Diane Schuur talks about song writing

Song Writers Monthly Tuesday November 19, 2013

Profiling Legendary Jazz Vocalist/Pianist Diane Schuur

By David Block




David Block’s interview with legendary jazz vocalist/pianist Diane Schuur whose versatility and sheer range of mastery are legendary. She won two Grammy awards and made over 20 albums. Schuur has performed with legendary artists B. B. King, Stan Getz, Barry Manilow, Maynard Ferguson, Stevie Wonder, and many others. Country, jazz, pop; you name it, she can sing it. In addition, Schuur wrote three songs. Schuur also happens to be totally blind, because she was born with retinopathy of prematurity (ROP).


ROP occurs in some premature babies when abnormal blood vessels and scar tissue grow over the retina. “My twin brother [David] and I were born two months premature,” said Schuur. “David can see perfectly, but he has some hearing loss.”


Songwriters Monthly:

What compelled you to become a singer?

Diane Schuur:

As far back as I can remember, singing was in my blood. My parents loved music, and I loved to sing. I was scatting at an early age.


SM:  What is scatting?

DS: Scatting is vocal improvisation with wordless syllables.


SM:  A number of people with disabilities lack the confidence to embark on challenging careers. How come you are so confident?

DS: I was determined to succeed in what I loved to do. I wasn’t going to let my disability stand in my way.


SM:  What modifications do you make?

DS: When I record albums in studios, I have the lyrics transcribed into Braille. I read and sing simultaneously. Whenever I perform on stage, I memorize the songs.


SM:  Explain how your singing career took off.

DS: In 1971, I met country and western singer/record producer Jimmy Wakely at an Elks Club. I was just 17 when I auditioned for him. He invited me to cut a 45 RPM record at his studio. I recorded “Dear Mommy and Daddy.” Sales were fairly good. In 1975 at an opera house, I met Ed Shaughnessy [the drummer/bandleader of Energy Force]. I auditioned for him, and he invited me to perform in his band. [Diane gained a lot of exposure when they performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival. At the festival, she performed with legendary saxophonist, Stan Getz. Getz asked her to join his showcase in their performance at the White House.]


SM: When did you perform at the White House?

DS:  Three times [twice during the Reagan presidency and once during the Clinton presidency]. I never performed for, or met President Reagan. However, he sent me a personal thank-you letter because I gave him a copy of my [debut] album,

Pilot of My Destiny (1982). I met President Clinton.


SM: What was most memorable about meeting President Clinton?

DS:  I enjoyed carrying Socks [the Clinton family cat]. Socks sat with me when I played on Margaret Truman’s piano.

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SM:  What compels you to sing certain songs?

DS:  It’s the melody and the message. If I can relate to a song I’m singing, that’s even better.


SM:  What elements does a song need besides melody and message?

DS:  The good rhythmic feel on swing and so on.


SM: Name one of your favorite songs that you sang in public.

DS:  The tribute for Stevie Wonder, “I Just Called to Say I Love You,” and the Herbie Hancock arrangement of it. [You can view it

HERE http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFzIseRifDk.]


SM: Why was it one of your favorites?

DS:  For one thing, that song has a lot to say. It’s very universal. Stevie is a great songwriter in his own right. [Stevie Wonder performed on Diane’s 2000 album, Friends for Schuur.]


SM:  Please, talk about the songs you wrote.

DS: I wrote “Pilot of My Destiny” because of my love of flying. The fact that my brother is a pilot inspired me to write it. I call him pilot. He calls me copilot.



What about “Life Goes on?”

DS:  My father helped me do it. There was a lot of life — I wrote it when I was 16; My mother died when I was 13; I was shuffled off to a lot of different schools; I got a taste of a lot of positive and negative elements about life. That’s what inspired “Life Goes on.” [Diane wrote a third song, the country tune “Lonely Road” in collaboration with radio DJ Sandy Hamilton. “Pilot of My Destiny” and “Life Goes on” are on her album,  Pilot of My Destiny.

{“Lonely Road” never made it onto an album. It is a 45.]


SM: How do you write songs despite your blindness?

DS: I come up with the melody and the lyrics in my head.


SM: When will you record your next album?

DS: I have an album coming out next May. It’s going to be an album consisting of songs that both Stan Getz and Frank Sinatra recorded. They were dear friends of mine when they were alive. We go into the studio December 9 to December 11. December 10 will be my 60th birthday.


SM: Share a memory of interacting with Frank Sinatra.

DS: He was a compassionate guy. He loved to have fun. He had a movie theatre in his house. We munched on popcorn and watched movies together.


SM: What advice do you have for budding singers?

DS:  Take voice lessons. Look for good management, good representation. That can help a person go nationally if they choose to do it. Make sure you have an entertainment attorney. Never sign something that you don’t know what you’re signing. Those are the pieces of advice that I’d give anyone.

For more information, visit: www.dianeschuur.com

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