Betty Buckley on her signature song and new album
By Sarah Rodman
March 12, 2015
For years, Betty Buckley and T Bone Burnett talked about making a record.
Last year the legendary singer-actress and the producer — lifelong friends who grew up together in Fort Worth — finally did, releasing the superb “Ghostlight.” It came 46 years after Burnett first committed a 19-year-old Buckley’s voice to tape.
She sent that tape to an agent who wisely snapped her up, launching a remarkable career that has spanned nearly 50 years of Broadway, television, film, and concert appearances.
Whether singing “Memory” as Grizabella in the original Broadway production of “Cats,” meeting a sad demise in “Carrie,” playing stepmom Abby to the brood on “Eight Is Enough,” logging time in maximum security on “Oz,” or playing an outsize grandmother on “Pretty Little Liars,” Buckley has done it all.
“I have been very blessed,” says Buckley on the phone from her ranch in Texas. “I am very grateful that I’m still given license to be creative and do work. Besides our culture being afraid of anything they can’t categorize easily, we’re also not very kind on an ageist basis, so I’m really glad to be a mature artist that’s still doing creative work.”
She adds a new chapter with “Ghostlight,” a mesmerizing collection that represents almost every genre of music that interests her, from Broadway to folk to pop.
Buckley comes to Scullers Friday and Saturday for four shows in support of “Ghostlight.” In a recent conversation, we learned, among other things, what audiences will need to do in order to hear her sing “Memory
Q. “Ghostlight” has a very dreamy feel, as if you and your impeccable combo are playing in the listener’s living room. Was intimacy the watchword in the studio?
A. Yeah, and I think a sense of expanse, a real sense of haunting atmosphere. [Burnett] had a really clear idea. He really directed us very cinematically, like a filmmaker does, which was great. He played us a clip from “To Have and Have Not.” He said “It’s like a club in 1950s LA and these very dangerous men and glamorous women go to this club to be soothed by this singer and this band and listen to stories of life in the city. That’s what we’re doing here.”
Q. You took the TV singing shows to task a few years back for wielding the word “Broadway” as if it were a criticism.
A. Just Randy Jackson’s comments on “Idol.” I had been watching for some time, and the way they always dissed a singer they didn’t like by saying they were too Broadway or theatrical, I finally had enough of it. It was just absurd to me. And for heaven’s sakes, these days these big pop concerts, what they’re doing is entirely theatrical. And every kind of music is represented in Broadway. There is no Broadway style. Broadway is a place and completely comprehensive in what it presents stylistically. I finally had enough and went into this rant on Twitter, and it got picked up everywhere. It was hilarious, even TMZ called me. And [former “Idol” producer] Nigel Lythgoe wrote me and said, “This is what I think he means.” And I said, “I don’t care what he thinks he means, you need to talk to him and he needs not to say that anymore.” Then a year or two went by and I encountered Randy Jackson in the lobby of [a hotel]. I went up to him and [introduced myself] and he looked really nervous and said, “Oh, hi, Betty, I have lots of friends who are on Broadway!” I said “Yes, I know you do, and many of your ‘Idol’ contestants do Broadway.” What upset me about it was they were informing a whole younger generation of people that watch that show that somehow Broadway was less. That really upset me, especially when they utilize Broadway to their own advantage. It just was not cool.
Q. Do you still get recognized from “Eight Is Enough”?
A. Sometimes. If I’m standing at a cosmetics counter in a department store and someone hears my voice, which I find interesting and strange, that it’s not necessarily what I look like but my speaking voice. People recognize me for different things. This was odd. I was going to Florida to do two concerts, and when I arrived at baggage claim, these two guys came up to me with pictures from all my recent work. I was like, “Oh my God, how did you know?” And they said, “Our colleague saw you board the plane in Dallas and called us and let us know you were coming.” It was hilarious.
Q. At your live shows, is “Memory” obligatory or can you get away with skipping it?
A. Generally, I use it as an encore and if the audience is really with me in the music for the evening then I offer them that. (Laughs.)
Q. So we should tell them to be good?
A. Yes, exactly. (Laughs.) I know that sounds a little silly, but I feel that really strongly. But interestingly and kindly enough and generously enough, I haven’t had to leave it out for a while. (Laughs.)
Q. Do you have any idea how many times you’ve sung it?
A. I’ve never counted, and I’ve never grown tired of it. It’s a real blessing in my life to have a signature song at all, and to have that song be “Memory.” First of all it’s beautiful, and it’s also a very definitive place in my experience. As soon as I hear the opening chords I’m immediately in that place and it’s always the same place, it’s an environment where Grizabella lived and it’s a very beautiful world that she sees. So I love to visit with her in her song every time I sing it.
Interview was edited and condensed.