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Jazz with Mr. C: The Indomitable Wayne Powers Hits Chicago

By Jeff Cebulski

Wayne Powers (photo: Melanie Powers)

In an entertainment context, you could call Wayne Powers a “lifer.” Bitten by the performance bug as a New York teenager, Powers performed across the country, literally, until landing a job in Los Angeles, becoming a part of the Hollywood television scene in the ’90s—all the while nurturing his Great American Songbook singing chops and eventually recording his first vocal album, Plain Old Me.


After his life was shook up, also literally, by the 1993 Northridge earthquake and its aftermath, Powers moved his family to North Carolina. There, he and his then wife raised his sons while Powers began to rebuild his career.


Unfortunately, his marriage took a hit, but the indomitable Powers carried on, starting a tea business and doing singing gigs, voiceovers, and radio programs. Working on a second vocal album, he met his second wife, Melanie, who hails from Chicago. Powers became smitten with her and her city, and since moving here less than two years ago he has slowly become part of our jazz community, with big band appearances in the ’burbs (and WGN-TV) and an occasional small group gig.


Riding momentum from that second Songbook recording, If Love Were All, Powers shares his story and plans for building a Chicago audience.


Jeff Cebulski: It seems like your career has gone “full circle”—that you began as a singer, ventured into acting, then returned to singing. Is that a fair understanding of your performing history?


Wayne Powers: Music has been all around the circle with me. Growing up in New York, at age 16, I started out singing in nightclubs . . . I wasn’t very confident and I’m sure I wasn’t all that good, either. But I kept at it, studying with Fred Steele, who was vocal coach to Tony Bennett, Eddie Fisher, Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, etc., and I got better over time.


Robin Williams and Wayne Powers (photo: Rick Barnes)

After college, I was singing in St. Louis clubs and doing theatre, radio, and TV, too. I went on the road acting in a comedy with Dick Sargent from TV’s Bewitched, and he talked me into moving to Los Angeles, which I did. Once there, I fell into a job with Henry Mancini while I was doing improvisational comedy in a small group with an unknown Robin Williams. From there, I landed my first TV show, Laverne and Shirley. That was the beginning of a 20-year career in network television, eventually starring in my own NBC sitcom for two seasons, 13 East. But something was missing—my music—so I put together a jazz band with some truly great musicians and we played some of the L.A.’s best jazz clubs and show rooms, following greats like Anita O’Day, Jack Sheldon, Maxine Weldon, Buddy Greco, Mose Allison, Joe Williams, Dizzy Gillespie, Dave Frishberg, Poncho Sanchez. We played several top jazz festivals and recorded a critically acclaimed album, Plain Old Me, with liner notes by comedian Jonathan Winters, a dear personal friend who often came to see us perform.


JC: What attracted you about show business in the first place?


WP: When I was a child, my dad was my hero. He gave me my sense of humor and, among so many other things, I owe my TV career in comedy to him. He sang around the house all the time and I owe my music career to him, too. He’s been gone for over 40 years and there is no known recording of his voice but, in my heart, I can still hear him sing and it still makes me feel good. Emulating my father at an early age, I discovered that I could make other people happy by being funny or by singing.


I’m a deeply passionate and emotional person by nature . . . maybe it’s my Italian ancestry

. . . so being able to express my passions through my music has always been of great importance to me. Music has the capability of transcending all barriers and boundaries—color, gender, culture, ethnicity, age, geography, religion—all of it. I particularly enjoy performing live for an audience because music can uniquely establish a common ground among people, so humanity and the human experience can be shared on that sacred common ground. Musicians make that happen. As a performer, you can feel it when it happens—there’s no better feeling. In what other business could I possibly spend my life?


JC: What did you do for Mancini? Was it intimidating?


WP: When I first arrived in L.A., I literally fell into a job as manager of Henry Mancini’s music publishing group—12 corporations with the Mancini catalogue plus many others including Bobbie Gentry, Richard Harris, Livingston and Evans, Patrick Williams, Marvin Hamlisch, and Ed Kleban.


When I first met with Henry . . . everyone else called him “Hank” but I just couldn’t bring myself to do that because I had so much respect and admiration for him and he was such a total professional and a gentleman. He didn’t want “Mr. Mancini” so “Henry” was the best I could ever do. When I first met him, interviewing for the position, we got along just great and I thought I had a good shot at the job. As the meeting was drawing to a close, he said, “Hang on, Wayne. Just one more question: Of the music I’ve written, what’s your personal favorite?”


I froze. I knew I could win or lose the job with my answer. In my mind, I was thinking, “What does he want me to say . . . ‘Days of Wine and Roses’? ‘[The Theme from] Peter Gunn’? ‘The Pink Panther Theme’? ‘Moon River’?” Then I decided to just tell him the truth. “Henry, I’m quite honestly a fan of every tune I’ve ever heard of yours”—and I named several from “Dear Heart” to “Mister Lucky” to “Baby Elephant Walk”—“but there’s one tune of yours that especially haunts me. The melody gives goose bumps. It wasn’t a hit record. It was a movie theme, and it recurred all throughout the entire film. Haunting.”


“Well, which one was it?”


I took a breath and mumbled, Two for the Road.”


He leaned back in his chair and looked at me for what seemed like a month. Then he smiled, “That’s my favorite.”


Bang! I knew I had the gig. From plugging his tunes and getting other artists to record them—like Eydie Gorme, Sammy Davis Jr., Deodato—eventually, I was with producer Joe Reisman in the booth for his recording sessions and wound up occupying his old corner office on the 10th floor at Sunset and Vine, overlooking the Hollywood sign and outfitted with gold records on the mahogany-paneled walls, a grand piano, a private secretary, a private executive washroom and a wall that opened into a wet bar. I wanted to start humming “Hooray for Hollywood,” except Henry didn’t write that one.


JC: I can only imagine that working with Robin Williams was a hoot. Was he then just a younger version of what most of us experienced?


WP: Robin and I were both discovered from the same weekly improvisational comedy show in Hollywood. From that, he got a series, Mork and Mindy, and I got guest roles on Laverne and Shirley. Several others came out of this show and became successful actors, comedians, writers and producers. In fact, Michael Feinstein was our substitute piano player! But back to Robin, his characters and lightning-fast transitions were honed in our shows and in his stand-up act. He idolized Jonathan Winters and, when he found out that I’ve known Jonathan for most of my life, he lit up like a Christmas tree and wouldn’t rest until he met him. Jonathan wound up playing Robin’s son on Mork and Mindy. Robin’s approach and persona that you’re familiar with was a refinement of what he was already doing early on.


JC: Besides your father, what other artists/singers were influential in developing your own style?


WP: My father built one of the first stereo systems I had ever seen or heard . . . and that went for everyone we knew, too. Stereo wasn’t easy to explain to anyone who hadn’t experienced it. “Two speakers? Why? To make it louder?” We would have guests over and he would play stereo demonstration records with the announcer “walking” from speaker to speaker, a train going past, orchestras with sections attributed to different speakers, etc. On Sundays, my dad was home and he played two recording artists constantly and sang along with both, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole . . . my dad had great taste. My mom was Italian and she liked hearing Jimmy Roselli, Jerry Vale, Andy Williams, Al Martino . . . along with my parents’ old 78-rpm records with artists like Benny Goodman, Harry James, and Woody Herman—that was my early music consumption, aside from early ’60s pop tunes on the radio.


I remember the first jazz albums I ever bought as a young teen. First was Dave Brubeck’s legendary Time Out. Wow! I loved it. I then meandered over to Herbie Mann Live at the Village Gate. Sweet. Then I got a bit more adventurous and bought an album that turned my entire world upside down: Monk’s Misterioso. Genius. It’s still one of my favorite albums of all time.


On a tangent, it was about 30 years later that I was playing a Los Angeles club called The Money Tree in Toluca Lake. Jack Sheldon played there a lot and so did Page Cavanaugh and others. Bobby Troup and Julie London lived nearby and were regular patrons. I had a sub bass player in my trio one night whom I had never played with before although I had seen him around. From the first tune, we locked. He was amazing. On our first break, I sat with him at the bar and we were chatting about jazz influences. I told him about my first three jazz albums, exactly like I just told you. When I got to Misterioso, he looked at me funny. I thought maybe I said something wrong. He said, “You liked that album?” I said “No, I loved that album and still do.” He said, “That was me on the bass.” I felt like a compete idiot. It was the great Larry Gales, and I didn’t even know it. He laughed and we hit it off from there. Maybe he liked the fact that I was a fan of his playing and not just because he was with Monk. After that night, I got to sing with him a few more times and I treasured each one of them.


Other influences would have to include Sinatra, Joe Williams, Louis Armstrong, Fats Waller, Louis Prima, Tony Bennett, Carmen McRae, Sarah Vaughn, Billie Holiday, Johnny Hartman, Billy Eckstine, Ernie Andrews, and others.


JC: What brought you to Chicago?


WP: By the early ’90s, I was very blessed to finally be doing exactly what I had worked all my life to be doing, starring on network TV and singing in top music venues. Then, in 1993, we lost our house in the Northridge earthquake. My two sons were still young. L.A. is a big city and, after a gang-related shooting incident that was far too close a call for my taste, I had been thinking about relocating to a place more conducive to them actually having a childhood. Well, bottom line is that my priorities were with my children. They only have one chance at growing up, so I gave up my career and moved the family to Charlotte, North Carolina. I didn’t know what I was going to do there, but away we went. Sadly, I found the jazz scene to be almost nonexistent there, so my music wound up on the back burner as I opened Charlotte’s first tea house, TEA ReX, and I returned to a radio career which I had put on the shelf twenty years earlier.


Unfortunately, my 18-year marriage didn’t survive the move and we were divorced in 2000. After my boys were grown, I felt I had done my job and wanted to move on. So I took a job offer to host the flagship morning show on a heritage radio station in Michigan, where Harry Caray, Tom Snyder, and Paul Harvey got their start. The show was a ratings hit, but I was really missing my music, so I started going to jam sessions, working at getting my vocal chops back. When I was ready, some great jazz musician pals accompanied me on my long-overdue return to the recording studio. The result is If Love Were All [Kabockie Records], an album of Great American Songbook jazz standards, recorded live-in-studio and recorded in sequence. Yes, there’s a beginning, middle and end to the album because I wanted me and the musicians to make the same emotional journey as the listener. It’s a personal story and universal saga of love lost and love found. The response has been amazing and three of the tunes are currently being featured on Sirius XM’s Siriusly Sinatra channel, which is owned and programmed by the Sinatra family. I couldn’t be more humbled or more proud, all at the same time.


I hadn’t visited Chicago in many years, but I have fond memories here. Back in the ’70s, while I was still living in St. Louis, I used to come back and forth to Chicago to do TV commercials. In those days, I frequented many of the Chicago jazz venues. Sadly, so many of them are gone now . . . Mr. Kelly’s, Ratso’s in Old Town . . . I moved to the West Coast and that was the end of my visits to the Windy City. Fade out. Fade in—a couple of years ago, I met the most wonderful woman in the world and I married her. She’s from Chicago, and now so am I.


L to R: Jordan Baskin, Wayne Powers, Mike Smith (photo: Ken Sevara)

JC: I’m curious about your thoughts regarding radio. The Sirius network seems to be successful, but do you think “old fashioned/real radio” still has a future, especially for your genre?


WP: Don’t get me started on radio. It’s very sad, but commercial AM-FM broadcast radio is a dying medium. It didn’t have to be that way, but corporate takeovers have swallowed up entire markets and it’s being run by accountants and lawyers, not music or radio folks. The greed is nauseating to me. They’ve stripped station after station of their assets and best personalities, cutting to the bottom-line bone. Now, it’s hopefully non-commercial and satellite radio to the rescue and Sirius XM is certainly a leader. Siriusly Sinatra is owned and programmed by the Sinatra family and it’s truly a labor of love. You can tell in a flash—the special programming, the choice of tunes, the variety of artists, old and new, who accompany the Sinatra classics and rarities. The first time I saw a playlist with my name on it, I almost fainted. It was Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Wayne Powers, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, Michael Bublé, Mel Tormé, Sammy Davis Jr., etc. After seeing that, I may never win a Grammy, but who cares?


JC: Let’s talk about the album. How did you come about choosing the material?


WP: You mean, If Love Were All? Well, yes, there’s a story behind it. I had been out of the recording studio for many years and, with life providing so many ups and downs and twists and turns, I felt I had a lot to express musically since my last album, Plain Old Me. It was a very “up” album in every way. In fact, one woman wrote to me and said she listens to it whenever she has to do something she hates, like ironing. She said it makes her smile and bounce and the time just flies by. Hilarious, but quite a compliment, actually.


I loved that band and we really did spread a lot of joy wherever we played. But I had done that already and I wanted to move on. My voice had matured since then and so had my outlook on life. I had been divorced for 20 years and needed to musically express some of the bittersweet experience of love lost. So, my original idea was to record an album of torch songs or “saloon songs” as we like to call them, a concept album along the lines of Sinatra’s Only the Lonely or She Shot Me Down. I was putting the tunes together and working them out in clubs, finally creating a vehicle to express some suppressed inner melancholy.


But then, life took another totally unexpected turn and I met Melanie. We fell in love and got married. So, there I was in the midst of a planned poignant album of heavyhearted love songs and, suddenly, I wasn’t feeling all that heavyhearted anymore, although I still remembered the feeling vividly. The most honest answer to the problem was to capture those torch songs that really spoke to me about love lost and then have a tune in the middle act as a fulcrum or turning point, with the balance of the tunes celebrating the joy of love found. And that’s exactly what I did, with the fulcrum being the title tune, “If Love Were All.”At the very end, I capped off the album with one additional tune, recalling that personal yet universal sadness everyone goes through at one time or another but offering direction and hope . . . and that tune was a very simple and direct rendition of Charles Chaplin’s “Smile.” We recorded each tune in the same sequence as it appears on the album, so If Love Were All has a beginning, middle, and an end—with the musicians, me, and the listener taking the same musical and emotional journey together. And, of course, I dedicated the album to Melanie.


Wayne Powers (photo: Melanie Powers)

JC: How does one get an orchestra together? You certainly had experience out west.


WP: Here in Chicago, I’ve put together small groups from some of the talented players I’ve met and clicked with, and the results have been great fun and well received. You always know when it feels right, but an enthusiastic audience is the sweetest validation.


Lately, I’ve been singing quite often with the Shout Section Big Band. I sat in with them one night and everything just clicked, so we’ve been working together a lot more, even performing live on WGN-TV. We’re building up a terrific book of their charts and mine, and man, it is a major kick for a singer to have that kind of big band power behind him! It makes me feel like the song, “Wind Beneath My Wings.” As a vocalist, I can go for quite a ride above all that energy and just soar. There’s nothing like it.


JC: Once you moved to Chicago, how long did it take to become a part of the jazz community?


WP: Hmmm . . . I don’t know that I have. I’ve only been here for just over a year and, while I’ve certainly made lots of friends in the Chicago jazz community, I’m still popping up at jam sessions, exploring venues and meeting and hearing new folks all the time. And I love it. I feel like a kid in a candy store. I’ve lived all over, but the jazz talent pool in Chicago is nothing short of amazing. There really are some legendary players based here, both known and unknown, and it’s a joy to make music with them.


JC: So, what is ahead for you musically? Are you fully dedicated to big band performance or will you venture into more intimate, smaller groupings?


WP: I love both. The intimacy of small venues and the accompaniment of a trio, duo, or simply a piano allows for a much more nuanced approach and a more personal connection with the audience, while swingin’ hard with a big band creates a high-powered energy exchange between the band, the vocalist, and the audience that can be joyously addictive to everyone in the room. So why not have your cake and eat it, too? What I like to do when performing with a big band is to break out a small combo for a few numbers and then just the piano for a ballad or two. It gives the band a chance to rest their chops, gives me a chance to get more intimate and it lends the show more variety and texture.


Also, ahead musically is another recording, now in the preliminary stages as I hone down the concept, the tunes and then the right personnel—a creative process I really enjoy.


JC: Where are people likely to see you performing in the future in the Chicago area?


WP: I’m currently working a few new projects, one of which is hugely exciting but subject to nondisclosure agreements so I can’t talk about it yet. Stand by, though!


I’m also really looking forward to my first Chicagoland in-concert performance on Sunday evening, March 15th. I’ll be backed by the Shout Section Big Band at Good Men Club, a relatively new and fabulous jazz listening room venue in Mundelein [25783 Hillview Ct., 224-475-1747, [goodmenclubjazz.com]. Perfect for what I do. I’m also wanting to take a trio or quartet and play some of my personal favorite Chicago jazz clubs like Green Mill, Andy’s, and the Jazz Showcase. I’ve sat in and sung in all of them and had a ball, so who knows? Maybe they’ll read your column and say, “Oh, yeah. I remember that guy. We liked him!” and then call!


JC: I see that you still have close ties in NYC and thereabouts. Do you foresee any music activity for you there?


WP: Yes and yes. Right this minute, I want to establish myself more in Chicago, because it’s my home now and I love it here, but there are folks pulling at me to perform again back in New York, in Los Angeles, and a few other places, too. I don’t want to spend my life on the road anymore, but a few hit-and-run concerts and club dates on a short tour or two might be just perfect.


After all, while it’s true that there’s no place like home, music is meant to be shared and spread around.


JC: I am imagining that being an American performer, a lot of your life has been about “the hustle” of getting work, etc. Does that ring true? Is there an art about that?


WP: Many actors and musicians live their lives in the “Desperation Zone.” I try not to. Life is far too short and I like to enjoy the ride. In many ways, I’ve been very blessed and fortunate and I’m very grateful for that, but I’ve also been versatile enough to work in many areas of the entertainment business, as the situations demanded and the opportunities permitted.


Just like I started out, I’m still a singer and an actor . . . but, to me, they’re one and the same because I’ve always approached my acting like music and my music like acting. The common thread is that I’m essentially just a storyteller. That’s why I’m so selective about the songs I perform. They must speak to me melodically and rhythmically, but if I can’t get behind the lyrics—if I can’t use the elements of words and music to convey an emotion, an experience and a story—well, then that song’s just not for me. I am all about authenticity. For me, it’s the real deal or it’s nothing.


Many years ago, I was sitting on the floor of the great Carmen McRae’s dressing room in Los Angeles as she prepared to go on. We were talking about many things, including a song I wrote the lyrics for and she was interested in recording. But what I remember most about our time together is the advice she gave me as a lyricist and as a jazz vocalist. She said, simply, Never forget—if it ain’t the truth, it ain’t worth fucking with.” You know how intense she could be. I can still see her piercing gaze, hear her lilting growl and feel her drilling that advice right through to my core as I sat there on the floor. And it really resonated. I never forgot it. For me, it was a music graduate degree in one simple but eloquent sentence. I am eternally grateful to her.


Keep in touch with Wayne on Facebook or at waynepowers.com.


“Jazz with Mr. C” is written by Jeff Cebulski, a jazz enthusiast and regular contributor to Chicago Jazz Magazine. Contact Jeff at bullski@hotmail.com.


Jeff Celbulski