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An Interview by Cathy Segal-Garcia

One day, when asked about his voice and singing, Michael remarked: “ I think that the human voice is an unflinching mirror that reflects every thought, emotion/feeling that the person has ever experienced.

In my particular case, my lifetime has been like a checkerboard, each square representing a different path pursued, a different lifestyle and vocation, every success / failure, every learning curve — with each square packed full of thoughts, feelings/emotions coming from the experience of that representative square.  A person’s consciousness/awareness is the collective result of experience — their voice reflects that.”

Interview with Michael d’Addio by Cathy Segal-Garcia, Founder of The Jazz Vocal Coalition

Cathy: So, Michael, you’ve led such an interesting, varied life all over the world. Were you always intetestd in music and singing?

Michael: From ‘day one’. That is, from the age of three I remember music and singing. I started singing songs I’d heard on the radio. By the time I was four I was ‘in business’ for myself.

Cathy: What do you mean ‘in business’?

Michael: I had a ‘sweet tooth’ – big time! – and I lived in a small village on a remote island off the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. All the ladies in the village, in those days (we’re practically talking about the Paleolithic Age) before women’s business careers, stayed home to cook and bake all day. I learned between three and four years old that I could trade singing to folks in the village for those incredible country-made pies, cakes, and candy, etc. I bartered certain of their favorite songs for my favorite sweets. For example: Southern pecan pie (one of my big favorites) got you Frank Loesser’s A Slow Boat to China. The December that I lost my two front teeth coincided with the big hit All I Want For Christmas Is My Two Front Teeth. I really ‘cleaned up’ that Christmas. So much sugar! It was a wonder I had ANY teeth. But I did penance by being the soloist in our village’s Methodist Church – (I had been baptized Catholic, but there was no Catholic church within 80 miles) – so I sang the songs from the Methodist Hymnal: The Old Rugged Cross, I Walk In The Garden Alone, etc. I had a big, fat, jolly aunt who could really play a hot piano, so I would drag her by the hand to the piano, saying ‘C’mon, Aunt Blanche, play Don’t Fence Me In (Cole Porter) and I’ll sing it for you. At the end of a wharf on the island there was a canning house (a kind of small factory) that canned fish. Almost all the workers were African American. While they worked, they would sing ‘old-timey’ Gospel music and songs from the Old South. It was truly a heavenly chorus that would float across the still water of the cove where we lived. I would sit at the water’s edge and listen to it for hours on end, to the point where I would become entranced by it. So, between ages of 3 to 5, I cut my musical teeth on Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, The Methodist Hymnal and Southern Gospel. Go figure.

Cathy: I know from prior conversations with you that you’ve had many other musical influences and singing experiences. How did you come by those?

Michael: When I was 7 or 8, we moved to New Mexico from Maryland. That was like moving to another planet, both musically and otherwise. Albuquerque was a glorified ‘cow-town’ with 250 years of Hispanic culture there. I attended Catholic school there and became the school choir soloist, singing lots of Gregorian Chant as well as other liturgical/sacred music of Mozart, Cesar Franck, Shubert, Mendelssohn, et al. Meanwhile, three other disparate musical phenomena were happening to me: a daily torrent of Mexican music, mostly Norteno, Ranchero, Mariachi and Flamenco, since Albuquerque was predominantly Mexican American. I still love all that music by Vincente Fernandez, Lola Beltran, and the others. Just yesterday I bought Vicente Fernandez’ new CD of all Agustin Lara songs. Even though it is supposedly from another world of music then the rest of the songs on this CD, I couldn’t help including the romantic Jurame which, by the way, is now in the Hall of Fame of Spanish music. Julio Iglesias sang it on his first Italian-market album (I was living in Rome at the time) and it was a mega-hit. Country Western is what the ‘music-snobs’ called ‘hillbilly’, but which I loved anyway. I knew everything by heart from Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs to Hand Snow, Faron Young, Patsy Cline and the whole lot. My sister used to listen to it all day and my parents used to party at a club called ‘The Hitchin’ Post’ where a group called ‘The Sandia Mountain Boys’ had a then-unknown, novice singer named Glenn Campbell. At the same time that all this was occurring, early rock-n-roll hit the airwaves just as I hit puberty, and the collision of the two caused a major explosion in my life. I ate, drank and slept Carl Perkins, Gene Vincent, Chuck Willis (anybody remember him, besides me?), Laverne Baker, Bill Haley, Elvis and Chuck Berry. I used to mow lawns in my neighborhood to get spending money to buy every new Fats Domino and Chuck Berry 45rpm on the day it would hit the stores. I was a real rock’n’roll baby and kept an interest in that music all the way to Aerosmith and Bon Jovi. So, by the time I was 13 years old, on any given day in my life I would be singing and/or listening to liturgical/sacred music (Gregorian Chant or Classical), Country Western, Mexican (Norteno, Ranchero, Mariachi), Rock’n’Roll and the Hit Parade (Patti Page, Sinatra, et al).

Cathy: How did you come to the music that is on this CD?

Michael: We were transferred to a small, all-Polish immigrant, farming town in Nebraska when I was 15 (don’t ask!). The only meaningful contact I had with the ‘outside world’ during the banishment-to-Siberia period was something called the ‘Columbia Record Club’ in Terre Haute, Indiana. By accident, I ordered all of Ella Fitzgerald’s ‘songbooks’, i.e.: Gershwin, Rodgers & Hart, Cole Porter, etc. I would lie in the dark ‘til 3am on the floor of my ‘rec’ room in the basement where no one asleep upstairs could hear the record player. I memorized every melody and every lyric to every song contained in those albums. All of the music that I had experienced up till that period of my life, I now realize had prepared me to appreciate and love those songs – their sophistication, their renderings, their classicism, etc. That music is unique in that it is one of the only genres of music that, when rendered correctly, can instantly open the heart chakra of both the listener and the singer. There’s nothing else quite like it. Of the many kinds of music that I’ve sung through the years, I can’t think of any other that has that degree of instantaneous heart appeal – with the exception of some Portuguese fado, Neopolitan stornelle or other Latin-based music – certainly nothing in English, except this ‘Great American Songbook’. It makes you feel that ‘you’re home’ – whether you’re the listener or the singer. During all these years that Chet Baker sang in expatriate Paris, this music would ‘do the trick’ for him emotionally. His way of rendering it has influenced me.

Cathy: Did you go on to experience other genres of music once you left the Nebraska town?

Michael: Yes, many. I studied in a bi-lingual French/English monastery about 30 miles from Montreal, the capitol of French-speaking Quebec. After lights-out at night, I would listen under the covers in bed on a portable radio to the French stations and their music. That’s when I first knew and loved Edith Piaf, Juliette Greco, Charles Trenet, Aznavour and the many wonderful French composers like Michel Revgauche, Charles Dumont, Jacques Brel, et al. Many years later, while I was still in the TV mini-series production business, I spent long periods of time on location in Morocco and Tunisia. I fell under the spell of Om Kalsoum, the great Egyptian singer who was broadcast throughout the Middle East. Some of her songs would last for up to four hours! When she died there were 3.5 million people in her funeral train. I tried to convince Hollywood to finance a documentary movie that I had written about her life. It never happened but you should have seen the looks on their faces when I’d arrive at a ‘pitch’ meeting in Beverly Hills with THAT idea! Ha-ha. I have also been a fan of some kinds of Indian music, especially the old Hindu bhajans. I used to meditate at the Vedanta temple in Hollywood where we would sing them at vespers or at the pujas and ram nams. You can get carried away with some of the really ancient ones that can put you into a trance if repeated often enough and correctly. More ‘heart music’.

Cathy: I see that you have a really big collection of Classical music. Has that been a factor in your musical education?

Michael: A huge factor. But it makes you appreciate ‘The Great American Songbook’ even more and, of course, it is common knowledge that you appreciate jazz, in general, so much more because of knowing Classical music. I’m sure that I dig Jean-Luc Ponty and the Jacques Loussier Trio, for example, even more because of having so many uncountable hours of Classical music buzzing around in my conscious and subconscious mind. A lot of jazz has way surpassed Classical music. Many jazz greats were first classicists. Tom Garvin, who did many of the arrangements and accompaniments on this CD, graduated from Peabody and plays a mean Bach cantata when called upon. When I was involved in the historical-subject mini-series production business, we would always look to classically trained or classically oriented composers to compose the scores. We had the great Italian composer, Ennio Morricone, for one series, and Lalo Schifrin, also known for his great jazz, for another series.

Cathy: New York is a major, world music center. You lived there for a number of years. Did you know the music scene there?

Michael: If I was swimming in a sea of various kinds of music while growing up in New Mexico, then I would have to say that I was swimming in an OCEAN of music in New York. I was directly exposed to four different worlds of music during all those years in NYC: Broadway, jazz, classical/opera, and rock. I was close friends with Fred Ebb and John Kander when they were writing their first big Broadway musical, CABARET. So, on a daily basis for more than a year, I was educated in that process of putting together a large musical work from scratch. Through Fred Ebb I met lots of great singers like Joel Grey, Liza Minelli, Lotte Lenya, Marilyn Maye, Barbara Cook, et al. And, of course, I was constantly seeing new Broadway musicals and revivals which renewed and reinforced all the Ella Fitzgerald, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart, Gershwin and Rodgers and Hammerstein songs that I had lived-and-breathed during my teen years in Nebraska. Nearly all of that body of music had come from Broadway in the 30s, 40s, 50s, etc. As the last song on this CD, I did ‘the other baritone song’, This Nearly Was Mine from SOUTH PACIFIC and I did it in the ‘legit’ romantic style of traditional Broadway songs, instead of as a romantic jazz ballad like the majority of the other songs herein. The classical music scene in New York is commonly referred to as ‘57th Street’, where Carnegie Hall, the Russian Tea Room, Steinway & Sons, Columbia Artists Management, etc. are all located. Through knowing Professor Joseph Machlis, who was the ‘dean’ of that scene in those days, it was possible to have conversations with lots of musical giants during lively meals at restaurants, or during intermissions at concerts, socializing at parties, etc. So, I used to ‘chat up’ people like Jennnie Tourel, Leonard Bernstein, Vera and Igor Stravinsky, Earl Wild, Grace Bumbry, Shirley Verret, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Sandor Konya, Zinka Milanov and a long list of others from whom I learned a great deal. I used to buy student discount tickets for $1.75 at the Metropolitan Opera’s standing room area. I couldn’t begin to list all the ‘greats’ that I heard there. The same goes for the New York City Opera directly next door to the Met. Tickets at the NYC Opera were even cheaper than the Met (only $1.25, ha-ha) and if one house was ‘sold out’, I’d walk 20 yards across Lincold Center Plaza to the other one. Years later, I sang some comprimario opera roles such as Prince Yamadori in Madama Butterfly, opposite Maria Pellegrini, a great soprano from La Scala in Milan. Also, I sang Figaro in some concert performances of Le Nozze di Figaro, opposite Marcel Zonta, a Canadian soprano who had been at the Met in New York.

Cathy: What about the renowed New York jazz scene.

Michael: One of my best friends in New York was a singer-pianist-composer, Charles de Forrest, (whom Tony Bennett announced on national television as his favorite composer) who introduced me to the jazz scene and to many jazz musicians whom he knew. We would go to listen to and have fascinating conversations with Marian McPartland, Carmen McCrae, Nina Simone, Eddie Condon, Mabel Mercer, ‘Bricktop’, Alberta Hunter and Bobby Short. Believe it or not, my upstairs neighbor was the great Lena Horne. Fred Ebb introduced me to Bill Evans with the idea that Bill would teach me the foundation of jazz singing. But unfortunately, Bill had to go on a year-long tour, and I took an opportunity to go to school in Rome, Italy. Had a I known what I know now, I would have followed Bill Evans on his tour and learned what I could during his ‘down time’. All in all, New York is a great teacher of music and of life. The most important musical/vocal conclusion I came to from all the experience there was that the human voice is an unflinching mirror that reflects every emotion and thought that the possessor of the voice has, collectively, ever experienced and is momentarily experiencing – both in this lifetime and in previous ones, as well. The depth and quality of the voice is often the depth and quality of the experience of the speaker or singer. Sorry to start ‘waxing philosophical’. My actual university degree is in philosophy, so I tent to drift toward that kind of conversation.

Cathy: Don’t apologize. It’s fascinating. What have you got planned musically for the future?

Michael: Without even thinking about it, I have enough ready material for 3 more CDs waiting to be recorded. This is apart from singing ‘live’ in clubs, or in ‘rooms’, at events, concerts, etc. I’m also wanting to help some really worth musicians get their stuff ‘out there’, as well.

Cathy: So, maybe we can continue this conversation on your next CD…

Michael: If the ‘gods are willing’, we’ll continue on the next one and the one after that, too.

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