The Accidental Crooner

By Steven Libowitz   |   October 3, 2019

The Great American Songbook has captivated singers from Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra to modern pop stars such as Rod Stewart and Linda Ronstadt. But rarely has success with the timeless tunes from the 1930s-50s come so surprisingly as with Steve Tyrell.

Lobero Theatre Associates presents An Evening with Steve Tyrell at the Lobero on Friday, October 4

A throaty crooner with roots in Houston’s gritty Italian neighborhood whose first love was blues and R&B, Tyrell first fronted a stage band as a Texas teen before relocating to New York at 18, where he landed a staff position at Scepter Records, the Brill Building’s soulful sister. Eventually as the label’s head of A&R, Tyrell promoted Dionne Warwick’s take on Burt Bacharach/Hal David compositions and championed singer B.J. Thomas, producing the latter’s hits “Hooked on a Feeling” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head.” Tyrell also co-wrote the top-selling No. 1 hit “How Do You Talk to an Angel” for the Heights and the Jamie Walters hit “Hold On,” and began working on music for film (Mystic Pizza, Midnight Crossing) and TV.

It wasn’t until 1991 that Tyrell returned to recording himself, when his take on “The Way You Look Tonight” landed on the soundtrack to Father of the Bride, and it took an additional eight years for Tyrell to release his first album, A New Standard, chock full of his versions of selections from the Songbook, which spent two years on the jazz charts. Its success launched a dozen ensuing records over the last 20 years that have all landed atop or near No. 1 on the charts. His interpretations of “Crush On You,” “The Sunny Side of the Street,” and other standards have become hits, and, most notably, Tyrell took over at the Cafe Carlyle after Bobby Short’s famous 35-year residency ended with his passing in 2005. His unexpected performing career brings him back to the Lobero Theatre on Friday night, October 4.

Q. You were a recording artist before anything else, what led you to stop doing that and turn to writing, producing and A&R work?

A. I was never all that comfortable being a performer. When I look back on it, I now know why. All the songs from my youth were done by tenors who sang much higher than I do – things like “My Girl” – they were up in the high range. But I’m a baritone. I don’t like singing that high. I didn’t enjoy it. I’d get hoarse. It took me years to realize that I didn’t have to do the songs in the same key, only when I started producing. All the standards work in the baritone range. After I rediscovered my voice singing in the movies, it was much easier to do the standards than the high doo wop songs that I started with.

How did you get “discovered” again as a singer?

Barry Mann and I had moved out to California and started a company for making music for films. Every once in a while I’d sing just to make a demo, and the directors sometimes said let’s just use that, because I was a lot cheaper than, say, Ray Charles. That’s what happened in Bride. They asked me if I could find a sentimental version of it. They loved what I gave them and asked who was singing, and it was me. So they put me in the movie and it was a big hit.

So why did it take until the end of the decade for you to make an album?

I wasn’t in any hurry. It was more like, “I’m on a soundtrack. That’s cool.” The whole experience was fun, but it wasn’t like I was trying to be a recording artist. I was producing Linda Ronstadt. I was getting songs into movies. I didn’t have any interest in becoming an artist in the grunge era when all the songs were about committing suicide. I couldn’t imagine a record company caring about a guy singing standards in the midst of Soundgarden and Nirvana. But after the second FOTB movie came out, NASA called me to say that they were using “On the Sunny Side of the Street”’ to wake up the astronauts. Then (Atlantic) heard me in the movie, and they called me and told me they’d release my album.

What is it about the Great American Songbook for you?

I’m a R&B/soul guy. I fell in love with the standards as a kid because my mother played Sinatra all the time. But I was more into Ray Charles, Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin. “The Way You Look Tonight” was the first standard I ever sang in my life! I mean, it was my mother’s music. Who wants to sing that?

Obviously you’ve come to terms with it.

I just love singing them, man! Those songs fell in love with me too. We make a good combination. When I figured out my voice, all of a sudden the greatest songs of all time were opened up to me and they’re unbelievable. I look forward to different ways of recording them. What makes the standards so great is that you can make the songs your own. There’s so much room for interpretation. I just sing them as me. They come out in their own way.

You’re known for a great stage presence. What’s the secret to being a good storyteller/entertainer beyond the actual music?

Knowing the history of the business. I’ve been blessed to be in some incredible situations. The Crusaders, Joe Sample, lived on my street in Houston. I moved to New York and got slap dabbed in the middle of the Brill Building. The first person I met was Carole King. With Scepter I’d go up to the Apollo Theater. I got BJ Thomas signed. I met Elvis in Memphis when I was working with BJ, and worked on Suspicious Minds, which became the biggest record of his career. All this stuff that’s historic I saw first-hand.

And it feels like all of that comes out in the way you approach the standards.

It’s just the way I sing. I’m a blues based guy. Everything I sing has some kind of R&B in it. All those songs are very soulful and heartfelt and they work just fine with someone who isn’t proper, who has his own take. When I sing them, they get a taste of the blues. 

Pop Notes 

The Cambridge Drive Concert Series launches its new season with singer-songwriter Jen Hajj on Friday, October 4, at Cambridge Drive Community Church, 550 Cambridge Drive, Goleta… Iconic Irish soulful singer-songwriter Van Morrison returns to the Santa Barbara Bowl on Saturday, October 5… The Beatunes, who play SOhO on Sunday, October 6, have a bit of a novelty act going: They just play Beatles songs without trying to imitate the legendary band, meaning no costumes, no wigs, and no phony accents, just the songs… Folk guitarist and raconteur Leo Kottke leans into the Lobero on Tuesday, October 8.

‘Measure’ Up

Ensemble Theatre Company launches its 2019-20 season with a contemporary look at Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure helmed by ETC Artistic Director Jonathan Fox, running October 5-20. One of the Bard’s more beguiling plays, Measure for Measure takes on additional resonance in today’s #MeToo culture as it dramatizes one of Shakespeare’s more gut-wrenching bargains of a young woman’s virginity in exchange for her brother’s life. Adding to its currency, ETC’s story of tyrannical authority, sexual power and gender politics is set in a contemporary landscape. The cast includes Lily Gibson, who bewitchingly played the title character in ETC’s 2016 production of Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll, Ak Murtadha, who previously appeared at ETC in Macbeth and Intimate Apparel, and Trevor Peterson who starred in ETC’s well-received Dancing Lessons and Death of a Salesman earlier this year.

Bread and Roses, and Beyond

The popular community dinner passed the quarter-century mark as a highlight on the annual tasting events calendar last fall, and shows no signs of slowing down. The event is not only one of the best bargains in the busy business of benefits boasting an affordable price for an afternoon that includes food and drink from a sizeable swatch of favorite local restaurants, wineries and breweries, inspiring talks from progressive speakers, and a boatload of auction items, it also takes place at a spectacular site with panoramic ocean views that’s rarely open to the public. Serving as the Fund for Santa Barbara’s most important fundraiser, the event adopted a title that comes from slogan for many progressive struggles in the United States – with “Bread” representing a living wage and “Roses” referring to workers’ desire for dignity and respect. That same spirit of collective action and coalition-building marks the Fund’s support of grassroots activists and community organizations working for social, economic, environmental and political change. Admission to the 3-7 pm benefit at QAD Headquarters, 100 Innovation Place, Summerland, on Saturday, October 4, is just $75, Call (805) 962-9164 or visit

Further south, the annual Avocado Festival takes over downtown Carpinteria over the October 4-6 weekend, anchored by the world’s largest vat of guacamole and all things avocado related, plus lots of music, crafts, art and more.

Heading north, the Chumash Inter-Tribal Pow Wow brings together multiple Native American traditions and dance, music and crafts at Live Oak Campground October 5-6.


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