Actors-turned-singers: Hugh Laurie sings the blues

As Hugh Laurie prepares to record a blues album, Ben Walsh worries that it could be the latest in a long line of turgid offerings from actors-turned-singers

Tuesday 24 August 2010 00:00

Why can't actors desist from trying to be musicians? Hugh House Laurie is the latest distinguished thespian to seize, worryingly, the microphone, signing a music deal with Warner Music Entertainment to release a New Orleans blues record, with the "goal of producing an album with mainstream, international appeal". Actors of Laurie's calibre already have a perfectly good gig (ie acting) and lots of exposure, fame, wealth, acclaim etc, but an unsettling amount of them still insist on foisting their musicianship, their tunes, their diabolical lyrics upon us, too.

Ever since lovable Laurie hit pay dirt (he's the highest-paid TV actor in the US) as the barbed ("Steve McQueen without hair? It's a blessing he died young"), bitter, brilliant Dr Gregory House – a medical maverick who triumphantly diagnoses everything from bubonic plague to male pseudohermaphroditism on House – we've been drip-fed details that not only is the old Etonian an excellent actor, he can ride a motorbike, too... and, you know what... wait for it... he's also a gifted pianist. He's played the piano most of his life, don't you know. His old comedy pal, Stephen Fry, let it be known that Hugh "Won't use his talents. He is a brilliant musician... He has a fantastic singing voice, which he'll never use, to my despair."

He already regularly dabbles in a bit of blues piano and guitar playing on House, which is fine and dandy, as it is part of House's character. But, of course, before you can say "stick to the day job", Laurie is "using his talents", and Joe Henry, the much heralded two-time Grammy Award winner who has co-written songs for Madonna and Madeleine Peyroux, is on hand to produce the album. There's a tiny, outside chance that this record won't suck, but the odds are heavily stacked against it. The list of song crimes from actors is too long, too harrowing.

In fact, during the 1970s, "actor-turned-singer syndrome" was positively endemic. Edward Woodward (aka hard men the Equalizer and Callan) churned out a staggering 12 albums of romantic ballads, including the imaginatively titled 20 Romantic Favourites. Avoid. Similarly stay well clear of Richard Harris's "MacArthur Park", where the gamey This Sporting Life star interprets Jimmy Webb's work. Ditto Harris's A Tramp Shining, where if the untidy sideburns and pained expression on the album sleeve don't put you off, Harris's creepy emoting on the likes of "If You Must Leave My Life" (with the ghastly lyric "Somewhere in my mouth/ There'll always be the taste of you/ Forever is so very long/ I don't want your life to go wrong") most certainly will.

Even Clint Eastwood has grabbed the mic (way back in 1963), singing (in his Rowdy Yates from Rawhide persona) about cattle drives, lonesome nights under the stars and beautiful ladies on Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favourites, featuring the wretched "Mexicali Rose" (a 1938 hit for Bing Crosby). And, of course, who can forget (however hard you try) Clint singing "I Talk to the Trees" on 1969's Paint Your Wagon.

However, as surreally awful as Clint's moment of madness was, nothing quite matches William Shatner (Captain James T Kirk, no less) and his peculiar slant on pop songs and the works of William Shakespeare on 1968's The Transformed Man. Speaking the lyrics, rather than actually singing them, the Star Trek icon interspersed dramatic readings of Shakespeare with lyrics from songs such as "Mr Tambourine Man" and "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds".

George Clooney recently claimed on Desert Island Discs that he would take Shatner's version of the Beatles gem with him, if only to use as an incentive to flee the island. "If you listen to this, you will hollow out your own leg and make a canoe out of it to get off this island," claimed Clooney. He's being kind. However, for my money, Shatner's interpretation of "Mr Tambourine Man" is worse. Far worse. His pained, tortured yelling at the end is frankly unforgivable.

I've got rock'n'roll in my blood," Shatner once maintained – and no doubt all of these actors-turned-singers, would, if attacked, fall back on the desperate plea that, as artists, they were born to act, sing, dance... Don't consign them to a pigeonhole. Yeah. Don't cramp their creativity, their vision... their musicality. "I remember looking out into the crowd, thinking, 'This just feels right'," Kevin Costner maintained after he released, along with his band Modern West, the perfectly appalling country rock album Untold Truths in 2008, featuring the irksome cowboy lament "Superman 14" ("I never made it to Amarillo/ Though I tried it just for kicks/ The ace of spades, well, it must have broke/ Somewhere along on the highway fifty-six"). Kevin, you're not some sort of Stetson-wearing troubadour. If you want to sing songs to your lover, your understanding pals, or your agent, then please do so in your own space, or at a push as a busker in, say, Amarillo. Or, better still, outer space.

But Costner had to repeat the crime in 2009 with the album Turn it On, growing one of those odd little beards that sit uncomfortably under the bottom lip in the process. He had the audacity to tour said album and beard around the US. It's galling, particularly from the man who infamously went backstage to tell Madonna that her sexually provocative concert was "neat". Neat? "Anybody who says my show is 'neat' has to go," the Material Girl (someone who notoriously failed the other way – from singer to actor) maintained. Quite right.

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"My music is from the heart," maintained Russell Crowe – and the earnest Gladiator star is another serial offender. Crowe, going under the name of "Rus le Roq", recorded "I Want to Be Like Marlon Brando" in the 1980s, before forming, in 1992, the Australian rock band 30 Odd Foot of Grunts. He performed lead vocals. Of course he did; why don't they ever plump for percussion? The band released three albums, the tipping point being 2001's execrable Bastard Life or Clarity, which includes the song "Judas Cart" with the lyrics "They are coming today to take her away/ Cause a man in a wig said/ The sky is always blue/ Drive on drive on/ Drive on Judas Cart/ Taking my little girl away". Oh dear. And "Somebody's Else's Princess", which opens with "Red hair deep blue eyes/ My baby gets me so good/ She got the franchise." Ouch.

Keanu Reeves is another culprit, contributing bass guitar and backing vocals for the dire grunge and alternative outfit Dogstar. But Reeves, at least, was rather sweet about his reasons for forming a band: "I like writing songs. I like the camaraderie of it and I like touring. I love playing bass. And then there's free beer." Jack Black was similarly droll about his hard-rock project Tenacious D, calling his act an antidote to "the masculinity of rock". But for every self-deprecating Black and Reeves, there's a Bruce Willis smugly butchering "Respect Yourself" and "Under the Boardwalk" on the lamentable The Return of Bruno (1987).

So there are plenty of crooning, droning actors trying to rock – and we haven't even touched upon the questionable work of Johnny Depp, Kevin Bacon (part of folk-rock duo The Bacon Brothers) or the spoken (like Shatner's) style of Telly Savalas on Bread's "If" (a No 1, no less) – but it should be noted that actresses have fared rather better. Juliette Lewis's foray into punk-rock, with her backing band The Licks, has somewhat excitedly been described as "riotous" and "joyous" and compared to Girlschool and The Runaways.

Scarlett Johansson garnered critical acclaim for her Anywhere I Lay My Head, an album on which the Hollywood starlet successfully covered 10 Tom Waits songs. NME named it the "23rd best album of 2008". Most winning of all is Zooey Deschanel, who, along with the alt-country singer/songwriter M Ward, formed She and Him and released the sensational Volume Two this year. Probably best not to linger too long on the memory of Lindsay Lohan's two efforts, Speak and A Little More Personal (Raw), though...

"I know the history of actors making music is a chequered one, but I promise no one will get hurt," Hugh Laurie has admitted, to his credit. And the former comedian is surely too smart to leave us "hurting". But, then, there's no avoiding that "chequered" past, a roll call that includes Woodward, Harris, Eastwood, Shatner, Crowe, Willis... and we haven't even touched upon the oeuvre of Jimmy Nail and Dennis "I Could Be So Good for You" Waterman. Good luck, Hugh.

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