Livermore's Bankhead to host Sinatra, Elton tribute acts
By Lou Fancher
Arriving back-to-back at Livermore's Bankhead Theater, "Simply Sinatra" (on May 7) floats from the throat of big band, big ballad singer Steve Lippia and "Almost Elton John" (on May 8) rocks with Craig A. Meyer and his backup vocalists and four-piece band.
Dealing with the most confrontational matters first ("Why not be 100 percent Lippia or Meyer? Can anyone satisfyingly emulate these music industry legends?"), the two singers say authenticity comes from entry, pedigree, aesthetics and admiration.
In the iPod era, the number of musicians discovered on a forgotten cassette tape found in the glove compartment of a car is dwindling. In fact, it might be just one: Lippia. In 1997, talent producer/manager Tino Barzie accidentally popped a recording of Lippia's buttery voice into his dashboard player. By 1998 Lippia was headlining at the Rio in Las Vegas. Stamped with the approval of Vincent Falcone Jr., Sinatra's pianist/music director of many years, Lippia embarked on a career that includes the Grammy-nominated live album "Steve Lippia In Concert" and has made him a go-to interpreter of music made popular by Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Bobby Darin and others.
Meyer mounted the first rung of the tribute ladder in no less remarkable a location: Istanbul, Turkey, in 2009. His first solo show with his Rocket Band was in 2011 in Atlanta. Since then he averages 50 performances a year, sometimes backed by 50-piece orchestras for Pops concerts, at other times cruising the world with the seven musicians he calls "family" and about whom he says, "I am blessed to share the stage with them."
But a platform is only as stable as it's foundation, and it's worth noting that neither singer sought the Sinatra/John limelight. Instead, they first fine-tuned their voices as professional musicians in their own right. But colleagues and even strangers in the music industry, hearing Lippia's or Meyer's voices -- often sight unseen -- repeatedly insisted they were shoe-ins for the two stars. Meyer even bears an uncanny physical resemblance to John. Eventually, the swell of voices grew too loud and frequent to ignore. Both artists are quick to say they do not do impressions.
"I'm a serious singer, not a cheap imitator," Lippia says. I'm no more of an impersonator than other singers who sing songs by Sinatra. I don't dress like Sinatra; no pinkie ring."
Meyer, on the other hand, does dress like John.
"It's pretty hysterical to see me do a skin out in 45 seconds or so," he says, about the three-to-four costume changes he makes during a typical show.
Like Lippia, who earned his chops with a blend of natural talent and rigorous vocal training on the big band job scene, Meyer taught himself to play piano and sing using John's music. He developed his acting gift working in Disney theme parks, on Broadway and in films and television.
"I consider myself an illusionist," Meyer says. "At it's root, I'm no different from an actor doing a show. They create a character and breathe life into the personality and the songs."
Guided by their respect for Sinatra and John, Lippia and Meyer have shaped stringent, exacting standards.
A set of principles guides their decisions -- performing only with a carefully curated band or orchestra; borrowing phrasing but not actually altering their voices' natural tone, timbre and inflection; and applying extraordinary selectivity when creating the playlist.
Lippia says he picks through Sinatra's 1,500-some songs with a fine-toothed comb. Asked to name a favorite, he says, "All the Way," for its great lyrics and "that special touch" of composer Jimmy Van Heusen. Meyer's set list of 28 songs are chosen for "deep cuts" that appeal to an audience's gut-level response, he says. "Take Me To the Pilot" and "Funeral For a Friend" mark climactic moments in his two-hour concerts, but he cherishes the intimacy of "Your Song."
"It's just me, the piano and the audience ... communication at the most primal level," he says.
Admiration translates into respect when it comes to the legalities of performing as tribute artists. Parody, satire and tribute are covered under the First Amendment. The venues where they perform hold the proper licenses for live performance, and the use of musical arrangements is legal. Meyer says record companies recognize that tribute musicians keep artists' music in front of paying audiences; Lippia says he's just an Italian American from northeast America who sounds like Sinatra.
"On some level, people can hear someone paying homage to his music when they come see me. Linda Ronstadt said you don't need to be original, you need to be authentic."