Andrew Heller: Reflections on The Great American Songbook

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Andrew Heller, a classically trained tenor known as the Renaissance Man for his contributions to technology and music, has created a critically acclaimed tribute to the Chairman of the Board, Frank Sinatra.

Peter Bay, Austin Symphony Musical Director, has said “Andrew Heller has the vocal quality and range to make any singer jealous!”

In January, Heller performs at The Stafford Theatre, Houston, the Caldwell Auditorium in Tyler, TX, and The Arlington Music Hall. Today, he talks to us about the Great American Songbook.

Alan Gray: Thank you for talking about the Great American Songbook today. Your big smile says you must really love it.

Andrew Heller: OK, I admit it. I love the beautiful music, the memorable lyrics, the great arrangements and the amazing vocal interpretations of the songs from the Great American Songbook.

AG: You’re probably tired of this question: Why do you love the songs and music so much?

AH: I never tire of that question, the songs or the music. As a classically trained tenor, I have always enjoyed both the beauty and intricacy of classical music and the beauty and simplicity of the message of the songs from the Great American Songbook. The Songbook contains the music and lyrics of the best and most remembered songs of the 20th century. These are the songs that stay in your head and the words haunt you for days or weeks. My love for these songs was enhanced by two very important elements.

Andrew Heller, Sinatra My Way poster.
Andrew Heller, Sinatra My Way poster.

First the music itself tends to be written with an upbeat sound and rhythm that stays in your head and gets hummed over and over. The lyrics tend to be witty, upbeat, have a lyrical sense of classical rhyme, are easily remembered and the story behind the song conveyed to audiences of any age.

The second important thing to me is that almost all of the songs are uplifting with a positive message or just great fun lyrics. My goal as an entertainer is to make my audience leave my shows feeling better than they did when they entered – they want to be entertained and joyful about life and living. To tell them stories that they can relate to and enjoy not be lectured to or told how bad the world is.

AG: That’s a powerful thought and so much needed these days.

AH: It is especially important in these times to expose our children and their children to the beautiful music, arrangements, instrumentals, vocals and the upbeat messages about life and love. Unfortunately today, they are mostly exposed to rap and hate songs and have not been exposed to the remarkable and beautiful human musical accomplishments (and great literature, art, history) that could serve as a model for their future endeavors.

AG: You’re a great interpreter of music and song.

AH: Thank you. The great thing about most of the songs of the Great American Songbook is that they open themselves up to great interpretive freedom. For the singer – a lot of the songs were intended to be treated as swing or jazz, they are much easier to adjust the phrasing, tempo, harmonization with the music and sing in a highly personalized manner that can be adjusted to the mood of a specific audience or the life experiences of the performer. These are the songs that for a singer are worthy of rediscovery throughout our lives we can make them uniquely ours and deliver a story to our audiences that is constantly being painted by our own personal history and feelings, by our own life experiences.

AG: You’re in great company there.

AH: Yes. In the Great American Songbook are songs that have been presented and recorded by the most well known artists from Mario Lanza and Frank Sinatra to Michael Buble, from Luciano Pavoritti to Paul McCartney and Sting with arrangements that vary from simple single instrument arrangements to big band, full orchestra arrangements by the like of Nelson Riddle, Billy May, etc. Everyone including the kids today knows the music of Jerome Kern, Irving Berlin, Ervin Drake, George Gershwin, Rogers and Hart, Lerner and Lowe, Bernstein, Rogers and Hammerstein, Cole porter, Hoagie Carmichael, Duke Ellington, Johnny Mercer, Jimmy Shirl to name just a few of those whose works are included in the Great American Songbook.

AG: It’s been around for a long time, so there’s a wide range of material.

AH: I’m thankful for that. The Great American Songbook has been with us now for many generations and will continue to be a mainstay for entertainers and audiences for many more generations to come. While not many new works get added each year, it would be wrong to view the Great American Songbook as close ended – it will continue to add works albeit at a much slower pace than in the 40s, 50s and 60s.

AG: There are many great singers in the Songbook. Why do you like Sinatra so much?

AH: Among the greatest performers is Frank (the Chairman of the Board) Sinatra. Most of the songs that he made famous were covers done by others before him but the big band arrangements and the unique style that he brought to the songs was spellbinding. I have admired the voice, delivery and the improvisational skills of Frank Sinatra from my earliest memories as a child and now, as a grown up performer, wanted to pay tribute to his great music, lyrics and the arrangements that he performed.

AG: I heard there’s a special reason you’re doing this now.

AH: My wife, friends and I decided to do this on the celebration year of his 100th birthday. We decided to do an authentic musical tribute to the Chairman of the Board, the big band, great musicians, the original big band arrangements, but not done as an impersonation but rather as a tribute.

Christopher Riddle with strings.
Christopher Riddle with strings.

AG: Was that difficult?

AH: Finding the original arrangements required months of research and working with Nelson Riddle’s son Christopher Riddle who had played in his father’s orchestra from the age of 12 years old (trombone and tuba). With Chris’s help, we were able to locate a number of the original arrangements his father had created for Sinatra as well as find a number of musicians who had played in his father’s (Nelson Riddle) orchestra.

Through a lot of research we were able to find other original arrangements for Sinatra by Billy May and others – by original I mean the tempo, music, arrangements, parts all presented as they were on the first time Sinatra recorded the song on an album or a film.

I’m not an impersonator and made no attempt to impersonate Sinatra, instead this was my tribute (done “My Way”) to him and his memory; done with his choice of words and my style – the type of tribute that he might have done for a friend of his with their music.

Andrew Heller, in the studio, freezing.
Andrew Heller, in the studio, freezing.

AG: I’ve seen photos – this was a big production.

AH: We assembled over 30 different instrumentalists in one room (the Tracking Room in Nashville – one of the few studios in the country large enough to accommodate such a large group) many of whom played with the Nelson Riddle Orchestra at some time in their careers. We had Chris Riddle join us, verifying any changes that were required in some of the brass parts. This was done to accommodate the transition back to the tenor key of some of the songs that were originally recorded in the late 50s and 60s when Sinatra had transitioned from a tenor in the 1940s to a baritone by the mid 1950s.

AG: How did it all go together?

AH: Chris helped with the conducting duties (mostly accomplished by the great John Mills) while informing all of us about particular Sinatra/Riddle stories associated with each song or special little melodies hidden within the arrangements that his father had created. This was a magical recording week and at the end the instrumentalists actually came up to me, Chris, John, and my wife Mary Ann and thanked us for the opportunity to perform on this album.

When you listen to these songs, enjoy the songs, the singing, the music, then listen again to the beauty of the music, the arrangements that were made for Sinatra and are now part of the Great American Songbook.

Ray Barnett, producer.
Ray Barnett, producer.

AG: And you’re working on a second album?

AH: Yes. We recently reunited the group in Nashville including Christopher Riddle at the Tracking Room studio to do a second album of original Sinatra arrangements performed “my way” that will be available by early to mid 2017.

John Mills conducts.
View from the Control room of some of the players recording “Sinatra, My Way,” as John Mills conducts.

AG: Great. Thank you for the interview and the photos, and for putting together such a great project.

AH: It is a great project, and we really love doing it, a 100th birthday gift for Frank Sinatra.

Alan Gray is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of NewsBlaze Daily News and other online newspapers. He prefers to edit, rather than write, but sometimes an issue rears it’s head and makes him start pounding the keyboard. Alan has a fascination with making video and video editing, so watch out if he points his Canon 7d in your direction.