Back in the day, Steve Tyrell was just another gravel-throated white guy who loved to sing R&B. He sang in two bands when he was in high school in Texas, mainly covering R&B hits. After school let out, he would hurry over to his job for a record distributor in Houston. That job turned into a promotion gig, which in turn provided the contacts with national record companies that ignited his career.
Now, after nearly 40 years in the music industry, Tyrell finds himself with gas in the tank and open road ahead. on the day we spoke, he was getting ready to welcome All For one and some of the crew from Hanging Up, the film starring Lisa Kudrow, Meg Ryan and Diane Keaton (who doubles as director) into his studio. The recording session scheduled that night would feature Tyrell singing “Georgia on My Mind” with the young vocal group. The path from records to film was marked by a bit of the “right-place- right-time,” and a lot of hard work. After cutting a few sides with those high school bands and showing some shrewd business sense, Tyrell was signed by Sceptor Records as a staff producer and promotion man. “I was 19 years old when I came to New York and found myself working closely with Burt Bacharach, Hal David and Dionne Warwick,” he recalls. “Those guys were great; they wanted a young person’s perspective. I was very involved in choosing which of their songs Dionne would cut, including ‘Message to Michael,’ ‘The Look of Love’ and ‘Alfie’-almost all of the big hits.”
His eventual ascension to the top A&R post at Sceptor led Tyrell into film and television. “I signed B.J. Thomas to the company,” Tyrell says, “and when Burt was looking for someone to sing ‘Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head’ for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, I suggested him. The success of that track, and the theme songs for Alfie and Valley of the Dolls that Dionne sang, made me understand that the right song properly produced for the right film could sell a lot of records.”
In the late ’70s Tyrell migrated west, and his first television work came not long after he arrived in Los Angeles. “I wrote and produced all of the music for WKRP, including the theme,” he says. “Hugh Wilson created that show, and we developed a relationship that led to me getting other TV work, including music production on Hugh’s Frank’s Place show. I still do a lot of television projects. I produced the music for Pam Grier’s series on Showtime last year, Linc’s, and also wrote the theme and all of the incidental music for a WB Network show called Movie Stars that stars Harry Hamlin and Jennifer Grant, Cary Grant’s daughter.”
Tyrell received an Emmy nomination for Best Music Direction last year for his work on And the Beat Goes on, the ABC dramatization of the careers of Sonny and Cher. He says there were some interesting technical challenges involved with the project. “Most of the job was straight-ahead,” he says. “The tracks simply had to sound like records made in the ’70s. That’s not hard for me; I have a lot of vintage mics and amplifiers from that era in my studio. Then you really need musicians who know the styles and can play them the right way.
“Although I have Pro Tools in my studio, I love recording to tape,” he continues. “I have a Studer A820 and a Trident Series 80B board, plus some LA-2A limiters. A lot of this stuff was around in the ’70s, so getting the right sound for this film wasn’t hard. The interesting challenge came when we had to match the recordings we produced with the original records.
“[For example], one scene shows Sonny writing the first song they recorded, ‘Baby Don’t Go,'” he explains. “The scene starts with him writing at the piano and then shifts over to the studio, where he’s teaching it to Cher. The actress playing Cher has dialog that shows her insecurity about singing without Sonny-back-and-forth stuff between them as she’s learning the song and singing it. Remember, the real Cher is going to be heard singing the original track in about 15 seconds, and the pre-record we’ve done has to match her as closely as possible! After the original record is heard, the scene shifts over to a bowling alley, their first live performance, with the actors and our pre-record playing again.
“You just have to make things match, and it’s a beautiful thing when it works out. For example, how much echo will there be in a bowling alley? over which bars will the dissolve to the bowling alley occur? You plot it all out, and when it works to picture like it’s supposed to, everyone’s happy!”
Producing all of the music for Elvis: The Early Years was one of Tyrell’s favorite television assignments. “I worked very closely with Elvis when I was head of A&R at Sceptor,” Tyrell says. “Mark James was a writer signed to us. He wrote ‘Hooked on a Feeling’ for B.J. Thomas, which I exec-produced. A great engineer, Chips Moman, produced that track. Elvis was a big fan of B.J.’s records, and we started working with him. Elvis cut a song that Mark and I wrote called ‘It’s only Love’; that track went to Number one in England. Mark also wrote ‘Suspicious Minds,’ which was one of the biggest hits of Elvis’ career. Elvis always struck me as a great guy. He looked like a Greek god but was humble, and I never saw him take any kind of an attitude with anyone.”
Tyrell’s early ambitions as an artist are now being realized, and his work as a film and television music producer was critical to the release of his album, A New Standard, on Atlantic Records. “Several years ago, I got the job of recording the music for Father of the Bride, which was directed by Charles Shyer,” Tyrell says. “I asked Charles what kind of a band he wanted at the wedding reception scene, and he told me he was looking for a soulful version of ‘The Way You Look Tonight.’ I put a band together and recorded a demo at my studio with me singing the vocal. Between takes on the lot, Charles came outside and we cranked up the track on a car stereo. By the time the second verse rolled around, Diane Keaton, Steve Martin and a bunch of the crew were all listening and asking me who the singer was. When they found out it was me, they all said, ‘You’ve got to be in the movie!’ The response was so positive when the film was released that the producers asked me to sing over the opening and closing credits when it came time for the sequel.
“The funny thing is, I’d never sung a standard before! I was into otis Redding, Ray Charles, the whole R&B scene,” he continues. “And yet, the response to the vocals on the sequel- we cut ‘The Simple Life’ and ‘The Sunny Side of the Street’-were equally positive. I must have gotten 500 letters asking for more recordings. I got to thinking that maybe I should record an album of standards and wondered how I could produce something in that genre with an original twist.
“The idea of using legendary soloists still with us who were part of that era struck me as a good idea, and so that’s what we did. We used Clark Terry, Toots Thielemans, Louie Bellson and a bunch of other great players. The record is kind of like The Buena Vista Social Club, featuring some of the greatest songs of the 20th century. I started giving out copies to friends in the film community, and it became an underground hit!
“I was called to New York last year to record the music being used on a radio campaign for the Broadway revival of Cole Porter’s High Society. When I got to town, I called Val Azzoli, the chairman of Atlantic Records. Val was one of the people who had responded to my singing on the Father of the Bride soundtracks. We had a meeting, and I gave him the new album. Shortly afterward, Val called me and told me that he wanted to sign me to Atlantic! The album currently has a five-star review on amazon.com and is generating great feedback for us. It’s opened up an opportunity for me to change my career and express myself in a whole new way.”