A Stritch in time: an interview with Billy Stritch

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Tuesday February 2, 2021
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Billy Stritch
Billy Stritch

Texas-native Billy Stritch is a gay man as comfortable in the limelight as he is in the background. Known for his creative collaborations with Liza Minnelli, Linda Lavin, Christine Ebersole and others, Stritch has been making the most of the pandemic lockdown with his Billy's Place live-streaming performances.

On his new album, also titled Billy's Place (Club44 Records/Provident Entertainment), Stritch performs songs from the Great American Songbook, as well as more contemporary fare and even some originals. At a time when travel is restricted, tunes such as Peter Allen and Carole Bayer Sager's "Planes," John Wallowitch's "My Love Went to London" and Stritch's own "Since You Left New York," take on even greater meaning. Billy was kind enough to answer a few questions in January 2021.

Gregg Shapiro: Your Billy's Place live-streams on Facebook Live, which share a name with your new album, began during the pandemic. Can you please say something about what it means to you to still be able to reach your audience at a time when audiences are forced to social distance?

Billy Stritch: It really means everything to me, and it certainly wasn't something I was anticipating when this all started. I started doing the live-streams in late March with my friend Linda Lavin, the actress. We started doing them from her apartment. She lives three floors above me here in my building. We just thought we would do things on Wednesday afternoon and just kind of put some stuff out there.

Then a few weeks in, I started to realize that there were people that I knew or people that knew me from all over the country that don't necessarily have much chance to see me live or come to New York and see me on my regular gigs. All of a sudden, the light went on. "Oh, I'm reaching so many more people than I ever had a chance to before."

That's the great gift that's come out of this. I always try to be a glass half-full kind of guy anyway. It was the lovely surprise that has come out of being able to live stream, being something I'd never ever consider before. I'm sure most people that I know that are doing this never thought about it before. Even after we're all able to go out and work again, I don't think this live-stream is going to go away. It's a wonderful way to reach people

The Billy's Place album opens with your cover of Barry Manilow's "Meet Me, Midnight" — would you describe yourself as a night owl or did you have to become one as an entertainer?

I like the nightlife. That's always been the attraction for me, even when I was a little kid. I didn't want to go to bed. Everything fun happened at night as far as I was concerned. I wasn't athletic. I wasn't a sports kid. I wasn't an outdoors kid. My world was television and movies and music. I would see nightclubs represented on TV and that's always what I wanted to do. Even before I came to New York, I had this dream that I would work in these glamorous nightclubs. As I get older, it's like, "Oh, God, that's so late." When I was starting out, I had a vocal group and we worked at the Algonquin Hotel in the '80s. We had shows at 8:45 and 10:45. That was kind of normal; two shows a night. Now you do a show at 7:00 or 8:00, something like that. It definitely has skewed to earlier. I don't know why that is.

Billy Stritch and Liza Minelli  

Do you think it's because the audience is aging along with you?

[Laughs] I don't know. That could be part of it. I'm sure the younger kids are probably out later and doing whatever they do. I do co-host an open mic night at Birdland on Mondays. We always go until about 12:30. We start at 9:30, so that's kind of a late night. When I work at Bemelmans Bar at the Carlyle it's nine to midnight. So, I'm a night owl. To answer your question, I like the night life.

The album features a pair of Alan & Marilyn Bergman co-compositions — "It Might Be You" and "Ordinary Miracles." What is appealing to you about a Bergman song as a performer?

They always have such great imagery in their lyrics, and there's such great emotion in the lyrics. Certainly, the older I get and the more life experience I have, it gives you something to really dig into and act. When I started to sing, I never thought of this as an acting thing at all. But the more I performed and the more I was in front of audiences, I realized that it is about the interpretation of telling a story. They just give you great stories to tell. It's never so specific that the listener can't put themselves into the situation. It's a beautiful mix of emotions and feelings that everybody, I think, can relate to in one way or another. There's a lot of rich material to mine, for sure.

I'm happy that you included "My Love Went to London," a tune by John Wallowitch of Wallowitch and Ross fame, on Billy's Place. Have you ever performed any of his racier or humorous songs, such as "Bruce"?

I knew John. We became friends back in the 1980s. I had this vocal group called Montgomery, Plant and Stritch. It was me and two girls. We came from Texas. We were vocal trio. No one was doing the mix of tight jazz harmony and humorous and theatrical material, so we really kind of took the town by storm at that time. We met so many great people. John and Bert (Ross) were the two people that I remember so fondly. We had great evenings at their house. He lived on Beekman Place; a wonderful home and just unforgettable nights. I'm very familiar with a lot of his material. His material is really more specific. Almost anybody can sing "Bruce." They could sing "I'm 27," and "Come A Little Closer" is one that I've sung before.

But so much of it was so specifically his kind of material. I have him on my iPhone, and I listen to him quite a lot. He loved New York and he loved performing and he was so open. He was just so unique. There will never be anybody like him. But that song "My Love Went to London," I first heard by Tony Bennett. Then I heard Blossom Dearie's recording of it. I was putting together a show back in August for (the) Billy's Place (live stream) and it was Tony's birthday. So I did an hour of his material. I pulled that one out. Boy, especially when you can't travel, some of these songs kind of hark to that a little bit. I would love to go to London! There's an added layer to it when you sing it now in the midst of being stuck at home. It's musically so satisfying to sing.

Linda Lavin and Billy Stritch  

I'm glad you mentioned Linda Lavin earlier, because I had the pleasure of interviewing her last year. That made me think about your long history of collaboration — from your early trio Montgomery, Plant and Stritch (which you mentioned) to Christine Ebersole and Klea Blackhurst to, of course, Liza Minnelli. What is it about you that makes you so good at playing well with others?

I've always loved collaborating. The first time I saw a great connection like that was years ago when I was still living in Houston and I discovered Marilyn Maye. I knew who she was, and I remember being young and seeing her on Johnny Carson, but just kind of fuzzy memories of that. I guess I was about 17 or 18 and I was already going out and listening to music and making friends with musicians. Everybody was like, "Oh, you've got to go see Marilyn Maye."

Of course, no one my age was interested in that kind of music, but I went. I had never really seen a nightclub entertainer. She was with a trio. The connection between the accompanist and her was something I picked up on right away. I just thought it would be so much fun to be on stage with somebody else. I have been so lucky in that the singers that I've accompanied have also been people who I just adore personally, and I get along with great. We share humor and a love for the same kind of material.

To me, there's nothing more satisfying than supporting a singer singing with somebody in collaboration. I think the reason I'm pretty good at it is because I'm a singer. I can totally understand where the singer phrases and how they breathe, and I watch them like a hawk. People always remark about the way I watch the singer. To me, that's the job; you have to watch them. I always joke that a lot of it is psychology, too, because you have to have that kind of connection and really be able to get into their head, too. I feel like that's the most satisfying thing that I do is collaborating and accompanying. It's because I love sharing stage, I really do love that. I love the camaraderie and what comes out of the interplay.

"Does He Love You," the Grammy Award-winning song you co-wrote with Sandy Knox, has been covered by Reba McEntire, Patti LaBelle and in a duet version by Liza Minnelli and Donna Summer. Is there anyone else you would love to have record the song?

Kelly Clarkson and Reba sang it on an awards show a few years ago. I think it was the CMAs. I always thought they should record it. I'd love to hear Reba do it again with somebody else. There are loads and loads of singers but honestly, Gregg, I think the time might be right for two men to sing it perhaps.

Christine Ebersole and Billy Stritch  

If you haven't already done so, have you ever considered recording a version of "Does He Love You" yourself?

I've thought about it. It's kind of in the back of my head. It's not really the kind of song that I perform when I'm doing my own performances. That song came out of when I had this vocal group. It was (me and) two women. We were working a lot in gay bars and cabarets down in Texas and elsewhere. But it really appealed to that sensibility because it was so dramatic, it was such a great song to watch the interplay. At the end of the song, they would turn, and they would really sing it to each other and point. It was thrilling!

We always did it at the very end of the night. It's funny, because if the guys couldn't remember what the name of the song was, they would say, "Are you guys going to do the bitch fight?" They called it 'the bitch fight.' But that's not a bad idea. I would certainly entertain the idea of recording it with somebody. Why not? I think it's definitely time for it to get covered again, one way or another.

"Since You Left New York," another song you co-wrote with Sandy, is on the Billy's Place album. What makes Sandy a good songwriting partner?

Again, it's collaborating. It's finding someone who you could laugh with and you can have an easy rapport with; you kind of get each other. Sandy and I have been friends since back in Houston. She used to come hear me when I was first starting out. I've known her for 40 years now. We have so much of a great frame of reference together in that sort of background. We did a lot of writing together back in the '80s. That's when we wrote "Does He Love You." Then Sandy went to Nashville and pursued a career as a full-time songwriter. I would make regular trips down there to write with her.

This song, "Since You Left New York," was written all that time ago. We demoed. We sent it out. Nothing really happened with it. I had forgotten about it, it's been so long. When this pandemic started, just a few weeks into it, Sandy emailed me and asked, "What do you think about "Since You Left New York," and I said, "Remind me" [laughs]. I kind of remembered the title. She sent me an MP3 of the song and I was like, "Holy cow, that song is perfect for now." The way it starts, "They turned off the lights on old Broadway." That's exactly what's happened.

People tend to think it's something we wrote this year, and it's not. It's a great example of how sometimes a song has to find its time. It may not be right when you write it, but if it hangs out long enough, and luckily Sandy did remember it, so hopefully it's going to get a new life. Now, that's a song I would love to get somebody big to record, for sure.

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