Imagine standing on stage of Caesar’s Palace. It’s 1970 and you are getting ready to open the show for the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra. Imagine the thrill of being there, the honor and the excitement to open for one of our country’s greatest entertainers. Now, imagine that you are not quite 16 years old. This is just one of the memories and lifetime stories you can look forward to hearing from Julie Budd in her new show, THE SONGS OF MY LIFE, at Birdland Jazz Club, May 1-4.
I had the immense pleasure of speaking with Julie Budd for a phone interview as she took time out of her hectic schedule on the first sunny, Saturday afternoon of the spring, to talk to me about her upcoming show. We spent a few minutes getting to know each other before delving into the interview. I have to say, that within a very short time, I felt right at home. Budd’s warm and inviting personality radiated over the telephone and made me feel as if we had just sat down to enjoy a cup of coffee in Central Park. I imagine that is how the audience will feel at Birdland when she opens the show.
“Growing up, the songs I was singing were written by the greats – people that in my future, I would know and work with. ‘The Songs Of My Life’ is my journey in music…my life in art…and how it all shaped my life and good fortune for the next 53 years in show business. This is my heartfelt tribute to the great composers and lyricists that I had the grand fortune to know. How lucky I was to perform their brilliant works! After all…what good is a voice if you don’t have wonderful songs to sing?”
I assume that we will hear some songs connected to your time with Frank Sinatra?
“I’m going to open with one. You know what? I gotta tell you, he was so nice to me. Before I met him, during my trip out to the engagement, everyone warned me he was going to be difficult. But you know what it taught me? It taught me not to listen to people. You have to go by your own experience with people.
I understand that he used set a chair back stage for you
“Yes. He did that every night. First he had Pat Henry. Pat Henry sort of warmed up the crowd. And then I went on. … He was very generous. I ended up doing 30-35 minutes. And then he came out. He had them set up a little cocktail table with a table cloth, a glass of water and some of his props. …. He had them do a plate for me so I could have dinner and watch his show. Every night I would have dinner and watch the show and he would walk off stage and I would hand him whatever prop he needed at the time. So I became is prop girl who got dinner and a show. He used to walk off and talk to me “how am I doing?” “What do you think of the crowd?””
I can only imagine what that would have been like. I’m very excited to hear more of your stories at Birdland.
“I’m excited because you know, it’s a new room for me too. I’ve never stepped on that stage. You always get your sea legs the first night. But the thing is, it’s going to be exciting and I like the show because the show is all about all of the people who were the creative people. The writers, the lyricists, all those people that I knew. When I came into show business, I was 12 years old. What was interesting about it was the fact that it was during a transition when the old guard was moving out and the new guard was moving in. I met people like Jules Styne, Irving Caesar. New Guard (you’re going to love this) guys like Cy Coleman, Marvin Hamlisch and Burt Bacharach. And then I got to work with Michele LeGrand.
I’ve heard your recent recording of I will wait for you by Michele LeGrand. It’s a beautiful performance and a lovely tribute.
“(I) wanted to pick something the audience would know and wouldn’t be over-done. He was a nice man. And that’s the thing. No one else could have really done this show because they didn’t know all these people. So, I’m not saying “Oh then they wrote this” and “Then they wrote that” because you could do that at any show. A lot of this is my experiences with them.
What a unique point of view you will be able to offer, having known them personally so you would see them differently than the general public would.
“Some of them were very different socially then they were privately. It was really funny. The person who I really do miss is Marvin Hamlisch. I think the universe lost a diamond and I do miss him. You know, Marvin was a funny guy. He could be adorable and he could be exasperating at the same time. But you know, with everything, I loved all of him. I loved nervous Marvin, I loved exasperating Marvin and cuddly Marvin. And I really miss him.
In addition to her never-ending performance schedule, all over the country, Budd also works with singers as a voice teacher and a coach. As a fellow voice teacher and coach, I was interested in her experiences and philosophies on teaching voice. As a performer, she has been working with Herbie Bernstein for more than 50 years.
Once you select a piece that you’d like to sing, how do you and Herbie work to develop the song?
“The first thing we do is pick the key. No Seriously. It sounds very elementary, but the truth of the matter is, keys are very tricky. Keys can change a song with in a half tone. The personality and the whole color of the piece can change, even in a half tone. It’s very important to get the key right. Then we talk about the approach. And we work the approach out. How we want to communicate it. Then he goes home and he plays around with it. And in my head I’m playing around with it. And then we come back to together and we play around together with it. And he shows me what he did orchestrally. And somehow, it starts to take shape, it becomes what it should be.
After years of working together, you probably have great instincts towards each other as well.
“Yeah, ya know, you become one mind. It’s interesting, you become one mind where it doesn’t become stale, because he does what he does very, very well and I stay out of his way when I know he’s on a roll you know. When he’s in the middle of creating that, I stay out of his way.
Can you tell me a little bit about your masterclasses and your personal vocal approach.
“I myself sing everyday and have a voice lesson everyday. You have to, you know, an instrument needs to be played. I think that that’s the best way to put it. It’s not good to have a piano and not play it. It’s not good to have a voice and really stretch it out. And voices change in your adolescence, voices change in your 20s. Voices change in your 30s and 40s, change in your 50s and 60s, and it doesn’t mean that you can’t sing well all the way up.
What advice to you tend to give most often to young performers?
“It is such an important thing to make a life for yourself. And I always tell that to people that ask me “what should I do”. You know what, make sure your life is balanced.
Part of it is you are up there sharing your life on stage, so if you haven’t taken care of yourself and built a life, you don’t have much to share.
“That is such an intelligent thing to say and I share your feelings because I always say to people “if you don’t go out and have a real life, you have nothing to bring to the theater.”
During our conversation, it is easy to see why Budd has enjoyed such a long and celebrated career. Her generosity of spirit, knowledge and wisdom is infectious. SONGS OF MY LIFE will be an evening of beautiful songs, sung by an artist that knew and worked with the composers and lyricists for all those years.
As we wrapped up our conversation, we talked about the world of cabaret, in NYC and around the country. I told her I find cabaret work to be one of the most exciting and rewarding art forms.
“Don’t you think it’s wonderful that we’re in a profession where at any age, we can be who we are. As long as we’re doing the work well, at any time, at any age, you can be who you are. There is no expiration date. And that’s what’s very nice about cabaret. There is no expiration date on who you are.
Because if you keep growing, and you keep having stories to tell, we’ll come and listen.
“Oh honey, you and I are always going to have stories to tell. Are you kidding? I have a feeling you and I could go on for days.”