10 Questions with Laury Shelley
Vocalist/songwriter Laury Shelley has toured the world with legendary five-time Grammy and three-time Oscar winning composer Michel Legrand, she has sung on numerous recordings and commercials, and has been featured at concert halls and clubs throughout the country. This fall, she is set to release a new recording featuring all original music written and performed by her entitled Time Is A Healer. We thought this was the perfect opportunity to talk with Shelley about her life in music and her new upcoming release.
When you were growing up, tell us about how you were first drawn to music? Did you grow up in a musical home?
I can't remember when I wasn't drawn to music or when I was first drawn to music; I just always was. It was always in my life. My mother sang for the USO for a short while when she was young and my father was a jazz violinist who also had his own orchestra when he was a young man which was conducted and led by the famous Lou Brown, who was also Jerry Lewis's orchestra leader. There wasn't any encouragement from my family so I created my own little world. When I was alone at home and no one was in the house I would put on albums, sing and dance and put on my own shows. It was obvious I came alive through music and loved it.
Was there a person or experience that drew you to start singing?
I was always singing; it was always there inside of me. As they say, it’s a God-given talent. I think because it was so natural, I loved so many different genres of music, and it was easy for me to sing them all.
I would play my father’s jazz albums including the instrumental Music Minus One albums and learn the songs by listening and then singing along with the instrumental tracks. I had my own albums as well, all different styles rock, pop, and albums from musicals. Plus there were lots of incredible live music shows on TV of many different genres that I would watch regularly, including every Sunday watching my favorite Gospel show. Yes I even had a thing for opera too. The singer that had a profound effect on me when I was young, was definitely Barbra Streisand. I seemed to connect with her huge passion when she sang and her perfection in all she interpreted with the lyric and the melody. But what I loved, what I identified with was that she was different than any other artist out there and something in me felt that way, being different. Barbra kind of helped me find my voice and it opened me up inside to express myself. At times being vocally compared to her, I am very grateful and appreciate any mention of my name with hers, what an honor. It's good now to be able to say I've finally found my own voice and my own sound.
Did you go to school for music?
In high school I was in the choir and in the shows, but I didn’t study music or voice, and I didn’t go to college. It all came naturally to me. I did go to Harand Theater Camp from the ages of 7 to 14 years old. Those years at Harand were a very important part of my childhood as it gave me a lot of support emotionally and musically, I became the little star of the camp! Vocally I seemed to naturally know how to use my voice but I did learn how to continually keep my voice in good shape throughout the years with a certain vocal work out I came up with that I do regularly. I never studied with a vocal teacher and to this day I've had many vocal teachers ask me if I've studied voice. When I told them no, they all looked surprised and impressed, so I must be doing something right!
Who were some of your musical influences and why?
I came from a very emotionally abusive childhood, so music and singing meant everything to me growing up. When I sang or performed it would take me to a place that helped me feel whole, complete and free to be who I was. For me, that was performing and experiencing music. At a young age, I didn’t realize what I was all about—that a songwriter/arranger was in me. I thought and felt more like a musician than just a singer. To me, a singer is a musician, his/her instrument is his/her voice. It took some time for the pieces of who I was to all come forth, come together and come alive.
I’ve been influenced by so many styles of music such as pop, rock, R&B, gospel, classical and jazz, to name a few. I really love music, no matter what type. It’s always been that way for me. Some of the singers that I have been influenced by include Barbra Streisand, Sarah Vaughan, Tony Bennett, Mavis Staples, Michael McDonald, Aretha Franklin, Laura Nyro and Annie Lennox. A couple of musicians that I met and who changed my life and my thinking about music were Bill Evans and Phil Woods.
I met Bill through my brother-in-law, bassist and singer Bill Scott, who was his very close friend. I was very young when I started listening to Bill and seeing him perform live. It’s difficult to even put into words what it was like being around and listening to someone I considered to be a genius in the world of piano playing. His touch, his melodic chords—you could tell was coming from a very deep place.
I always loved Phil Woods’ compositions and playing, so it was an honor to have performed with him while touring with Michel Legrand, and to be considered a friend of Phil’s. One time, we sat and talked about how he first met Charlie Parker when he was 15 years old and the effect “Bird” had on his life. It was an extraordinary moment, and that he thought enough of me to share it, really meant a lot. He was also very supportive of me. I remember I once got an email from Phil after he heard my “Pieces of Dreams” EP saying, “Your singing your ass off, finish the album!” That’s just about the best praise you could ask for!
Then he sent me 28 of his original compositions including “Goodbye Mr. Evans” written for Bill Evans which I hope to record.
Was there a specific performance or moment that you had which helped you turn music into a career?
It’s funny, but I never thought of singing as a career. I know it’s considered a career, like being a lawyer or a doctor, but there was always something I’d hear that grabbed me and lifted me. It’s always what I did, what I loved doing, no matter what performance or where I was singing. It’s kind of like the air I breathe; you need air to breathe and live, so I guess I need music the same way.
When I was in my early teens, I was always asked to sing when I was with my friends but when I was around 16 years old's I figured out chords on the piano and could play them and sing songs. I can remember some of the songs I sang and played were by Carly Simon, Elton John, Eric Clapton. I even had written my first song called “Where Do I Go”. Very appropriate at the time since I was feeling somewhat lost. I had put down the writing for a while, but what I would come to learn was that it was not forever, thank God! What did happen as time evolved was on a gig one time a musician said to me, have you ever tried writing, because when you sing and scat, it's like your composing a song. Something about that really got to me and the fire that was buried deep inside of me started to come alive. I started to write songs of love, healing, passion, truth, pain, whatever I was feeling and living including a song I wrote for child abuse. That will be one of the most important songs I've written, a voice for the children in the world and a song that will be heard soon in the months to come.
Michel Legrand and Laury Shelley in the 1970's
Tell us about Michel Legrand. How old were you when you started working with him?
As I mentioned earlier, I started listening to Legrand’s music when I was a teenager, so by the time I met Michel, I was already deep into his music. My brother-in-law introduced me to an album, Jack Jones Sings Michel Legrand. That album changed my life! My entire perspective on melody and lyrics changed, and my love affair with Legrand’s music started.
The first time I met Michel I was 19 and I had gotten a phone call from my friend Randy Waldman, who now lives in L.A. He is the pianist and musical director for Barbra Streisand, among others, and invited me to go hear Michel Legrand at the famous club, Mister Kelly’s. After the show, I went up to Michel and introduced myself, and told him I loved his music. He asked if I had a recording of my voice for him to hear, but I didn’t at the time. The next night I came back to Mister Kelly’s to hear Michel and the band again. By the way, the players in the band happened to be some of the greatest jazz musicians on the planet—Phil Woods, alto sax;
Marvin Stamm, trumpet; Steve Gilmore, bass; Bill Goodwin, drums; and a string quartet from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
When Michel saw me, he called me over to his table and asked again if I had a recording he could hear. Again I said no, I didn’t, but then out of my mouth came the words, “Why don’t you play piano and I’ll sing for you?” Well there was such a silence from the whole table, and looks on everyone's faces like, Who the hell do you think you are asking Michel Legrand to accompany you? Michel looked at me and said, “Why don’t you come by tomorrow while they’re tuning the piano and sing.” I couldn’t believe it!
The next day I had lunch with Marvin Stamm, and after, we walked over to Mister Kelly’s to meet Michel. The first tune I sang was “Bye Bye Black Bird,” and I scatted a bit. Then I sang Legrand/Bergman’s “Pieces Of Dreams” while Michel played piano. It was beyond thrilling to sing his music while he accompanied me. The entire time Michel kept looking at his manager, Nat Shapiro, in delight.
I was especially into Legrand’s obscure songs and wanted very much to sing one more that I really loved. They were already happy, but when I asked to sing “You Must Believe In Spring,” Michel said yes. I sang, and that was it; that was the song that sealed the deal. They wanted me to go on tour and be his vocal soloist. Little did I know at the time, they were looking for someone to be his vocal soloist, and suddenly, I was that person. For the next 5 1/2 years I toured all over the country with the five-time Grammy and three-time Oscar-winning genius composer.
You traveled the world with Michel Legrand. Tell us about some of the places you performed?
I sang at some of the world’s most prestigious concert venues including: Carnegie Hall, The Sahara Hotel in Las Vegas, Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver, Miami Marine Stadium, and New York’s Westbury Theatre, as well as concert halls in Montreal, San Francisco and Los Angeles. I shared stages with many musical icons including Tony Bennett, Buddy Rich, Cleo Laine and John Dankworth, and performed and recorded with jazz greats Phil Woods, Ron Carter, Grady Tate and Randy Brecker. I also reunited and performed with Michel along with iconic bassist John Patitucci and brilliant drummer Willie Jones III at The Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis on Michel’s 2011-12 U.S. tour. That was an incredible two days of four shows with an outstanding trio, and the club was packed for every show.
What did you learn from him, what recordings are you on with him?
When I toured and worked with Michel, he didn’t really tell me what to do except for one time, and I still remember it. Every show I used to sing a very beautiful emotional 15-minute duet with Michel that was derived from his brilliant famous score from the jazz opera The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. One of the songs from the duet, which I sang, is the well-known and famous song, “I Will Wait For You.” So, the first time we rehearsed it together, Michel told me to hold a specific note over to the next note/lyric without taking a breath. Basically, I would sing the lyrics “For a thousand summers I will wait for you” in one breath. That way of phrasing— stretching and holding notes without taking a breath to the next note and lyric—stayed with me till this day. I learned to trust my natural instincts and be true to the melody and lyric. When you’re feeling the song you can’t help but be truthful, because it comes from deep in the heart the most honest place there is. In addition to touring, I am also featured singing a duet with Legrand of the Academy Award-nominated song “Pieces of Dreams” on the RCA recordings Michel Legrand and Friend and the recently released CD Michel Legrand The RCA Years.
Following your time with Michel, tell us about the next stage in your career.
After touring with Michel I started to perform my own shows and sing in jazz clubs, and also stayed busy singing commercials. I wanted to start doing my own thing, working and performing with the best musicians, and coming up with edgy, cool and different arrangements for songs to perform. I was finding myself more, not just as a singer, but as an arranger, and also what I would come to find that was inside me a songwriter. I was also fortunate that commercials were still being recorded in Chicago at the time I stopped touring with Michel. I sang commercials for McDonald’s, Kellogg’s, United Airlines, 7UP, Coors Light, American Greeting Cards and many others. Thanks to the commercial recording industry, I also met my husband vocalist/songwriter Lee Montgomery. He was the number one singing voice in the U.S. for commercials, and I met him at a recording session at Universal Recording Studios in Chicago. As they say, the rest is history.
You have a new recording coming out this fall. Tell us how you first started planning the music for this project.
I have a new EP coming out of my originals songs called Time Is A Healer. I was, and have been getting deep into writing, and finally felt it was time to record an album of my original songs. The songs I’ve been writing are important because it almost is a chronicle of my life and the experiences I have had. The songs I’ve written have allowed me to find my true sound as a musician. Like most songwriters, I don’t think about it when I write, it just happens. I write what comes from inside, what I’m feeling and what inspires me. I think my writing comes from a place that’s true, real, heartfelt and passionate. I’ve been influenced by so much music and have taken it all in.
There is only one song on the album that is not one of my originals. It’s a soulful unusual arrangement that I came up with of the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning song “The Windmills of Your Mind.” It just happens to be written by Grammy and Oscar winning composer Michel Legrand and lyricists Alan and Marilyn Bergman. I’m so thrilled with how this arrangement turned out!
This new release has helped me evolve into who I am as a singer/songwriter. I’m finally embracing who I am and it’s such a good feeling. We will be announcing a release date late in the fall, followed by a release show and some other exciting performances.
Visit LauryShelley.com to contact Laury and get more information about her upcoming release Time Is A Healer.