Ah, an evening at the fabled Café Carlyle. If these muraled walls could talk they would probably say something like, “Please, not another story about Frank Sinatra!” But for Steve Tyrell, a Texas-raised Italian American (born Stephen Bilao) now in his 10th year as the Carlyle’s annual holiday season performer, a Sinatra homage is a must. He explains that he grew up listening to Ol’ Blue Eyes, a God-like figure in his household. Over his four decade, eleven album career in the music business, he has recorded numerous Sinatra classics including the all Frankie 2005 disc, Songs of Sinatra, the cover of which shows Sinatra’s shadow adjoined to a grinning Tyrell.
Thus, he starts his 75 minute set with four Chairman of the Board hits, all written by Sammy Cahn. It is a worrisome beginning. Tyrell has sung these numbers approximately one zillion times and, like an altar boy forced yet again to go to church, the singer hunkers down and works his way through Come Fly With Me, The Way You Look Tonight, The Tender Trap and an insufferable It’s Magic as if by rote, with a raspy voice and no discernible range.
But then, once his penance has been paid, a wonderful transformation occurs. He closes the cover of the Great American Songbook and shifts his attention away from the mid 50’s and toward the early 60’s Brill Building sound. These are the songs of his early days in New York (and of his latest cd), when he worked at Scepter Records and was in close contact with legends like Burt Bacharach and Carole King, as well as the seriously talented songwriting teams who toiled away at the Brill in that era (the same gang chronicled in the current Broadway musical about Ms. King, Beautiful). “I know these guys,” says Tyrell, and his connection to this music makes all the difference. Suddenly his voice is warm and resonant, and he’s hitting the high notes.
There is something inherently sexy about a man of a certain age, dressed in sharp lapels, singing songs like On Broadway, Stand By Me, Up On the Roof and Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow. It’s a kind of hip sentimentality that, in a younger performer, would only come off as ironic.
The evening’s centerpiece is You’ve Lost that Lovin’ Feelin’, the 1964 classic made famous by The Righteous Brothers and written by Barry Mann, Phil Spector and Cynthia Weil. There is just the slightest hint of a Willie Nelson twang in Tyrell’s version (Thank God for Texas), which adds an extra layer of depth to his fine rendering. This number has long been on my top five list of most devastating love songs and Tyrell seems to agree, telling the couples in the audience, “It’s a sad song…if it ever happened to you.”
He ends the night with strong renditions of songs about couples whose loving feelings are still intact. There is Laughter in the Rain, Chapel of Love (with an unfortunate audience sing-along chorus), This Guy’s in Love with You, and I Say A Little Prayer. Then, apparently weary, he is out the door with no hope of an encore.
Tyrell is backed by a sextet that spills off of the tiny Carlyle stage. Bob Mann, Tyrell’s long-time arranger, is on guitar, and an excellent David Mann (no relation) plays sax. And about the café itself, with its exposed ceiling and humdrum layout, the space at first seems not at all romantic. But once the house lights go down, the Marcel Vertes murals of musicians are warmly lit, the small, shaded lamps on every table twinkle away, and sure enough it is hard not to feel a magical aura in this room where the ghosts of Bobby Short and Elaine Stritch forever dwell.
Steve Tyrell performs through Dec. 31 at Café Carlyle.
Performances will take place Tuesday – Saturday at 8:45pm with a Saturday late show at 10:45pm. Reservations made by phone at 212.744.1600 are $115 ($165 for premium seating, $65 for bar seating) Tuesdays – Thursdays & Saturday late shows; and $140 ($190 for premium seating, $75 for bar seating) on Fridays and Saturdays. Reservations made online at www.ticketweb.com are $110 ($160 for premium seating) Tuesdays – Thursdays & Saturday late shows; and $135 ($185 for premium seating) on Fridays and Saturdays. Café Carlyle is located in The Carlyle, A Rosewood Hotel (35 East 76th Street, at Madison Avenue), thecarlyle.com.