The vibrant and vivacious Grammy nominee, singer, songwriter, producer, dancer, and so much more, Chris Bennett, has released her 12th album entitled Something Wonderful. Accompanied on the piano by Bill Marx, (son of Hollywood royalty, Harpo Marx of the Marx Brothers), Something Wonderful, is a kaleidoscope of timeless songs from the Great American Songbook, executed in a compelling and sophisticated explosion of brilliance.
Beginning her career as a vocalist and dancer in Las Vegas and on TV with Dean Martin and Jim Nabors, Chris Bennett found her way to Munich Germany where she met four time Grammy winner Giorgio Moroder, producer of Donna Summer, and was asked to join Munich Machine, an up and coming disco group as lead vocalist for Munich Machine, Introducing Chris Bennett, which contained the dance version of Procol Harum’s Whiter Shade of Pale. The glamorous singer was then asked to pose for cover art which created an international sensation, and the album sky rocketed to the top of the Dance Charts.
Chris performed with some of the planet’s top artists in the history of music, including: Donna Summer, Johnny Mathis, Keb’ Mo, and Leon Ware, and she also composed songs for Tina Turner, The Manhattan Transfer and The Three Degrees. Chris wrote and sang the theme song for Midnight Express, the mind blowing 1978 film, about an American, Bill Hayes caught by Turkish police for smuggling hash out of Istanbul. Her composition earned her a Grammy nomination, along with Giorgio Moroder and Oliver Stone. I had a long and intimate conversation with Chris after her German tour, and found her to be an epic, candid, and sensational new friend. Her salaciously smooth and velvet vocals, along with the magnificent piano accompaniment by Bill Marx, is destined to make Something Wonderful a classic….
Please talk about your new release and the inspiration behind it.
I moved from LA to Palm Springs in 2014, and while attending a party at the home of Jack Jones, the two-time GRAMMY winning singer, I heard this incredible pianist, and was introduced to Bill Marx, the son of Harpo, of the famous Marx Brothers. He invited me to sit in with him at his weekly gig at AJs On The Green – a local music venue here in the desert. We had instant chemistry as friends and musical colleagues, and after working with him for a year, one night it hit me that we should do a CD together and capture the magical, musical moments we were creating.
Many times artists convey their souls to others through their music. Is the album any kind of intimate expression of yourself?
Yes, definitely. Bill Marx was like a gift from God, as a collaborator, accompanist, and musical mentor. My piano teacher taught me to “sing every song as if it is the last song you’ll ever sing”, and working with Bill Marx really made me understand that concept. We both put our hearts and souls into every song we perform – even if there are 10 people in the audience, it doesn’t matter. Together we go to this sublime place where we literally breathe together!
The album includes a very interesting piano player, please tell us about him.
Bill Marx was adopted by Harpo and his wife, and only much later in life found out that his birth mother was a gifted pianist. Harpo recognised his genius and he had the best teachers in LA, as well as the opportunity to work with the greats, including the Marx Brothers, for which he did scores for their films and for his father’s harp performances. He graduated from Juilliard, the finest music school in the world, with a major in Classical Composition, and has composed many incredible symphonies and musical works that have been performed all over the world. But, he will tell you that he is happiest playing jazz piano, and he is the best I have ever worked with!
Is there a song on the album that you’re most proud of or enjoy doing live the most?
We picked 9 of our very favourite songs, and they are all gems. I am proud of them all, and most of them were recorded on the first take. The Michel LeGrand – Alan and Marilyn Bergman classic, How Do You Keep The Music Playing, is probably my favourite, because the lyrics are so profound, and the music is gorgeous. I rarely cover a tune that has been recorded by so many great singers like Barbara Streisand and Tony Bennett, among others, but audiences kept requesting it, and I realised that Bill and I brought our own interpretation to it. I think it’s because we are both not only seasoned performers, but have had LOTS of life experience that we bring to this song, so we do our own unique version. I have had people tell me it made them cry, and that is a huge compliment.
You’ve had an interesting and full musical career thus far. How did it begin?
Wow, got a few hours?? I was blessed with incredible parents who adored music. My Mama was an elementary music teacher and played piano. She always said Daddy started dating her because her family had a piano. Daddy was a lawyer and later a judge, and he was a great, but totally un-schooled pianist and singer. He didn’t want to go to a party if they didn’t have a piano, because – “What the hell are we going to do – stand around and talk?” He was always the life of the party with the music lovers gathering around him at the piano and singing in harmony. That’s the way people in the Midwest entertained themselves in the 50s and 60s, and there was never any question that I would study piano, which I did from the age of 5. I also adored dancing and singing, and from the first time I saw the early Dinah Shore shows on TV my career path was carved in stone. I was always going to be an entertainer and someday have MY own TV show, (a dream that I am finally making a reality). I started writing “special material” for shows in high school, had my own dance studio from the age of 13-17, and went to the University of Illinois as a dance and music major for 4 years, where I choreographed musicals and performed onstage every chance I got.
I then moved to LA and did a Master’s program in dance, until I was fortunate enough to be selected for the Jim Nabors tour as one of the Nabors Kids, and we toured the country and played Las Vegas, Reno, and Tahoe for a few years. It was one of the most exciting times of my life, and I learned so much from the wonderful Jim Nabors. He was a true gentleman and such a pro! I also appeared on the Dean Martin show as a comic actress. While in Vegas the manager of Wayne Newton asked me if I would like to put a nightclub act together and tour Bangkok, Bali, and Tokyo. I was 25 and, of course, said YES!!! That is when things really got interesting! While in Bangkok I fell in love with a German actor, was cast as an actress in the TV Series, Peter Voss – The Million Dollar Thief, and moved to Berlin, Germany in 1975. Timing is everything, and I was lucky to meet Giorgio Moroder, who had just recorded Donna Summer’s huge hit, Love To Love You Baby. I started collaborating with Giorgio on music for groups like The Three Degrees and Sparks, and became the lead singer for his new group, The Munich Machine”, as well as recording as a background singer for Donna. He also gave me my biggest career break when he asked me to write lyrics for The Love Theme for Midnight Express , which earned us a Grammy nomination!!! We lost to John Williams and Jaws, (that darn shark!), but it was such a thrill to be nominated and opened so many doors for me to continue as a songwriter and performer. I moved back to LA, leaving the German actor and Disco behind, to pursue my career as a recording artist and performer in the good ole, USA, although Germany, and Berlin in particular, is my second home, and I perform every summer at the best jazz club in the world – The A-Trane, in Berlin.
In the 80s I discovered Yoga and that became my other passion, and I have been a teacher for 30 years and lead Yoga retreats all over the world, and have produced CDs with my teacher, Mari Gayatri. It gives me the stamina to continue my recording and touring at my age, and I love healing people with this incredible tool of Yoga. Since then I have recorded 12 CDs, performed all over the world, written songs for artists such as Tina Turner, Leon Ware, Keb’ Mo, Nina Storey, and more, and started my piano lessons again at 50!!! I still work with my piano teacher, Bill Augustine, and someday hope to play as well as Bill Marx and Shirley Horn!!! Would I have loved to have become a big star in my 20’s?? I thought so at the time, but am so grateful it didn’t happen, because it would have only been because I was young and cute and “met” the right producers, and I know I would never have evolved into the person and artist I am today. I say with no ego that it feels SO good to have been able to take this musical gift so far that I feel confident on any stage, in any venue, and working with world class musicians wherever I go. I will never stop striving to be even better as a pianist, singer, and composer, and am so grateful for this incredible journey!!!
Is there a moment that you can recall that changed the trajectory of your entire life?
Having the courage to move to Los Angeles from Illinois certainly opened up so many possibilities. Being selected by Jim Nabors for his show and meeting Giorgio Moroder really changed things – then Bill Marx was the icing on the cake!)
You’ve just come home from Berlin and are going to India. How is your music received outside the country?
We know that music truly is the universal language, and when you visit a foreign country as a musician you not only meet and work with the coolest people, but are received like a Rock Star, even if you’re playing some little club. I always loved languages, and I sing in English, German, Spanish, French, and am leaning Italian. Audiences really appreciate it when you do at least a few songs in their language, although the “Great American Songbook” is loved all over the world. I find that people also appreciate my original songs, and often request them in my shows.
I know that you enjoy playing live, if you could have your ultimate stage fantasy what would you need to happen?
Honestly, although I would love to play the Hollywood Bowl, Carnegie Hall, and some of the great venues in the world, some of the best moments in my life have been in intimate, 100 seat jazz clubs, where it all comes together with great musicians, I’m in good voice, the audience is really listening, and it is like a religious experience. I have been blessed with too many of those to count, and am looking forward to many more!! I also adore playing with a Big Band because of the energy and excitement. It is virtually impossible to be depressed or unhappy in the presence of a Big Band concert, but truly, just Bill Marx and me at the piano is, “as good as it gets” for me.
What is most enjoyable regarding performing live?
Definitely the connection with the audience. Most people are living lives of ‘quiet desperation’, and really crave to ‘feel’ something, whether it’s joy, sadness, passion, love, etc. Great music touches people, and when I can do that I am in a state of bliss and know I have done something worthwhile for at least that short time onstage. After a week of shows in Berlin or Italy I am “high” for months!!! When I come home from our gigs at AJs here in the desert, call Bill Marx to tell him I’m home safely, and he says, “you were great tonight, Kid” – I am on top of the world. That’s all I need.
Growing up what artists inspired you in the most?
My parents were my earliest influence and my Dad played piano every day of his life. Some of my fondest memories are of the two of them sitting at the piano together and playing songs from the 20s and 30s! He was playing his banjo to me as I sat in my baby bed, and supposedly taught me to sing harmony at 3! Daddy loved Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Dean Martin, and all the great Big Bands like Dorsey, Count Basie, Benny Goodman, etc., so they definitely inspired me. But my first musical love was Musical Comedy! My best friend’s parents were the only people in my small town of Marshall, Illinois, who went to New York every fall and would bring Mary Kay and I the Original Cast albums of the classic musicals like South Pacific, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, etc. We were taking dance lessons together and couldn’t wait to learn and choreograph every song! We did that from about age 8 through High School. I still adore the genre, and have written a musical that I plan to stage here in Palm Springs next year. Bill Marx also loves the music from Broadway, and two of my favourite cuts on the CD are from THE KING AND I – I Have Dreamed, and the title tune, Something Wonderful.
Do you feel that music was your destiny?
For sure, 100%. It was all I ever wanted to do, and I am truly the happiest on stage, in the recording studio, and alone at my piano composing music!!!
Are you currently working on any other projects?
Yes, that TV show that I dreamed about since childhood. I grew up on the great Variety Shows like Dean Martin, Jackie Gleason, Dinah Shore, and even got to appear on Dean Martin’s show in comedy sketches with Bob Newhart, etc. For me there is not much music that interests me on TV anymore, other than a great PBS special or concert now and then. I think everyone is a bit tired of the “Talent Shows”, and for us Baby Boomers, I believe we would appreciate some ‘real’ music and to hear “seasoned” artists like Bill Marx, Jack Jones, Keb’ Mo, The Manhattan Transfer, all colleagues of mine. I don’t want to give away the idea totally, but in each segment you will be invited into my living room, (I was lucky to buy Loretta Young’s home here in Palm Springs), where you will feel like you are at an intimate soirée with fabulous Palm Springs people, around my 7 foot Baldwin, Bill Marx or me at the piano, and various musical guests – all over 65, and some as old as 90, who still perform with passion and great artistry. Also, in each segment I will take you with me on my latest tour – last year I headlined the San Remo Festival in Italy, or you’ll come to the A-Trane in Berlin with me, or an outdoor concert in Tahiti! There are so many fabulous, older musicians around the world who no one gets to enjoy, unless you are lucky enough to have their recordings.
Outside of music you have some interesting health hobbies, please talk about that for a second.
Yes, I have danced since 3, but unfortunately was “born to late” to be Ginger Rodgers or Cyd Charisse!!! I still take class whenever possible, and my new passion is Samba!! When I discovered Yoga in 1980, I knew it would be a lifelong practice, and I still teach two classes a week, and attend Yoga retreats all over the world. In my TV show, you will have the option to click on the Health and Wellness segments and go with me on Yoga retreats to Bali, Tahiti, Hawaii, and in a few weeks – INDIA!!!
How have you seen the music industry change since you began?
The good part is that today an independent artist can do an album in their garage on their own equipment, post it online, and find their audience…if they are lucky and talented. When I started out you had to have a major label deal to record an album, and the industry was totally run by powerful men, and, sorry to say, unless you did what they wanted, if you know what I mean, you weren’t going to get far. I love it that independent artists can now find their audience. The bad news is that some pretty mediocre stuff gets out there, but the discerning music lovers can find the artists they love. The other bad news is that young kids somehow got the idea that music should be free – thanks, Napster – and have no problem “stealing” music. They think all musicians are rich – WRONG!! Most of my colleagues struggle financially, and I really hope we will be able to figure out a way to compensate artists for their work. Of course, the technical side has changed drastically! When I started recording in the 70s we edited tracks with a razor blade!!! Now it’s mostly digital, although many still love the warmer sound of analogue recording. Also, the best sessions were when all the musicians were in the same room together, (check out Frank Sinatra recording at Capital in the 50s!). Now we often record one instrument at a time and some of the magic that happened can be lost. Still, there are great artists making some wonderful music out there, and I love coaching and mentoring young performers – especially those that play piano and sing. Shirley Horn was my favorite!!!
Where, when, and how can people purchase your music?
My music is on CD Baby, I-Tunes, and available to hear on Spotify, etc. Please visit my website – Www.chrisbennett.com to be directed to these sites, and to see videos of my recent concerts and to sign up for my newsletter to find out about where I will be performing and about my new releases.
All words by Eileen Shapiro. More of Eileen’s writing can be found in her author’s archive.