Singer, actor and Broadway star Michael Cunio is taking the music of one of his muses, the legendary Etta James, to the next level when he performs a tribute concert in honor of the late great singer Jan. 20 at the Ruba Club.
Cunio caught the attention of theatergoers after appearing in Broadway and touring productions of “Hairspray” and “Jersey Boys.” He also performed a spot-on rendition of James’ classic song “At Last” in his PBS concert special, “Under The Streetlamp Live.”
Cunio said James was one of his main influences as a performer.
“She led me to my voice in many different ways,” he said. “She’s been an anchor in terms of inspiration for me as a musician and as a performer in many different ways. Finally getting a chance to dedicate an entire evening to her is a bit of a show-and-tell for me. If you understand Etta James, you come to understand how I’ve come to arrive at who I am as an entertainer. There’s a lot of joy in getting to share that with people in a show like this.”
Cunio said that even though there’s some pressure to perform and execute the songs from such a legendary singer, these tribute shows are generally more fun and loose than being on stage in a massive Broadway show.
“I’ve been so lucky to work on world-class stages but the irony is there is a factory-like quality to theater,” he said. “Quality has to be assured for anybody that walks in. Not to say that there isn’t room for creativity and interpretation in blockbuster-theatrical shows but you are held to a specific standard and the boundaries are very clear. It’s as much an excuse for me to play and sing songs that I want to sing as it is an opportunity to do something an audience will find highly entertaining.”
When asked about the audience for his tribute show, Cunio said he expects to perform for James’ fans rather than people who came specifically to see him sing.
“I don’t presume I’m introducing anyone to Etta James,” he said. “She’s an icon and I think most people, even those who might live under a rock, have some idea who she is and why she is iconic. I have such a personal relationship to the music. That doesn’t make me unique or special or different from any other singer that has admired Ms. James.
“What I bring to the table that is a little bit different is my perspective of the songs and why the songs I choose are important to me. In a show like this, you want to sing all the hits. You want to deliver the songs that people are wanting and expecting to hear.
“What’s fun about being in charge of something creatively like this is I also get to pepper the night with songs that would be fresh introductions to any audience, songs she did the coolest version ever of, songs she sang that were never released as singles and songs outside of the musical box in terms of what people think about Etta James.
“Because of songs like ‘At Last’ and ‘A Sunday Kind of Love,’ people tend to put her in this jazzy/adult contemporary box. What she brought to the table as a rock ’n’ roll singer, blues performer and as a fire-and-brimstone entertainer, was wildly exciting. She also has these incredibly tender and vulnerable aspects to her personality. She has a big, powerful voice but she had these moments that were antithetical to the concept of fire and brimstone.”
Cunio also hopes people will hear James’ music and recognize how she influenced superstar singers in the increasingly disposable pop world that came after her.
“I’m not old. I’m in my 30s,” he said. “But even in the span of my lifetime, it’s gone from consuming albums to consuming singles, to Spotify where you don’t even know who you’re consuming. You pay attention to artists, maybe when you look up at the time that you are liking a song. You think it’s cool and that is it for a month.
“So I think there is definitely a need for people to understand where their tastes come from. I think of all the music that I love today that happens to be contemporary. It is all wildly informed by music that came before it. That archeology is one of the great joys of being a musician.”
Cunio added he hopes audience members new to James’ music will explore her catalog further.
“After spending 90 minutes with me and this band celebrating this music the best way that we can, I think people will be interested,” he said. “I don’t ever want to think I’m trying to compete with her in any way. It’s definitely a show that pays homage. If listening to me sing this music will inspire you to go buy the original LP that these songs were pulled from, that’s the ultimate goal for me.”
In 2015, Cunio recorded and released a tribute album of classic-soul songs from the 1970s and ’80s entitled “Back Alley Soul,” where he received backup from acclaimed musicians and members of Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings, The Roots and Harry Connick Jr. & Postmodern Jukebox. Cunio said a follow-up album is possible as he stays in touch with the musicians he tapped to record the album.
“I got so freaking lucky to work with the group of people that I did,” he said. “Honestly, it all came from a residency I did at a venue in New York. It’s a supper-club kind of thing and I got to meet some incredible musicians. Those guys are very much my first-call group of players. Whenever we can work together, I try to keep that family together.”
Pink Stallion presents “Cunio Sings Etta,” 8:30 p.m. Jan. 20 at Ruba Club, 416 Greene St. For more information or tickets, visit www.PinkStallionEvents.com.
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