Burning bright

Posted on 16 Sep 2016 at 6:00am

Dallas scion William Blake’s triumphant return to Texas

william-blake-snarky

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES |  Executive Editor

Even as a scrappy little North Texas theater kid of 9, William Blake wanted to sing. He had the kind of high-pitched voice that people would refer to as “boy soprano” — a falsetto that was in no way false, but which history proves men usually grow out of once they pass puberty.

Only Blake didn’t outgrow it. He has maintained that powerful alto tone throughout his adulthood.

“To this day, people call me on the phone and think, is that my mother or my sister?” he laughs. “It’s sort of maddening. I wish I talked down here” — he fakes a baritone — “but I can’t.”

Which, actually, is kind of awesome. It has sort of become “his thing.” In bars like the now-shuttered Hideaway, he was a popular performer with customers and fellow singers alike — baby-faced, endearing, but with a soulful set of pipes that could rock a smoky cabaret, even as you did a double-take to see who was responsible for that stratospheric wail.

His first professional acting job — he was barely out of college — was in the old Plano Rep production of Cabaret, where he played at the cross-dressing role of Mary Sunshine. But Blake had aspirations that went beyond theater. He wanted to see if he could make a career as a singer — his kind of singer. So after releasing to Dallas audiences an album in 2006, in January 2007 he suddenly packed up and headed for the Big Apple. If he could make it there… Well, you know the cliché.

And make it he did.

screen-shot-2016-09-15-at-7-30-14-pm“I certainly don’t think that I had my sights set on Broadway or doing anything onstage, as much as I would have liked that to have happened,” he says. “My parents encouraged me to sing and I found my voice gradually. I love performing and telling stories through song and being that kind of vocalist. I hoped people would get me. I just wanted to see what trajectory I was on, and if I should try it.”

He got his foot in the door at Don’t Tell Mama, the legendary NYC piano bar. “That was my first job,” Blake says. But there were lulls, of course, and initial disappointments. He was more in the service industry than showbiz for a while, and admits he was seduced by a regular paycheck. But he soldiered on. “If I could talk to my younger self now, I would say, ‘Be patient,’” he says. “You’re on the right path, so don’t move so astray.”

That path led to Michael Feinstein, who gave him his first big break, in 2010, when he sang alongside the acclaimed pianist at Carnegie Hall. Since then, he has regularly performed at piano bars such as The Duplex, appeared on national television singing on a float in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, made it to “Hollywood Week” on American Idol, recorded a live album and generally pursued his dream into a reality.

But despite his Texas roots, he hasn’t been back on stage in Dallas in almost a decade. That changes this month, when he serves as the closing act at Uptown Players’ Dallas Pride Performing Arts Festival. It’s a homecoming that emboldens him.
The Dallas musical/theater community “was so nurturing. Denise Lee, Gary Floyd — I call them Mama and Papa — and Liz Mikel were definitely [supportive]. There was something so great about the freedom of the DFW theater scene — to just be able to go for broke and excel. There’s so much warmth in Texas that you don’t get [in New York] all the time.”

On a typical week in New York (depending on the season), he’ll perform Saturdays and Tuesdays with his usual cabaret show at The Duplex, then rehearse his signature show featuring the music of Etta James (he’s been doing it for more than four years), for about five hours. Then maybe travel to perform, or take a week off. And most of those performances come with what he calls “the Scooby Doo Moment:” He starts his song while cast in shadow, and only when the lights come up do people realize a man is singing.

“Even in Joe’s Pub, where we’ve done it so may times, I can see the cynicism in people’s faces [when the lights come up], but by the end, they are up on their feet. But this is the shit we like to do and what makes me me.” (“Ruh-roh!” he says is their reaction.)

He has resisted the push to turn his style into a gimmick.

“When people hear me for the first time, they immediately want to make you ‘the guy in a dress who sings girl stuff,’ which I won’t do. This is just my own style of singin’ a song. I want them to know that I’m not just another white boy who sang blue-eyed soul — that I had some actual technique.”

It will be a discovery for many Dallas audiences, as well. While Blake has many long-standing friends and fans in town, he hopes to attract a younger or newer audience not familiar with his style. It’s exciting … for many reasons.

“I miss everybody,” he says. “First and foremost, I am looking forward to seeing my family  — I have not held my new nephew yet! My twin sister had her second child [since I was last in Dallas].” And then there is the lineup of songs he has planned — a set-list he was still tweaking when we talked, to reflect his development as a singer.

“I guess what they can expect to see is someone who has grown up — not a 20something anymore, but a man who has matured,” he says. “My voice has changed only a little, but my thought process has changed — my outlook and take on life. I want that reflected in the songs I am choosing. I want the program to tell some kind of story. It will be exactly what I am — a funny, kind of humble, self-deprecating old soul to express my thoughts and passions. There are gonna be moments when I tear up, cuz I’m a sappy, sappy guy … and moments where I’ll be sassy because that’s who I am, too.”

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