Born and raised in Brooklyn (and still with the fantastically authentic accent to prove it!), singer-actress Julie Budd has been in show business since childhood. She started singing at age 12, where she was serendipitously spotted by producer Herb Bernstein (More about Mr. Bernstein later!…) at an amateur night at a resort camp in the Catskills. It would be an artistic relationship that continues to this day. “Little Julie Budd” would release her first album, aptly called Child of Plenty, at age 13. The child with plenty of talent would soon become a regular guest on the American phenomenon known as the variety show, where her big voice impressed audiences and established showbiz folk alike. Shortly afterward, Miss Budd became the youngest opening act ever for Frank Sinatra. Budd would pay homage to her mentor later in her career with the 2015 album Remembering Mr. Sinatra. Not many artists on the scene today can boast how they were hanging out with “Ol’ Blue Eyes” in Las Vegas the same year they celebrated their “sweet 16”! But Sinatra is only one of the many music and TV icons with whom Budd has performed and/or collaborated with throughout her history as a singer. The list of artists she’s worked with reads like a transgenerational “Who’s Who?” of American musical and popular culture. As the New York Times appropriately stated about Budd in a 2000 profile, she truly had “All Star Mentors”. Budd is grateful for the experience: “It’s a very interesting thing. They’re all there with me in some way, shape, or form. It’s kind of the way I was groomed and how I was trained and informed as an artist. When I go to work, I feel a presence. Sinatra is always there. Danny Thomas is always there. Duke Ellington is standing behind me conducting the band. Somehow they’re always there. And I’m glad for it; I really am.” Talent made Julie Budd famous. However, it was the singer’s patented mix of energy, work ethic, love and respect for the art of song, and reverence for her fans that kept her performing through the years. Despite her association with so many iconic artists from the “classic” generation, Budd is constantly looking towards the future. She tells me, “As a performer, you find your way of always being present, always being current, and always moving forward. You need to do that. You can’t live in the past an artist. You always have to be striving for that new thing to say– in YOUR way. You have to stay relevant. If you’re not a songwriter yourself, then you have to constantly seek out the people who have new things to say– in the way that suits YOU. People meet me and they want to talk about my history a lot, because it is unusual. And yes, I do take a lot of it with me. But I am very, very much planted in the present, and always working towards my next act for the future. I’m always focused on that. Because, that’s how you do your teachers justice. You do them justice by saying, ‘I continue to go on!’ The audience appreciates it, and you appreciate it as an entertainer because you realize that you CAN still be relevant 10 or 20 years from now. That’s one of the things that I like about cabaret. In so many areas of show business, after a certain age, you have an ‘expiration date’– and you’re not welcome in that genre or arena. But in cabaret, there’s no expiration date on an artist– as long as you still have something to say. And, as long as you can move forward for that generation who still loves that kind of music. They still appreciate you and allow you in the club, whereas in a lot of other forms of entertainment, they don’t. You know, they still allowed Julie Wilson and Barbara Cook, they still allow Marilyn Maye. They still allowed these ladies to be embraced. Nobody said, ‘Oh, you’re too old!'”
The next big thing on Ms. Budd’s schedule is a four night engagement at New York City’s legendary Birdland Theater, from Wednesday May 1st through Saturday, May 4 at 7 PM. Budd’s new show is named ‘The Songs Of My Life…And The Composers Who Wrote Them’. Ms. Budd, backed by longtime musical director Herb Bernstein (Told ya!…), will perform material by such varied songwriters as Michel Legrand, Duke Ellington. Laura Nyro, Jule Styne, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields, Marvin Hamlisch, Carole King, Barry Manilow, Anthony Newley, Marc Shaiman, Burt Bacharach & Hal David, Neil Sedaka, Oscar Levant, and more. What makes this show truly personal is that Budd has closely known or worked creatively with many of these songwriters. Budd tells me, “When we were putting this show together, Herb Bernstein noted, ‘You know, I’ve been to so many tribute shows: like a Jule Stein tribute, or a Sondheim tribute, or a Stephen Schwartz tribute– and nobody in the room ever met the person who their tributing. Not only did you meet them, but you grew up knowing them.’ It really does change the show. In fact, it makes it a completely different show.”
The lovely Ms. Julie Budd took the time to speak to me about her upcoming Birdland show… and much more!
JR: Hi, Julie! Thank you for speaking with me. Congratulations on your upcoming shows at Birdland!
JB: It’s a beautiful space, isn’t it?
JR: Yes, it is. It’s a real hotspot for all the cabaret movers and shakers in New York City.
JB: Gianni Valenti, the owner, really created a fine space to perform in. So many of our clubs and rooms nowadays are not conducive to catering to the artist’s needs. This is a beautiful space. He really put a lot of money into sound, and light, and in making beautiful dressing rooms. He created a great space for the audience too. Even when I’m an audience member, I feel very comfortable there. They call the upstairs “The Jazz Room”! The theater that I’m in, downstairs, is new. It has not even been open a year yet. All the “theater people” are downstairs!
JR: That’s so wonderful. So, what does performing at the new space at the legendary Birdland Theater mean to you as an artist?
JB: First of all, I’m in the hands of Gianni, which makes me very happy. He’s a pro. He knows what he’s doing. He knows how to run a venue. His whole life has been about catering to the audience and to the needs of the audience. He’s made that his life… and he’s done it well. He’s not a newcomer opening up a space. He’s enlarging what is already an iconic space for music. Right away, I feel good about being there. He knows what he’s doing– and it’s evident in the way he’s transitioned both rooms. So, I feel good about that! Secondly, the people who have walked through those doors are people like myself: People who have made their life in music. It’s not a group of people who are playing around with this. These are people who are stone cold pros who take their life in music very seriously. It’s good to be in that company!
JR: True! It’s a testament to Birdland that they’ve been around so long, and that they always attract the best artists.
JB: That’s a testament to Gianni– because THAT’S management! Gianni is a person who knows how to keep those doors open, who knows how to excite the audience, and who knows how to get the artists there who they want to see. He’s really kept a high level of performer there. It’s interesting how he’s done it. That place has been open since 1949– and that’s great! It’s one of those New York “diamonds”! I’m now part of the “family”. I like being in that family.
JR: (Laughs) That’s a very exclusive family! So, without giving too much away, what surprises can we expect in your new show?
JB: I put some new composers in the show, like Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman— because I wanted the audience to see that “the beat goes on”: that there are people out there who are still brilliant and who are still carrying the torch. People tend to say, “Oh, they don’t write ’em like they used to”… but that’s not really true. There’s a lot of good talent out there. It’s important to acknowledge the seasoned professionals– those icons– along with the fact that there’s new blood out there. And they are great too. One day, somebody’s gonna say “Remember when?…” about Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman. They’re THAT good that they’re gonna be around a long time.
JR: Yes! Now, out of all the composers that you are spotlighting in your new show, are any of them what you would consider an “unsung hero”– someone who you feel never received the attention that they deserved?
JB: That’s an interesting question, because what’s intriguing about so many of these artists is that even though they had iconic careers, there’s always that time when people think that they’ve “peaked”– and they want to stay in the ball games. But they have to fight for their turf– again! The new breed comes in, and they’re not the new kid on the block anymore. Your career goes in a circle: You’re new, then you make it, then you’re new again. How do people stay relevant with 50 years behind them? I think that all great artists had those days: They were fighting to be seen, then they became known, and then they had to fight to stay out there, and then they’re out there a really long time and new people come in… and then they have to fight to be relevant again! It’s an interesting circle. Writers, actors, dancers, singers… we all find themselves in that situation, if we stay out there long enough. You find yourself in that journey. It’s very important to evolve. How connected are you to what’s new? How connected to you to what’s old that either you rightfully take with you into the new, or hang on too dearly and don’t move on? How do you manage all that? Don’t forget, I was a kid when I met a lot of these people. I became an adult and watched them age. And then I myself became active in the industry, and then I watched myself get older as well. It’s so funny how it all goes full circle. I remember when I first met Tony Newley. I was a young kid– 14 or 15. I knew him all the way up into my adult years. For a while he was like a wizard of entertainment. He was always in shows and always writing. Then he sort stopped for a while, and directed and wrote– and then he went back to entertainment. I watched him make that change too. And then I watched him start writing new songs. I watched him age. I watched him get sick. And then I watched him pass. I saw all these different incarnations of Anthony Newley: all those different parts of him. I found it fascinating in each different phase in life. He was an astounding human being. But I saw how hard it was for him to stay current, to stay relevant, to still be accepted by a new audience, to take his old audience with him… It’s a difficult industry!
JR: Yes it is! Thankfully for a lot of these composers, the music never goes away! The influence on today’s artists is very visible!
JB: Yes! These were very powerful people. Thank G-d a lot of them are still with us. We lost Michel Legrand this year. They are like diamonds. Every time we lose one of them, it feels like, “Oh no, don’t leave us!” It takes a lot of personal power. When you look at someone like Burt Bacharach: Look at the body of work they have given us. Like you said, the songs will never go away.
JR: How true! What else is going to make this a great night for the audience?
JB: I have my stories. My conductor Herb Bernstein said to me, “You know, Julie, only you could do this particular show!” I looked at him and I asked “Why?” He said, “Because only you knew all of these people. Only you have all these stories to tell. These are YOUR stories! People can certainly sit down and do a collection of these songs, but only you can say that you knew all of these people!” How many people can say that?
JR: During the show, are you going to be sharing a lot of those stories with the audience?
JB: I’ll be talking a lot! When I met Michel Legrand, I was in my 20’s… and I was hired to do a TV special with him. That’s how we met! I spent weeks with him, putting together this television special– which by the way, we got an Emmy Award for. I spent time with Tony Newley, and Jule Stein, and Irving Caesar, who wrote songs all the way up until his death at 101. He wrote Tea For Two, and I Want to Be Happy. Songs like Tea For Two is in our culture. They are a part of our everyday life. A lot of these composers were very interesting people. Jule Stein was a very interesting man. I always felt like he was a vaudevillian.
JR: How so?
JB: He wasn’t a “behind the scenes” kind of guy. Michel Legrand did concerts and stuff, but he was quiet. He could do very well behind the scenes, creating the music for a movie or something like that. But Jule Stein was always so “front and center”. He could get out there and perform and be like a vaudevillian. He was from that era. When you met Jule Stein, you were not meeting this quiet person. You were meeting this kind of razzamatazz guy. He had a whole other energy– you know, that “Tin Pan Alley” energy! Do you know what I mean?
JR: Oh, I know!. So… on your website, you mentioned a tantalizing little piece of info: You’re working on your memoirs!
JB: I’ve been working on this book for the longest time. Somebody asked me about that yesterday too when I was doing a Facebook live video– and I also did a TV show on the JVS Network yesterday. Everyone was asking me about this book. I said to Richard Skipper, my PR man, “I’ve gotta get busy on this!” What happens to me is that I start writing, and I get six or seven chapters put together, and I start working on them, and then I go back and start editing them– and then I get called out on a tour and I stop writing, and I put the book down. And you know, as a writer, that if you don’t get up in the morning and say, “I’m gonna write!”, then you don’t write!
JR: (Laughs) Exactly! It’s not easy. You have to put yourself in a certain space. I know that you’re a multitasker too, like me and like so many other New Yorkers.
JB: That’s why I was thinking that maybe it will happen this summer: I’ll get up at 7 in the morning and say, “Today’s my writing day!” That’s really the only way it’s going to get completed!
JR: Well, I for one can’t wait to read it! You must have an endless supply of anecdotes about all the amazing people you met and worked with.
JB: It was an interesting juxtaposition. I was so young when I met many of these people, that they had a parental energy over me. I got to know these people in a whole different way than others knew them: as established stars. I came along as a very young newcomer. I was taken under their wing. I met Steve Allen when I was 14, so I’ve known him forever. Merv Griffin introduced me to Steve Allen…. so even the introduction itself was an unusual one!
JR: No doubt! So, let’s talk about New York City! As a lifelong New Yorker, you probably feel the way I do: We love New York because…well, it’s New York. But we also hate New York…well, because…
JB: … because it’s New York! (Laughs) We love it because it’s New York, and we hate it because it’s New York!
JR: Exactly! (Laughs) Because it can be crowded, and noisy, and expensive! What has been the biggest change that you’ve seen in New York– especially from the view of a performer? What was the biggest change in the cabaret scene?
JB: It wasn’t even called “cabaret” back then!
JR: (Laughs) Oh no?
JB: “Cabaret” is kind of an expression or an “identity” that people took on when the big nightclubs and showrooms closed in the 1970’s. It was impossible, financially, to stay open any longer– because it just became so cost-prohibitive. That’s when New York really started to get expensive. Rents started going up, the unions started asking more money from musicians… Everything just started to inflate at that time. And that’s when I really saw changes. New York was shedding a skin. The old was going and the new was coming in. It had to happen. Nobody could sustain the cost of that anymore. It became an economical phenomenon that just changed the landscape of New York. It began in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s, and then you really saw that shift take place going into the ’80’s when the small clubs began to open: the Grand Finale’s and the Reno Sweeney’s and the Ballroom’s. That was in the late ’70’s going into the ’80’s. The Copa closed, and the Waldorf closed, and the room at the Plaza closed, and the room at the Americana closed… The big, big hall out in Cherry Grove in New Jersey closed. The Latin Casino in Philadelphia, which was world famous, closed. The Palm House in Chicago closed. The big rooms at the Fontainebleau and the Eden Roc in Miami closed. One by one, they all started closing. The landscape of entertainment in this country as we knew it closed. People wanted to know where that next generation was going to express themselves through music. New York had started to become very expensive place back then. It’s out of sight and crazy off the charts now…but it didn’t get that way overnight. It took time for it to happen. That’s when the smaller rooms– Reno Sweeney, Don’t Tell Mama, Ballroom, Le Mouches, Grand Finale– started to happen. Then the disco thing started to happen. That’s when we had the disco clubs and the small spaces that accommodated that as well. Then THEY died off. And all of a sudden the word “cabaret” started to become the vernacular of entertainment for more intimate settings. That’s because the big showrooms didn’t exist anymore. Intimate spaces that were more economically feasible, that could sustain a very expensive city, became the norm for live entertainment. And that’s really what happened. It was an economical thing! The larger rooms couldn’t sustain themselves. They became too expensive. Smaller spaces and smaller rooms took over. Of course, some of them fell by the wayside because of economics as well… but some of them sustained or reinvented themselves: 54 Below wasn’t Studio 54 anymore! But that’s New York City. That’s what I’ve seen through the years. New York is an interesting place. It’s always shedding its skin. It’s always renewing itself– for generations, and generations, and generations. But it has to do that to be “New” York. “New”. “N-E-W”!. It’s been doing that since Peter Stuyvesant. Look at the architecture. Look at the skyline of New York. It’s really changing. And I think it’s fine. You can see the “old” on Beekman Place and Sutton Place and Fifth Avenue. You see the old New York in downtown, but you see the “new” New York too.
JR: How true! I think change is great as long as there’s always a space and an opportunity for artists of all varieties. I’ve always said that the most talented, and colorful, and fun, and sexy people live in New York City.
JB: I also think that you have some of the greatest trained people here too. You have Julliard here, and some of the finest institutions of art who really get behind artists and groom them into being world class citizens in the arts. They are all here. They are at Lincoln Center and Carnegie Hall and Symphony Space. There are great artists all over the country and all over the world… but they all seem to find their way over here. Kander and Ebb told the truth: If you can make it here, you can make it ANYWHERE. It really is true! (Laughs)
JR: (Laughs) Indeed! Thank you for speaking with me, Julie. See you at Birdland!
Julie Budd’s “The Songs Of My Life” runs from Wednesday through Saturday, May 1 – 4 at 7PM at Birdland Theater, 315 West 44 Street, NYC. The show is $30 and $40 cover with a $10 food/drink minimum. Visit here for tickets and more information.