Growing up in Houston as the son of Italian immigrants, Steve Tyrell found himself surrounded by a rich mix of music. His father played Frank Sinatra records seemingly around the clock, while he also heard top-notch R&B sounds wafting through his windows because his neighbors’ tastes included such genre greats as The Crusaders and Joe Sample.
By the time he launched his first band in high school, Tyrell had developed a passion for Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke and other soul legends. All of these influences have combined to inspire a career in record producing, songwriting and singing American pop standards that has lasted over five decades, including a special show Saturday night at the Arcadia Performing Arts Center.
“Everything from my childhood came together to affect how I sound today because, even when I sing a standard, I bring a bluesy overtone to it,” says Tyrell. “But while I always loved singing, it took me decades to realize I’d like being a performer.”
Tyrell, 72, moved to New York City when he was just 19 and quickly found himself immersed in the legendary world of the Brill Building songwriters — a collective that included Gerry Goffin, Carole King, Burt Bacharach and Hal David. He found a way in through the fact that he had some local radio hits as a teen in Houston and met Florence Greenberg, the owner of the then-popular Scepter Records, who invited him to move to the Big Apple and become a producer.
He quickly displayed such a knack for the record industry that he rose to become the label’s vice president of artist relations and promotions. The songwriters valued his opinions partly because of his youth, as they knew if he liked a song it was likely to prove popular with the core record-buying audience in his demographic.
His close ties to Bacharach and his lyricist David gave Tyrell a great insight into the importance of lyrics and how careful changes in vocal phrasing could completely change a song. He believes that those lessons paid off decades later when he crossed into singing stardom, a development that came about when he was working on a demo of “The Way You Look Tonight” for the soundtrack of the Steve Martin comedy “Father of the Bride” in 1990.
“A lot of the times I sang the demos of the songs I was pitching for movies as a producer,” says Tyrell. “But on that one, the directors liked it so much, they asked me to just have my version be in the movie itself. It became one of the most revered songs people have in their weddings, and soon Atlantic Records’ head Ahmet Erdogun asked me to record an album of them. It was a huge hit for a guy who had never done an album before, because we sold 400,000 copies.”
Since then, Tyrell has recorded 10 more CDs, including seven in the “American Masters” series that have each reached the Top 5 on Billboard’s Jazz charts. He has performed at the White House for presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, as well as for British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prince Charles, and was chosen to sing Sinatra’s greatest hits when the vocal legend was inducted into the Hollywood Bowl Hall of Fame.
Another major part of his life these days is the jazz show he hosts from 5 to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday on KKJZ, 88.1FM, where he shakes up the station’s mostly instrumentals format by playing vocally based tunes ranging “from Count Basie to Larry Carlton, and Annie Lennox to Ella Fitzgerald.” He’s able to keep up with the show despite his extensive touring by recording it daily on ProTunes and shipping the recording over, but his biggest passion remains his singing.
“Every time you do a standard, you should look for a way to do it fresh, not copying a version you’ve already heard,” says Tyrell. “People will do that, but to me that’s a crime because the standards are made to be interpreted and reinterpreted and they live forever because they let you put a new spin. You don’t want to hear 20 versions of Glenn Frey and Don Henley songs from the Eagles, but you can hear the Songbook 100 different ways.” n
Steve Tyrell performs “The Great American Songbook” at 8 p.m. Saturday at Arcadia Performing Arts Center, 188 Campus Drive, Arcadia. Tickets are $10 to $65, with the $65 VIP including the chance to visit the 5:30 p.m. sound check and Q&A with Tyrell as well as a 6 p.m. appetizer reception in the VIP lounge and a private after-show meet-and-greet at 9:30 p.m. Visit arcadiapaf.org or call (626) 821-1781.