Actor/singer Bill A. Jones has a varied background as an entertainer and has established himself as quite a sensational crooner of pop songs over the past few years. As he prepares to perform at Feinstein’s Upstairs at Vitello’s this Valentine’s weekend, he chats in detail about his career thus far.
Tell our readers about your love of singing and how your career got started.
BJ: I grew up in an extended musical family outside of Nashville, and the music we performed was country. As a 6 year old, in talent shows and on local radio stations, I sang songs like, “Okie From Muskokee” and “Folsom Prison Blues.” Yes, I sang lyrics like, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die” as a 6 year old! (laughs) So I grew up singing in church and at square dances, and hearing rock and roll on the radio, until I discovered the great standards sometime in my early teens. One of my earliest influences came from the Bing Crosby Christmas album, and from there I gradually worked up to Sinatra and all those other iconic artists that sang what we now call Classic Pop Standards.
About the same time, I started doing musicals in high school, and started working in radio when I was 16. For a stretch during my college years, I’d be rehearsing a play during the week, on Saturday Nights play Bass and sing in a square dance band, and on Sundays knock out a shift at a Nashville radio station. While I eventually stopped playing country music – about the time I got cast in a production of a wonderful little musical called Tintypes – I stayed with the radio, and continued acting and singing. Eventually I moved to LA to scratch the acting itch, and promptly stopped singing for about 15 years!
Why did you stop singing?
BJ: Well, when I got out here, the Musical Theatre scene was very different from what I was used to. For one thing, they expected you to dance! And while I’d started tentatively singing with a Big Band in Nashville, I had no idea of how to connect with that community in LA. So for about 15 years I concentrated on my acting career, worked as a radio personality, and met my wife and started a family.
Fast forward to me singing “But Not for Me” on a passenger talent night on an Alaskan Cruise about 17 years ago. That got my singing ‘itch’ going big time. I returned to LA, discovered a Big Band that needed a singer, and one ‘coincidence’ after another since then led me to where I am today. And interestingly enough, when I started singing again, my acting career picked up. I remember, I was thinking about an arrangement of some song or another as I was waiting to audition for Glee, for instance. And ironically, I got cast on that show not for my Singing ability.
Tell us about your time on Glee.
BJ: I had the pleasure of recurring for 6 seasons as “Rod Remington.” If you’ve never seen the show, Rod was sort of a later day version of Ted Baxter from the old Mary Tyler Moore Show – a local TV newscaster who was a legend in his own mind.
First time I worked, I did a little ad lib that broke up everyone, and I was doing a little schtick making eyes at Jane Lynch – who was playing back – and I guess someone took notice and the role got bigger than originally intended. I had a ball every time I was on set, and I’ll forever be grateful to Ryan Murphy for taking my career up several notches.
Apart from your family background did anyone serve as a mentor to you? Who was this mentor and how did this person help you to go forward?
BJ: I know I’ll leave someone out, but here it goes: my Nashville vocal coach, Lucille David is one. my High School drama teacher, Joyce Mayo. Steve and Eydie’s musical director for 27 years, Jack Feierman, who taught me a lot. A couple of Big Band leaders, John Vana and Harry Selvin. Arrangers Bill McKeag and Diz Mullins. Composer and arranger Van Alexander. Pianist Bill Marles. And when I first started singing again, a gentleman named Frank Perry. He was perhaps one of the last staff pianists at one of the hotels here in LA, and had rubbed elbows with dozens of greats. Frank saw me singing early on with a Big Band, and during the break said, “Hey, come over here,” as if he could no longer hold back his frustration, and had to steer me in a better direction. That started a conversation that lasted for several years on how to approach lyrics. Invaluable. All of them.
Talk about your daughter and her contests and advancement in the field. She is taking after you and you sang together in the past. Will you get an opportunity to sing together again soon?
BJ: I tell people she’s the real talent in the family. She just starred in her school’s musical production of 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. When I did my show in New York at the Triad a few months ago, the next night she sang with her high school choir at Carnegie Hall. We’ve only sung together a few times, like at a recent Actor’s Fund benefit, but it’s always a joy, and the response has been tremendous. And she’s only a junior in high school. She’ll be my special musical guest Valentine’s weekend at Feinstein’s at Vitello’s.
You’ve sung a lot with Big Bands, as well as with smaller groups. Which do you prefer?
BJ: When I worked on radio, I used to crank up the monitor whenever a great Sinatra record would come on with a classic arrangement by Nelson Riddle and the like. I gained a huge appreciation for orchestration. To have the power of 17 musicians displaying that artistry while backing you is amazing – especially considering I have several of those classic charts in my book. But I also love working with a small group, or just a piano. You gain a flexibility and an intimacy that’s hard to duplicate with a large group. The communication with your audience is more immediate, as sometimes you can hear subtle nuances like the inhale of a breath or a sigh. At the show at Feinstein’s I’ll be straddling those worlds with 6 musicians – a trio plus 3 horns, which lets me have a little bit of both. So, to circle back to your question – I love them both. Don’t make me decide!
How do you feel about contemporary music? Hip Hop and Rap? Are you comfortable with it? Do you think the American Songbook will survive?
BJ: I think the Songbook is going to survive as long as there is an appreciation for great melodies and lyrics that touch us in a meaningful way. Which will hopefully be forever. As far as contemporary music, I find some of Ed Sheerran’s writing quite good, for instance. But there’s also a lot of dreck out there, too! (laughs) I used to be totally dismissive of Rap, but I saw a performance by Common a while back, and I gained a greater understanding. I now see how it (Rap) can be a legitimate means of artistic expression. But to repeat, there’s a lot of dreck out there!
Who is your favorite composer?
BJ: That’s a tough one! I don’t know if I can narrow it down to just one. Cole Porter, the Gershwins, Johnny Mercer, Sammy Cahn, Frank Loesser, all tick the boxes for me. Irving Berlin would be another.
What is your favorite musical show of all time?
BJ: Again, a tough one! I used to say My Fair Lady without hesitation, as I played Higgins back in school, and have had a deep affection for it ever since. But there’ve been so many great shows since then, it’d be hard to say. But My Fair Lady is a great one.
Tell us a bit more about your daughter. Does she want to be a professional musical theatre actress? What are her plans?
BJ: As of now, she wants to pursue Musical Theatre, and is looking at various university level programs. Time will tell. She’s a junior in high school, so things could change.
This gig at Vitello’s is a big one. Will this show be different than shows in the past?
BJ: Feinstein’s at Vitello’s in Studio City, Saturday February 15th. Yeah, I’ve done my “Great Gentlemen of Song” show a lot, and I’ll be repeating some of that material. But this time I’ll be focusing on romance. The Theme is ‘Love Songs and More,” in recognition of Valentine’s Day. Last time I played at Vitello’s a few years ago, we sold out the place a day in advance – so I’m telling people to get tickets early. I’ll be bringing in 6 musicians this time – I call them my ‘A Players’ – and I plan to have a great time. And hopefully the audience will too! (laughs) Seriously, this is a very different experience than when I appear as a guest with a big band. I take a great deal of pride in my nightclub and cabaret shows, as I feel it lets me do what I do best. Not just sing, but tell stories, and share something of myself in a hopefully entertaining way.
Do you want to add anything?
BJ: People sometimes ask me what I prefer: Acting or singing.
Well, when you work in a scene with someone like Jane Lynch, who elevates your game because of their artistry – that’s pretty special, and something I’d be very reluctant to give up.
But when you do a show like the one coming up this Valentine’s weekend – the energy, or love that you put out as a performer, gets returned to you manifold by the audience. Which further feeds and elevates what you send in return to the audience.
It’s a beautiful thing.
For information about the show and to get your tickets go to FeinsteinsAtVitellos.ticketfly.com