Featured Musician - November 2011  

Tony Starlight

Name: Brett Kucera aka Tony Starlight. I was talked into the persona in 1993. Some friends said, 'Why don't you get a tuxedo and we'll learn some lounge stuff, and you'll be Tony Starlight. The audience loved it, and I loved it, I had a regular Friday at Jimmy Mak's in 1995.

Instrument: Voice

Early Years/Education: I spent most of my young life in Hood River and Bozeman, Montana; after high school I lived in Eugene and Portland. When I was 15, I got a guitar, and my dream was to be a heavy metal guitarist. But I have no skill whatsoever to play a single-note anything. I loved music so much, though, I asked, How can I keep doing it? So learning how to sing allowed me to stay in music. I'm pretty much self-taught about anything. In the performances I'm doing now, I draw on singers and do mimicry of them. But for years I was trying to have my own voice and be a songwriter. It was fun but not commercially successful. In Eugene, I booked music at Delbert's Cafe. Basically, I created my own gig, a little coffee house music scene, mostly singer/songwriter, where I was able to book myself, which is what I'm doing now.

When I left Portland in 1999 and went to Los Angeles, I pretty much gave up music and just did theater. And I got started playing other characters, and I really jumped into the idea of doing different characters and different voices, and my show was basically a musical impressions and musical variety show. That's when my voice really strengthened. I tried to emulate other artists, and it caused me to spend a lot of time rehearsing and develop my singing voice in my 30s. In my 20s I floundered around trying to figure out what my own voice was, but I discovered my own voice was doing many voices. I decided to finally embrace what my skills were. What works for me is to go with the things I have a proclivity for.

Improv is the root of jazz. You have to have a basic skill set, but once you have that, you're free to stray from that. What I learned as a performer is the art of improvising. You have to have the acting and singing skills, but you have to take a leap and be in the moment and react to who's there – that's what the great jazz players do.

Tony Starlight's Supperclub and Lounge: I moved back to Portland in 2006 with the intention of opening this club. I knew I needed to have a job, and I knew how to run a bar and restaurant and book music. The kind of show I wanted to do, there weren't any clubs for people who really want to watch a show and be engaged in it. I don't want to see a band in the middle of a restaurant, I want to see them on a stage. I understand why people don't do it – it's hard to turn a profit. If I didn't own the club and perform there, I don't think I'd have the passion to keep it going.

I love going to work every day because of the customers, staff and musicians I've gotten to be friends with. I've been surprised at how many wonderful people I'm surrounded by, and how much we root for each other. I'm really thrilled. And I want to apologize to the jazz community for me being Musician of the Month.

We've got series going with Andrew Oliver now. Gretchen Rumbaugh has been doing a cabaret series for over a year. We had a series with the PDX Jazz Festival. We're pretty much a vocalist's club. You can't be all things to all people. So many of the vocalists come out and watch each other and connect each other to various musicians

Performing: I do all the Rat Pack Guys, I love to do Tom Jones and Neil Diamond. I do a lot of other people in smaller sections – we've got a tribute to the Copacabana where I do Mel Torme, Billy Eckstine and Tony Bennett. Some are serious impressions and some are characterizations for comedic purposes. And stuff we do in short snippets from the rock realm. I have an amazing band that works with me regularly – Sam Foulger (drums), Arick Gouwerok (bass) and Reece Marshburn (piano and arranger) — he helped me take this to another level. I always had ideas, but I never had someone like him who can write arrangements for a whole band. He can write arrangements, rehearse the band, and I can show up and it's ready. So any success I've had is due to Reece.

And the advent of YouTube allowed me to watch and study people's movements – a big part of doing impressions is to have their movements, to mimic their body language. I cut my teeth on doing song parodies – like 'Weird Al Does the Standards.' At first I didn't want to do the impressions because a lot of those guys take themselves so seriously. "Bob Jacobs IS Neil Diamond!!" But I've brought a comic edge to everything and we're kind of lampooning it. Now I'm enjoying it, whereas before I was afraid to go down that road. And the people enjoy it.

Most Satisfying Experience: When the audience is full of people you've never met before, and they want more and love what you're doing. It's one thing when you fill the place with friends and family; it's another level when the general public wants to hear you.

Favorite Recordings: Dean Martin – "Live at the Sands"; Louis Armstrong – "Satch Plays Fats"; King Cole Trio – "The Complete Capitol Recordings"; Tony Bennett - "Perfectly Frank"; "Sammy Davis Jr. Sings, Laurindo Almeida Plays"; Bing Crosby - "The CBS Studio Recordings"; Neil Diamond – "Hot August Night"; Frank Sinatra – "The Concert Sinatra"; Tom Waits – "Small Change"; Judas Priest – "Screaming For Vengeance."

Gigs (as a performer): The Neil Diamond Show, Nov. 4; the Tony Starlight Variety Show, Nov. 18; Dean Martin Tribute, Nov. 26; Tony Starlight Christmas Show – every Wed. in December.

Future Plans: [As a performer,] I'd like to make a record. Since what I do is cover songs, the licensing is expensive. Sometimes we go through 10 songs in one segment. [As a club owner] Overall, I'd like a little better place that has a better perceived parking situation. If you're walking past a bunch of other open businesses, I guess people don't mind walking a block and a half, but I guess when I'm the only open business, it feels like a mile.

Other: Bo and Barbara Ayars have been a big part of the club – they'll be in my Christmas show and play in several shows I do. Bo is an encyclopedia of the music industry: he worked with everyone from Elvis to Barbara Streisand, he was Liberace's arranger and conductor for 12 years, he did the Radio City Christmas Show for five seasons. They're what I wanted at the club – a rehearsed, professional presentation. They have really elevated the club and made it what I dreamed it could be but never thought it would be.

-- by Lynn Darroch