Graham Reid | | 6 min read
The invitation for dinner-hour drinks and a show in an Auckland hotel ballroom by Michael Buble was clear: dress to impress. Some did, but for many a denim jacket or T-shirt apparently fitted the bill.
It can be hard to convince Kiwis some things are worth a little effort. And Canadian singer Buble - pronounced Boob-lay - was well worth it.
The singer who locates his heart somewhere near Frank Sinatra's balladry and the finger-snap cool of Bobby Darin had also made the effort. Under the spotlight in front of a swinging three-piece and wearing an open necked white shirt and classic three-button suit - he looked just a cigarette away from a sophisticated Vegas singer in the Forties.
The spirit of Sinatra and Sammy Davis jnr was in the air, and he brought it to life in a set which was less homage than a complete evocation and personal interpretation of the music.
Opening with a thrilling version of You Make Me Feel So Young and peppering his set with wit, Buble was genuinely grateful people had come out for him since he was a virtual unknown, then proceeded to take that threadbare Van Morrison standard Moondance into an area where it sounded fresh and new.
The classic songs of the Fifties and early Sixties may be his period - and he made Dean Martin-like booze jokes although he told me, untruthfully as it turned out, he doesn't drink - but next up came a beautiful, keenly understood low-lights Forties treatment of George Michael's Kissing A Fool.
His self-titled debut album features an arrangement of the Bee Gees' How Can You Mend a Broken Heart (with Barry Gibb on backing vocals) between the Sinatra standards For Once in My Life and Summer Wind.
Buble may inhabit the world of Nelson Riddle and Ella Fitzgerald, but the 27-year-old also lives in the modern world. He takes Queen's Crazy Little Thing Called Love to its natural conclusion as a big band swing ballad with pumping horns and a full Vegas-show crescendo, and in the Hyatt Regency ballroom when he introduced a song as the first he ever wrote he paused then added, "Well, co-wrote actually ... with Snoop Dogg."
A titter ripples through the audience.
"Oh right, in New Zealand you wouldn't know that back in Canada I'm a gangsta banger, I cap people. Pow!" Then he was into a hilarious rap with all the crotch-grabbing and hand gestures which that entails.
Four songs in and Buble had sold the appreciative audience himself and his self-titled album. He might be a crooner of the old style but he also has a funny, contemporary and winning stage personality, and is a genuine entertainer.
In a restaurant over a 4pm lunch of mushroom soup and grilled chicken the following day he looks more wide-eyed than the assured, confident guy who commanded the small stage the night before. But he's an enthusiast for the music and wants to bring it to his audience in a fresh and entertaining way, hence the Snoop Dogg. He candidly says he's been to a lot of concerts by huge jazz artists, "you know their names", which have bored him witless.
"It was wonderful music and I could hear five or six songs - but that was enough. I would be thinking, 'Could you please do something to keep it interesting?' I always wanted to be a great entertainer. It was more important to me to be a good entertainer than to sound pretty."
It goes without saying Buble has a great voice. You need only look at the world he inhabits: He's signed to Warners on Sinatra's old Reprise label; his album was produced by multi-Grammy winner David Foster; has original arrangements by Don Costa and Billy May, and Johnny Mandel also came on board. His manager is Bruce Allen, who also handles Bryan Adams, country-soul singer Martina McBride "and has a piece of Norah Jones". Buble is well connected and smart.
"You know, the president of Reprise said to me, 'Why should we sign you? We have Sinatra'. I said, 'With all due respect Sinatra is dead so do we bury the music with him and nobody can ever sing this again because the great one is gone?' I told him there were people out there just like me. I'm not just a singer, I'm a consumer and I said, 'I promise you there are people like me who are hungry for this stuff and were not given the choice. There's a void in the market and we have the money and we'll buy the package and we won't download'. And he gave me the chance."
Buble's story is becoming well-known: his grandfather turned him on to the music of the Forties and Fifties and -- despite liking Bryan Adams, Michael Jackson and George Michael for their melodies and meaningful lyrics -- he decided to dedicate his life to it. He's been professional for 10 years and through some tough times.
"I moved to Toronto and had nothing. I rang my mother and said, 'Mom, I'm so afraid of failing and that all these people have believed in me but I'm going to be a laughing stock'. She said, 'Michael, I promise you, when these people go home they don't give a flying **** about you! The last thing they are thinking about is whether Michael was succeeding'. That made me realise it was my own struggle.
"When I was 21 a guy offered me a great deal of money to do an album of his songs, it was $US100,000 ($172,800) and I had nothing. But I didn't do it. A lot of people, not my family, thought I was crazy. I thought I could use the exposure but knew if I did I would have to say goodbye to what I really loved. That was a huge decision but I couldn't lie to myself."
He persisted, moved to LA where he scored bit parts in movies and television shows (look close and you'll see him in an X-Files or two) but acting was just a vehicle to let him make the music he wanted.
"Every time I try to write a song I prove to myself I really love this stuff because I create this kind of style naturally. I don't know why, God help me its very strange. I liked rock and used to listen to AC/DC and INXS, but this is my music."
He's insistent he's not a swing singer and the album isn't simply a tribute to a bygone era. The inclusion of the contemporary tracks has opened a promising door although he admits they weren't his idea.
"I was locked into the standards I loved but David Foster and Paul Anka said, whether it was written in 1930 or 2003, if it had beautiful lyrics and a great melody you've got yourself a timeless song. And if you are true to who you are stylistically it will work. I'm glad they said that because it means we've moved the music forward instead of just having it be stagnant and people saying, 'Oh yeah, when does Moonlight Serenade come up?"'
His album didn't exactly set America alight when it was released despite his face being everywhere on posters and the album having good retail display. In the first four days it only sold 41 copies across the US - but in two days after a Today television appearance he'd done 15,000.
"They said I'd never get radio but people like Josh Groban and Norah Jones have opened the door. Programme directors didn't want to put their stuff on radio but they had to because people were saying, 'Give it to us, we want that'. In the States 70 per cent of my audience is between 15 and 30 and that's because I don't have anything to do with swing music.
"Warners didn't want me to pretend to be something I wasn't. They didn't want me to come on in a tuxedo and have a martini set up. They said, 'You're a young kid, you know what cool is. Cool is what cool does, so go and be yourself'.
"The second I started to do that it all fell into place. I hired young guys and we're a bunch of jazz nerds but when we go on stage we have a nice time. I don't pretend I was born in 1930, or that rap was never around, that I didn't grow up as a huge fan of George Michael and Michael Jackson."
He finishes his chicken and looks to his schedule. The next day he is off to Sydney then through Southeast Asia. By now he's in Los Angeles then it's New York, London, South Africa, back to London and New York, then home to LA. But he promises to be back, this time with his full 13-piece band.
"It's not such a big deal to make a 13-hour trip. A lot of American artists are stupid, they think America is the be-all and end-all. But in America they are like, 'We love you' then it's, 'So, who are you?' I appreciate the international audience.
"Paula Anka called me the other day from Singapore and said, 'I've had a 50-year career because of the rest of the world. When America was done with me, these people didn't forget and I was loyal to them, and they were to me'.
"So don't worry, I'll be back. Nobody has to twist my arm to come back to New Zealand."
When he does, don't miss him. And folks, make an effort.
He certainly does.