Once quoted as being "the most irascible maverick in the business" by Melody Maker, Elvis Costello's career is characterised only by its unpredictability, and as a jazz musician this appeals to me enormously. Over the past 20 years, he has remained one of my favourite lyricists, arrangers and, of course, singers. Quite simply, nobody else sounds like Elvis Costello.
Since his debut album, My Aim is True, in 1977, Costello has recorded more than 17 albums in his 25-year career. Never to be accused of pandering to pop's fickle public, by his own reckoning the only time he was ever in danger of becoming a pop star was "for about 20 minutes in 1978."
I was an 11-year-old (going on 25) in 1978, and my love for Costello bloomed as I watched him on Top of the Pops on the knackered old black and white TV I had in my prepubescent South London bedroom. I became transfixed with the angry young man stance and sang along loudly to "Oliver's Army" while playing air-guitar. On my schoolbooks I scribbled over "I love David Cassidy" and boldly told the world that "Elvis Costello and the Attractions rule OK." I wanted to be a nonconformist punk babe who knew all the words to every B side. Actually, I still do a bit.
By the time the third album, Armed Forces, was released in 1979, I considered myself a true fan. This album reached number four in the UK charts and had the highest entry in America out of all his future records (number 10). It was considered really grown up to own actual albums, and I also used to buy singles from Woolworth's in Tooting. I can't stand up for falling down was always on the top of the pile that sat on my black plastic record player, and occasionally it would do what it was supposed to do and drop them one by one in the order that you had painstakingly put together. I can be anywhere in the world and hear that song and I immediately feel 13 again.
When I wanna be loved was released in 1984, I was seriously considering singing as my profession, and this song reminds me of all the angst that goes with being 17, and the desperation of wanting a proper car-owning boyfriend. I was really getting into jazz by then, but had always loved good singers whatever their chosen style and Elvis's distinctive serrated sound was up among those of Andy Bey, Tony Bennett and Chet Baker. The most important thing about singing for me, is to make sure that you sing from the heart — Elvis Costello puts heart and soul into every song and has the incredible ability to deliver just the right amount of emotional impact every time.
The new album, Painted From Memory — a collaboration with pop legend Burt Bacharach and the culmination of two years' work, is simply fabulous. I have never heard him in better voice. Every note is thought about and cared for. Every phrase is immaculately delivered even when the inimitable Bacharach 2/4 bars make breathing slightly tricky. My favourite vocal performances on this beautifully arranged album have to be the Grammy winning "God Give Me Strength" and "I Still Have That Other Girl."
Singer/pianist Ian Shaw and I have our own tribute show to Burt Bacharach and have been touring it up and down the country over the past couple of years. In the show we have added some of the songs from Painted From Memory. I chose to sing Still have that other girl from the woman's perspective, which is great because I think that women do spend a great deal of time thinking about what other women are doing, thinking, wearing or saying, and especially if that woman happens to have been with, or is after your man... well I'm sorry, but sisterhood goes right out of the window. Also I sang "This House Is Empty Now" which has one of the most brilliantly crafted "bridge" sections ever and the lyric "Oh, if I could just become forgetful, the night seems endless. Does the extinguished candle care about the darkness..." is, for me, pure magic. It took me about an hour to learn how to phrase these lines, and consequently I had the song going round and round in my head for days and nights. As a musician, this can drive you to despair, but in all honesty it just made me realise what a good song it is.
Ian sings "God Give Me Strength" — and because I didn't see the Bacharach gig in London, this was the first time I had heard it sung live. The range in that song is awesome, and I think that Elvis has really stretched himself vocally on this album, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.
I have recently recorded "Baby Plays Around" on my new cd, Take my Heart. I've always wanted to do a Costello cover and for years thought that it would probably be "Shipbuilding" — but when I heard the version of "Baby Plays Around" on the live album Deep Dead Blue recorded with ace jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, I knew it had to be that song. I hope I've done it justice and that if and when Elvis ever hears it he might say: "she's not bad."
As for Elvis, he just keeps getting better. A truly great artist and performer.