When longtime music producer and Houston native Steve Tyrell began publicly crooning love songs into a microphone just over a decade ago he was doing more than embarking on a new career. He was building a legacy.
When his first album of familiar American vocal classics, "A New Standard," came out in 1999, he even joked on his rendition of "I Can't Get Started" that he had "been consulted by President C. You know, Hillary has had me to tea." Ten years later, Tyrell has not only huddled with former President Bill Clinton and the former first lady, now Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, but counts a long list of Manhattan celebrities, politicos and movers-and-shakers as his friends. It would not be boasting to say that Tyrell is the Derek Jeter or Jay-Z of the vocal-standards-set in the Big Apple.
Since taking over the holiday residency at the Cafe Carlyle in New York City five years ago - a primo gig that belonged to renowned vocalist Bobby Short for 36 years before his death - Tyrell's A-List crowd has read like Page Six of the New York Post. It's fitting that his just-released first concert recording, "Live at the Cafe Carlyle," (available at stevetyrell.com), is a tribute to this annual institution that has brought him so much opportunity.
"Everybody comes to the Carlyle," says Tyrell. "Paul McCartney and Clint Eastwood have been there for my performances. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton have been there. On the night we recorded the album, Eartha Kitt was in the audience. It was a thrill to see her. And now, unfortunately she's not with us anymore."
Regis Philbin, the longtime television talk show host who is synonymous with New York City, has said that catching Tyrell at Cafe Carlyle is his favorite thing to do. Last November, the New York Times noted that Tyrell had helped pioneer a new way of rendering American Songbook favorites like "The Way You Look Tonight" and "The Sunny Side of the Street."
The New York freakin' Times said that! The newspaper that, over the years has compiled a musical diary of New York through its coverage of the Duke Ellington, Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett and... yes, Bobby Short decades. Critics there usually throw praise on outsiders as if weighed down by anvils and street sewer grates.
"The Carlyle got a new manager this year and I wasn't sure he was going to like me," Tyrell recalls. "One night we were standing out front together, right next to a picture of Bobby Short that hangs near the front of the building. I had just performed and I asked the new manager if he liked the show. He pointed to the picture of Short and said, 'Thirty-one more years and we'll be putting your picture next to Bobby's.' "
A picture of Tyrell hanging in Manhattan for eternity? That honor is usually saved for notables like President Theodore Roosevelt, Mickey Mantle and the Ramones.
Tyrell embraces New York City with the same affection it has shown him. After the holidays, however, he returned to Los Angeles, where he lives and records.
But once or twice a year he gets to visit his real home.
Tyrell is Lone Star born, attended St. Thomas High School where he formed his first blues band and later played at Jimmy Menutis out on Telephone Road. "L.A. is where I live and it's my kids' hometown, but Houston is my hometown," says Tyrell. "I feel an instant connection from the moment I get there. I have cousins and relatives who live there and I get to see them all."
His show at the Stafford Centre Performing Arts Theatre Friday and Saturday night will feature familiar lounge and big band favorites that are highlights of all seven of Tyrell's albums. He may even surprise the audience and include an animated chestnut from his 2006 "Songs of Disney" disc. He will also draw heavily from "A New Standard," the album that turned this one-time producer into a professional singer more than a decade ago.
Tyrell began going down this road in 1991 while working behind the scenes on the soundtrack to the Steve Martin movie, "Father of the Bride," and ended up in the film as a wedding singer, purring "The Way You Look Tonight." It took seven more years for "A New Standard" to be completed, but it became a top five hit on the Billboard jazz charts and stayed on the charts for two years. In Houston, at the beginning of the new millennium, there wasn't a boutique, store, mall or elevator that didn't have Tyrell cooing "Give Me The SImple Life" or "I'm in the Mood For Love" from the speakers overhead.
"It was real exciting to start singing all those songs again," Tyrell says. "I prepared by playing it for two months in New York. Those songs are like old friends and ("A New Standard") is the album that made me a recording artist."
Tyrell has also hinted that local audiences might also hear some soul and R&B standards he is currently recording for a new album to be released later this year. Think favorites by Ray Charles and Etta James.
The nostalgia will be evident on many levels when Tyrell hits Houston. His homecoming looks a little like an Italian wedding but without all the Old Country accordion music. His local cousins and friends (to be honest, it's hard to know who actually is blood related or if "cousin" is a bit of an honorary title given to pals in his inner-circle) include restaurateur Damian Mandola of Damian's Cucina Italiana downtown. There is usually a lot of wine, a lot of laughter and some of the most exquisite savory Italian delicacies ever conjured up in a kitchen.
In addition to concerts, Tyrell has some personal business to take care of while in town. Sadly, a childhood friend of his, Ciro Samperi, recently passed away and he is coming early to attend his memorial service. ("Please mention him and extend my love to him and his family," Tyrell said during our chat earlier this week.)
He also will tour NASA, courtesy of the Endeavour astronauts. Commander Mark Polansky is a Tyrell fan and requested that the crew be awakened to his rendition of "Sunny Side of the Street" each morning while the astronauts were in orbit last fall. Tyrell accommodated their request; the tour is their way of saying, "Thank you."
First Tyrell takes Manhattan; now he's shooting for the moon.