Grammy Award-winning guitarist/singer/producer John Pizzarelli stars with Grammy-winning vocalist Catherine Russell in Billie & Blue Eyes on Sept. 26, 2021 at 7pm at Toms River, NJ’s Grunin Center for the Arts. Spotlight Central recently caught up with Pizzarelli to talk with him about his musical family, his work with such musical icons as Paul McCartney and James Taylor, in addition to his upcoming tribute to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra, Billie & Blue Eyes, at Toms River’s Grunin Center.
You were born in 1960 in Paterson, NJ, into a musical family. As the son of guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, you grew up with three siblings: Anne; Mary, who plays classical guitar; and Martin, who plays bass. Isn’t it true, however, that originally you started in music by taking banjo lessons?
Yes, that’s how it started. I took banjo lessons from the same guys who taught my father — my dad’s uncles, Pete and Bobby. First, I went to Victor’s House of Music and studied with the younger of the two brothers, Bobby Domenick, in around ’66 or ’67, and then I took some lessons with Pete, the older of the two brothers, in the early ‘70s.
You started off by learning the banjo, but what inspired you to switch over to the guitar?
I was playing the banjo, and since there were guitars around the house, I soon realized it was the same process to learn the guitar. I had an Elton John songbook and realized that if I followed the tablature I could press down on the strings and learn the fingerings, so I just picked up the guitar and started to play away on it.
We assume that, at the time, this was on a 6-string guitar, but these days, you’re known for playing a 7-string guitar. How did you get started playing that?
I played the 6-string until I was about 16, 17, 18 years old. What happened was, I was working at a day camp in Upper Saddle River, NJ with a guy named Mike Taplinger who was studying guitar with Barry Galbraith. There was this thing at the camp called “Hobby Hour” where, for an hour, kids would do something other than what they were doing with their groups. We were these two guitar players who would sing and play music with the kids, but on some days, nobody would come to “Hobby Hour,” so Mike and I would play tunes. When my father heard about this, he said, “When you play with that guy, you should play the 7-string,” and he showed me how to play a couple of chords, so I started to accompany Mike with the 7-string.
Then when my dad and I were playing together, the first gig I did with my father where I played the 7-string was at the Morristown Library. We were doing the gig and he said, “Why don’t you play the 7-string today? It’ll be great! You can accompany me, and then I can accompany you, and it’ll be really easy,” and I said, “OK,” you know, thinking, “How hard could it be?” And it was just wild. So that’s how I got off to the races on that.
You’re primarily known for jazz music, but as a teen, you attended Don Bosco Prep in Ramsey, NJ, where you started playing in rock bands at around the age of 15. Do you still remember any of those rock bands you played in?
Oh, yeah, sure. The very first one was called Emanon, which was “no name” backwards. Omega was one, and there was also one called Sanpaku. Another one was called As Is — and they were all bands that I got to play in on the weekends. I was in my late teens and early 20s when I was doing this, and it all started because I was the only guy who had equipment. [Laughs] My friend, Steve, came to me and said, “You have a couple of basses and guitars and amps. Let’s start a band,” you know?
Right. And after high school, you went to the University of Tampa, where you played trumpet. What made you want to play that instrument, and how come we don’t know you today as a trumpet player?
[Laughs] Because it’s hard! I played the trumpet from fourth grade through college. It was the instrument I learned to read notes on. I had a good teacher in Tampa named Ron Byerly who taught me how to really play the instrument, but then once I learned it, I realized it was just too hard. At the time, I was also playing guitar in bands, so I just stopped playing the trumpet — but I originally picked it up because I liked the way Doc Severinsen from The Tonight Show dressed.
[Laughs] You’ve said that your most important guitar teacher when you were in your 20s was your dad. He not only played in The Tonight Show band with Johnny Carson for six years, but also on many popular recordings including Del Shannon’s “Runaway,” Ben E. King’s “Stand By Me,” The Drifters’ “Save the Last Dance for Me,” and Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Growing up, did you realize what an incredible musician your dad was?
No. I had no idea he was doing all of that. By the time I sort of knew all that, he was more of a jazz player. I would go to gigs with him at the time and I would see him play with Benny Goodman, Les Paul, and people like that. My sisters were the ones who actually went to the rock and roll dates with him, so they actually got to go to some of the Dion dates, and Lesley Gore dates, and things like that.
We’re told that when you were 21, you were listening to Nat King Cole’s recording of “Paper Moon” with your dad, and he kept saying, “Listen to that arrangement! Can you believe that?” and calling it a “work of art.” You’ve gone on to say that Cole is “the reason I do what I do” and, over the course of your career, you’ve honored him with three of your albums: 1994’s Dear Mr. Cole, 1999’s P.S. Mr. Cole, and 2019’s For Centennial Reasons: 100 Year Salute to Nat King Cole. What was it about Nat King Cole’s music that inspired you?
I loved his group. It had all the qualities of what I liked about music. The material was completely different from anything else I was hearing. Frank Sinatra was singing love songs and beautiful ballads and swinging things and all that, but for someone like me who was just starting out at 21 and who wanted to get a repertoire together, Nat Cole had “Route 66,” “Straighten Up and Fly Right,” “Frim Fram Sauce,” and “Baby Baby, All the Time.” All those songs were approachable for me. I could learn them, and I could play jazz on them — and some of them were funny songs, too, you know? They weren’t so deep that they would be over my head as a 21-year-old. I thought the best gift I got was learning those tunes, because it was a great way to start a career. That way, I wouldn’t have to sing “Night and Day” until I was 40. [Laughs] By the way, I never sang “Night and Day,” but the idea is that as a younger guy, I didn’t have to sing those tougher songs.
Which sort leads into our next question: You started your recording career playing with your dad on the instrumental recording, 2 x 7= Pizzarelli, but you made your recording debut as a leader, with your dad on guitar, on your 1983 release I’m Hip — Please Don’t Tell My Father?
Yes, that was with my dad, Bucky, along with Jerry Bruno and Russ Kassoff.
And on that album, you did a lot of singing. What was the initial impetus for your becoming a singer?
As I mentioned, in 1980, I had started singing those tunes. When I would do gigs with my father from 1980 to 1983 — like the stuff we did on 2 x 7 — somewhere in the middle of the gig, my dad would say, “Why don’t you sing ‘Route 66’?” and I’d sing “Route 66.” Or he’d say, “Sing ‘For Sentimental Reasons.’” It would always happen in the middle of a gig, where I’d sing three tunes, and one of them would always be “I Like Jersey Best.”
And at the time, there were these people who followed us named Lou and Yolanda Ginsberg, and they really wanted me to make a record of “I Like Jersey Best.” So in May of ’83, I went into the studio at Stash Records — which is the same label my dad and I had recorded on — and that’s where I sang the Nat Cole and Joe Mooney songs. “Popsicle Toes” is on that one, too, and I also did “I Like Jersey Best” — and that song ended up getting played on the radio a lot. I remember we went in around 10 AM on a Monday and by 5 PM I had a cassette of the entire record mixed and done, and I even made my gig that night at 7 o’clock.
You mentioned that your dad had worked with Benny Goodman. We understand that in high school you wrote a persuasive essay arguing that Benny Goodman was the “King of Swing” and got a pretty good grade on it, and then Benny Goodman actually read it?
Yeah, he came over to the house. I can’t remember exactly if I was at the house at the time or not — because whenever he came to the house, we all got ushered out! But I remember I got a B-plus on it and him saying something like, “B-plus? Only a B-plus? This paper deserves an A!” [Laughs] It was weird, but I figured that was something I knew enough to write about, so that was it.
You’ve said that one of the highlights of your performing career involved opening for Frank Sinatra, whom you’ve honored with recordings including 2006’s Dear Mr. Sinatra and 2017’s Sinatra and Jobim at 50. You appeared at his 80th Birthday Celebration at Carnegie Hall, where you recalled he would be listening “from the wings, snapping his fingers,” and you also opened for him in our home state of New Jersey at the Garden State Arts Center. Is there anything special about that particular performance that sticks in your mind?
Oh, yeah. One thing I remember about that show is that my father played with me — and I actually have a recording of that performance. It was funny because I said to my father, “Why don’t you come and play rhythm guitar with us?” and he said, “Great!” He was all excited, and the whole band was happy to have him there, and he also played a number with me in the middle of the show.
But I remember deciding that I wasn’t going to do “I Like Jersey Best” because I didn’t want to show up Sinatra — [laughs] I didn’t want do it and have everybody all screaming and yelling — and just before I went on, an usher came backstage and said, “By the way, Governor Byrne wanted me to tell you that he’s in the audience tonight.” And because Brendan Byrne loved that he was mentioned in the song — the lyric is “Our beautiful arena has Brendan Byrne carved on the wall” — I was like, “Damn, he wants me to do the song!” So I did a really quick version of “I Like Jersey Best” somewhere in there, and then went right into “Sing, Sing, Sing.”
And I also remember that Sinatra was great. Like you said, he would stand in the wings and was so happy to hear the music and would say things like the band sounded great, so it was a thrilling experience.
In addition to your live performances and recordings, you’ve appeared on Broadway, and have also performed on TV on shows like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon, on Letterman, and on Conan. Also, for the past 15 years or so, you’ve hosted a national radio show with your wife, singer Jessica Molasky, entitled Radio Deluxe where you do music and interviews. Is it true that James Taylor once told you he loved the show and asked if he could be on it?
What happened was I did Paul McCartney’s record, Kisses on the Bottom, and to promote it, we were going to be a part of a live concert on iTunes on a Thursday night from Capitol Records in Hollywood, and we were going to follow that up with a MusiCares event where they would honor Paul McCartney. On Wednesday, there was a rehearsal for the MusicCares event, and James Taylor came to rehearse for it because Diana Krall had asked him to perform with her.
I was at my hotel across the street from Capitol Records when the phone rang and someone said, “James Taylor wants to see you.” I had already worked with him, so he knew who I was — so this wasn’t totally out of the blue — but I thought, “That’s wild,” and said, “I’ll be over in a little bit.”
Then, the phone rang again and somebody said, “James Taylor really wants to see you!” I was, like, “OK!” and, long story short, I went over to Capitol where he was rehearsing. When he finished, someone told him, “John Pizzarelli’s here,” and James said, “Hey, John, tell me about Radio Deluxe.” He said they had asked him to do a program about classical music with his wife, and when they explained the show to him, he said, “Well, that’s basically Radio Deluxe — I know that show, and they already do that show!” But it’s also true that he told me he wanted to be on the show and we worked it out for that to happen.
And speaking of James Taylor, you played on Taylor’s 2002 album, October Road, and, later on, went on to win a Grammy co-producing his 2020 album, American Standard. In your memoir, World on a String, you talk about a time when you got to play live with James Taylor at Tanglewood. Can you tell us what was so special about that particular performance?
What happened was, in 2002, James did a bunch of dates with John Williams, and one of them was at the Hollywood Bowl with The Los Angeles Philharmonic. As the conductor, John Williams had gotten James to do the Lincoln Portrait by Aaron Copland. During the second half of the show, James was to do a bunch of tunes, and I was hired to be his guitar player, probably because I had played “Mean Old Man” with him on October Road. They ended up doing the same show in Tanglewood, and the night I did it, my son was there, and it was wild because we got to play “Steamroller Blues” and I got to play solos and stuff on it.
What a dream!
And as you mentioned, you worked with Paul McCartney on his Kisses on the Bottom album and then, afterwards, he asked you if you’d consider recording some of his songs in a jazz style — an album which became your 2015 recording, Midnight McCartney — but wasn’t there also a time where you got to introduce your daughter to him?
Yes, when we were doing the record date for Kisses on the Bottom, I said to my wife and daughter, “Look, why don’t you come down and meet me at the studio?” There was an office you had to walk through, so I said, “Just wait there. That way, when he comes out, we can all say a quick hello.” Now Paul McCartney is a really nice guy, so I knew this wasn’t going to be a problem, but I especially wanted to make sure my daughter would get to meet him, so I brought her into the room just outside the studio, and when Paul was leaving, I said, “Would you mind saying hello to my daughter?” and he said, “No, let’s go meet her!” I can remember him going out to meet her, and as I was standing behind him I could see her say the words, “Oh my God!” as he was walking towards her. Then he gave her a big hug and said, “Hello!” and it was really sweet.
Priceless. We wanted to ask you about your latest record, because we love it. During the pandemic, you were isolated at a cabin in New York state where you worked on Better Days Ahead: Solo Guitar Takes on Pat Metheny, your first ever solo guitar album. Can you tell us a little more about doing it?
I’ve loved Pat Metheny ever since I heard the Pat Metheny Group album with “Phase Dance” on it. In 1978, I had taken a cassette of it to the University of Tampa with me and I listened to that album all the time. Then when he started to make more records, I found them and really enjoyed all of them.
When the pandemic started, I started playing those tunes; I was just organically drawn to them. As I learned a few of them, I’d post them on Instagram, but my buddy, Rick Haydon, who’s a dear friend and a great guitar player, said to me, “I saw your posts. They’re really terrific, but why don’t you knock it off? Why don’t we record the songs and make a record out of them?” I said, “I don’t know how to make a record. I’m here in a cabin and I can’t go anywhere!” and he said, “You can record it on your iPad.” And then a buddy of mine from Seattle, Brian Saunders, sent me the interface I needed to plug the guitar into and then plug that into the iPad, and that’s how I started to make the record.
And did you play all of the songs on a 7-string classical guitar?
Yeah, the whole album is just one guitar — a 7-string classical — with no overdubs.
It’s awesome; we love it.
Thanks, I’m really proud of it.
We’re very excited to note that you have an upcoming concert on September 26th at the Grunin Center in Toms River, NJ with Grammy Award-winning vocalist Catherine Russell, which is a tribute to Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra called Billie & Blue Eyes. Can you tell us more about what concert-goers can expect to see and hear in this program?
It’s a fun little program. I’ll start off with a bunch of Sinatra tunes — and I’ll probably also include a Pat Metheny tune, because the Better Days Ahead album just came out…
And when you hear screaming and cheering coming from the back, will you suspect it’s us?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah! So I’ll have my trio which consists of Isaiah Thompson on piano, Mike Karn on bass, and myself on guitar, doing the Sinatra tunes. Then, Catherine will come out and she’ll do songs associated with Billie Holiday. And then, at the end, we’ll do a medley of songs together. It’s a pretty simple program, but I think we’ve put it together nicely. Both Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday have their own sort of repertoires, but they work together beautifully. So it’s simple, it’s clean, and, really, Catherine carries it — she’s terrific, and just does it so wonderfully — so it’ll be a nice little evening of music people can enjoy.
John Pizzarelli appears with Catherine Russell in Billie & Blue Eyes on Sunday, Sept. 26 at 7pm at the Grunin Center for the Arts, located on the campus of Ocean County College in Toms River, NJ. Although the event is currently SOLD OUT, please contact the Box Office at 732–255–0500 (M-F, 12pm-5pm) to inquire about Wait List options. Also, please click on grunincenter.org for other great Grunin Center programming options.
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