward art, music and theater. Still, his parents respected his choice. In fact, after they divorced when he was twelve, his mother met her second husband from the cast of his very first show, "Lil Abner." "If I hadn’t been doing theater, she wouldn’t have met the love of her life," he says matter-of-factly.
Naturally, Blake sang in the school choir, sang to the oldies radio station in the car, and sang in the Baptist church. "When you’re growing up in the South, church has a lot to do with that," he says, theorizing as to why so many great vocalists come from below the Mason-Dixon line.
The Idol experience
Although Blake attended Southern Methodist University and planned to major in theater, he started getting more singing work in Dallas nightclubs and theater and dropped out after two years. "It was one of the hardest, riskiest decisions of my life and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint my family," he says. "I don’t think I did."
After "DayDreamer" in 2004, he finally gave in to the demands of his friends and auditioned for "American Idol"-not once but twice. When he didn’t get past the preliminaries in Orlando, he went straight to the next auditioning city, New Orleans.
Ultimately, he made it to the Hollywood round in Season 4 (Carrie Underwood’s year).
I had never watched the show," Blake says. "I basically did it to shut them up!"
"What you see on TV is basically a dumbed-down version of what really happens. So much happens in a day, they are constantly filming, they never let you sleep, and the kids are singing incessantly," he says with a roll of his eyes. "But, I got more gigs and theater from the experience and I wouldn’t have gotten to New York if it wasn’t for that."
The choice had come down to New York or Las Vegas. "After going to L.A. [for "Idol"], I didn’t want to go back," he laughs. "Now I live in Hell’s Kitchen and can walk two blocks to see all the shows. I’m constantly inspired."
His first job in New York was as a waiter at the famed piano bar Don’t Tell Mama. "The others were a little territorial at first, but then they saw what I brought to the table"-music-wise, not beverage-wise-"and I was so grateful," he says. "You meet people from all corners of the world working there, and you don’t have that in Dallas."
He remained there for a year but left when new owners took over. Soon after attending Jim Caruso’s Monday night Cast Party at Birdland, he was asked to work there. Not only that, but after one performance at Cast Party, Michael Feinstein came over and complimented him. That led to a performance with Feinstein and other luminaries in the show "Standard Time" at Carnegie Hall.
"That was vindicating for me," he says. "That’s when I knew the people in Dallas were not lying to me about my talent."
Working at Birdland has also introduced him to a roster of worldwide artists. "It’s a different level, like getting to talk to Kurt Elling," he says. "I probably won’t be as gung-ho about the Great American Songbook as the next lauded singer, but it helps get to know it from these people."
n this age of image and auto-tuning, one artist he admires is Nikka Costa. "She sings funk, soul and rock," Blake says. "She’s doing what I’d love to be doing, touring with my band all over the place. She’s such an energetic and dynamic performer, people go crazy."
Last year, Blake released "Live from New York City," eight tracks from a sold out concert at Birdland in September 2010. He covered such artists as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone, Rufus and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He’s also at work on a Graham Russell musical in the works based on Air Supply songs. At a recent reading, he worked with Constantine Maroulis, who had been in his Hollywood group on "American Idol."
Although he sees a future with that show, Blake doesn’t audition much. "I’m more interested in touring, showing the nation what I’ve got," he says.
Blake, reflecting on the losses of Etta, Whitney and Donna this year, mused, "It’s such an interesting relationship between gay men and black women in popular music. It’s diva-tude, no holds barred. They go to church and gay men love it; that’s where they find their church."
After a pause, he finds the real point: "Really, what’s the point of singing a song if you don’t feel it?"
William Blake appears at Birdland on Monday, June 4. To learn more about the singer, visit www.williamblakesings.com.