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Feature Article - "An Interview with Tom Wopat ("Luke" in The Dukes of Hazzard, "Frank Butler" in Annie Get Your Gun, and Vocal Soloist on The Still of the Night)" - December, 2000


Jason Serinus

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Introduction

Tom Wopat, known to veteran sitcom viewers for his roles as Luke Duke in The Dukes of Hazzard and the comedic lead in Cybill, is also a singer and musical comedy performer of the first order. On October  24, 2000, Tom released his new album, The Still of the Night. The album's appearance coincides with Tom's portrayal of Frank Butler in  the traveling production of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. When Angel Records approached me to arrange an interview, I confessed that I had never even seen Tom on TV, let alone heard him sing. Imagine my delight, then, when I discovered that underneath the hunk that was "Luke" resides an immensely talented and most likeable man with a real love and enthusiasm for the music he performs.

Wopat, now 49, was born on a small dairy farm in Lode, Wisconsin. He began singing and dancing in school musicals when he was 12 years old, and went on to study music at the University of Wisconsin. Taking a break from school to become the lead singer and trombone player in a rock band, Tom returned to begin his acting career in university productions of classic musicals.

After two seasons performing in summer stock in Michigan, Tom headed to New York City in 1977, where he landed a role in the off-Broadway musical A Bistro Car On The CNR. After roles in The Robber Bridegroom in D.C. and several on and off-Broadway productions, he auditioned for and won the role of Luke Duke. From 1978-1985, while the Dukes entertained a generation of TV viewers, Tom continued to develop his musical skills, performing in his band, The North Hollywood All-Stars.

In 1987, Tom moved to Nashville, where he recorded the first of several country albums that led to two Top 20 country hits, a Top 5 country video, and a Top 5 hit as a songwriter. During the same period, he returned to the musical theater stages of New York and Washington, D.C., as well as singing with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. Then, in 1995, he returned to TV for his leading role in Cybill.

As Tom discusses below, the 12 tracks on his October 24 release, The Still of the Night (Angel 7243 5 23623 2 5), afford us a new glimpse of a long-nurtured talent that has waited for the right vehicle in which to surface. Tom’s husky sounding voice, which at times amazes with its freedom and versatility, is employed with a sincerity and command of nuance that this reviewer finds curiously captivating and immensely inviting. Backed by superb musicians and arrangements, one comes away with a sense that this is a man who clearly knows when to get up and get ‘em, and when to lay back.

Given Tom’s intense schedule, his publicity folks scheduled 15 minutes for the interview. Operating on show biz time, Tom called a bit late, and confessed that he was just waking up. Once we got going, however, and discovered a commonality in a love for classic musicals, the songs of Franz Schubert, and the art of whistling, Tom turned his back on the clock. Below is our 30 plus minute interview, which was cut short only because Tom’s next appointment was about to begin.

The Interview  (Jason's remarks in italics)

Tom, how does it feel to perform in Annie Get Your Gun?

This is a role in one of the classic musicals of our generation, of the generation of Oklahoma and Guys and Dolls. It’s one of the parts whose songs I’ve always been familiar with. I actually played Frank in Summer Stock 20 some years ago. But this new incarnation of the musicals is a bit more user friendly as far as Frank goes. Number One, I get to open the show with “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” and Number Two, they changed the ending around a little bit so that it’s a little more satisfying  . . . it just feels better.

I remember Ethel Merman singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.” So they’ve given it to you?

Yes, at the beginning of the show. It’s on the new recording, which came out a year and a half ago. Man, you gotta hear it. It’s great. We won a Grammy with it too.

When I sing the song in this new production, the curtain comes up on the stage, with the band seated in bleachers, as they’d be at the Wild West Show. The Light Ring is down near the deck—near the stage—and the characters are placed strategically around the stage in the dark. I’m facing upstage, with my back to the audience, and the spotlight comes up on my back as I start singing the song a cappella, very slowly and introspectively. As I make my way through the verse, it picks up speed until I sing “Let’s go on with the show,” and then we go into tempo. It’s a very interesting opening. You almost have to have the CD to understand it.

After I listened to your new recording, the still of the night, which doesn’t include any liner notes apart from track credits, I went to your website to see what it has to say about it, The website speaks about how you’ve found a new voice for the album.

We’re talking about taking advantage of an aspect of my voice that wasn’t exploited in my earlier efforts, which were more in a country vein.

The singing on the album is very laid back. I’d think it would be quite different than the voice you’d use for singing “There’s No Business Like Show Business.”

What we tried to do with still of the night is make an intimate, sophisticated, adult recording.

I think it’s quite wonderful. The duet on “Baby It’s Cold Outside” is just fabulous. What was it like to record it?

We recorded half the vocals at the same time we recorded the instrumental back-up, without any overdubbing or correction. The rest either have a fix here and a fix there, or were completely redone. But when we recorded the duet, we hadn’t found the right girl for it yet. So we recorded it with someone who we knew wasn’t going to do the final vocal. It made it really difficult to do the track actually, because we knew it wasn’t right. But the instrumentation came out fine.

We were looking around and asking people who to use, and were getting down to the end of overdubbing, when my producer Russ Titelman went with Steve Ferrera from Angel Records to hear Antonia Bennett, Tony Bennett’s daughter, who was in town performing. They were looking at her as another act to record, and didn’t have the duet in mind when they went to hear her. Afterwards, the three of them went on to hear someone else. While Steve and Russ were discussing who to get for duet, it dawned on Russ that Antonia might be a perfect match. It turns out that she just has this special quality – that Blossom Dearie/Betty Carter/Billy Holiday kind of individuality going on—that makes for a very playful vocal.

The website talks about how you’ve done the album in a Frank Sinatra style. As I recall, he recorded the vocals on his last duet album without his partners, and had their parts dubbed in later in various studios around the country. Did it feel strange singing a seductive duet with someone you knew you weren’t going to be seducing on the final recording?

It was awful. When we finally found Antonia and redid the vocals that day, it was just delightful.

I was thinking about the difference between your energy and hers: the contrast and balance are a lot of fun. The piano accompaniment, which is intentionally quite sparse, is also quite wonderful.

We have two different pianists who were both involved with the project from the get-go. We spent a great deal of time in pre-production. Rob Mounsey is an arranger, and we used his studio for a lot of the pre-production work. Larry Goldings is a jazz artist in his own right, and he came up with most of the arrangements on the piano/vocal tracks like “Where is Love?” and “For All We Know.”

Rob did the arrangement on “I Get Along Without You Very Well.” That was a latecomer; we actually had another cut that we were going to use instead. It was “The Thrill is Gone,” the one that Chet Baker sang:

[Tom proceeds to sing, on a tape I will keep forever]

            The thrill is gone

            The thrill is gone

            I can see it in your eyes

            I can hear it in your sighs

            All at once I realize

            The thrill is gone . . .

Anyway, we decided that song was too unrelentingly bleak. There are songs on the album that are down and intense. The one we replaced it with, “I Get Along Without You, Very Well” is kind of a sad song, but it’s not as unrelentingly bleak.

Nothing on the album feels like a downer to me.

Oh, great.

You’ve gone through all these transitions in your career, from The Dukes of Hazzard to Annie Get Your Gun to this somewhat smokey, Frank Sinatra-like album. How is this transition for you?

It’s all part of growing up for me. As a child I listened to a wide variety of things. I was singing Schubert lieder in high school. I listened to Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; my graduation present was a boxed set of Fischer-Dieskau accompanied by Gerald Moore. My voice teacher in Junior High and High School was really committed to giving me a wide background. I sang opera, I sang show tunes. I don’t know that he was really thrilled when I got into a rock band for awhile, but that was all part of it. I’ve sung a lot of different things. As I’ve gone along – especially when we were doing this record – I felt like I was discovering an aspect of my voice that I really didn’t know was there: an ability to interpret a song in a way that makes it more accessible to people of my generation and maybe a little younger than me.

A problem we’re all having about how to sell this album is that you can’t really describe it until you hear it. There’s a guy at the record company who’s probably 30, and he says, “You know, I probably would not sit down and listen to these songs except in this context.” Somehow the recording process, the arrangements, maybe the mixture of Jimmy Webb’s “The Moon’s a Harsh Mistress” in there, make it more accessible.

Well, there’s this American disease that if it isn’t new, you don’t listen to it . . .

Yeah, that’s ridiculous.

. . . and these are wonderful, classic songs by Harold Arlen, Frank Loesser, Stephen Sondheim, Richard Rogers & Lorenz Hart, Gus Kahn, Cole Porter, Hoagy Carmichael and others.

I’ve always found that to be true. When you’re doing the traditional musicals, and you’re singing songs that are 40 and 50 years old, you realize there’s a reason why those musicals are hits. These are amazing songs. And there are any number of ways to do them. Working with Bernadette Peters on Broadway helped teach me that. She showed me a lot of different things you can do with this stuff. And it’s a blast to do it too.

Take an Irving Berlin song. The melody is fairly simple; the lyrics are very simple. There are no incredibly clever lyrics – there aren’t any Sondheim lyrics in there – but there’s a lot you can do with both the melody and the lyrics. And the music has a certain deep down empathy with people; Berlin just knows how to touch ya. It’s a wonderful thing to discover this about music, even though I’ve loved music all my life.

It’s the same thing with Schubert. A lot of the melodies are very simple, but he’s in this groove. He’s in touch with his heart, and he’s in touch with your heart, and he knows how to bridge that gap.

Wasn’t there a Schubert anniversary recently? [1997] I was thinking it would be a great thing to get together with a pianist and work on the different song cycles again. I remember physically enjoying them when I did them in high school and college.

As a footnote, I’m a whistler who performed Puccini’s “O mio babbino caro” as “The Voice of Woodstock” in an Emmy-nominated Peanuts cartoon. I frequently whistle Schubert in my performances.

Cool. We’ll keep you mind. I whistle myself, pretty much in tune, and I have a big whistle. I’ve been thinking of doing a little bit of a solo in one of these songs somewhere along the line.

I love that you recorded “Anyone Can Whistle” on the new album.

The story about how that one made it onto the album is that Russ was driving along one day listening to NPR, and they were doing an interview with Stephen Sondheim. While they were talking, Sondheim was playing little bits of this and that, and he sang “Anyone Can Whistle.” When Russ heard it, he thought it would be appropriate for the album. We ended up getting Jonathan Tunick to do the arrangement and conducting.

The whole album really felt like a serendipitous thing. Things just came together here and there. Everybody’s real excited about it. I hope we can get people to listen to it.

What more would you like to share with us about the production of Annie Get Your Gun?

These classic shows deserve to be revived. Otherwise, people have no context for these great songs which become such a visceral part of our awareness: “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” “Anything You Can Do,” “Doin’ What Comes Naturally.” Even little kids, once they hear the music, go nuts for it. 

It’s a really nice thing to see a new interpretation of an old standard musical. This particular production has a lot going for it. Marilou Henner does a nice job as Annie Oakley. I’ve got an old friend of mine, George McDaniel, who’s doing Buffalo Bill. The ensemble is quite terrific. It’s got a great energy, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

You have so many different mediums in which you work. Do you have a favorite?

Stage musicals have always been the most fun. Having said that, it’s hard to beat the time we had putting the record together. But I have no experience performing that music live in front of an audience. So that remains to be seen. I’m very excited to see what that’s going to be like.

Russ and I first got together to work on the project last December, and we recorded it in April. It’s expensive taking those jazz guys in, and we had 18 strings for one day. So we basically did the whole thing in about a week. Then we did selected overdubs and fixed a couple of vocals, and then mixed it. All that was done inside of a month.

When you began performing in your youth, did you have an image or goal in mind? Did you visualize a path for your career, and is it evolving any way you thought or wished it might?

From early on, I wanted to be a combination John Raitt and Gordon McCrae. I got to New York, did “I Love My Wife” on Broadway in 1978 – it’s a Cy Coleman musical, loosely based on the wife-swapping movie “Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice,” in which all four of us end up in bed together but none of us can go through with it because “I love my wife” – and then went into television land. Now things are starting to come together in the way I thought they might when I was a kid.

I had no real specific dream, other than I really wanted to do musical comedy. Even before that, when I was a small child, I wanted to be a singer. There were a couple of years when I wanted to be a football player [chuckle], but I always wanted to be a singer.

I’m now getting cast more legitimately, I think, than what might have happened earlier in my career after Dukes, when some of what happened might have been casting more with an eye toward what might have been a “celebrity name.” I think now I’m being taken a little more seriously. That’s pure conjecture on my part [big laugh].

Your new album is certainly a way to take you seriously. Have reviews come out yet?

We got a few. There have been a lot of really good reviews, and a few spectacular reviews. So far, we’re batting at least 900.

But it’s hard to discuss this record and get across what it is. It’s kind of a double whammy. For me, the first name recognition is from The Dukes of Hazzard. Then, if there’s recognition from a musical standpoint, it’s from my country music recordings, from which this is a total departure. So it’s going to be a long, slow process.

What I’ve tried to tell people is that the country experience was more of a departure. When you consider my education and my upbringing, you can see that the country was more of country rock outgrowth of my popular music aspirations as a youngster.

In your free time, what music do you listen to that may have nothing to do with your career?

 One of the things that really made me want to do this record, and convinced people of the viability of the project, was the Diana Kraal record of last year, When I Look In Your Eyes. She has “put it together.” It’s a really nice album. It’s a combination of standards and a couple of more contemporary tunes. The opening song is “Let’s Face the Music and Dance,” and she just knocks it dead. And she does a really nice version of “I’ve Got You Under my Skin.” That’s probably my new favorite album. And then I listen to Steely Dan. And there’s a new Fischer-Dieskau compilation I want to get.

[Tom and I then had a discussion about Fischer-Dieskau’s career, and the changes in his voice from the time when Tom first listened to him in ‘60’s, to his retirement 30 years later. This led Tom to comment]:

One of the references I used for my recording of “For All We Know” was Billy Holiday’s record Lady in Satin. It was done right at the end of her career. He voice was pretty much shot, but holy smoke, what a rendition! I get goosebumps now just thinkin’ about it. It’s amazing to hear, as a voice matures and then starts to decline, what kind of emotion is still conveyed by a really good vocalist.

When Billy sings a song, I hear the song, but I always hear her and her truth.

You’re seeing it through her lens. That’s a talent. There are people who will unpersonally interpret a song, and can do a very good job of that. Then she is the type that makes that song her own, and you hear it through the lens of her life.

One thing I’m not too happy about is guys like Bolton and Whitney Houston. By the time they’re done with a song, I don’t even know what it’s about. All I hear is their self-indulgent vocal. Or is that just a diatribe?

No, it’s not a diatribe. It’s what makes me my living.

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Tom Wopat appears in Annie Get Your Gun through the spring of 2001 in select venues throughout the U.S. For more information, go to http://www.tomwopat.com 

 

- Jason Serinus -

 

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