55+ We understand that your mother, Shirley Callaway, is a singer, pianist and coach. Was she the main influence in your life and was she the reason you pursued a career in music?
AC My mother continues to be an anchor for my passion for music. She is the source of inherited talent for both my sister Liz and me. She has taught me so much about singing and the importance of honoring the stor y and lyrics of each song. Growing up, our mother inspired us by example, never forcing us to do anything, so joy for music always stayed alive. I was fortunate that our parents took us to many shows and concerts as kids, igniting a fire for the arts that will live forever. My mother sang on Grammy winning recordings with The Chicago Symphony Orchestra in the years she was a member of their revered Chorus.
55+ How did your interest in jazz come about?
AC My father, John Callaway, was a serious jazz lover and played drums in college. As a baby, I was enveloped in the rich and beautiful sounds of Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald, Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Oscar Peterson and Billie Holiday that he played at night on our turntable. He sang scat around the house and it sounded so fun I started singing it, too, at the age of three. Though journalism was his life profession, his love of great jazz was a lasting gift he gave me. As I grew up, I collected ever y great jazz album I could get my hands on and studied the gorgeous harmonies and rhythms. The freedom and improvisation of jazz is a natural fi t for my personality. I don’t think it’s possible to stay sad if you listen to swing and let yourself go.
55+ You wrote and sang the theme song to the television series, The Nanny. How did this opportunity come about?
AC In the 90’s, Fran Drescher went to a show of my original songs at a little nightclub in NY called Don’t Tell Mama. She came up to me afterwards and in that famous voice said, “You’re ver y talented, I want you to write songs for my TV projects.” I did, but none of her pilots were successes. Then one day, she called me up and invited me to compete with top Hollywood writers to write for the theme song for a project called The Nanny. I interviewed her and wrote two themes. The one she chose was the one I quoted her in. I asked her, “Fran, in a nutshell, who is your character?” She replied, “She’s the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan,” which I used in my lyric. Thank goodness I inherited my dad’s listening skills because I swear that’s the reason I got the job!
55+ You are known for your success as a singer, composer, lyricist, pianist and actress. Which would you say is closest to your heart and why?
AC Singing is the most natural thing in the world to me. It is who I am. So I would say that is number one. But writing is a close second, and since I usually write words and music at the same time, they belong together and help me express my vision of life and what matters to me. But really, it’s all connected, not separate at all. If people ask me what my favorite color is, I say “the rainbow.” That’s how I see life.
55+ One of your most interesting talents is your gift of improvisation, taking words and phrases from the audience and creating songs on the spot. What goes through your mind when you are doing this?
AC I always say I do my best thinking when I’m not thinking. I ask the audience for words and phrases, read them back, do a little singing prayer and then dive right in. I look at my list of words and find somewhere to start a story and some phrase that is the theme or the punch line. The rest is thinking in micro seconds and letting my hands find a melody that will be fun to share with my audience. The more you trust your intuition, the easier it is t have this leap of musical faith. Anyone can do it. After 9/11, I got a group of people together to sing blessings to the people lost in the towers and their families. By the end of the hour and a half, countless people who didn’t usually sing at all, had shared the most beautiful words and blessings in waves of wonderful sounds and harmonies. It was the most gorgeous musical experience of my life.
55+ How did it make you feel to be asked to perform for President Clinton in Washington, DC?
AC It was a great honor. To me, he is one of the finest presidents in histor y. When I met him before the performance, I got to thank him for calling up my friend Nancy LaMott, a wonderful singer who became terminally ill, on the last day of her life. He got a tear in his eye and I got a tear in mine, and to have a personal moment like that with such a brilliant and powerful man is a memory I cherish to this day.
55+ After Hurricane Katrina, the September 11th disaster and the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, you wrote and performed songs to benefit the survivors of these tragedies. What drove you to pursue these causes?
AC Music is one of the most power ful tools we have to uplift each other, heal and bring us together. I cannot sit and do nothing when people are suffering. Some people contribute through medicine, I contribute through music.
55+ Tell us about your association with Cole Porter?
AC A friend of mine named Bradshaw Smith, asked me to compose music to a beautiful lyric Cole Porter wrote that was unfinished at his death. I sat down, asked for Cole’s blessing and the music flowed through me. Years later, I sang it at a recording session of Cole Porter songs for the producer, Ben Bagley. He said, let’s put it on the CD. I said, we can’t, it’s not published. He insisted I record it and he sent the recording to the Cole Porter Estate. At first they didn’t even want to hear it but Ben said, I wanted the “no” to come from the head of the estate. Robert Townsend played my recording, wept and decided to publish the song, making me the only composer ever to have collaborated with Cole Porter!
55+ You have composed over 250 songs for Television, Broadway and Off-Broadway Shows, and for singers Barbra Streisand, Liza Minnelli and Patti Lupone. Can you tell us a little about what you’re working on now?
AC I am about to premiere a song I wrote called “I Love You More” for “Tyler’s Suite” which honors a young man named Tyler Clementi who took his life after being bullied on the internet. I recently went to Nashville and had an amazing time writing with some of their top writers- we wrote about six songs in four days and I will be shopping those songs in the next few months. And this year is my second year to be writing a poem or part of a song a day so I am devoting this creative time no matter how busy I am, to honoring my muse, with the plan to record the best songs and perhaps publish a book of poems. And still I work on songs for the great Barbra Streisand.
55+ I know you recently performed in Boca Raton, Florida to help support the Whispering Angels Foundation. Tell us why this organization is special to you.
AC The opportunity to be a part of organizations who concentrate on financially supporting education is fantastic! Whispering Angels Foundation has touched my heart because they support our youth by helping them to continue their dreams in the Design, Arts and Business fields. As an artist, I know how important it is to receive academic education. It’s what gives you the basis for your future. Anything that anyone can do to support this mission is a great thing. In my personal case, what better way to support Whispering Angel’s Mission than with my music through this wonderful event in Florida…. •