Betty Buckley’s new ‘Ghostlight’ is a Hauntingly Beautiful Homecoming

By Alexandra MacAaron

Women’s Voices for Change

December 9, 2014

In one of theater’s most treasured traditions, a single lamp is left alight onstage each evening. The bare bulb, a ritual that originated in the British stage, is there to appease the spirits left behind when the actors and audience have left. This is the “ghost light,” and it’s a perfect metaphor for Betty Buckley’s new album, an eclectic collection of haunting standards, rock, and country and torch songs.

Buckley is one of those rare and magnificent birds of show business. Once called the “Voice of Broadway” by New York magazine, she is equally at home onstage and onscreen. Her credits include Cats (she won a Tony Award as Broadway’s original Grizabella), Triumph of Love (second Tony Nomination), The Mystery of Edwin Drood, and more. (I first saw her as Catherine in Pippin back in 1975.) Buckley is a great diva—in the most flattering interpretation of the word; she’s very quick to tell you that despite two years in Sunset Boulevard (Olivier Nomination) in London and New York, she’s no Norma Desmond. After a delightful hour with her on the telephone, I have to agree.

In addition to theater, film, and television work, Buckley enjoys a thriving career as a singer and song stylist. She has released 16 solo albums and is recognized as one of the biggest names in cabaret. Now that she’s in her mid-sixties, it’s tempting to say that she continues to reinvent herself. But in some ways, Ghostlight is more of a homecoming.

Betty Lynn Buckley grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. From the time she was little she had a big voice. She began her storied career singing with jazz combos. Sumter Bruton, a friend, mentor, and her first drummer, ran Record Town, where all of the local musicians gathered. “It was a great record store,” Buckley recalls, “Every kind of music was available there. So our education had an expanse to it, thanks to Sumter and his family.” This ecumenical appreciation for all varieties of music is evident in Buckley’s body of work, and particularly showcased on Ghostlight.

Two of Buckley’s close friends from her Fort Worth teens were Sumter’s son, guitarist/songwriter Stephen Bruton, and the now legendary producer T Bone Burnett. When they were both 19 years old, Burnett (who already had his own studio) produced Buckley’s very first recording. Many years later it was released by Playbill Records and Sony BMG as Betty Buckley 1967. Buckley went to New York soon after that recording and was immediately cast as Martha Jefferson in 1776.

During the next few decades, Buckley became a renowned stage star, but kept in touch with her old friends. Burnett often suggested that they record another album, but his projects—and hers—kept them apart. “I think he was always sincere,” Buckley assured me, “but he’s a very busy guy, busy with big stars like the Rolling Stones and Elton John and Robert Plant. So I never had any expectation of [our working together again] happening, and then when it did, it was a huge, huge gift from him.”

Buckley credits a confluence of events—or as she puts it, “a series of momentous experiences”—for bringing Ghostlight to fruition. After a heartbreaking battle with throat cancer, their mutual friend Stephen Bruton passed away. Buckley credits Bruton with helping her restore her focus as an artist after the dark days following 9/11. “I lost my faith in my creativity after 9/11 and it really scared me. Since I was a child I always had a vision of what I wanted to do, and then I would find out what I needed to learn to achieve that goal. Then I’d work hard and move onto my next goal. I called Stephen to check in after 9/11 and I burst into tears and asked if he would come to New York and help me find my vision again.” Bruton did come, and helped Buckley put together a new band and beautiful collection of music called Deep in the Heart.

Bruton’s death affected Buckley and Burnett profoundly. “It was really shocking to all of us,” Buckley remembers. “He was an actor and a guitarist and he’d worked with everyone. He was a beautiful man, and deeply loved.” Soon after, Burnett produced an album for Elton John, a collaboration with—and tribute to—Leon Russell, and when he finished, he called Buckley. “Let’s make our record,” he said.

From the start, Burnett had a very specific concept in mind. He envisioned “a mysterious, smoky place—a small, dark theater somewhere in downtown Los Angeles where dangerous men and glamorous woman convene to hear this singer and her band tell true stories about life in the city. There is something coming from outside, something apocalyptic. It’s Crime Jazz.”

This description inspired Buckley, and she came up with the name Ghostlight.

From its inception, Ghostlight was no ordinary project. “T Bone wanted there to be an art box,” Buckley explains, “A limited-edition art box with two vinyl records of the album, and a booklet with pictures and liner notes, and then two CDs, Bootleg: Boardmixes from the Road and Ghostlight. He told me that was part of my job assignment, to make sure that this art box was part of the release.”

Ghostlight is a disarmingly intimate collection of songs, spanning several decades and a breadth of genres—a carefully curated mix (12 songs, culled from an initial list of 55), ranging from Irving Berlin to Mary Chapin Carpenter, Jacques Brel to Tom Waits. It captures the mood Burnett described perfectly. Buckley’s renditions of those “true stories” do transport you to that smoky and mysterious theater.

Tracks include sensual takes on familiar standards like “Blue Skies” and “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” and a deeply resonant version of Brel’s “If You Go Away”; as well as a fresh interpretation of Jefferson Airplane’s “Comin’ Back to Me.” The centerpiece of the album is a languid rendition of “Lazy Afternoon,” which runs just over 10 minutes. Buckley and Burnett have added an improvised, psychedelic atmosphere to the more familiar Streisand version.

In the album’s liner notes, Burnett writes, “One of the amazing things about Betty is that as good as she was when we started, she has kept getting better.” Indeed, this ambitious album requires—and absolutely benefits from—a more mature perspective.

My favorite song on Ghostlight, at once heartbreaking and uplifting—as so much of the album is—is “Throw It Away,” by Abbey Lincoln.

I think about the life I live

A figure made of clay

And think about the things I lost

The things I gave away . . .

If you have any regrets whatsoever (and who does not?), I dare you to listen to Buckley’s soulful rendition without a Kleenex handy.

Ghostlight is available as a commemorative limited edition art box and as a CD.

Buckley will perform Ghostlight in concert with a six-piece band on January 24 at the new Wallis Annenberg Theater in Los Angeles. On January 17 she’ll join pianist Christian Jacob in concert at the Annenberg in Palm Springs. And she’ll be giving a Song Interpretation/Monologue Workshop in LA from January 18 to 22.

Coming soon: another post on Betty Buckley, “I Forgot to Get My Cutting Horse”—Betty Buckley and her quest.