Back in my road band days, a singer I knew was accepted to attend John Davidson’s Singer Summer Camp–a place for young entertainers to learn how to perform on stage. It was exciting to know someone who knew John Davidson. After all, John Davidson was “a star” in the 1970s — a Broadway leading man, recording artist, Vegas headliner, and television actor. Watching him host “Hollywood Squares” was as close as us farm boys were ever going to get to Hollywood.
So, of course, that was the first thing I asked Davidson during our interview for his show at the Cailloux Theater on Nov 16.
“Yes it was my singer summer camp in 1978 and ’79,” Davidson said. “We had about 50 students from all over the country at each session. The idea was not to teach them how to make a hit record, but to talk about really capturing the crowd.”
The campers would perform in a live setting, and he would critique them, “much the way ‘American Idol’ does but long before ‘American Idol’” He laughed and added that he probably talked more of them out of going into show business.
“I was trying to show the reality of the business,” he said. “One of my failures was that I didn’t talk to them about spending time in the recording studio.”
This statement surprised me. Here is this giant entertainer who hit the trifecta of good looks, an abundance of charm, and singing and acting talent, who had conquered Broadway, television and film, yet who had regrets about that career.
So, I pressed him to make sure I heard him right.
“Yes, that is one of my career issues — though I have recorded 12 or 13 albums, I should have spent more time in the recording studio, like Englebert, Glen Campbell, and Tom Jones did,” he said. “People have no idea what I do. When they see Tom Jones, he has to sing ‘It’s Not Unusual.’ When they see Englebert, they hear him do ‘Release Me.’ I’ve sung everyone else’s hit record but I don’t have a signature song like that.”
He considers it a curse and a blessing.
“It gives me tremendous freedom in what I can sing, but it is also a drawback in that people don’t know what I’m going to do. Am I going to show something incredible like I did on ‘That’s Incredible’ or do ‘Hollywood Squares?’ It is a little bit confusing.”
Now in his 70s, Davidson embraces his versatility and uses it to do what he loves doing most–performing live on stage.
“My first manager told me some people are spheres, meaning they just do one thing. Tony Bennett just sings; Johnny Mathis makes an incredible sound. He said, ‘I want to show you how to be a Swiss army knife.’ That is the secret to my career.”
It’s not a secret that John Davidson just loves being on stage. He goes out into the audience, he sings to a guy’s wife, he makes jokes about his hair and his age.
“I love a live audience,” he said. “I’d rather perform live, because everything I do, I improvise. Every show is different in a major way. I love the feedback from the audience. I like to create on my feet. I never know what is going to happen. It’s dangerous, and I like the risk of live entertainment. I love being exposed.”
And no doubt about it, the man can sing. I tepidly suggested that I found his voice more “interesting and authentic” than the way he sang as a younger man. Again, surprisingly, he agreed.
“I have learned to sing better; I like my voice better now than I have ever sung. It’s because of my Broadway training. I am singing easily and expressively like I never have before. And I’m kind of proud of that.”
He can’t wait to share that voice, his philosophy of life, and his jokes with audiences in the Texas Hill Country.
“I’m still trying to do my best show ever,” he said. “I’m never quite satisfied. I always ask, what could I have done more to touch those people, to entertain those people? Every show is a workshop. I look forward to my best show.”