I am a born and bred New Yorker. (Grew up in The East Bronx--lived in Manhattan). I've been a singer/songwriter most of my life, first working in the "music business" as a contracted writer for Trio Music-- which was the publishing company of the great Leiber and Stoller-- in New Yorks' famous Brill Building, and then moving over to Don Kirschner's Screen Gems-Columbia Music (now EMI). My songs have been recorded by such diverse artists as Louis Armstrong,
Darlene Love, and Kiss.. with many, many artists in between-- and have been featured in many Movies, TV shows, commercials, and even Broadway Musicals. Quite a few of those songs were "hits" ( 98.6, Lazy Day, Remember When, Today I Met The Boy I'm Gonna Marry, Why Do Lovers Break Each Other's Hearts ).
I finally had to quit tho' because I found writing solely for commercial purposes was
far too limiting and restrictive. Since then I've only written about what was, and is, important to me...and, hopefully, to us all. My songs concern the "human condition" seen from a working-class viewpoint, and are, for the most part social and political comments, usually couched in dark humor with a little bit (okay--sometimes a lot) of anger, sometimes masked as sarcasm, sometimes just outright, slipped into the mix.
I now live in Los Angeles, where I continue to write songs and work as an Actor in Film and TV. As an Actor some of my credits are; Jimmy Two-Times in Martin Scorceses' "Goodfellas", Captain Mason in "Cadillac Man", I co-starred on "The King Of Queens" twice, co-starred on "NYPD Blue" twice, and my last film appearance was as Bank Mgr. John Modica in Stephen Spielberg's "Catch Me If You Can".
Thank you again for taking the time to check me out. I hope you enjoy my music. I hope it both makes you laugh...and think.
That was me in my own words. The following Biographical sketch was written by writer Penny Stallings:
I first discovered that my friend Tony Powers had something of an underground cult following a few years ago in New Orleans where a group of us from L.A. had gathered for Jazzfest. From out of nowhere, a young guy approached him and asked him if he was who he is. Now that alone is not so out-of-the-ordinary. Tony is one of those guys everybody knows – or thinks they do. If not from the movies he’s been in, then from the part he played in the fabled Brill Building scene back in the 60s when he wrote a string of hits (“Today I Met the Boy I’m Gonna Marry,” “Remember Then,” “98.6,” “Lazy Day,” “Why Do Lovers Break Each Others Hearts,” etc. etc.) with people like Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector while working as a contract writer for the famed duo of Leiber and Stoller. And sure enough, the guy launched into an animated recitation of the lyrics to one of Tony’s songs. But these were not the syrupy sentiments of a one of the old hits. No, these were the lyrics of “Don’t Nobody Move (This is a Heist)”. … one of the elegantly twisted compositions Tony had himself recorded years ago (years before the advent of "Rap") on his own self-produced albums Home-Made and Under the Cover of Darkness
“…I wuz underneath my dresser
Just in case of sneak attack
When this television quiz show called
To ask where I wuz at
I said "I'm underneath my dresser...
An' they're poundin' on my door"
The audience went wild 'n the emcee said
"Would you like to try for more?"
Yes I would!”...
You have to wonder how the same guy – Tony, that is - who had written about wedding bells and “lazy days just right for lovin’ away” would end up wailing for more underneath that dresser. But like any number of other Brill Building alums who made their hit making bones during the sixties and early seventies, Tony had begun to chafe under the two-and-a-half minute tyranny of traditional pop song structure. His disenchantment with the formula was right up front for all to hear in “The Day I Lost My Watch…”
“…So I drank some beers,
For a couple of years
An’ I got so wrecked that I figured I
Well, I wrote some shit
That they called a hit”…
Unaccountably, this is the song Tony chose to turn music-publishing mogul Don Kirshner on to his new direction. It was a cold winter day in 1968, when Tony – more than a little manic – burst into Kirshner’s New York office decked out to-die-for in a black silk mohair suit, a silver silk tie, a white-on-white French-cuffed shirt…and barefoot, to play him “Watch” – which in addition to the snippy part about the ‘shit that they called a hit” related the story of a man who lost his watch and learned to tell time with, well, his crotch. Not exactly Top Ten material. And not exactly the Tony Powers Kirshner knew either. “He thought I was nuts,” Tony says now. “And he was right.”
As anyone will tell you who knew Tony then – or now - there was not much new in that. The difference was that he was no longer content simply to write criminally catchy tunes for others. The time had come for him to unleash his muse and with it, his own highly personal, highly idiosyncratic music. The new songs had all the pop top and bluesy bottom of his hits, but they were also asymmetrical, too long and too short, and their lyrics floated big ideas by rhyming big-ass words like words like heretofore, supreme court, and anthropoid, paranoid, and Sigmund Freud. Tony’s shit – his own real true shit - was a mix of Man Ray and Ray Charles – a surreal blend of comedy and metaphysical poetry that was light years away from his earlier hits – the kind of cerebral whimsy that flourishes in underground circles, sometimes becoming legendary while at the same time remaining obscure. We’re talking about a very cool tree falling in a very hip forest.
For several years that forest was the club scene in L.A. and New York where Tony put together various bands for gigs at The Troubadour and The Wilshire Ebell Theater in L.A., and Reno Sweeney’s, The Ballroom, JP’s, and The Savoy in New York, that attracted audiences of friends, family, show biz elite, artists and outcasts. Before long, the scene surrounding his live performances attracted the attention of a critic at Billboard who went on the write of his “haunting melodies and strong but rough vocals.” Next to sing his praises was the New York Times, which compared his music and lyrics to those of Kurt Weil and Randy Newman. On a roll, he came up with the idea to create a 26-minute three-song video shot on film in New York around Heist.” Now this was not to be one of your typical singer lip-syncing in extreme close-up videos - but rather a mini-movie with a maniacal Tony roaming the streets of New York and falling into raucous vignettes featuring his actor-buddies Peter Reigert, John Goodman, Treat Williams, Stephen Collins, Marcia Strassman, J.C. Quinn, and, in one of the other pieces, Odyssey, Lois Chiles. The “Heist” video won the Gold Medal at The International Music Video Festival of Saint-Tropez, the Silver Medal at The Annual International Film and Video Festival of New York, and was named as Details magazine’s Video of the Year. It also managed to outrank Grandmaster Flash, Duran Duran, and Men at Work on the Rockamerica Video Chart. Before long it was a staple on HBO, and the USA network’s uber cool Night Flight – where it provided the perfect foil for monologues by a kindred retro futurist, the late, much lamented Peter Ivers. Exposure on HBO and Night Flight in particular meant that Tony had gone national, thereby building a following of fans who revered him for all the peculiarities that confounded AM radio programmers and record company execs.
Tony was an underground artist. A rebel – albeit a suave one - who would never ever be any good. So much so, that he wanted nothing to do with the major record labels unless, of course, they were willing to make it worth his while with piles of green and total freedom to do whatever the hell he wanted. And that’s what he told Columbia Records when they offered him a deal, but the suits just didn’t get him and deep down inside, he didn’t really want them to. Nowhere was Tony’s disenchantment with the mainstream music business establishment more evident than on his second album Under The Cover of Darkness, a nosegay of violets and grenades, which he – no surprise – produced himself. The violets were the unexpectedly sweet love songs, the grenades several irate, eerily prophetic tracks that anticipate climate change, frenzied consumerism, extinct rainforests, and what was then only a twinkle in Dick Cheney’s eye – the Patriot Act. “…It’s the world we knew would be brave,” he writes, They’re watching our lives, cradle to grave…” Tony even managed to beat Joni Mitchell to the ironic punch with “Goin’ Into Space” – an eco-lament which preceded the release of her celebrated “Big Yellow Taxi” by a year.
“…Bang the bugle,
Blow the drum,
Tell the planets here we come,
To build a station far from earth,
Just three hundred billion worth”
And when the housing, and the schools,
And the jobs, and all the fools, and the water,
And the air, get so bad then
We’ll go there”…
Of course, the more pointed and off-kilter the song, the less chance it had to see the light of airplay. . And while the last thing Tony wanted was to work within the confines of the record business, he did want his songs to be heard. His frustration jumped off the cover of his first LP Home-Made in the form of rambling handwritten notes much like those on the label of a bottle of Dr. Bronner’s All-Purpose Peppermint Soap. Touting the album’s no-tech virtues, he proudly listed its lack of echo, reverb, and overdubbing. Home-made – as its title hinted - had only “one track, no engineer, no rehearsal, no musicians, no studio, no producer, no gushing executives.” Anyone misguided enough to desire those devices was advised to supply their own. In another scrawled digression Tony made himself available for personal appearances but only in his own living room, “various hallways and bathrooms, and at his friends homes.” Clearly, the man was pissed.
Predictably the songs on both albums were effectively written off as too wordy, too opinionated and too blatantly trippy for mass consumption. Sensitive – and cantankerous – soul that he is, Tony swore off the music business for good. Or for the time being anyway. Embracing the free flowing spirit of the times, he lit out for Europe where he spent time just spending time in cool places like Morocco and Spain. His wanderings eventually led him to Los Angeles where he took up residence atop a hill in Laurel Canyon – at the time an enclave of singer-songwriters like Warren Zevon, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell and others. Whether he liked it or not, Tony was still a part of the music business – if only because of the royalties he continued to earn on his 60s hits – now classics –which were frequently used in films and television shows. And he and his band continued to gig around town at clubs like the Troubadour. However an attempt to write (“utter crap”) for mass-market consumption while on staff at Herb Alpert’s Irving-Almo Music was a misbegotten mess. Retreating back to the sanity of his own insane ingenuity he spent the next year writing “A Manhattan Rhapsody,” a musical set in a speakeasy during the Depression. A trip home to New York to find backers for the show lengthened into an extended stay during which he formed yet another band and once again began gigging around the city. But by this point, Tony’s career was about to take a serious detour as he caught the eye of the town’s casting agents. And it’s not hard to understand why.
The thing about Tony that made him a sure bet as a character actor is that he was born a character and a half – a Bronx hipster who resembles unlikely cross between Cary Grant and Doodles Weaver. And he’s not exactly what you’d call shy. While younger actors tried everything from The Method to Scientology to break into the Business, Tony’s foray into acting swung effortlessly forward from one role to another – a TV show like NYPD Blue would lead to a film like Catch Me If You Can which then led back to TV to The King of Queens, and so on until he became better known for his work as a character actor in films like Cadillac Man and – most memorably – as Jimmy Two-Times in Goodfellas , than for his classic 60s hits.
Of course, if you’re gonna do the acting thing, sooner or later you’re gonna end up in Los Angeles- and so it was with Tony. Of course, Hollywood – both in reality and as a state-of-mind – is light years way from the New York street theater that originally informed Tony’s work. Even so, its’ a sweet life if you work it right. (Swimming pools. Movie stars.) Sure, there are dry spells, but - as Tony has frequently demonstrated those spells can easily be surmounted with a well-timed turn or two in a commercial. The music business on the other hand is venal and insular. Why would anyone, let alone a kindhearted sort and inveterate pleasure seeker like Tony get tangled up in that morass again if he didn’t absolutely have to? There would have to be some kind of a revolution, some kind of a powerful new zeitgeist strong enough to sneak up on him and suck him back into the fray.
Enter underground radio and the Internet. Slowly and randomly – and entirely absent Tony’s involvement or endorsement, his music and videos began showing up in new underground media. Norm N. Night played him on his satellite radio show Remember Then (named after one of Tony’s hits). And bootlegged copies of the video of “Heist” showed up on You Tube – where they got thousands of hits along with blissful messages from old fans:
‘…This video, a superb work of art, portrays the essence of NYC and highlights the hypocrisy of the criminal injustice system with the phrase: " in my court you don't chew gum "
And then there were those who were seeing Tony for the first time:
“...Absolutely, no doubt, hands down the best video ever made! Wow dude. Wow!”
It would seem that time and the collective hip had caught up to what Tony was doing musically decades ago. How could he ignore that? It’s not like he didn’t have plenty more to say. A whole CD’s worth in fact. Yes, the audience had gone wild and the emcee asked if he’d like to try for more.
Yes, he would!
The new CD Who Could Imagine revives some old favorites thanks to some stellar musicianship and a minimum of revision (a lucky consequence of their original prescience). The opener “How Do Ya” sets the tone by lobbing a musical grenade at war makers past, present, and future…and we’re off and running. Other new songs add “dead Iraqis, dead Marines, Darfur and sweet old N’awlins” to Tony’s list of the unjustly damned.
Luckily for us, the New Millennium Tony Powers is just as existentially apoplectic as the old one. Maybe more so. And his music – both sweet and sour - provides the perfect soundtrack for us all to dance our way to hell.
Penny Stallings, New Orleans 2007