Music News & Reviews

Singer Michael Bolton isn't afraid of the old or the new

Michael Bolton will be at EKU Center for the Arts on Tuesday.
Michael Bolton will be at EKU Center for the Arts on Tuesday.

Michael Bolton sensed the question was coming.

We were concluding a portion of our phone interview dealing with his versions of the soul classics (Sittin' on) The Dock of the Bay, Georgia on My Mind and When a Man Loves a Woman and whether he had any trepidations about recording such revered music.

Bolton's reply was thoughtful and detailed. He described how adventurous new music begins by rediscovering pop's past and how taking on such sacred-ground songs wasn't in any way inappropriate as long as proper respect and notice was paid to those who created the song in the first place.

"What you learn when you have a giant hit with a classic is that you're bringing the song back to life," said Bolton, who performs Tuesday at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. "How can that ever be a bad thing? Worst-case scenario: You sing it, nobody likes it and nobody hears it. The best-case scenario: People start talking about the song, who wrote it, who produced it and who gave it to us a gift.

"Think of the things that wouldn't have happened — like, perhaps, The Beatles — if someone hadn't been moved and inspired to embrace someone else's work of art and say, 'Here's my interpretation. Hope you like it.' And you just do it. One thing leads to another. As long as you're respectful and mindful that there are people who are very connected to the original version, then you're simply singing the praises of the artist and writer who first delivered that song."

Bolton, 59, should know. From 1987 to 1991, he turned all three soul staples into popular singles again, interspersing them with newly composed pop hits like Soul Provider, How Am I Supposed to Live Without You and Love Is a Wonderful Thing.

But this wasn't the question that Bolton knew was headed his way. Sensing our interview time was growing short, I wanted to make sure we could still talk about ...

"Jack Sparrow?"

Yep. He knew it was coming, alright. How could he not?

In the parody created last year by The Lonely Island, a hip-hop comedy trio featuring then-Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg, a hard-core rap video gets hijacked by Bolton's obsession with Johnny Depp's lead character from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. With the same scratchy R&B/soul tenor that colored his radio hits, a straight-faced Bolton sings his heart out on what he calls his "big, sexy hook": "This is the tale of Capt. Jack Sparrow, pirate so brave on the Seven Seas." Dressed in Sparrow's pirate garb and eye shadow, Bolton stands in the crow's nest of a ship, belting. But then he detours into dressing up as the lead characters from Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich and Scarface. It's hysterical, bizarre, even nonsensical.

The video debuted on SNL in May 2011 and became a viral sensation overnight. At present, it has more than 94 million hits on YouTube.

Bolton was game to poke fun at himself from the get-go, but he initially passed on the obscenity-filled script The Lonely Island people gave him for the project.

"Their script was so raunchy at moments," Bolton said. "So I told them that as funny as I thought it was, I just couldn't do it. My fan base and the people that have been loyal to me for many years aren't going to get some of this language. They're not going to appreciate it. And they said, 'We get that a lot. Give us some time to tweak it.' I figured they were just saying that, and that I wouldn't hear from them again.

"Then I started getting emails from Andy Samberg saying, 'I think we've got it.' Eight months later, I'm in Atlanta and they're calling me to sing the vocals. You could tell from the video footage they shot that they were being very ambitious. It took two 17-hour days to make, and those guys were funny as could be. So the next thing I know, I'm at the Saturday Night Live set. I find a little hiding place up in the studio and I watch it, and I hear people starting to laugh.

"At the after-party, John Mayer was telling me, 'Michael, when this thing goes viral on Sunday, there are going to be people who don't even know your music who are going to be in love with this film.' The next morning, my oldest daughter said, 'Dad, you're not going to believe this.' She monitored a million hits the first day. This was for a three-minute video."

That brought to mind the line Bolton used earlier about recording his own versions of the vintage soul hits: "One thing leads to another."

"There is a whole audience for me now of 14-year-old guys who are huge fans of our version of Jack Sparrow. I'm on people's radar now just because I was open to doing something different."