Billy Stritch is so many things that it’s difficult to figure where to start in conversation. Along with composing platinum-plated accidental hits for Reba McEntire and Patti LaBelle (the same song, “Does He Love You?”) and other sophisticated tunes that could belong in the Great American Songbook, Stritch has famously played piano and arranged material for Liza Minnelli.
Mainly though, he’s an inventive singing, piano-banging interpretive artist whose reputation places him high atop the cabaret mountain. Before he hits Dino’s Backstage & the Celebrity Room in Glenside (March 30-31) along with cabaret avatar Marilyn Maye, Stritch called PGN from San Francisco to discuss his new show, a career composing for famous women and what makes a good collaborator.
PGN: You and Maye all but opened Dino’s in Glenside as its back-to-back headliners two years ago. What’s your vibe on the place?
BS: Those guys are fantastically devoted to furthering the art of cabaret. And the place is so elegant; great that it’s so close to Philly.
PGN: You’re touring with Maye, played with Minnelli and recorded with Christine Ebersol and Klea Blackhurst. You love the ladies. What do you dig in a collaborator?
BS: Someone who comes in with good ideas, has little on the ego side and is easy and fun to travel with. That’s not a joke. It’s a pleasure to share a stage and a studio with someone you can laugh with. If they’re low on ego, it’s best for me to bring in my ideas.
PGN: Your writing career — your entire career, really — is all over the map; mostly the Tin Pan Alley stuff. Other than coming from Sugar Land, Texas, how did your first smash come courtesy of Reba McEntire?
BS: That’s interesting, as it wasn’t written to be a country song, per se. It was written as a duet for two women. For the whole of the 1980s, I was working in a singing group with two women. We performed in cabarets throughout Texas and NYC. My writing partner moved to Nashville, which is how that song got through the back door of the country world. We were thrilled. It is not your typical country song — it has more than three chords — and has been done by more than a few non-country singers.
PGN: One of them was Patti LaBelle. Since we’re in Philly, I must hear what you thought of her version.
BS: I do love it, but it’s funny: She took a song that was a duet and turned it into a solo, and in that, they changed some of the lyrics without asking permission of the songwriters. At first we were like, HOW COULD THEY DO THAT? Rather than protest it, we allowed it to stay on Flame. It was a cut on a Patti LaBelle ... I’m not complaining.
PGN: As a writer whose music follows the sophistication of the standards, how do you maintain the writing’s contemporary feel as well? You’re bound to tradition as well as something mod.
BS: I just have to be true to my own style: melodic and harmony-driven. With that, then, I have to find a good and apt lyricist.
PGN: As a performer/interpreter, what are you looking for from other writers in terms of song structure and lyric? You’ve recorded everyone from Hoagy Carmichael and Mel Torme to Dori Cayme and Jobim.
BS: I want songs that suit my range and my acting capabilities. As I get older, I get more discerning. A song does have to have lyrics that have depth, emotion and a real sense of storytelling. Then, I must be able to put my melodic stamp on it — harmonizing without going too far from the songwriters’ original intention. I love Cy Coleman and Carolyn Leigh. They never get old. I’ll do some rare Torme and Carmichael, and obscure Jerome Kern songs at Dino’s, as well as some of the Brazilian-inspired songs I write for [my album] “Waters of March.” The older I get, the more meanings some of these songs take on, especially the love songs. I believe it is truly hard to sing a love song at age 20. You have to get to at least 40 or 50 to have lived them and do them justice.