August 2008

Steve Tyrell: What the World Needs Now

Gravel-voiced Texan Steve Tyrell can legitimately claim his latest album, Back to Bacharach (released on his own New Design Records), has been 40 years in the making. Tyrell was a mere lad of 19 when he jettisoned a budding career as an R&B singer in his native Houston, traveled to New York City in the mid-’60s and landed himself a job as a staff producer for Scepter Records, home to Chuck Jackson, Maxine Brown, the Shirelles and, most famously and lucratively, Dionne Warwick. It was at Scepter that Tyrell first met Burt Bacharach and Hal David, whom he would work with closely for a fully decade, has remained friends with ever since, and credits as “the biggest influence of my career, especially Burt. I used to sit in the studio with him and would add my two cents all the time. You know how kids are; you’re too stupid to be bashful.”

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Steve Tyrell

Early in the 1970s, Tyrell changed coasts, formed Tyrell-Mann Music with songwriter Barry Mann, and established himself as one of the most respected music supervisors in the film business. In 1991, he unexpectedly found his singing career reignited while working on the Steve Martin comedy Father of the Bride. Cast in the bit part of the wedding singer, Tyrell crooned “The Way You Look Tonight.” Fans clamored for more, resulting in the release of his debut album, A New Standard, which spent 90 weeks on the Billboard jazz charts and sold in excess of 400,000 copies. A like-minded follow-up, Standard Time, quickly followed.

Despite their enormous popularity, Tyrell considered the first two albums “accidents. It was all about people getting interested in my voice and my style and my way of approaching standards.” The album he really wanted to do, a collection of Bacharach-David tunes, was begun in 2002. Two tracks, “I Just Don’t Know What to Do With Myself” and “This Guy’s in Love With You,” were completed. Then, Tyrell recalls, “My wife, Stephanie, got cancer and we had to abandon the project. I spent the next 18 months of my life devoted to her illness and trying to make her comfortable, and she ultimately passed away. We took those first two songs and gave them to Columbia with some other standards we’d recorded along the way. They released it the day after Stephanie passed away.”

A half-decade and two more albums—a Sinatra tribute and an homage to songs from Disney films—later, Tyrell decided it was time to get back to Bacharach. Describing Bacharach and David’s music as “totally innovative and totally creative, always soulful but always sophisticated,” he believes “their songs make the transition between the Great American Songbook and the singer-songwriters of the late 20th century. They bridge the gap to Elton John, Paul Simon, James Taylor and Carole King.”

Choosing just 14 tunes from the vast Bacharach-David songbook wasn’t easy, especially since Tyrell was personally involved with so many of the songs when originally recorded by other artists. Several, including “A House Is Not a Home,” “Walk On By,” “There’s Always Something There to Remind Me,” “I Just Don’t Know What to Do with Myself” (transferred intact from the 2003 album) and “One Less Bell to Answer,” deal with romantic loss because, he notes, “I’ve had my share of heartache, first-hand. I remember a time when I didn’t relate so personally to these songs, but I’ve since learned a lot.”

To round out the playlist, Tyrell called on various friends and colleagues for assistance. Recent Grammy winner Patti Austin—whom, Tyrell accurately observes, can “sing everything. When she sings jazz she’s as good as Ella. When she sings R&B she’s right up there with Aretha”—joins him on stunning treatments of “Don’t Make Me Over” and “I Say a Little Prayer.” Also, the music-industry icon who took “This Guy’s in Love With You” to the top of the charts in 1968, Herb Alpert, provides trumpet support on Tyrell’s freshly recorded version.

But the album’s pull-all-the-stops centerpiece is a rousing, star-studded “What the World Needs Now Is Love.” Opining that “That song is just as relevant, or even more relevant, today than when they wrote it,” Tyrell adds, “we wanted to do something in my wife’s name and we thought this song would give us that chance. All the funds from the track will be donated to colon-cancer research. I’ve worked with Katie Couric on many fundraising initiatives, because her husband died of the same thing. So I said to Burt, ‘It can start with you on the piano and me singing, but when the first verse comes in, it’s got to be Dionne.’ Then there had to be a key change and I thought about Rod [Stewart] coming in, ’cause he’s my buddy. Then we thought about adding James [Taylor]. Then I met Martina McBride at one of Katie’s functions. We wanted someone from another genre to participate, and she’s such a great singer, so we asked her to join us. When I first told Burt my ideas [for the song and the various guest stars] he said, ‘Do you think it will happen?’ and I said, ‘I don’t know, man. Let’s put it out there and see what the universe brings us,’ and it brought us everything we wanted!”

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