Q&A: Tony Starlight Previews 'AM Gold'
The crooning nightclub owner offers insights into Friday's salute to the '70s at Alberta Rose Theatre.
There’s more to Tony Starlight than the club on NE Sandy Boulevard that bears his name. When he takes the stage, he’s no longer concerned with the day’s receipts or the bartender that’s chronically late. He'll croon like Dino or Frank Sinatra, fronting a leather-tight big band in his nattiest tux. At least once a year, he's been known to do a deadly Neil Diamond impersonation (only his music—he no longer tries to cash personal checks).
This Friday at Alberta Rose Theatre, Starlight will lead a group of musicians and a rapt audience on a guided tour of 1970s soft rock. And even hardened cynics will join in the gloriously saccharine chorus of “Seasons In the Sun.” Guaranteed. We've also included a few '70s songs to help set the mood.
Culturephile: Tell me about Tony Starlight’s AM Gold. What will we be hearing?
Starlight: It used to be that we would do any ’70s rock song that didn’t have an electric guitar. But then we added an electric guitar because there were so many great songs we wanted that voice for. Generally, we’re talking about singer-songwriter stuff that doesn’t get too “Takin’ Care of Business.” Anything that was considered rock ’n’ roll that KGON wouldn’t play.
You mean dudes with long feathered hair and mustaches?
Yeah. A lot of mustaches.
I’d love to do Dan Fogelberg but I don’t own a pair of pants tight enough to hit those notes. (Sings in falsetto) “Longer than there’ve been fishes in the ocean, higher than any bird ever flew …” Yeah, a lot of high voices, a lot of ‘getting it on’ songs.
But in a sensitive way.
Gently. Gently getting it on. You know, “I’m not talking ‘bout moving in. And I don’t wanna change your life. But there’s a warm wind blowin’, the stars are out. And I’d really love to see you tonight.” [The song is “I’d Really Love to See You Tonight.” recorded by England Dan & John Ford Coley, 1976]. That’s the kind of thing we’re doing and we have fun with that aspect of it.
What’s shocking to me is how few people are attracted to this show by its name or even when you tell them the content. People continually get dragged to the show by someone else, and end up singing along because they know every one of these songs! We play them straight and I try to hit the notes. We’re not like a bar band zipping through our versions of these songs.
Yeah, you hear a few notes and it all comes flooding back.
When I was doing research for the show and listening to all this music, I couldn’t believe there were so many songs that I hadn’t heard in like 30 years. And they come on and you just know all the words! [Sings in falsetto] “You are the magnet. And I am steel.”
Oh! Walter Egan.
Yeah! Good one! It’s somewhere between folk and rock, but I don’t consider it to be either. Calling it folk is doing a disservice to it, but it doesn’t rock either. Well, it rocks gently. But the big names, like Elton John, came from this background. A lot of really good songwriters. And most of the songs were great ‘story’ songs in there, like you hear in country nowadays, and you used to hear in standards. On FM radio you’d hear stuff like [sings] “We’re gonna get up and dance and move to the music all night long,” but here the craft of lyrical songwriting is still very present.
It was the 70s, man. Hippie idealism was over, the war was just about over and everyone was kind of into their own thing. Like getting it on!
Tight slacks, big belt buckles, open shirts. It’s mostly men who dominate this genre. I really looked but not a lot of women. Carole King, Carly Simon, Anne Murray, Maria Muldaur … We have a female singer in the band to sing backup, and we give her a lot of solos. And we have a hard time finding songs for her, but there’s no end of songs for male singers. Some of them I just can’t sing 'cause they’re too high. Do you have any idea how high Glenn Frey sings? Half the Eagles songs are out 'cause they’re too effin’ high.
It’s important to note that at this point in the 70s, these artists were young and still had voices and minds that were yet to be ravaged by cocaine.
Yes, this was the generation that burned out. But they burned out gently. They faded away and burned out at the same time.
Did anything surprise you upon revisiting these songs?
About 90 percent of them just fade out! So we try to carry that through in the show. There are also a lot of songs titles with parenthesis. “Along Again (Naturally).” “Brandy (You’re a Fine Girl).” “Rocket Man (I Think It’s Going to Be a Long, Long Time).”
Will you play “Afternoon Delight?”
I hope so. We need three singers for that one, two of them female. We’ve done it before. I haven’t made the final set lists yet. But that is a quintessential ’70s soft rock, getting it on gently, classic.
How about “Undercover Angel”?Tony Starlight's 'AM Gold'
Alberta Rose Theatre
Friday at 8 pm
Alan O’ Day? Oh yeah, that’s a great song. It’s on my list of songs that I haven’t shown the band yet, along with (sings) “She’s just a devil woman!”
Cliff Richard! How about “Wild Fire?” You could do it as part of a horse medley along with “Horse With No Name.”
I used to do snippets of that one while riding around on one of those horses with the stick body.
I swear, if you sing “Wild Fire” and “Horse With No Name” while galloping around on a pantomime horse, that could very well be the greatest entertainment spectacle of all time.
Tom Waits used to talk about that song. He’d say, “I been through the desert on a horse with no legs. Now that’s a story!” But getting back to the songs, the other thing about this stuff is that it mostly wasn’t associated with albums. It was literally AM Gold, the only place you heard it was on the radio, and I think a lot of people associate them with that time and place. It was like the taste in music you had before you owned any records.
You’re not mocking the music. You’re a true believer.
I am a true believer. I mean, we make fun of the clothes and the hair—how could you not?—but I genuinely love this music. I think it holds up very well. We work these songs at the club. We’ll play like the first few bars of “Benny & The Jets” and then stop. Suddenly you’ve got a riot on your hands!
What makes these songs resonate?
Pop culture is so splintered now. But the '70s was like one of the last generations where you had three TV channels and like four radio stations. So everybody kind of liked a lot of the same things. It’s hard to find something ubiquitous that reaches across a whole generation anymore.