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Old pros up for top pop Grammy

By PAT NASON, UPI Hollywood Reporter   |   Feb. 26, 2002 at 7:12 PM
LOS ANGELES, Feb. 26 (UPI) -- This year's nominees for the traditional pop vocal album Grammy could just as easily have been up for album of the year in the days when the Recording Academy was still being criticized for not being hip -- but Betty Buckley, Rosemary Clooney, Harry Connick Jr., Michael Feinstein and Keely Smith are hip enough for 2002.

Clooney, who is recovering from lung surgery, is sure to add a little something to her trophy case, since the Recording Academy announced that it will honor her -- along with Count Basie, Perry Como, Al Green and Joni Mitchell -- with Lifetime Achievement Awards.

She's up for traditional pop album honors for "Sentimental Journey: The Girl Singer and Her New Big Band."

Connick is a two-time Grammy winner for jazz vocal performance -- winning in 1990 for "We Are in Love" and 1989 for "When Harry Met Sally."

Buckley is nominated for "Stars and the Moon: Live at the Donmar." Connick is nominated for "Songs I Heard." Feinstein's "Romance on Film, Romance on Broadway" and Keely Smith's "Keely Sings Sinatra" complete the field.

For Buckley -- who may be better known to some entertainment consumers as an actress, with roles in "Carrie" (1976), "Tender Mercies" (1983) and the TV series "Eight Is Enough" -- the nomination is especially sweet, especially considering how much trouble she encountered with the project, which she co-produced with Kevin Duncan.

"I think it came out surprisingly well," she said. "It was one the most arduous projects I've ever had."

Buckley said the problems included misunderstandings between her management and the people who recorded her performance live in London, and technical problems involving playback equipment in the United States that was not compatible with the recording equipment that was used in London.

After some U.S. recording sessions had to be canceled and a crew of recording engineers abandoned the project, Buckley said she turned to an old friend, recording engineer Ben Rizzi.

"We had just one day session with him," she said. "He completely restored my faith in the project."

Then, not long after Rizzi helped revive the project, Buckley said he died of a heart attack. Buckley said she finally finished work on the CD, which was released on Sept. 11.

Buckley conceded there were times when she just wanted to throw in the towel -- especially since she was producing the CD with her own money.

"It's absurd to keep pouring money into a project that's getting beat up by so many people around it," she said. "It cost me a lot of money. It seemed like an adequate budget when we first started, but it kept going over budget."

Buckley takes part of the blame for that, conceding that she is a perfectionist. In the end, she said it wasn't the money that drove her to see the project through.

"I've done many things that cost me more than they earned me," she said. "The (Grammy) nomination really meant a lot to me. It was like there were people out there in the recording industry saying by their vote, 'We're aware of the music you've been putting out there for some time.'"

Keely Smith, like so many other musicians of her generation, is enjoying the fruits of a recent upswing in interest in her music. Like other contemporaries of hers, she is reluctant to call this a comeback, since she never went anywhere.

"I just didn't work that much and there wasn't much of a call for me," she said.

She continues to tour as much as she can, and she has noticed younger crowds showing up to hear her sing -- something that surprised her. The first time she worked the House of Blues in L.A., Smith said she wondered if she was in the right place.

"I thought, 'These kids don't know who I am. Why do these kids even want me here?" said Smith. "I was petrified."

Smith said she had "an anxiety attack" and couldn't control the notes when she began to sing. Then the crowd surprised her, singing along on standards such as "You Go to My Head" and "It's Magic."

For her Grammy-nominated album, "Keely Sings Sinatra," Smith enlisted the services of top big band arrangers Dennis Michaels, Don Menza and Frank Collett -- and even brought in super arranger Billy May for "A Lovely Way to Spend an Evening" and "This Love of Mine." May, along with arrangers like Nelson Riddle and Quincy Jones, was closely associated with many of Sinatra's greatest hits.

"When he (May) walked in the studio -- and I've never seen this in all my years in recording -- the musicians all stood up and applauded him," said Smith.

Content for now to stay with classic swing and big band tunes, Smith said she "probably will eventually" record songs by more contemporary songwriters, as artists such as Tony Bennett have. For now, she's working on a big band project called "Keely Swings Basie Style," and expects to follow that up with an album of songs arranged for strings.

She's written a memoir -- recounting her life with and without the late bandleader Louie Prima -- but she thinks it needs more work before she would be willing to have it published.

"I did some things when I was married to Louie that I probably wouldn't have done if I had been more aware," she said, "but at the time it seemed OK. When you see it in black and white, it doesn't look OK. No matter what you've done in your life, the public will forgive you if you promise it won't happen again. Not that's it's all that horrible, by today's standards."

Smith said she's had people "coming out of the woodwork" about a possible movie based on her life. She said she has had serious talks with director Norman Jewison ("Moonstruck," "In the Heat of the Night") and producer Lauren Schuler-Donner ("X-Men," "Any Given Sunday," "You've Got Mail").

"It started out as the life of Louie and Keely," she said, "and now it's the life of Keely with Louie as a part."

Smith and Prima won a Grammy in 1958 -- at the first Grammy Awards -- for "That Old Black Magic."

Feinstein likes his Grammy-nominated album, and he isn't shy about saying so.

"I think it's one of my best albums," he said.

Known as a leading interpreter of the American pop songbook, Feinstein thinks of himself as something of an archaeologist.

"I'm always digging to go deeper with the songs," he said. "I'm always trying to find a way to bring through the original intention of the song yet give it contemporary sensibility."

His research has helped him turn up nuggets of information about songs that often help him give them new relevance. Take the George and Ira Gershwin standard, "Love Is Here to Stay," for example.

"When I sing 'Love Is Here to Stay,' I frequently tell the story of how Ira had to finish that song after his younger brother's sudden and untimely passing," said Feinstein. "And knowing that Ira had to go back and finish the song due to a studio deadline when he was devastated and bereft makes the words all the more poignant. It's not just a love song. It suddenly reflects the culmination of a partnership in a very eloquent way."

Feinstein's propensity for research came in handy in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks when he came up with a distinctive way of presenting "God Bless America," Irving Berlin's patriotic classic.

"With everybody on the bandwagon singing 'God Bless America,'" said Feinstein, "I found lines Berlin had cut from the song, allowing me to sing fresh lyrics before inviting everyone in the audience to join me for the more familiar lyrics."

Feinstein is promoting his new project, "Michael Feinstein with the Israel Philharmonic." He said it was a particular thrill for him to play with the orchestra because of its past association with legendary conductor-composer Leonard Bernstein.

"Bernstein's influence and spirit permeated the concert hall," he said. "What he gave to the orchestra is assimilated and is part of the way they make music. Young players who never worked with Bernstein still are benefiting from his association with the orchestra by osmosis, by learning from the other players in the organization, sharing in the pride of that connection."

Like so many other nominees for so many other awards, Feinstein said it's an honor just to be nominated for a Grammy.

"I'm thrilled to be nominated, and I know that at the right time I'll win," he said. "If not this time, I know my work will inevitably be acknowledged in that way. However, to be nominated by my peers is a very high honor and I do not take that lightly.

"It's just a reminder that, hey, people are listening," he said. "You know, recording is solitary -- and being nominated for a Grammy is not."

The 44th annual Grammy Awards will be presented Wednesday night at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, in ceremonies to be televised by CBS.

© 2002 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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