February 20, 2012
Posted By: Joey Panek
"Tom Wopat will call you around noon, " the publicist tells me last week.
Now I'd love to tell you that I don't get starstruck, but that would just be a big fat lie. Truth is I consider myself "The Ultimate Fan." Sort of like Chris Farley in those SNL skits where he'd remind celebrities about moments in their career, then pause and say, "Yeah... that was cool." Yep, that's kinda me.
The thing is I know that for them, they are just sitting in their New York or LA home, getting a calendar reminder, "Oh. I have to call some blogger in Sarasota." It's just a break in their day... for some, an inconvenience. And don't get me wrong, it's not like I have all day to just sit by the phone waiting for some celebrity to call.
But here's the thing... at that moment it is not me waiting for the call. It is the nine year old me. It's the boy whose brothers remind him it's time to stop playing at the neighbor's house and come inside because The Dukes of Hazzard is on. It's the boy who had the General Lee Matchbox car. It's also the boy who coveted his brother's Daisy Duke shirt. (I'm sure I coveted Daisy Duke for a completely different reason than my brother, but then again... considering the brother, it's possible not.)
(We had this!)
(Yep, this too.)
So that's the person who answered Tom Wopat's phone call last Wednesday. And I kept saying to myself, Just don't sound stupid. I wrote out my questions beforehand so that if I got stuck, I wouldn't accidentally tell him that five years ago when my '92 Thunderbird's driver's side door broke, the only way I kept my pride as I slid in and out of the window was thinking how Bo and Luke did it on Dukes. No, that little anecdote I could keep to myself.
I did have a little story that I'd keep in my back pocket during the interview. If things were going well, I might tell him that in '99, I was living in Manhattan and my sister-in-law and I were at Arriba! Arriba! for margaritas when all of the sudden, the cast of Broadway's Annie Get Your Gun shuffles in to celebrate Tom's birthday. Aubry and I decide to send birthday margaritas over to his table, one for him and one for his co-star, Miss Bernadette Peters. Surely he'd remember the margarita and we'd share a laugh or two in the middle of the phone interview, right?
Phone rings. "Hey, Joey. It's Wopat."
And we're off...
He's a nice guy. He's got a great speaking voice. Several times during our chat, I keep thinking "Wow, you should be in radio." But considering he's been a star of television, where actors use their looks AND their voice, telling him he should be in radio seems like more a demotion. Anyway...
We talk about his upcoming concert with Linda Eder at the Van Wezel. Tom has been touring quite a bit lately, presumable to promote his eighth solo album, Consider It Swung. But the Feb 24th concert here in Sarasota will be the only time he's joined by Linda. They've sung together before and he tells me that her "chops are amazing." (I love a guy who says 'chops'!) I ask what their collaboration will be like. He tells me he's got more of a jazz set, while hers is more pop/broadway. It sounds like it'll be a complementary evening.
I'm not sure many people know about Tom's singing chops. (See how I used chops, too?) If you were a devout fan of Dukes, then you'd remember that Bo and Luke occasionally worked a song or two into the show, as Tom's co-star John Schneider had quite the voice as well. (The two will reunite later this year for a one-night concert in Niagara Falls!) Check out this clip of Tom (as Luke) singing with Emmylou Harris:
Not too shabby, eh?
So Tom released some country albums post-Dukes, and walked the line between country and rock a bit. He kept a presence on Broadway (as a replacement in City of Angels and Guys and Dolls) and a foot in television (most notably as Cybill Shephard's ex-husband on her self-titled sitcom.) Even on TV, producers were smart to utilize Tom's singing skills.
(Do yourself a favor and skip to 3:15.)
Tom received a Tony Award nomination for his role as leading man Frank Butler opposite Bernadette Peters in Annie Get Your Gun. (He also received a free margarita in a NYC Mexican restaurant. See above.)
(Tom in Annie Get Your Gun. Photo courtesy of Playbill.)
Tom told me that it was during this production that he was approached about recording a jazz album. It wasn't a far cry when you consider the new "jazzier" arrangements that Tom was singing in this revival of AGYG. Here's a great example in "My Defenses Are Down."
So 2000 saw the release of In the Still of the Night, Tom's collection of jazzy standards.
The album included songs like "Let's Fall in Love", "Makin' Whoopie", and a duet of "Baby It's Cold Outside" with Antonia Bennett (daughter of legendary Tony Bennett.) Tom described the experience of recording with her as terrific, saying the two had a blast. He confessed she's a bit of a "kook, which I like."
Consider It Swung, Tom's most recent album, is "a bit more saloon style than cabaret style" and is a "hotter record with more swinging," he tells me. Check out his live appearance at Birdland performing Gershwin's "But Not For Me."
He says he had so much fun putting together this album that he's currently working on a follow-up album with more of the same. Our conversation is going pretty well, but it's still not time to remind him of our margarita moment. I decide to ask some more questions.
As a web blogger, it's always interesting to me to ask successful people how much they view digital media. I chat with him a little about his website and Facebook/Twitter/Youtube presence, and he admits that he's a little "old school", but he's making an effort to embrace it.
After a bit, though, Tom does start singing the praises of videosharing sites, like Youtube, for their ability to preserve some classic performances. "I'll tell you," he admits. "Youtube has been a real resource for looking at old standard [songs]."
He goes on to say that when he considers old classics, he tries to find new and different arrangements. "If you're wise, you'll stay away from the iconic performances. No one can touch Frank Sinatra's 'I've Got You Under My Skin.'"
He credits Youtube with helping him find a new arrangement of "Wonder What Became of Me" for a recent Town Hall concert.
"I was searching and found Rufus Wainwright's version. It was this wonderful reimagining of the song with all these new harmonizations."
I guess digital media wins after all.
Tom has a likability that I think has always been the key to his success. Guys wanted to be him. Girls wanted to be WITH him. (Ok, and some guys wanted to be with him too. Who am I trying to kid?) We talk for a bit about the internet's ability to birth stars quickly (I'm thinking Bieber) and I ask Tom what advice he might have for some of those newfound stars.
"I have no idea," he laughs. " I can say that honesty is always a good policy. And be true to yourself. I was a smartass, that's just who I am, but it worked because John [Schneider] and I had this immediate chemistry." He talks about integrity, as a performer and as a person.
"You really need to get the people around you (your agent, your manager, whoever) to understand what it is that you want. You don't want to conform to what THEY want you to be."
They aren't groundbreaking concepts, but hearing him talk tempts me to convert to Wopatism.
"I've had a lot of good fortune involved," he says. "So if I had any piece of advice, I'd say BE LUCKY!"
We both laugh. Ah, it's going well. Maybe now is the time to bring up the margarita incident of '99. Hmm, well... I do have one other question. Alright, I decide I'll ask my last question and THEN we'll reminisce about Ariba! Ariba! Fine.
I tell him briefly about how my brothers and I thought that he and John were so cool. I mean, if girls were classified as Betty's or Veronica's, I was certain that young guys considered themselves either a Bo or a Luke. So since he was one of our role models growing up, I ask who his role models were.
He chuckles for a second, then points to Andy Griffith and the guys from Bonanza. He tells me that because he was involved in musicals in high school, he was very aware of Gordon McRae and the macho leading men of the musicals in the 50's and 60's. I pause to consider how fitting it is that those were his role models as it seems he became a perfect amalgam of all of them. He has the likability of Andy Griffith, the ruggedness of Bonanza, and the musical "chops" of Gordon McRae and his lot. (That's two "chops" for me, but who's keeping score?)
Well, I may have paused too long because before I know it our time runs out. Tom quickly thanks me for the interview and dismisses himself from the call, telling me he'll be signing CD's after this coming Friday's concert. And like that, our friendship is over.
But I never got to tell him the margarita story!
Ah well... I knew I had a phone interview set up with Linda Eder a few days later. Maybe I'd tell her the story.
(Stay tuned for the Linda Eder interview.)
You can catch Tom Wopat in concert with Linda Eder at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Hall on Friday, Feb 24th at 8pm. For more info, visit vanwezel.org or call 941.953.3368. As always, tell them "The Art Whisperer" sent you!
For more info on Tom Wopat, visit his website at www.tomwopat.com/