Sunday , September 27 2020

Exclusive Interview: Pia Zadora Reflects on Her Music Career

On her recently released ninth studio album, All or Nothing at All, Pia Zadora returns to the genre that boosted her credibility during the 1980s—but with a twist.

The actress and vocalist endured more than her share of panning during her rise to fame, but turned heads via her readings of tunes from the American songbook. Fast forward more than 20 years, and the ever-resilient performer has established a new niche for herself, once again interpreting the standards. This time around, she’s been taking a markedly scaled-down approach in weekly Las Vegas nightclub performances. Nine of the songs from this repertoire comprise her newest recording.

Blogcritics’ Justin Kantor catches up with Zadora as she takes a pause during the pandemic to reflect on her eclectic music catalog: from childhood Broadway roles, to her run as a European pop star, and the relaxed setting she’s been inhabiting recently—one which she says is her most authentic and satisfying yet.

Your father was a violinist in Broadway pit orchestras, and your mom an opera singer. What are your earliest memories of their musical influence?

My aunt was with the New York City Opera. My mom was more of a pop singer. I would vocalize with my aunt when I was five, singing little operettas. She gave me singing lessons, which I hated. It’s hard stuff, and I wanted to strangle her!

I got a scholarship to Juilliard when I was eight. Because I was always on the road with shows and auditioning while trying to incorporate my school studies, I never spent enough time there. In addition to commercials and film, I was doing industrial theatre. I was working throughout my childhood, and it put a damper on things. It was a double-edged sword in terms of not allowing me to have a real life. I never grew up normally. That’s why I was in therapy for 20 years!

Did you make a determination as you grew up to pursue a career in entertainment?

Well, I was the shy little girl, and an only child. I was born with a congenital heart condition. In fact, I just had a valve transplant four years ago because of that. Also, my mother couldn’t have another baby, so she kind of overtook me and sheltered me.

When I went to school, I was scared of everybody and everything. The nuns thought that I was socially retarded, because my IQ was okay. My doctor suggested that Mom take me to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts for weekend children’s courses. You learn to dance, play, and just have fun acting. It brings you out of your shell.

I was in a production there, playing the mean little princess! What does that tell you?! Burgess Meredith was scouting for a little girl to star in a Broadway show with Tallulah Bankhead. He asked me to audition, and I got the part. Next thing you know, I’m on Broadway getting great reviews. Agents came after me. Then I’d do another show, and another. I got caught up in that whirlwind.

Was Fiddler on the Roof the first musical production in which you starred?

That was the first musical I did to make it to Broadway. I did one earlier with Robert Preston called We Take the Town, but that never made it.

At only ten years of age, did you have a conscious approach to playing the role of Bielke

For me, spontaneity is the best way to approach anything. Of course, you have to be prepared to an extent. I got the call the day before the audition: “You have to sing a ballad.” I wasn’t singing ballads at that time. I was doing “Swinging on a Star” and that kind of crap that kids do. My mother said, “You’ve got to learn this.” There were a lot of lyrics, and I got up there and made up my own lyrics. Zero Mostel said, “That’s my kind of girl! She can do the show with me.” He was crazy and spontaneous. You never knew what he’d throw at you.

So, that got me in the door. It was two years of my life while I was in school. The stagehands would help me with my homework. Then I’d go up for my cue and come back down. That made it a normal thing where I did what I had to do. We became like a family.

Zadora with castmates in the original Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof.

Do you have any standout memories of the cast, audiences, or the venue?

We were at the Imperial Theatre. My two greatest influences in the theatre realm were Tallulah and Zero. They were so off-the-cuff and spontaneous. They made every night like a new experience.

In the beginning, I was the only daughter who wasn’t actually Jewish. Zero called me a fix-up. In the first scene where he introduces all his daughters to Perchik, he goes, “This is mine. This is mine…this is mine??” He’d kind of wink at you. The stage could just go up in smoke, and he’d say, “Wow, there must be a fire down the stage.” It made it fun for a kid. When you do the same thing every night for two years, you can really get in a wreck.

Although the movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians in which you starred wasn’t a musical, it afforded you the opportunity to sing with some other children via the theme song, “Hooray for Santa Claus.” Who sang with you on that record, and how was taking part in a film different than your theatre work up to that point?

There were four or five of us singing on “Hooray for Santa Claus”: the Milton DeLugg singers and myself. The one thing about film is that you sit around and wait a lot—as opposed to just coming and doing the show, then it’s over. But it was fun, and the cast was great. If I hadn’t been in that movie, no one would have ended up throwing tomatoes at it years later. I didn’t have all that many lines, but suddenly it was dragged out. And it was sort of a big-budget movie at the time.

The funny thing is, I got a call recently from an agent who worked with me on Celebrity Wife Swap a few years ago. It was an offer to do a modern-day version of the film, but this time in the role of Mrs. Claus! I feel like I am that movie in a way, so it’d be fun!

Upon graduating from high school, you continued working on stage—most notably in touring productions of Applause and Promises, Promises. What was the transition from child actress like?

Performing became part of my fiber. How it helped me overcome my shyness is that everything I did was always scripted. The adults were like, “Isn’t she cute? Look, she does a great job!” It was a great boost to my self-esteem. I was playing a role. I was always having fun play-acting. I enjoyed it and started making money when I was a kid. Santa Claus and the commercials were the most lucrative, in terms of the residuals. I felt like, “I’ve got money here. I’m the big shot.” I just loved the audiences, too.

Zadora and cast in a ’70s touring production of Applause.

My favorite was playing the Bonnie Franklin role in Applause. That was fabulous. Singing the title song, then the whole thing just boomerangs and I’m flying across the stage like a tornado.

After I did Promises, Promises with Rich Little, I stopped working for awhile. I’d met my first husband and decided to get married and try just being normal. I couldn’t take it, though. I just went crazy. So, performing became me, who I was. Up until this day.

It’s weird how the pandemic has affected me in that way. I’ve been working at “Pia’s Place” at Piero’s every weekend for the past seven years. I would’ve been doing it for as long as I could stand up and open my mouth. I thought that’s what I needed. Now I know, I could do that—but I’m still me. I can still have a life, have fun and relax for awhile. It’s slowed me down in such a great way. I still feel the same, and right now, I don’t miss performing at all.

You then had your own shows at venues such as the Riviera in Las Vegas and the Tact Room in South Florida. Was it challenging going from ensemble work to headlining your own act?

It was a nice transition. A lot of why I decided to do that was because I was married and couldn’t go on the road for nine months. I had my own schedule, which I coordinated with my husband. I could do a weekend here, a weekend there. I was even Tiny Tim’s opening act in South Florida!

What type of material did you perform?

It was geared towards show tunes. Tony winner Ron Field had directed me during Applause. He started putting together nightclub acts for Broadway stars like Chita Rivera and offered to do a show for me. I’d come out in a big shoebox, or the boys would wheel me out in a baby carriage. My legs would come out of the carriage as I sang, “Me and my baby, my baby and me.” It was like a mini-Broadway show. 

Promotional poster for Zadora’s debut single on Warner Bros. Records.

Around the same time, you recorded a handful of singles for Warner Bros. Records—several of them making Billboard’s country singles chart. Describe your time there and your role in the creative process.

I probably didn’t have enough say in some cases. Some songs I connected with more than others. I was experimenting and going at the direction of people around me—playing it by ear. I didn’t even realize that those songs had charted. I liked “Confidence,” though!

You also served as a model for Dubonnet wine ads during this period. Any memories of filming the TV commercials?

My husband owned the company, so I did those commercials for nothing. But it was fun and interesting, especially the ones set in the nightclubs where I was the chanteuse. And the motorcycle scene! It took about two days to shoot each one. 

People often mention your streak of bad luck with movies during the early 1980s. Your recording of “It’s Wrong for Me to Love You” from the film Butterfly, however, is captivating. Notably, Ennio Morricone scored the soundtrack, with lyrics by Carol Connor and production by Jim Tract.

Ennio was so brilliant. The way he scored the film gave it something really special. The song is gorgeous. Lyrically, it told an important story of the movie. It just has a beautiful, ethereal feel to it and always gives me goose bumps when I hear it.

Although not a musical, the subsequent film Fake Out featured you in the role of a nightclub singer. Was that experience fulfilling?

It was more realistically about who I was as an entertainer. The movie itself is a bit weird, but I was able to be myself. It’s very ‘80s; but I loved playing someone closer to whom I really was. 

Original VHS release of Zadora’s 1982 movie filmed at the Riviera in Las Vegas.

Also in 1982, you had your first pop hit with “I’m in Love Again,” produced and co-written by Jacques Morali (of Village People fame). Were you pleased with the results of your accompanying debut LP, Pia?

It was a mess! There were a couple of good songs. “I’m in Love Again” did particularly well in Europe, and I enjoyed that. But [most of the album] was all over the place. 

Original sheet music for Zadora’s first American pop hit.

Rather than continue to promote the Pia LP, Elektra released a separate single, your remake of Shirley Ellis’ ‘60s hit, “The Clapping Song.” Produced by the song’s original arranger, Charlie Calello, it also led to your first music video. Did this feel like an ideal musical direction for you?

I didn’t have a lot of control over what was going to go out and not go out. I just went along. But I enjoyed performing the song and making the video. It was like filming a little movie. The “Rock It Out” video after that was also really well done. I was surprised when I got a Grammy nomination for that song [which didn’t chart], but I can’t argue with it!

Your music and acting careers finally merged in a more cohesive way with the 1984 movie, Voyage of the Rock Aliens, co-starring Craig Sheffer, Tom Nolan, Alison La Placa, and the late Ruth Gordon. How did you feel about playing the teenaged Dee Dee in the film?

It was an attempt at a Grease vibe, but campier—maybe because it was so bad! I try not to watch most of my movies, except for Hairspray, Naked Gun 33 1/3, and Butterfly. But Jermaine Jackson and I made number one in a lot of countries with “When the Rain Begins to Fall,” which was added to the movie. Suddenly, I was a pop star in Europe. 

German 12″ release of a single from Voyage of the Rock Aliens.

Tell me about working with Jermaine on that recording and the promotion of the song.

We recorded our parts separately, but we performed the song all over the world. He was like my little brother: so cute, a little shy. I had to kick his butt sometimes, but we had a chemistry. The only problem was when the record was scheduled to be released in the US, [Arista Records president] Clive Davis put a warning out for radio stations not to play it. He was releasing a duet of Jermaine’s with Whitney Houston and didn’t want that overshadowed by our song. 

Shortly after that success, you teamed up with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, both on recordings and live performances of repertoire from the American songbook. What made that the right moment for such a marked change in your career direction?

It truly was a credibility move. My reputation as an actress—Pia Zadora, who the hell, a celebrity for celebrity’s sake—followed me. I couldn’t get out of the bad movie rut. The truth is, camp queens just don’t matter in Hollywood. 

I was appearing with Jackie Mason, who was friends with Frank Sinatra, at the Fontainebleau in Florida. Frank came to see the show and told me, “You need to switch gears. [The standards] are for you. You can sing them with me. I’ll get you Nelson Riddle and John Costa.” I figured, first of all, you don’t say no to Frank Sinatra! Secondly, it was the right thing to do—and I enjoyed it. All those songs are what I’m doing again now.

How did you select songs for the Pia and Phil LP, and was it challenging taking on material so different to what you’d been performing previously?

I wasn’t very familiar with the music when we started, but I knew it was something I could do. I went through a bunch of songs with Vinnie Falcone, who was Frank’s musical director and pianist. Frank gave me a list, and I picked the ones that I connected with most. The arrangements were breathtaking, and it brought me into a new era of my life. I kind of grew up. Johnny Carson even apologized to me. It felt good!

“I Am What I Am” from the musical La Cage au Faux was relatively more recent than much of the material you covered. I imagine that song had special significance to you.

Well, my father was concertmaster for the show’s Broadway run. Of course, I really related to that song because of all that I went through. The message of “If you don’t like it, leave it”—that’s how I got through!

While you continued to enjoy popularity in this new realm, you also resumed your pop career with an album released only in Europe: 1988’s When the Lights Go Out. How much input did you have working with producers Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, and why wasn’t the LP released in the States?

I didn’t even ask why it never got released here. I think the music was great, though it certainly wasn’t a vocal tour de force. I wasn’t Janet Jackson, so I guess they had to kind of put people around me that would help me sound more like her. It wasn’t the right thing for me, vocally.

1988 single from Zadora’s When the Lights Go Out produced by Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis.

It seems that your follow-up release, 1989’s Pia Z., reflected more of your personality within the pop setting.

Yes, that was way more me. I loved working with [producer] Narada Michael Walden. He even wrote an updated take on “I Am What I Am,” and I co-wrote “Kady,” about my daughter. “If You Were Mine” was also pretty. And I was very happy with the video for “Heartbeat of Love.” It was quite sophisticated.

Not too long after that project, you went back to your roots, performing in musicals such as Funny Girl.

That was done at the Long Beach Civic Light Opera. Barry Brown, who’d won a Tony for his work on La Cage au Faux, was our artistic director. He made me do it! It was a short stint, but I got amazing reviews. Kaye Ballard played my mom, and Adrian Zmed was also in the cast. Critically, it felt dangerous to step into the role of Fanny Brice.

Kaye Ballard passed away last year. Can you share any memories of working with her?

She was a tough broad with a heart of gold. She helped me, and I kind of helped her. We rehearsed for two weeks, practically 24/7. It was a big show to put together in that amount of time. We were mother and daughter in the play and had a lot of laughs. She had a great sense of humor. When something went wrong, we’d laugh about it and go back to square one. She said, “You’re my daughter now, but I don’t have any stretch marks…so I love you.” [laughs] We were like two Broadway broads.

The following year, you had your own show, Too Short to Be a Rockette, in South Florida.

It was meant to be a TV special. It was autobiographical, and we played at the Coconut Grove. There were bits with people talking about me, followed by me singing original material about my life. Although we never made it to TV, it was fun doing the show. I performed songs with lyrics like, “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.” Beth Cohen wrote “Good Things Come in Small Packages” for me. [Singing:] ”This is the story of my life/Before I was a somebody, I was somebody/Before I was a name, I had a name/Before I had a personality, I was a person.”

You also toured frequently with Frank Sinatra during the early ‘90s. What do you recall most about working with him?

I opened for Frank and Don Rickles for a year and a half. We did New Year’s Eve performances and appeared at Ceasar’s Palace. Those were the days! He was meticulous in terms of being a perfectionist. He’d take my hands in his, look me straight in the eyes and say, “Don’t screw up!” It was half tongue-in-cheek, but I knew that he meant it!

During the last part of our touring together, he was forgetting lyrics. It was his comeback, and he was no spring chicken. But I’d sit in my dressing room and listen to him. He just had a way with an audience. He could really charm the pants off anybody. He wanted a perfect show and to make everybody happy.

Shortly thereafter, you recorded another album of standards, Only for Romantics, which was never released commercially. What happened with that project?

That was a cool album, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. You’re making me remember too much! I was all over the place and being steered like a car, then on to the next thing. I do a lot of the material from that album in my show now. Vinnie Falcone redid the orchestration for a trio setting. He passed on a few years ago from a brain tumor.

After returning to Broadway in Crazy for You to positive reviews, you retired from showbiz for more than a decade. What prompted that decision?

My older kids were 10 and 12 at the time. I realized that my youngest son had certain needs that required me to really be there and take charge for the first time as a mom. The others had been there with me [on the road], and I had nannies. He required more of my attention, so I just stopped and took care of him.

Then, I married the cop from Vegas because I had a stalker, and he was the one whom my case went across. A big, hunky, Alec Baldwin type who turned out to be this really nice, midwestern Catholic boy. We lived in L.A. for awhile, and then moved back to Vegas. I started looking around and finally decided to get back to performing.

Before you started your Vegas showcase, you did a few shows in south Florida.

Yes, I played some performing arts places with a really bad act. All the dancing and stuff didn’t feel right. I decided I just wanted a trio. I wanted to be Pia Zadora again. So, I called Vinnie. I said, “I’m gonna be what Frank Sinatra always wanted me to be: a chanteuse.” He always wanted to be a nightclub singer, too. You can have a drink in your hand all night. Everyone will be so drunk, they won’t judge. They’ll just be happy. It’s so fun!

Let’s talk about “Pia’s Place,” home of the weekly show you’ve been putting on since 2013.

When I started to get the fever to work again, Vegas seemed like the right fit. It’s like a throwback, and you can’t do that sort of thing in L.A. I played a couple of performing arts centers, but you can only do that every two or three months. I wanted to do something on a regular basis that would be my signature. I’d been going to Piero’s, the most fabulous restaurant. It’s an old school place in town with a history. Casino was shot there. It’s very high-end, with a really special clientele. There was a worn-out lounge in the front. I had been asked to perform at Feinstein’s in L.A. and San Francisco, but I didn’t want to travel.

So, I said to Freddie, the owner of Piero’s, “How about ‘Pia’s Place’? You’ve got that damn room no one’s ever in!” He put up the marquee and asked me to bring my band in to see if it would work. It’s kept me having fun for seven years. I screw with the audience. We have regulars who come in from all over. It’s a small venue—like having my own nightclub room. We picked up Sonny Charles three years into the run as my special guest, and we just had a blast every weekend until the pandemic hit. I’d do other stuff around town during the week: co-hosting an event here and there. It keeps my finger in the pot. 

Let’s discuss your new album, All or Nothing at All.

I have Jess Gopen on drums. Ryan Rose came in for the last two songs we did: “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Body and Soul.” Uli Geissendorfer is on piano. Chris Gordon and Steve Flora, who worked with Arturo Sandoval, are on bass. Julian Tanaka is on clarinet. He studied with Joe Lano, my guitarist, who was with Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. These guys are the real thing!

We recorded the album live. I did a few vocal punch-ins, but most of the content was kept from the original sessions. We were in two different studios within the same studio, with the partition. It was very cozy, as it should be for this kind of album. We recorded at Hideout Studios here in Vegas.

A lot of it was trial and error. I worked for three years on this CD. Initially, I wasn’t happy with the interpretation of some of the songs, and I shelved the project. Then, I found Ule, and it became a work in progress. We experimented. Now, I’m really happy with it. You can have a dinner party, have a “Piatini,” and listen to the music. It’s kind of a background dish. It doesn’t jump in your face. It’s laid-back.

What insights can you offer on the songs you chose to record?

I do a lot of these songs at “Pia’s Place.” They’re all songs that I connected with. “Come Rain or Come Shine” and “Body and Soul” refer back to the old me, but in a more subtle way. I think those helped to establish my vocal presence. “Witchcraft” came out sexy. My daughter loves “Cry Me a River” the best, but I’m not sold on that. “Tears out to Dry” was the biggest stretch. It was just me with Joe Lano on guitar. 

After years of singing with orchestras, were there any challenges for you in adapting to the more intimate setup with your band at “Pia’s Place”?

It took me awhile. I came on a little too strong at first, so I had to refine it. But people loved it anyway. I had to figure out that whole club thing after being on big stages for so long. I had to settle myself. That came with alcohol—the “Piatini” really chilled me out. [laughs] That’s my signature drink. It’s a dry martini with two onions and an olive, made with Grey Goose vodka. Piero’s makes drinks that could knock out a sailor. The “Piatini” is a fun thing; nothing serious!

As you continue to explore the standards, are there any composers whose works particularly stand out to you?

Everyone in that genre was amazing: Porter, Gershwin. I like the contemporary stuff, too. It’s kind of a crapshoot. I love the Natalie Cole stuff, and Carole Bayer Sager’s work is special to me, too. I like being able to do things from my era and the new era.

Your daughter is also a singer.

Yes, she was with me on the road at such a young age. When she was four or five, she started singing the theme from The Little Mermaid with the orchestra. We do a couple of duets when she comes into town, like “Happy Days Are Here Again.” She’s got her own style, though, and writes her own music.

Are you content with where you’re at with “Pia’s Place,” or are there other areas of entertainment which you’d still like to explore?

Obviously, I’m at a pause right now. But you go on and realize things as you go forward. You never know what’s gonna strike your fancy. I’m my own worst critic. Some of the things I did that you mentioned earlier were just so all over the place. It was kind of confusing. My time with Jermaine and with the London Philharmonic Orchestra were real high points in terms of my success. And getting a cult following with Hairspray and Naked Gun 33 ½. So, never say never.

About Justin Kantor

Justin Kantor is a music journalist with a passion for in-depth artist interviews and reviews. Most of his interviews for Blogcritics can be heard on his Blog Talk Radio program, "Rhythmic Talk." Justin's work has been published in Wax Poetics, The All-Music Guide, and SoulMusic.com. A graduate of Berklee College of Music's Music Business and Management program, he honed his writing chops as a teenager—publishing "The Hip Key" magazine from 1992-1996. The publication, which was created out of his childhood home in Virginia Beach, reached a circulation of 10,000 by the time he was 16. At Berklee, Justin continued to perfect his craft with a series of 'Underrated Soul' features for The Groove from 1997-2003. This led to a companion TV show on Manhattan Neighborhood Network in 2002, as well as writing for the national Dance Music Authority (DMA). A self-described "obscure pop, dance, and R&B junkie," Justin also has penned liner notes for reissue labels such as Edsel Records and FunkyTownGrooves. He's excited to be a part of the BlogCritics team and indulge his musical fancies even further. Connect with him at his Facebook page, or via [email protected]

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