Betty Buckley on Her Life, Career and New Collaboration with T Bone Burnett
By Jeryl Brunner
By the time she was just 19, Betty Buckley was already a veteran performer singing with a jazz trio at the Casa Del Sol Supper Club in her native Fort Worth. At 15, she had made her professional debut playing Dainty June in Gypsy. By 16, she had done legions of shows in Six Flags Over Texas musical revues and worked in summer stock and children’s theater. “I wanted to go to school at Berkeley and be part of the music scene in the 60s,” says Buckley. “But my mother said, ‘no, you have to be like Julie Andrews.’ And I’d say, ‘I love Janis Joplin mom. I can sing like that.”
It was understandable that Buckley’s mother, Betty Bob, strongly felt that her accomplished 19-year-old daughter needed an archive tape of her dazzling and unique vibrato. So Betty Bob turned to her good friend Hazel Vernon whose son, also 19, had owned a recording studio since he was 17. (Also, he had known Betty Buckley for years.)
The recording was made in one day. It was the very first time that Buckley’s voice was recorded on an archive tape. She sang standards like “They Can’t Take That Away from Me” and “My Funny Valentine.” And the studio owner who engineered and produced Buckley’s recording? He was a kid named T Bone Burnett. (Yes, the same 13-time Grammy Award winning songwriter, producer, performer and musical mastermind, T Bone Burnett.)
Fast forward to 2007 when Playbill Records/Sony BMG released those archive recordings in vinyl and CD. It was called “Betty Buckley: 1967” and hailed as the first record Buckley never had. Burnett, who had remained friends with Buckley throughout the years, was very touched by what they had done when they were just in their teens. “T Bone said he wept when he heard it,” recalls Buckley. And in fact, he felt that the duo should make a new record together. “It was really a very generous gift from him, a real gift of love,” says the Tony-Award winning actress and singer whose work continues to flourish in film, television and concert halls around the world.
How did they decide which material to record? “There were about 75 songs that I’d been singing and loved for years and years in concerts, and I had not recorded them,” says Buckley. “We listened to board mixes that my wonderful sound man Terry Gabis had been collecting through the years at various concerts.”
Then they narrowed down a massive list of songs down to 55, then 25, and ultimately 12. They came up with an eclectic mix from Tom Waits to Mary Chapin Carpenter to torch songs and Broadway standards. “Every song has a particular resonance to me. Like “Dreamsville,”” explains Buckley. “I was a huge Henry Mancini fan browning up. And Breakfast at Tiffany’s changed my life”
Burnett’s dreamy and haunting concept? Imagine a smoky club in 1950 Los Angeles, “where very dangerous men and glamorous women go to hear to a girl singer and her band tell true stories about life in the city,” offers Buckley. “T Bone said the genre is like crime jazz. It’s when the theater is dark.” So Buckley responded, “It’s like the ghostlight.”
And she explained to Burnett that in the theater when a performance ends its run, there’s a tradition that a bald light bulb on a single stand is placed in the middle of the stage to keep the ghosts company after the performance. “All these years whenever do a show, I always go back into the theater in the atmosphere of the ghostlight and thank the spirits of the theater for the experience. I ask them to bless me to come back,” says Buckley. “The ghostlight really evokes the atmosphere of the record. And she found that “Ghostlight” is unlike anything she has ever done. “T Bone said when people hear this record, I want them to have no idea who Betty Buckley is – because Betty you only wanted to be the singer with the band.”
This past September the haunting, deeply satisfying and eclectic “Ghostlight” was released by Palmetto Records. In addition to the CD, a special limited edition art box is available.It contains 2 separate vinyl records of the complete Ghostlight recording, a twenty four page booklet of photos and notes, a “Ghostlight” CD and promo Ghostlight CD, “Bootleg: Board mixes from the Road.”
Buckley offered insight about her life and career.
What is exciting about releasing Ghostlight?
This record is more true to the real essence of who I am as a person. I grew up in Texas, and T-Bone grew up in Texas, and we’re just a couple of Texas kids that have pursued our love for music in different paths. We have gotten back together and combined our feelings for music to create this album.
When did you know you had to become a performer?
When I was 11, my mother took me to my first musical theater production at our regional theater. It was Pajama Game with original Bob Fosse choreography. When I saw the number “Steam Heat” I had this epiphany which I didn’t know was called an epiphany. I just felt this spirit rise up inside me that said, “That’s it, that’s what you’re going to be doing for the rest of your life.” Then when I was 13, I remember standing in my bedroom practicing singing with a record playing. And I looked out across the west Texas plain, and I had a really clear vision that I would be going to New York City and that I would be a Broadway leading lady, and that my voice would grow and resonate in a way that affected people in a good way.
Years and years later when I was 35 and in the show Cats, they brought my recording of Memory to my dressing room at the Winter Garden Theatre for me to hear. And that 13-year-old vision flashed by my mind’s eye in remembrance, and I thought, oh, I forgot about that. But I realized I had grown into that person.
What might surprise people about you?
T-Bone really wanted to present a recording that really is about the soul of who I am. Different people know me for different reasons. Some people knew me because of the television show Eight Is Enough in the early 80s. Some people know me from all my work on Broadway, from my work in Cats. Other people know me from my work in the the HBO show Oz.
The association with me as a singer is as a Broadway singer, but I’ve always been a person who’s been attracted to very beautiful story-songs that come from different places – some country, pop, traditional, Broadway songbook, American standards. I’ve been singing since I was 2 and through my teachers discovered the unique quality of my voice when I was 11. I’ve been performing professionally since I was 15. I learned to sing listening to all the great lady singers, like Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughn, Della Reese and Cleo Laine. So with every recording of 16 solo recordings that I released, the source material is always very eclectic.
Can you offer advice to someone who want to become a performer?
To have longevity in this business, you have to really devote yourself to the craft of acting, storytelling, music and song. I still study, and I always will, with a brilliant teacher. And I’ve had a series of brilliant teachers that have taught me everything that I do well. It’s necessary. Like being an athlete, you have to have a coach. You have to have outside eyes that keep you from developing bad habits and keep you working rightly. And as you change, your body changes, everything changes. You have to keep working to keep your instrument really flexible, and your accessibility to your heart and soul. And all that takes a great deal of work and discipline.
Fortunately, when I was a younger performer, I knew that my best work would be in my later years. So I have worked to become a better communicator, a better storyteller, and that has been the source of my love, and has sustained me. Show business has so many ups and downs. It’s very mercurial and cyclical. One day people think you’re wonderful, the next day they won’t return your calls. One day you’re up, the next day you’re down. When that happens, I sustain myself by my love for my art and don’t look to the external to give me approval. You have to keep remembering that you’re okay exactly the way you are. I’m doing the work, and then attempting to share with the world. Sometimes people really appreciate that, and sometimes they don’t. And that’s not your business. Your business is to do your work. You need to put your focus on love for the craft. And if you do that, the rest seems to take care of itself.
Some of Betty Buckley’s upcoming concert and workshop dates are listed below. To learn more about her concert schedule, visit bettybuckley.com.
January 17: The Annenberg Theater in Palm Springs, CA
January 18 – 22: Masterclass Workshop, Los Angeles
January 24: The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, CA
February 27 & 28: The Colony Theater in Miami, FL
March 13 & 14: Scullers in Boston
March 28: McDavid Theater at Bass Hall in Fort Worth, TX