Nonetheless, the show stopper of the night belonged to William Blake. He sang "Home" from The Wiz and simply tore it apart. Not by trilling and tossing out run after run like so many would-be Mariah Careys, but by digging deep into the melody, presenting it with feeling and care...and then building and building it until the runs and gospel inflections that others toss in willy nilly made perfect emotional and artistic sense. Blake is a genuine and unique talent and announced he's going to be recording a new album this summer. Everyone who saw him sing this song is unquestionably just as excited to hear it as I am. It's the sort of moment that makes evenings like this memorable and unmissable.
Click HERE for the interview!
If any white man can pull this off, the gifted Blake might just be the one.
William Blake is the genial host who usually greets you at the door at Birdland. But regulars at Cast Party know that he's also a blues and soul belter of uncommon skill. With his piercing, full-bodied falsetto and dynamic attack, you'd expect him to be doing tributes to Jimmy Scott or Little Willie John, so his tribute to the Matriarch of the Blues, the much-missed Etta James, is a brilliantly out-of-the-box idea.
I hate him!
A shy young Texan with a powerful high tenor . . . electrifying . . . .
Texas born and bred singer William Blake--who came to New York six years ago at age 24--has lately taken the town by storm with his terrific tribute show to the legendary blues and jazz singer Etta James. In the process, Blake has also managed to transform some of the city's most prestigious nightclub/cabaret venues into his own personal concert halls. First it was at Birdland, where in the summer of 2012 and with the support of "Cast Party" impresario Jim Caruso, Blake launched his Echoes of Etta in front of raucous, standing-room only crowds. Then last February, Blake, his five piece band and three girl backup singers, overpowered Joe's Pub. But the last two nights might have been Blake's most impressive performances to date, as he totally captured the crowd at the elegant and sedate Cafe Carlyle (for the room's new 10:45 "Second Act" sets). It was almost as if you were experiencing a Rhythm & Blues concert at Carnegie Hall.
And perhaps that's where this show should play next because it certainly deserves an audience that size. There's a reason why Echoes of Etta--created by Blake with his Musical Director/Arranger Michael Thomas Murray--earned this young blue-eyed soul singer the recent BroadwayWorld.com Cabaret Award for "Best Male Vocalist" and the show a nomination as "Best Tribute." It is flat-out polished, pulsating and powerful, and with his goose bump-inducing falsetto, his gospel growl, and his passionate expression of the emotions behind each lyric, Blake delivers James' classic R & B songs to near perfection. Almost from the moment he stepped on the Carlyle stage for the rocking blues opener "Something's Got A Hold On Me," Blake and company took hold of the audience and never let go during a 17-song set that for last night's show demanded an extra encore.
How did this white boy from Dallas, who possesses the kind of cherubic face and sweet disposition that compelled Gene Simmons from KISS to say Blake reminded him of a young Wayne Newton, come to channel a female African-American singer who is in both the Blues and the Rock 'n Roll Hall of Fames?
"When I was growing up there was always music being played in my house and in the car and it was usually R & B," Blake told me during a recent interview. "My parents loved singers like Otis Redding and Sam Cooke and their music became my music." After Blake started working at Birdland four years ago, he was included in Caruso's "Cast Party" variety shows. Caruso was so impressed (as was Michael Feinstein, who said Blake was "amazing" and offered him a spot in a Carnegie Hall show) in 2011 he asked the up-and-comer to stage a solo show. Blake performed a set of soul and R & B classics, which eventually became the CD "William Blake: Live From New York." When Caruso urged him to do a new show for 2012, Blake had already been conspiring with his musical partner Murray about doing an Etta James tribute show. Who knew it would be an ideal fit?
"We were ready to do it at the beginning of 2012," Blake recalls, "but when Etta died last January it didn't seem like the right time. It wouldn't have served her memory well to have done a show about her so soon after she passed. We all needed time to mourn such a great talent. By the time we were ready to do it last June, it became even more a show about inspiration and what inspires a musician. For me, every song in the show is a love letter to Etta."
And he sings them that way. With a vocal instrument that is relentlessly soulful and combines high-energy with seeming effortlessness, Blake delivers the uptempo blues numbers and the ballads with equal precision and passion. Murray's arrangements are reverential but also play to Blake's vocal strengths (although if there are any weaknesses they are tough to discern). The five-piece band--Murray on piano, Oscar Bautista on guitar, Frank Canino on bass, Mike Shapiro on drums, and especially Jay Leslie playing an awesome sax--and the three faux "Peaches" (a solid backup vocal group featuring Ashley Betton, Shira Elias, and Stephany Mora) are strong and supportive without being overpowering, even in a more intimate room like the Carlyle.
On the uptempo "Good Rockin' Daddy," Leslie and Bautista shined on their respective solos and the Peaches rocked their synchronized choreography, while their backup vocals seemed even stronger than during the Joe's Pub show. On James' first hit, "The Wallflower (Roll With Me, Henry)," Murray and Blake engaged in a mid-tempo blues conversation, with Leslie again providing a fine mid-song sax riff.
For the Carlyle show, Blake and Murray added a new number "That Crazy Feeling," and it was at this point four songs in that Blake had taken total command of the set and the stage, and the audience was totally on board for this R & B ride. Echoes of Etta is more of a concert than a cabaret show and that's the way it should be. There is just the right amount of between-songs patter where Blake offers a little bit of history and personal homage to keep the musical flow humming along. After a solid duet with Murray on "Spoonful/If I Can't Have You," Blake poked fun at himself for at the Birdland show dedicating the blues ballad "Stop the Wedding" to a 16-year-old girl (it wasn't included at the Joe's Pub gig) and then nailed it with delicious backup from the Peaches. He then dedicated the funky "Down In The Basement" to Jim Caruso and their beloved Birdland (where Blake also works part-time) and Caruso, who was in the audience, was smiling from ear to ear throughout the song. Blake finished off the first half of the set by making vocal love to "I Just Want to Make Love To You," probably one of Murray's best of a score of solid arrangements.
From there, the momentum building was rapturously relentless. On the classic ballad "Sunday Kind of Love," Blake combined a mixture of his innate feminine-like upper register and lower male baritone notes with that soulful falsetto to create a compelling power blues sound. The gospel tinged "Losers Weepers"--the best friend stealing a man story song--was so much fun it could make you cry. The Peaches backup vocal harmonies and movement on this number made it feel almost like a parody of a classic group blues number and it was totally adorable. The torch song "Fool That I Am" (which has been covered by Adele and which Blake calls his "favorite song in the set") was like a duet between Blake and Leslie, where the latter's sax lines seemed to respond to William's wonderful wailing. But that was nothing compared to how that fantastic and familiar opening saxophone riff for "At Last" can completely melt you (which Leslie's did) and Blake's rendition ranks right up there with the best of them. It's hard to believe anything could top that, but Blake managed to keep the power vocal going late in the show (with help from the Peaches) with a sublime interpretation of the mid-tempo blues ballad "I'd Rather Go Blind."
With the audience engaged in the kind of appreciative applause usually reserved for nightclub legends like the late Cafe Carlyle crooner Bobby Short (the crowd would later demand a second encore, which was the classic "The Very Thought of You," made famous by both Etta and Billie Holiday), Blake and company launched into an absolutely kick-ass encore of "Sookie Sookie/Tell Mama," which built in power and tempo right to the button. Interested in experiencing the performance of a budding concert singing star? To paraphrase a line from "Tell Mama": See William! He'll make everything all right!
To meet singer William Blake in person is to get a glimpse of the mild-mannered Southerner behind the sensation one sees and hears on stage. Don’t be fooled by the cherubic, boyish looks (he’ll be turning thirty this summer) or gentle speaking tone. Blake transforms into a fiery, soulful tenor on stage, complete with gospel wails, hungry growls and unrestrained riffs.
On June 4th, Blake takes on none other than legendary Etta James in a concert at Birdland, 315 W. 44th Street. Entitled "Echoes of Etta," it’s a show that Blake had been mulling long before her death in January. In fact, he recorded "At Last" for his first CD, "DayDreamer," back in 2004.
"Why not?" Blake says, regarding the tribute concert. "I’ve spoken with both fans and people who have worked with her to prepare for this, but I want the music to speak for itself." He claims to have listened to every song she recorded.
Blake recalled seeing the movie "Sister Act" as a ten-year-old. There is a scene where Whoopi Goldberg’s character goes to the jukebox and puts in her coin. Out comes Etta’s "Roll With Me, Henry." Blake was galvanized by the voice and thought, "That’s what I want to do."
Blake was born and raised in Dallas, Texas. While his twin sister became a tomboy and grew up riding motorcycles, he gravitated toward art, music and theater. Still, his parents respected his choice. In fact, after they divorced when he was twelve, his mother met her second husband from the cast of his very first show, "Lil Abner." "If I hadn’t been doing theater, she wouldn’t have met the love of her life," he says matter-of-factly.
Naturally, Blake sang in the school choir, sang to the oldies radio station in the car, and sang in the Baptist church. "When you’re growing up in the South, church has a lot to do with that," he says, theorizing as to why so many great vocalists come from below the Mason-Dixon line.
Although Blake attended Southern Methodist University and planned to major in theater, he started getting more singing work in Dallas nightclubs and theater and dropped out after two years. "It was one of the hardest, riskiest decisions of my life and I certainly didn’t want to disappoint my family," he says. "I don’t think I did."
After "DayDreamer" in 2004, he finally gave in to the demands of his friends and auditioned for "American Idol"-not once but twice. When he didn’t get past the preliminaries in Orlando, he went straight to the next auditioning city, New Orleans.
Ultimately, he made it to the Hollywood round in Season 4 (Carrie Underwood’s year).
"I had never watched the show," Blake says. "I basically did it to shut them up!"
"What you see on TV is basically a dumbed-down version of what really happens. So much happens in a day, they are constantly filming, they never let you sleep, and the kids are singing incessantly," he says with a roll of his eyes. "But, I got more gigs and theater from the experience and I wouldn’t have gotten to New York if it wasn’t for that."
The choice had come down to New York or Las Vegas. "After going to L.A. [for "Idol"], I didn’t want to go back," he laughs. "Now I live in Hell’s Kitchen and can walk two blocks to see all the shows. I’m constantly inspired."
His first job in New York was as a waiter at the famed piano bar Don’t Tell Mama. "The others were a little territorial at first, but then they saw what I brought to the table"-music-wise, not beverage-wise-"and I was so grateful," he says. "You meet people from all corners of the world working there, and you don’t have that in Dallas."
He remained there for a year but left when new owners took over. Soon after attending Jim Caruso’s Monday night Cast Party at Birdland, he was asked to work there. Not only that, but after one performance at Cast Party, Michael Feinstein came over and complimented him. That led to a performance with Feinstein and other luminaries in the show "Standard Time" at Carnegie Hall.
"That was vindicating for me," he says. "That’s when I knew the people in Dallas were not lying to me about my talent."
Working at Birdland has also introduced him to a roster of worldwide artists. "It’s a different level, like getting to talk to Kurt Elling," he says. "I probably won’t be as gung-ho about the Great American Songbook as the next lauded singer, but it helps get to know it from these people."
In this age of image and auto-tuning, one artist he admires is Nikka Costa. "She sings funk, soul and rock," Blake says. "She’s doing what I’d love to be doing, touring with my band all over the place. She’s such an energetic and dynamic performer, people go crazy."
Last year, Blake released "Live from New York City," eight tracks from a sold out concert at Birdland in September 2010. He covered such artists as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, Sly and the Family Stone, Rufus and Gladys Knight and the Pips. He’s also at work on a Graham Russell musical in the works based on Air Supply songs. At a recent reading, he worked with Constantine Maroulis, who had been in his Hollywood group on "American Idol."
Although he sees a future with that show, Blake doesn’t audition much. "I’m more interested in touring, showing the nation what I’ve got," he says.
Blake, reflecting on the losses of Etta, Whitney and Donna this year, mused, "It’s such an interesting relationship between gay men and black women in popular music. It’s diva-tude, no holds barred. They go to church and gay men love it; that’s where they find their church."
After a pause, he finds the real point: "Really, what’s the point of singing a song if you don’t feel it?"
The buzz and excitement that preceded William Blake’s “Echoes of Etta” show at Birdland is usually associated with a much more well-known performer. The lines down 44th street trying to get into the sold-out, standing room only event recalled the crowds around the Copa when Bobby Darin was a headliner there. The first standing ovation came when Jim Caruso, creator and host of the Broadway at Birdland series, opened the evening by introducing William Blake. Jim, with typical wit, looked at the cheering crowd and asked mischievously “Is this for me”?
I’ve never been (or anticipate going) to a revival meeting or one of those Elmer Gantry type religious experiences so I guess William’s singing is the closest I’ll get to witnessing the intensity and emotion that kind of show produces. At one point a woman in the back yelled out to Mr. Blake “I want to have your baby!”
The loyalty and enthusiasm of William Blake’s fans is due totally to the passion and vocal proficiency he brings to his performance. You don’t learn how to sing like this, it has to be in your DNA. If William “makes” it (as he should), his rise to fame will be eagerly chronicled by writers and critics alike. It’s a great story – following his dream from Texas to NYC – American Idol almost winner – singing waiter – manager at Birdland – discovered by Michael Feinstein and put in his Carnegie Hall show.
For this Etta James show, William had his music director Michael Thomas Murray on keyboards, Oscar Bautista on guitar, Steve Kelly on drums, Mike Preen on bass, Matthew Polashek on sax and the Peaches on backup vocals. William is not only about “At Last” – - He’s gonna last!
When a white male soul singer bursts onto the scene, a fair number of people probably sit back, arms crossed, and take an attitude of "Okay, this I gotta see." Even in our multi-cultural age, such genre-crossing between the races is a rarity, greeted with some skepticism. There is a certain audacity in the performer who attempts it.
Now along comes William Blake, the sweet, baby-faced, and still-under-thirty vocal powerhouse, who has been steadily building up his fan base with his no-holds-barred concerts. Recently, he upped the audacity factor by devoting an entire concert in tribute to the iconic Etta James, who passed away earlier this year. This was a bold step even for a singer who last year released a very credible "Live from New York" concert CD, in which he covered such R&B stalwarts as Stevie Wonder, Chaka Khan, Gladys Knight, and Teddy Pendergrass. In his "Echoes of Etta" concert at Birdland, Blake took that step and then some: he established himself as a formidable singer of the blues. And while there are many imitative singers out there who ably mimic their idols' vocal acrobatics, Blake is not one of them. He may have been widely influenced by James and other soul divas, but he is every bit his own man.
From the moment he took the stage with his five-piece band and three backup singers, Blake's showmanship was fully evident. Wearing a suit and tie, he blew kisses to the crowd, grooved in sync with his backup girls, and displayed those masterful little tricks with the microphone and stand to show he had complete confidence in, and control of, his artistry. With his boyish appearance and speaking voice, one might still have had doubts, but those doubts were dispelled as soon as he let loose with those perfectly pitched gospel wails, howls and growls.
He got off to a high-energy start with James's popular "Something's Got a Hold on Me" (Etta James, Leroy Kirkland, Pearl Woods), immediately followed by "Good Rockin' Daddy" (Joe Bihari, Richard Berry). He held nothing back, leaving one to wonder how he would keep up his stamina for an hour. A few minutes later, he gave his "Peaches"—James called her backup singers the Peaches—a break and traded vocal lines with his pianist, Michael Thomas Murray. When Blake leaned across the piano and stared into Murray's eyes and turned up the heat with the lyric "The way you hug me, the way you squeeze me, the way you kiss me" (from "If I Can't Have You" by Etta James and Harvey Fuqua), both went with it and one half expected to see clothes start flying off. It was a surprise to learn later that they are not a couple. Raw sensuality is Blake's calling card. After a sizzling version of "I Just Want to Make Love to You" (Willie Dixon), a woman called out, "I want to have your baby!" Blake, recovering by mopping his forehead, smiled and politely said, "We can talk about it after the show." Finally, he trumped himself yet again with "Damn Your Eyes" (Barbara Wyrick, Steve Bogard). I don't know what possesses this guy, but by the climactic ending, he was raging, "Never lay a hand on me no more! Damn your eyes!" It was ferocious; the pussycat had become a lion. I don't think Blake can or will be tamed. Looks can be deceiving.
Make no mistake: this is not hollering and carrying on. Blake's vocal instrument is incredibly flexible and shows astonishing range, as evidenced by his treatment of "A Sunday Kind of Love" (Barbara Belle, Louis Prima, Anita Leonard, Stan Rhodes). About two-thirds of the way through the show, when he caressed Floyd Hunt's "Fool That I Am" accompanied by just piano, the effect was mesmerizing, and those light, cascading notes were like tears trickling down the face.
Oddly enough, his rendition of James's most famous song, "At Last" (Harry Warren, Mack Gordon), although vocally strong, was perhaps the least effective moment of the night. First, the song has been done so many times, it's difficult for even the best singers to bring anything new to it; second, perhaps Blake hasn't lived long enough to fully embody its sentiment. My sense is that he still has a lot of roiling waters in him, and songs that stir those up suit him best.
Blake closed with Ray Noble's "The Very Thought of You," including the little known verse. This was pared down, a simple, moving valentine to the sold out crowd that had come to see the show. When he sang, "I'm living in a kind of daydream, I'm happy as a king," he almost choked up with emotion, and came closer still when the audience stood en masse to applaud his Herculean efforts. Nevertheless, he recovered and ended with a party, "Tell Mama" (Clarence Carter, Marcus Daniel, Wilbur Terrell), dancing on stage with his great band: Murray (piano, Fender Rhodes), Oscar Bautista (guitar), Mike Preen (bass), Steve Kelly (drums), Matthew Polashek (sax), and Shira Elias, Ashley Betton and Stephany Mora (the Peaches). A nice touch was the use of several voiceovers of Ms. James, herself, in interviews, which added a stamp of authority to the evening.
William Blake is a true original, someone who could turn a cabaret career into something much bigger. Judging by this concert, he is on the brink.
William Blake rocked (and I do mean rocked!) Birdland this past Monday evening with his show Echoes of Etta. With cleverly and unobtrusively contemporized arrangements by Michael Thomas Murray, Mr. Blake served up choice offerings of Etta James songs. Using his high, mighty, and absolutely solid killer blue-eyed soul voice, Mr. Blake knocked the over-produced Etta emulators off the chart, singing with a vocal certainty and emotional sincerity that puts the others to shame. Echoes of Etta was just that: Mr. Blake's skill allowed him to vocally honor Ms. James's artistry, yet still maintain his own identity as the amazing singer he is. In the spring of 1962, I heard "Something's Got a Hold on Me" on the radio, and ran out to Hollywood's legendary Wallach's Music City at Sunset and Vine to buy the "45" (ah, for the days of listening booths). I played that record endlessly, almost until the grooves were powder. I was Etta's biggest fan at Hollywood High, and remain a big fan while now enjoying my mature years. I was thrilled that Mr. Blake opened his show with that song, supported by three backup singers he referred to as his "Peaches" (in honor of Ms. James's first girl-group trio). From the initial lyric sung (or rather howled) by Mr. Blake, the first notes struck by the band, and the harmonized sound of the Peaches, I knew I was in for a great evening. I was not disappointed. Personally, I am disinclined to appreciate "tribute shows," which can be long on sentiment and short on musicianship. Echoes of Etta avoided all that. Mr. Blake's comments about Etta were brief, sincere, and provided context -- and then it was on with the music. The band was comprised of true pros, and the energy just kept coming, from the opening song to "Good Rockin' Daddy," "The Wallflower (Roll with Me, Henry)," and "If I Can't Have You." Etta's ballads were given their moments with Mr. Blake offering fine renditions of, among others, "A Sunday Kind of Love" and "At Last," the latter preceded by a splendid intro by Matthew Polashek on the saxophone. Shira Elias, Ashley Betton, and Stephany Mora -- The Peaches -- got to showcase their sound during Mr. Blake's drop-dead version of "I'd Rather Go Blind." The Peaches were not just nice window dressing -- these gals can really sing! Mr. Blake and the Peaches were supported by the solid and confident sound of the band. Oscar Bautista on guitar treated the audience to fine playing throughout, and several sailing solos. Mike Preen on bass, both standup and electric, provided a firm bass line foundation. Steve Kelly on drums provided "the beat," both rocking and quietly on the ballads. Matthew Polashek's sax rocked and mellowed with equal facility. Michael Thomas Murray on keyboards was just great, and his solo on the Fender-Rhodes really rocked the house. His arrangements were simply superb, giving a subtle contemporary lift to songs from another era. From beginning to end, Echoes of Etta was a bust-out elating evening, rocking me in my seat to the up-tempo songs, or in rapt attention to the ballads. I have not had this kind of good time in a club, oh, since I don't know when. Mr. Blake is an outrageously great vocalist, period. Other singers can learn the sonic mechanics of the howling, screaming, and moaning of the rhythm & blues tradition, they can get the gymnastics right, but they often lack Mr. Blake's authentic passion, sincerity, and feel for the music and lyrics. These are the key ingredients which put the "soul" in soul singing, and William Blake has got them all.
Musical honors go to William Blake . . . and every note that comes from his lips.
When he lets loose, Blake has a voice that could shatter stemware.
Although he clearly has the talent to sing anything he puts his mind to, his heart is in R&B and it shows. He has such a unique and powerful instrument, and by singing soul and R&B, he truly allows it to shine. Each phrase is heartfelt and infused with emotion, and the freedom to play with the melody allows him to express himself in ways that other styles of music might not.
On his latest CD, Live from New York City, pop singer William Blake knocks it out of the park. Recorded live at Birdland, it is a potent display of soulful sing-ing that validates what the fuss is all about. Fusing R&B with assorted pop tunes that seem to get better with each song, he shows the promise of someone bound for glory.
While many cabaret shows are designed around thematic concepts or tributes to the American Songbook and its writers, it takes guts to buck the trend. Well, buck, Blake! He is his own person, musically. Not once does he compromise who he is in this snippet of an album (there are only eight tracks). He also does not pander to anybody’s how-to rules. His soulful pop tenor interprets every tune with brassy intelligence and a rhythmic sensibility usually found on more advanced disks. Blake’s work with outstanding Musical Director Michael Thomas Murray, along with a guitarist, drummer and bassist (and Murray on backup vocals), makes for a solid, contemporary album sung with clarity and confidence.
Vocally, at times, he recalls Michael Jackson. Too, when he opens up and lets his voice soar, he occasionally recalls Patti LaBelle. Whatever. Whoever. Above all, William Blake is still himself. While he may not be a subtle, intimate crooner, like some more lauded, seasoned cabaret greats, he consistently stays true to who he is artistically. And that sets him apart and counts for something these days.
There are several outstanding highlights on the CD. The rousing, pull-out-all-the-stops opener, “I Want to Take You Higher,” sets the tone for what follows. On the album’s best cut, he joins a yearning “Can I Go On?” with a thrilling “If You Don’t Know Me by Now,” where the Jackson comparison is particularly evident. Here, his passionate singing and rhythmic phrasing give the songs a gospel-like flavor that is definitive of soul music and he’s riveting with pleading vocal catches between syllables. The interpretation becomes searingly personal. “Midnight Train to Georgia” perfectly caps this live set with the promise of what lies ahead. And, it sounds like there’s a lot to look forward to from this relatively new kid on the block.
William Blake is an extraordinary talent with a special voice. From the first time I heard him years ago as a singing waiter, I knew he would be a major star. His new CD is funky and powerful and upon hearing it for the first time, I immediately played it again (and wished it had more cuts on it). Recently hearing him do a small theatrical piece in an original songwriter's show, I was impressed with his beautiful acting chops and theater style delivery. He made me cry. He can sing anything from punk to funk to jazz to blues and who knew...even theater. He's the real deal! To me, he is a MUST SEE!
And one sensation is a regular Birdland employee who greeted or seated you or Tweeted you: William Blake, who draws applause as jaws drop mid-song as he hits his trademark high-voiced high notes. His fierceness and lung power, his Etta James tribute at Birdland and his CD of other material (recorded live, guess where) have added to his fan base. He knocks it out of the park time and time again, casually entering and then just as casually going back to his post as if it's only the fire department's job to deal with a room that's been set ablaze.
Inspirational stories are few and far between for those who toil away in the performing arts. Along the desolate road to success, each performer is met with any number of naysayers, has-beens and never-weres. Frankly, it's daunting.
However, all obstacles are but stepping stones in the pursuit of passion. William Blake has been hurdling each one without looking back.
His biggest finish came on May 2, 2011, at the world-famous Birdland jazz club in New York City. Blake was the headliner, celebrating the release of his album Live From New York City, and playing to a jubilant crowd with an electric energy.
The band ascended to the stage. The crowd pulsed with excitement. Host Jim Caruso, a native Texan and former Dallasite, made his entrance. The crowd went wild. Caruso, a legend in the Broadway and cabaret world, proceeded to gush about the evening's headliner. And why shouldn't he?
Blake deserves every bit of it. But to understand why, let’s go back nearly a decade.
It was 2002 when Blake, a Dallas native, awaited the results of Southern Methodist University’s Mustang Idol competition. He made runner-up. The disappointment of not taking first might dash dreams of some. But not Blake.
At the goading of friends and family—isn't that how it always happens?—Blake auditioned for season four of American Idol in Orlando. He didn't make it through to L.A. At least, not on the first audition. Flashing the plucky never-say-die attitude that would become arguably his greatest attribute, Blake followed the auditions and tried again in New Orleans.
And he made it through.
Once in Los Angeles, he found himself in a group with eventual sixth place finalist Constantine Maroulis. Blake performed admirably but didn't make it to the final rounds.
Not that he lost any sleep over it as, like so many former Idol contestants, he expresses an open distaste for the Idol process.
"I just did it to shut people up," he says.
That’s a theme that would drive him for years to come.
Returning to Dallas after Idol, Blake started to sing at clubs around town, including the now-closed Bill's Hideaway, and worked with people such as Buddy Shanahan and Paul Allen. He appeared in productions with Uptown Players, Garland Summer Musicals, Contemporary Theatre of Dallas and Echo Theatre, among others.
After awhile, he decided it was time—like so many performers before him—to move to New York and see if he could do it. But unlike many others, he had an "in" at the famous club Don't Tell Mama, where he was able to get a job—the most important and oft undervalued aspect of "making it" in a city like New York.
Once in New York, Blake's theme became perseverance. Many people who move to New York—or Los Angeles for that matter—don't understand not just how hard it is to live, but how hard you have to work on top of a job, or jobs, to get your name out there, to get any kind of gig or opportunities to hone the craft.
William Blake did it all. As a vocalist, he hit every open mic possible: Don't Tell Mama, Birdland, the Duplex, etc.
Eventually one night, Blake was singing at Birdland's weekly open mic, Jim Caruso's Cast Party. After his turn, none other than legendary jazz musician Michael Feinstein walked up to him and said, "You're wonderful!"
And soon enough, Blake received a call from ASCAP, who asked if he'd be interested in singing three songs in a show called Standard Time with Michael Feinstein...at Carnegie Hall.
"What do you say? No?" Blake asks. "Of course you say yes!"
Playing a show at Carnegie Hall may qualify as the career achievement for most people. But Blake was only getting started.
When Caruso was asked to put on a "Best Of" Cast Party show at Birdland, the lineup was quickly filled with a who's who of the jazz, cabaret and Broadway world: Music Director (and another native Texan) Billy Stritch, Karen Ziemba, Hinton Battle, Larry Gatlin, Christopher Sieber, Sally Mayes, Chita Rivera, Liza Minnelli...and William Blake.
He got a standing ovation.
Blake can now count the likes of Rivera and Minnelli among his fans. In Rivera’s words, according to Blake: "Of my gosh. Oh my gosh. You were wonderful!" Minnelli echoed the sentiments.
Following that appearance, Blake, with his musical director Michael Thomas Murray and producer Stephen Wilde, recorded a live album.
And so it was, on May 2 at Birdland, William Blake entered the stage to thunderous applause and gave an unforgettable performance in celebration of the release of that album.
Beyond controlling his soulful tenor voice with the precision of a Swiss watchmaker, Blake's most immediately noticeable attribute is his intensely energetic presence. The second he steps on stage, it is his. He was born there, he owns it.
The evening was a roadmap of great R&B, William's favorite music. Along the way, he, Murray, and the superb band they'd assembled for the show treated the audience to hits such as "I Want To Take You Higher," "Hard to Handle," "Cry to Me," and a soulful arrangement of The Band's "The Weight."
Throughout the evening, Blake led the audience on a journey with him—not just musically, but in true cabaret fashion, through his story.
In the world of scripted monologues and half-hearted emotion, Blake stands apart. Showing that this evening meant more to him than anyone else, Blake consistently let the audience in, past the simple performer, and gave them a look at the man, the struggle, the journey. During the lead-up to "If You Don't Know Me By Now," tears fought their way through. He slyly segued into the song, but the emotion pouring forth infected the entire room. And all at once, anyone who had resisted him to that point was absolutely smitten.
His love and passion for performance, that passion that people spend a lifetime pursuing, all in one instant was on full display for the world to see. And it was inspirational.
And as if that hadn't been enough, the evening climaxed with his dedication to the audience, with what could possibly be the greatest rendition of Joe Cocker's cover of The Beatles' "With A Little Help From My Friends" that anyone in the audience had ever heard. Not a single person was still in their seat at the end of the song, and goosebumps abounded.
Applause in the performing arts occupies a wide space on a sliding scale. There's the polite applause that accompanies cheering for friends and loved ones, or just plain being polite. And then there's that emotional applause, an involuntary reaction to truly being moved.
That's the applause William Blake received at Birdland. The crowd went wild for him.
The combination of his emotionally honest, endearing narrative with his honey-soaked vocals is intoxicating and inspiring.
William Blake is an easy guy to cheer for. This story easily could have been twice or even three times as long and it still wouldn't have encompassed his story, tales about his old stomping grounds in Dallas, more of his trials and tribulations in New York, his ascent through the ranks of cabaret culture, or the passion with which he performs.
But the best endorsement of William Blake, the best way for someone to hear the sorry and witness the passion, is first hand. And luckily, there are plenty of opportunities.
In June, Live from New York City will be available online, including iTunes and through the record company Cavern Records' website. And for anyone traveling to New York, check out Blake at Birdland or anywhere else he might be playing.
You'll be glad you did. For though William Blake is himself a grounded individual, his star is on the rise. And you don't want to miss this ride.