Betty Buckley: Where She’s Been, Where She’s Going

By John Amodeo, Contributor

Edge Media Network

March 11, 2015

“I loved Led Zeppelin, all those bands of the ’60s.” says Tony Award-winning Broadway actress Betty Buckley, in a surprising revelation about her musical tastes. “I especially loved Jefferson Airplane because they were very psychedelic, and there was this sense of surrealistic space. I loved the atmosphere of the records.”

In fact atmosphere is very important to Buckley, whose latest studio recording, “Ghostlight” is very much about creating a singular atmosphere for what is an eclectic group of songs. Buckley will share her music from “Ghostlight” this Friday, 3/13 and Saturday, 3/14 at Scullers Jazz Club, Boston, with her musical director and pianist Christian Jacob.

Looking back on Buckley’s recording and concert career, she has always had an eclectic taste in music. Indeed, growing up in Fort Worth, Texas, her mother, Betty Bob, was a big influence on Buckley’s musical theater career, taking her to the local regional theater, Casa Manana, to see Broadway shows, and exposing her to a substantial collection of Original Cast Recordings, especially anything having to do with Julie Andrews.

But in her teens, Buckley would run to Record Town with her babysitting money, and come back with Led Zeppelin, Jefferson Airplane, even Janis Joplin. A child of the ’60s, she imagined she had to head to California to be free of conservative Fort Worth. “I really wanted to go to college in Berkley, but my father said ‘Over my dead body. You will go to Texas Christian University and be happy,'” laments Buckley. “I was also very struck by Janis Joplin. She was from Belmont, Texas and I thought, ‘Well, Hell, if she can go out and sing like that, well so can I.'”

Finding the right atmosphere

In addition to the socio-politically-charged music of the ’60s, Buckley gravitated to World Music, like Antonio Carlos Jobim, and Brazil 66, and the jazzier sounds of Dave Brubeck and Andre Previn, as well as Henry Mancini’s scores for film and television. For her, much of the appeal was the atmosphere they created.

And atmosphere is exactly what Buckley wanted for “Ghostlight,” with the help of an old friend from Fort Worth, multi-Grammy Award-winning and Oscar-winning Record producer, T Bone Burnett. Burnett called her up a few years ago suggesting they record an album together. Burnett suggested they begin with some 75 songs she had been singing in concert, which they narrowed down to 12, including songs from musical theater, like “Come to Me, Bend to Me” (“Brigadoon”), “Bewitched” (“Pal Joey”) and “This Nearly Was Mine” (“South Pacific”), and “Lazy Afternoon” (“The Golden Apple”); plus songs from the Great American Songbook, such as “Blue Skies,” and “Body and Soul.” In addition there are songs by jazz and folk contemporary writers such as Abbey Lincoln, Tom Waits, and Mary Chapin Carpenter.

But perhaps the most evocative of the atmosphere that Buckley and Burnett aimed to create is “Comin’s Back to Me,” a Jefferson Airplane song, written by Marty Balin. On this and a number of other songs on the recording, Bill Frissel’s acoustic guitar combines with the unique sounds of Chas Smith to create a real mystique. “He’s quite a genius guy,” remarks Buckley. “He plays pedal steel guitar, and makes these strange fascinating instruments [like running a bow across glass] that he has in his home studio; we did the overdubs with the pedal steel guitar and his wonderful home-made instruments to create this haunting atmosphere on the record.” It is in fact that atmosphere that Buckley and Burnett wanted to unify the ensemble of songs. “I think we captured that on the ‘Ghostlight’ record. The real sense of place, and an expansive sense of space,” concludes Buckley.

Full circle

“Ghostlight,” as a recording, allows their partnership to come full circle. Buckley and Burnett grew up together in Fort Worth, where Burnett was 17 when he started his own recording studio “and I was a girl singer about town,” adds Buckley. Two years later, when they were both 19, Burnett recorded Buckley’s first album, now known as “Betty Buckley 1967,” which didn’t get a formal release until 40 years later, in 2007. There were only 2 original copies of the recording, one of whom she gave to her first agent, Roger Hess, who went on to become a big Broadway producer, and one copy to her mother. She’d sent Hess the recording right after it was made, and he had held on to it. In 2007, Hess played the recording for the publisher of the theater magazine Playbill, Phil Birsh, who was just starting a record label, and Phil wanted to release it on his new label.

“I was a little conflicted about it,” admits Buckley. “I hadn’t heard it in a number of years. But when I listened again, there was something really sweet about that girl’s voice.” Buckley often used her mother as a career adviser so before she decided, she had to first listen to it through her mother’s ears. “My mother’s my sounding board,” Buckley admits. “I play everything I do for her, and when I do, I inevitably hear from her something that needs to be fixed or what’s acceptable that I’ve been maybe too hard on myself about.” With her mother’s support, Buckley agreed to have it released, even though she was more concerned about finding someone to release her then just-completed recording “Quintessence,” for which she hadn’t yet found a distributor. Fortunately, Birsh agreed to release both, and in 2007, both were released on Playbill Records.

When Buckley speaks, she is very grounded, thoughtful, and clear. She appears to know exactly where she’s been, where she is now, and where she needs to be going. She isn’t interested in resting on her laurels, numerous as they are, such as Broadway, where she won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actress in a Musical for her poignant portrayal of Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, in Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cats.” She has followed that with noteworthy turns in “Triumph of Love,” and “Mystery of Edwin Drood” (as the title character), and donning the turban as Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard.”

A different path

She is as well known in London’s West End as she is on Broadway, having been nominated for the Olivier Award for “Sunset Boulevard” in the West End, before replacing Glenn Close as Desmond on Broadway. She has done film, appearing as the gym teacher in Brian De Palma’s original “Carrie,” and as country singer Dixie Scott in “Tender Mercies.” She may be known best of all to television fans for her work in “Eight is Enough” and the HBO series “Oz.” In 2012, she was inducted into the American Theater Hall of Fame.

But if it were up to her father, she would have taken a very different path. “My father was very, very strict, and told me that I could not be a singer/actress, but that I could have a profession, but it could only be pursued in support of my husband-to-be’s profession,” groused Buckley. “None of it made any sense to me. I was pretty much a rebel in my thinking from an early age.” In spite of the sexist environment in which she grew up, Buckley observed the double standard in relationships around her, where cheating on one’s spouse, and other hurtful behavior, was acceptable for men, but not for women. In college in the ’60’s, Buckley became “a charter subscriber” to Ms. Magazine, and a fan of its co-founder Gloria Steinem.

“They gave words to the feelings I had,” recalled Buckley. “I always felt to be a humanist, you had to be a feminist, and believe in equality of the sexes. I couldn’t see that we were really that different.”

This presented Buckley with a conundrum as a performer, and trying to find role models among the great female singers. “I noticed that many of them had thwarted relationships and had problems with drugs and alcohol, and I thought, ‘Why does that need to be?'” Buckley queried. “And the great lady singers sung about such heartache. When I was very young, I thought, I don’t want to be like that. I didn’t want to sing about love and loss the rest of my life, even though it goes with the territory of being a lady singer.” Though she did finally make a recording of torch songs at the insistence of record producer Tom Shepard, she has generally eschewed those “Man Done Me Wrong” ballads, in favor of songs with more empowering messages.

Moving to NYC

Growing up as an aspiring actress, Buckley dreamed of going to NYC, escaping in such films as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “Two for the Road,” and television series like “Peter Gunn,” each with those jazzy and evocative Henry Mancini musical scores that created that NYC atmosphere. “They gave me a sense of what NYC would be like,” explains Buckley. “And [in those films] all the people in NYC had these floor-to-ceiling glass windows; I thought everybody in NYC lived like that. I just loved that music. It had that sense of place. And a place I was going to go live, and a way I was going to live.” Buckley included Mancini’s “Dreamsville,” from the “Peter Gunn” series on “Ghostlight,” as a nod to her NYC teenage dreams.

But getting to NYC was a more complicated road, with many detours. Having started performing at the age of 11, and professionally since 15, Buckley was well-known enough at 20 to be invited to be a guest entertainer at the Miss America Pageant. A NYC agency had viewed the Pageant, and invited Buckely to audition for the agency in NYC. When she did, the chief agent said “Sign her,” and assigned her to Roger Hess, then a junior agent. So far, so good.

But Buckley wanted to finish college, and Hess granted her a deferral of her agency contract until her graduation. But after graduation, in 1968, she was invited to join Miss America on a USO tour of US Military Bases in Korea, and US wounded in hospitals in Japan, sent there from Viet Nam because they were not well enough to be shipped to the US. “We were both 21, and we went to all these intensive care units, and we saw the results of war, at 21,” Buckley says soberly. “I came back really stressed, with this delayed stress reaction to all the things we’d witnessed in Korea and Japan. I lost all sense of my dream of going to NY, because it all seemed pretty trivial.”

Hess kept calling, and she demurred, until finally, he invited her mother and her to see this industrial show for BF Goodrich in Dallas, where she was, surprise, called up to sing, to great audience response, and she was put in the show, which toured the country, landing finally in Philadelphia. There, she got another call from Hess, offering her another industrial, this time in NYC for the department store Gimbel’s. Her day job back in Fort Worth as a journalist for a local newspaper said they would keep her job waiting for her, and encouraged her to take the offer, as did her friends and her mother. Her father was the only naysayer, but at this point she had too much momentum behind her, and she accepted, taking the train direct from Philadelphia to NY.

Moving to LA

Buckley arrived in NYC, checked into the Barbizon Hotel for Women, and promptly called her agent, Hess to let him know she’d arrived, but to a surprising welcome. “He said, ‘You have an audition in 15 minutes. Can you go?'” mused Buckley. So she went, and she sang in front of 11 guys, “who looked pretty important.” At this point, the 21-year old Buckley didn’t know what to do. “After I sang, they asked, ‘Who are you?’ and I said ‘Betty Lynn Buckley.’ And they said, ‘When did you get to town?’ And I said, ‘Today.’ And they said ‘Today!’ It was like a movie.”

Buckley was asked to stick around, and run scenes with other actors. “The stage manager came out, asked me, ‘Do you know what this is for? ‘And I said, ‘No.’ He said this is for the musical ‘1776’ for the role of Martha Jefferson, and he said ‘If you get this part, you will be luckiest little girl I’ve ever met,'” recalled Buckley. When they taught her the song “He Played the Violin,” they tried different keys, and discovered that she could sing it as a legitimate soprano or a high belter.

“They were intrigued by that because it left them with all these possibilities with what they could do with the part,” noted Buckley. “They had initially cast a conventional soprano in the role, a lovely girl. And that territory of the show wasn’t working to their satisfaction, but they didn’t know what they really wanted. So they reopened the auditions and I came in offering them options.” And we know now which option they chose, with Buckley giving us one of the most thrilling renditions of “He Played the Violin” ever to be recorded, her signature high belt in full throttle.

It would be years before she returned to Broadway, however, instead, going out to LA to film “Carrie” and to do the television series “Eight Is Enough,” before landing “Cats.” That was a stressful time for her, but led her to meditation, which she claims has been at the root of her success. “I was really burned out by the whole experience of making the film, that whole LA lifestyle,” grumbles Buckley. “I had a real lack of focus and sense of purpose in show business, and the meditation was really transforming. And I started feeling better immediately.”

Saving Rufus

She began practicing yoga and meditation regularly, traveled to India three times, and met with learned people there. “I found a way of working in my acting and storytelling and singing that was a very focused thing, and my work started to open up in a way that I hadn’t thought possible, and people started responding to my work very differently during those years. I would say it is all because of the meditation.”

While in India, she studied comparative religions, which revealed a whole new area of understanding. “What I learned is that there is an essential truth that we all have in common. That’s the core of every religion or major philosophy on our planet, a kind of heart-to-heart sensibility that is the essence of who we all are,” she explains. “The world is a very complicated and distracting place, that can have you thinking all kinds of things about the world and the people who inhabit it that aren’t true. Then we get lost in that chaos.” She uses this to great effect in her performing. “That sense of appreciation, love, and compassion is really at the heart of being a good storyteller in our culture. I attribute every good thing I’ve ever done to meditation.”

Well maybe not every good thing. Buckley changed the shape of the musical landscape by saving the life of a 4-year old Rufus Wainwright in 1977, though she didn’t know who he was at the time. Poolside at the Chateau Marmont, in LA, Buckley, seeing this young boy floundering in the pool, and that his parents weren’t watching, jumped into the pool and saved him. “Years and years later, my sound guy was working for him in a concert, and Rufus told the story of me saving him, and my sound guy called me and he said ‘OMG, you saved Rufus Wainwright from drowning!’ And I said, ‘Really, was it Rufus?’ I was so excited. So I saved Rufus Wainwright,” marvels Buckley.

This isn’t surprising to anyone who can see that Buckley is an active participant in life. It is clear that she creates the stepping-stones to her own destiny, following in the footsteps of those she admires. “All my role models, they inspired in me or invoked in me a very dreamy world that I wanted to be a part of. All the musicians that I’ve loved the most did that for me. Provide a sense of place, an atmosphere that I want to reside in.” And though we might not expect it, she is creating that atmosphere for us when she sings, though with an unexpected twist. “I sing from the core of my being,” reveals Buckley, “And at that core is the world of Julie Andrews,’ then adding, with a laugh, ‘with the soul of Janis Joplin.'”

Betty Buckley appears on Friday and Saturday, March 13 & 14, Showtimes: 8 & 10 p.m. at Scullers Jazz Club at the Doubletree Suites by Hilton Hotel Boston, 400 Soldiers Field Road, Boston, MA 02134.