Recently, while watching “Sinatra Being Frank” on Netflix, I was pleasantly surprised to see that jazz singer-pianist-songwriter Tony DeSare was one of the interviewees in the 2015 British documentary, produced by Simon Napier-Bell, about the iconic entertainer. It was quite a coincidence, considering that DeSare was already on my radar because on March 8 & 9, he is performing in “Tony DeSare: I Love a Piano,” a Printing Partners Pops concert with the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra, led by conductor Jack Everly.
Over the years, I have seen DeSare’s five previous performances with the ISO and the two shows he headlined at The Cabaret when it was at the Columbia Club. I have also interviewed DeSare several times, so upon seeing him in the documentary, I felt compelled to reach out to him to request an interview so I could not only obtain more information about his upcoming concert, but also receive an update about his career activities in general.
A few days ago, I contacted DeSare by email to request a phone interview. Almost immediately, he replied to say that he was available that very day. When I called him, he happened to be at his home in suburban Cumming outside Atlanta, where he lives with his wife Daisy and their five-year-old son Christopher.
Our conversation began with me telling him I had seen him in the documentary. I asked him right away how he was chosen to be interviewed for it. Often compared to Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr., DeSare regards Sinatra as one of his influences, so he was selected because he represented a young singer in the mold of the late crooner. As it turns out, DeSare opened for Don Rickles quite a bit in shows in Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Rickles’s manager, Tony Oppedisano, who was Sinatra’s road manager and also appeared in the Sinatra documentary, recommended DeSare.
About the late Rickles, DeSare said, “I was sad to see him go, but he had an amazing career. He lived until his 90s and worked right up to the end. I felt fortunate that I got to work with him and get to know him and become his friend. He was always happy to see me. He sent me a card and a gift when my son was born. He was gracious and very funny as everyone knows.” About Rickles’s brand of insult humor, which did not match the nice guy he actually was, DeSare said, “That’s why his comedy worked because at the heart of it was somebody who really cared about people and was very warm. He made fun of everybody and said things that nobody else could get away with.” DeSare also said that being in close proximity to Rickles also meant he encountered a lot of Rickles’s celebrity friends, such as Jerry Springer, John Stamos and Regis Philbin, who came backstage to see him after his shows. “Because his friends would have to wait until he finished taking a shower, which was his regular habit after his shows, I got to talk at length with them,” DeSare said.
Getting to the matter at hand, I asked DeSare about his program for the upcoming concert with the ISO. He said “The program is piano, focused on music that I loved when I first fell in love with the piano or before I even knew I would end up in show business. What made me want to play the piano were piano-singers Billy Joel, Elton John and Ray Charles and pieces like Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” with the orchestra. It’s for people that love piano pop music from classic pop to beyond,” said DeSare. Included in the set list are songs by Billy Joel, Elton John, John Lennon’s “Imagine” and some originals,” DeSare said, adding, “The program is really just focused on the magic of the piano and all the great angles. It’s great for rock and roll, classical, ballads and how it can display such a wide range of emotions and how it is such a timeless instrument and hasn’t changed much in hundreds of years. It’s the cornerstone of music.”
Recalling his history with Indianapolis, DeSare said, “I always love coming back to Indy because I feel like that is where I started this other chapter of my career. Where before I was playing in mostly cabarets and jazz clubs, working with orchestras has now become my favorite thing to do. It is a full-circle thing because I started out as a kid playing violin in the high school orchestra and now I am sitting just two feet away from the concert master. Playing with orchestras is a goal I have been working toward my whole life,” DeSare said. He’s lost track of symphonies he’s performed with, but mentioned a few, which included those that Everly has conducted in Baltimore, Naples and Ottawa, Canada. DeSare said he is constantly on the road during the season, which lasts from fall to spring. “I just got home from Regina, Saskatchewan. The week before that, I was with the West Virginia Symphony. Tomorrow, I leave for Las Vegas and am playing at the Smith Center, a beautiful room in Vegas, and then to Vail, Colorado. Next week, I am booked for a private event and then a week after that, I go to Indy.”
Crediting ISO Pops conductor Everly and Executive Producer Ty Johnson with jumpstarting this leg of his career, DeSare said, “They have been wonderful and really are responsible for giving me a break and without them I don’t know where I would be because it is notoriously difficult to crack. You need a lot of set-up time, you need charts, you need people to take a chance on you and that is what they helped me to do.”
When asked what his audience demographics are, DeSare said, “What’s really cool is that my shows attract a wide age range, like my Sinatra show. The younger generation has discovered his music more and there seems to be a lot more interest. And for the piano show, I get a lot of people who are taking piano lessons and piano teachers and stuff like that. I design my shows so that there is something for everybody. If you like music from every decade, you’ll like my show. I am very careful not to put anything in there that would alienate anybody.” As far as his “I Love a Piano” concert, DeSare proclaimed “This concert is for anyone who loves the magic that is made by the piano. Every generation of music has been enthralled by the marvel of this instrument, from Bach to Billy Joel, Gershwin to Ray Charles.”
For tickets and information about “Tony DeSare: I Love a Piano,” call the Hilbert Circle Theatre Box Office at (317) 639-4300 or visit indianapolissymphony.org.