Steven Davis is the first to admit he’s enjoyed a lot of incredible musical lives. The versatile singer and multi-talented performer, who grew up singing gospel in church in his Midwest hometown, spent years wowing crowds in clubs in NYC, Atlantic City and L.A., and performing overseas with orchestras and big bands. Early in his life, he discovered a passion for Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, big band sounds and the Great American Songbook – and it has been a big part of his journey, infusing his musical sensibilities ever since. Marking the first time he’s brought that passion to a full scale recording project, Davis’ dynamic new album The Way You Look Tonight pays beautiful homage to an incredible group of artists from that wondrous era when songs had soul, arrangements swung powerfully and poetic lyrics penetrated the heart.
In addition to giving Davis his long awaited shot at achieving a lifelong dream, the eight song collection offers an opportunity for young people saturated with the electronica and hip-hop based pop of today to hear classic tunes in a fully contemporary yet timeless way. For them, it’s an open door to a musical era whose lyrical themes and innate coolness are still relevant – just in need of a fresh, exciting new voice.
Performing with a 17-piece big band, the singer recorded the set at the legendary Capitol Studio A in Hollywood, where Frank and Nat “King Cole” once held court. Assembling the perfect team was essential. He worked alongside three industry greats in producer Josh Charles, also a renowned artist and songwriter); Grammy Award winning mixer/recording engineer Ed Cherney, who has weaved his sonic magic for everyone from Bonnie Raitt and The Rolling Stones to Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Elton John and Etta James; and conductor/arranger Andy Farber, who has arranged for, among others, Jon Hendricks, Wynton Marsalis, Bob Dylan, B.B. King and Ray Charles.
Davis and Charles – also the singer’s manager and producer in his indie label First Second Records – spent months culling the perfect set list of gems from across that cherished era, including three tunes indelibly associated with Sinatra (“The Way You Look Tonight,” “Come Fly With Me” and “Luck Be A Lady” from the musical “Guys & Dolls”); a Dean Martin classic (“Ain’t That a Kick in the Head”); The Platters’ 1955 hit “Only You” (an R&B chestnut never before adapted to a big band arrangement); “Teach Me Tonight” (featuring lyrics by the legendary Sammy Cahn); “It’s Alright WithMe,” from Cole Porter’s musical “Can-Can”) and “On The Street Where You Live,” from Lerner & Loewe’s “My Fair Lady,” notably recorded by Nat “King” Cole.
“Most of these songs were originally written for stage and film,” Davis says, “and I have always been drawn to their grace and elegance. I grew up with these iconic tunes and now it’s an amazing full circle privilege to be able to honor these traditions and keep them alive for a whole new generation. In my early life and throughout my musical career, I found it fascinating to ask myself and others the questions, ‘How does an artist, whether a singer or instrumentalist, find his or her place in the sun?’ ‘How do you find your style?’ At some point I realized it’s about an intersection of one’s temperament and physiology, especially for singers, where the capabilities of one’s vocal cords determine the style that’s most suitable. The Songbook tunes sung in a big band style is a mode of expression that fits me perfectly – and that’s how I evolved from a five year old boy singing great gospel songs to finally embracing my true artistry as an interpreter of these songs.”
Considering the acclaim Davis has received for his earlier work and the artistic heights he achieves on The Way You Look Tonight, it’s hard to believe that just a few short years ago, he almost lost his ability to sing altogether. After taking a several year leave of absence from the music business, he went in the studio to record some demos and “test the water” while exploring some new directions. During those sessions, he suffered a profound vocal bleed – and grappled with the possibility that he might never return to making music professionally. After nearly a year-long period of intense steroid therapy and weeks of forced silence, he was given a clean bill of health. Serendipitously, not long after, he met Charles through a mutual friend who lived in L.A. Davis had lived in Nashville for a while and Charles had recently moved there to work in the country music realm.
The two hit it off, discovering mutual passions for the same classic music that would eventually result in them high-tailing it to Los Angeles to live and help Davis launch his recording career. The two quickly began writing together, and Davis worked hard and sang regularly with quartets to get his voice in the kind of shape it needed to be in to nail those challenging big band arrangements. Since settling in L.A., the singer has performed at the ASCAP Expo and at several prominent clubs in the area – with an eye on doing a new run of dates in NYC in conjunction with the release in later 2016 of a new standards driven holiday project.
“Very few artists who come along can nail it,” Charles says, “but Steven’s voice and tone made me think this guy is phenomenal. As his vocals got stronger, I thought, ‘What can stop him from having a serious career as a recording artist while rebooting his career as a live performer?’” When the live in the studio sessions for The Way You Look Tonight began, Davis acknowledges that he had “a private battle going on with the large ghosts who were standing there in Capitol Studio A with me.” Yet Charles was confident in Davis’ ability to put his own unique stamp on these songs. “It was a daunting task,” he says, “but he tackled them beautifully. He brought something to the table that’s just a signature away from what we knew and loved about the originals – and Steven’s phrasing and tone are truly different than Frank and the other legends who sang these songs.”
“I guess the best things in life happen when you don’t see them coming,” says Davis. “Now I am acutely connected to the idea at this point in my life and career that if something isn’t fun, I’m not going to do it – and I’m having more fun making music than ever before. I feel like the luckiest person around to get to work with so many consummate pros, starting with Josh, whose instincts and musicality instill me with great trust. I wanted the songs on The Way You Look Tonight to be a full throttle big band swing tribute to those singers and songwriters who have taught me so much through the years and who have been such a source of inspiration. I wanted this recording to put a smile on your face, joy in your heart and make you wanna dance.”