Vocalist, actor, entertainer. West Midlands-born Richard Shelton has a complex relationship with Frank Sinatra. Captivated from a young age, he developed an affinity with Ol’ Blue Eyes that has lasted a lifetime. He has played the part of Sinatra in ‘Sinatra: RAW’ and ‘Rat Pack Confidential’, performances which won him acting awards both in the UK and in Australia.
For his new album of classic standards and intriguing originals, he steps out from that role; he sees the album as an honest portrayal of Richard Shelton himself. The album recently won an International Talent Award from New York-based LIT. Interview by Rupert Burley (*)
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LondonJazz News: Your career has led you to become synonymous with one of the world’s greatest showbiz icons – an academy award winning actor and in the eyes of many one of the world’s greatest singers. How did you achieve this?
Richard Shelton: My relationship with Sinatra is 100% that of an actor. I seek to evoke him and recreate a moment in time letting people imagine what it might have been like to meet him. I’m interested in what went on behind his mercurial blue eyes, what it felt like to be in the bar with him at 2am – sense the danger of not knowing which way things might turn. That’s the Sinatra people really want to meet. I also have a strange lifelong synchronicity with the man, including being exactly the same dimensions, borne out when his tuxedo literally walked into my life and is an exact fit, being one of the last people inside his last home before it was demolished and many more. It adds to the sense of ‘knowing’. But it’s vital to have your own voice and my album is clear blue water between me and Sinatra, whilst capturing the essence, the honesty and the vibe of the man. When you think about it, there is no such thing as originality. Mozart was influenced by Handel, Beethoven by Mozart, Sinatra by Bing Crosby and so it goes on. I’m influenced by Sinatra – I can think of no greater compliment to keeping his legacy alive but in my own way.
LJN: How does your stage persona of Sinatra differ from that of a performance by Richard Shelton?
RS: If I’m evoking Sinatra in a drama, I disappear into him. I simply let go and remove myself and engage in the emotional moment – it’s immersive and is called ‘acting’. Whilst there’s a technicality to portraying him, I’m not present. When I’m performing my own music, it’s also immersive but in a different way. I’m liberated to interact, sing and talk to the audience – to put them at ease. It’s about my message and my voice which is why original work is so important. I believe good singing is when you make every person in the room feel as if you’re singing only to them. There is 100% truth in this album – from the music, to the choice of studio, the arrangements and musicians, following right through to the videos – and this is all self-financed. It’s called putting your money where your mouth is and damn the critics. It’s about making dreams come true, not sitting back and wishing. What else is life for? My favourite saying is, ‘We come this way but once and you’re a long time dead’. I’ve buried 3 parents since the age of 12 and know the real value of time and making life your own.
LJN: You recorded your album at Capitol Studios using Sinatra’s microphone and collaborating with several members of his band. Can you describe this experience?
RS: In a word, extraordinary. Breathing the oxygen in those hallowed rooms was a magical experience. Seeing and touching the piano Nat King Cole played, singing vocals inside Sinatra’s suite and into his famed microphone was mind blowing. We had Chuck Berghofer on upright bass who both toured with Sinatra and was a member in the famed band, The Wrecking Crew, meaning he worked for just about every recognised musician of this genre who matters. Mike Lang played piano for Sinatra’s first retirement concert and drummer Gregg Field toured with Sinatra for years, so there was a huge legacy in the room. They couldn’t have been nicer, kinder and more willing to make their work the best they could. We also had the cream of LA’s session players including trumpeter Wayne Bergeron and saxophone player Eric Marienthal amongst others. It really was magical. The video here gives a glimpse behind the scenes …
LJN: The songs on your album are an intriguing mixture of timeless classics and newly penned originals. Who wrote the new songs?
RS: The two Alex’s. I met Alexander Rudd (‘BBC Young composer of the Year’) in the exit queue at Ronnie Scott’s in London and we quickly established that we were both about to make the move to relocate to LA. Incredibly, we bumped into each other 6 months later in the Hollywood Bowl at a Tony Bennett concert and he said, “I want to write a song for your album”, and ‘An Englishman in Love in LA’ was born (lyrics by Jenifer Toksvig.) The song talks of new beginnings, the courage it takes to make the journey to new shores and start all over again. I’d been on TV, in theatre, sung with fabulous bands and orchestras in the UK but had a calling to try my hand in America. The song is biographical in that sense. He also wrote ‘My Thoughts Return to You’ with Emmy Award winning lyricist, Dennis Spiegel.
Alex Frank is a young burgeoning talent on the LA jazz scene and wrote ‘Lost and Found’ and ‘Sinatra and Me’ with lyricist Spencer Day. Again, both songs are biographical, so there’s a lot of personal honesty in the songs. The other original song, ‘Over Like the Roses’ is by the acclaimed British musician and poet Martin Newell and it talks of the moment you realise that love has left the room. It’s a searingly painful ballad but as important as the upbeat songs because it’s the other side of the emotional lexicon.
LJN: And why did you choose the standards that you did?
RS: Mike Lang played ‘One For My Baby’ for Sinatra and I thought it would be a meaningful link. We actually recorded it as a throwaway track, just to see what it sounded like but I loved the take, so added it to the album as a bonus track. ‘Young at Heart’ is a courteous tip of the hat to the great master who first sang it. ‘She Loves Me’ is from the musical of the same name, inspired by Jack Jones’ version and ‘Pure Imagination’ comes from working opposite Academy Award winning actor and song writer Anthony Newley in ‘Scrooge-the Musical’ in London’s West End. Tony was Old Scrooge and I was Young Scrooge and I learned a lot from him including how to handle a very large room with a glance. He was a master performer.
LJN: You seem to undertake a delicate balancing act between acting and music – does one take precedence over the other?
RS: I love both in the same way as Sinatra loved both, but music takes emotional precedence. There’s nothing like live music – it’s a total joy and can be a thrilling adventure. You never know where it’s going to take you and you can create unforeseen magical moments in a live performance. I’m writing the screenplay adaptation of ’Sinatra: RAW’ which is an intimate look at the icon as he prepares to retire in 1971 at the same time that The Beatles, the Rolling Stones and David Bowie were just emerging. It asks what it’s like to be an icon facing middle age, being three times divorced, with a sense of professional redundancy in a changing world where you were once the primary species. Exploring him on film will be a challenge because it will be up close and personal but again, it’s the music which will make it interesting and will place the emotion.
LJN: You now reside in LA. Does your approach differ when engaging with American audiences as opposed to those in the UK and Europe?
RS: No, my approach doesn’t differ – I just aim to have fun! Americans are known for their enthusiasm and that’s very contagious, but there’s nothing like playing to a home crowd. The British sense of humour is unique. I’m always so happy to come home. I miss the UK terribly when I’m away.
LJN: What do you aim to achieve with your music?
RS: Quality, integrity and honesty. ‘An Englishman in Love in LA’ is a big album with many shades. There are orchestral, big-band, small-band and jazz arrangements of standards and pop classics. Combined with originals, there’s a lot to dive into. The next album is piano and voice simply called ‘Standards from Studio B’ recorded at Capitol Studios. I’m also working on a Christmas album. I want everything I do to sound meaningful, heartfelt and as beautiful as I can make it and share it with lovers of that musical genre.
LJN: Which other artists have influenced you?
RS: Ella Fitzgerald, who sang with unbridled joy. I met and stood on stage with Ella Fitzgerald when she performed with the Count Basie orchestra in 1980. I was not only utterly blown away by her talent but also that she was such a humble person – a complete delight. I admire Tony Bennett and Harry Connick Jr. who are both masterful storytellers. For me, the lyrics come first, as they did for Sinatra. That’s not to demean the music, but unless you can tell the story, you have nothing. Look at the great singers and you’ll see they move you with what they’re lyrically saying. Good singing, to my mind, has nothing to do with the right notes in the right order. It’s all about what you’re feeling and sharing.
LJN: What is your hope for the future?
RS: World peace would be nice – and I’m not being ironic! On a personal level, I want to spread the word of ‘An Englishman in Love in LA’ and think about finishing the standards project. I’m about to play Frank Sinatra in a new dark comedy play called ‘What the Heart Wants’ at the Edinburgh Festival. It envisages the moment Sinatra offers Mia Farrow, who was ex-wife to both men, to go round to Woody Allen’s apartment with a baseball bat to smash his brains out. What happens is very amusing. After that, I’ll be focussing on the screenplay and I have some concerts in New York in the Autumn. I’ll be performing ‘Shelton on Sinatra’ at the Crazy Coqs in Piccadilly, London on 7 September – come along! It’d be lovely to see you!
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(*) Rupert Burley is Managing Director at Dynamic Agency, representing Richard Shelton as publicist.
LINK: Richard Shelton’s website
Categories: Feature/Interview (PP)
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