Anyone who came of age in the 1980s can instantly visualize one scene when hearing the name “Billy Vera and the Beaters”: Michael J. Fox and future wife Tracy Pollan slow dancing to “At This Moment” on the TV sitcom Family Ties. During the 1985-86 season, the song was used to summarize the turbulent romance between their characters; as a result, the then-obscure band scored their first and only number one hit.
Now a solo artist, Vera has turned his talents toward songwriting and producing. He still performs, and his latest release, Big Band Jazz, serves as a love letter to the genre as well as African-American composers from the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. While Vera’s blue eyed-soul voice remains largely intact, it does not perfectly fit the jazz style.
Co-produced with jazz chanteuse Tamela D’Amico, Big Band Jazz bears Vera’s fingerprints, from the song selection to the liner notes. He thoroughly details why he chose particular tracks, giving credit to their famous and more obscure composers. Clearly Vera and D’Amico carefully chose the backing band, as those musicians truly swing and provide a lush soundscape for the vocalist.
Vera further demonstrates his love of jazz through the song selections. Instead of choosing obvious standards, he digs deeper for tunes such as “If I Could be with You (One Hour Tonight),” written by Harlem stride pianist James P. Johnson. Vera’s vocals recall Steve Tyrell’s raspy delivery. While some tracks such as “Since I Fell for You” may be very familiar to audiences, Vera adds a jazz touch that may surprise fans of the Lenny Welch hit. A particularly strong track is “I’ll Never be Free,” a duet with D’Amico. Her playful, sultry voice blends well with Vera, creating romantic yet witty banter between the two singers.
As a bonus track, Vera has included a big band arrangement of “At This Moment,” and here is where the vocalist shines. Since his ’80s heyday, Vera has proven himself a soulful singer; when he almost shouts the lines “I’ll fall down on my knees; kiss the ground that you walk on,” he holds back nothing, letting the audience feel his passion. That style works quite well with R&B, but jazz standards require a bit more finesse and subtlety. His phrasing on Savannah Churchill’s “I Want to be Loved (But Only by You)” lacks the understated, delicate vocals that accent the romantic and sincere lyrics. Frank Sinatra became a master of that thoughtful technique, softly crooning one moment and using the full force of his powerful voice the next. That method is a rare gift, and Vera needs to develop that vocal versatility necessary for the Great American Songbook.
Vera’s voice remains largely undimmed since the 1980s, and it would be interesting to hear him further tackle Motown, Stax, or other soul classics. (He has recorded similar collections in the past, such as 2006’s Blue Eyed Soul Man.) His devotion to big band jazz is commendable and undoubtedly earnest, but his style best graces classic R&B. Nevertheless, he accomplishes one goal on Big Band Jazz: Vera draws deserved attention to underrated songwriters, and hopefully audiences will search out their original recordings to fully appreciate these hidden gems.