Not many singers get their start with the help of a plumber, but you’re about to meet one who did. You may not have heard of Michael Buble yet, but his style and growing legion of fans have people talking of a new Frank Sinatra.
There is a moment, if you catch people on the way up, so sweet, so pregnant with possibility, bursting with talent and confidence, and yet still like frat boys on spring break.
And there in the middle of it is a fisherman’s kid, with a voice like the sun after rain, named Michael Buble. You can’t not know about the music he’s singing — it’s been around for a very long time — but Buble? Who knew this would be new again? Or, that a young singing sensation with a funny name would be poised at the brink of international fame.
Michael Buble: “I really didn’t expect this. I just didn’t expect this.”
He is half the age of most of the songs he sings, as unlike a rat-packer as the kid down the street. Or as any of the boys in the band.
Buble: “We’re jazz nerds.”
Keith Morrison: “Jazz nerds?”
Buble: “Jazz nerds. We’re guys that we went, you know, in high school, when everyone else was out and they were cool and partying, we were practicing.”
But the practice is paying off. Buble’s first big-time CD is selling so briskly here and overseas that he and his boys, mostly 20-somethings like him, are almost constantly on airplanes, shuttling to concert dates in Europe, Asia, North America.
Buble: “There’s times when I’ll look back and the guys will just have this grin on their face. And you can see them just thinking, ‘How great is our life?’”
And how unlikely. They are all gone, of course, Sinatra, Darin, Torme, Crosby. For all anybody could once have guessed, their music buried with them. Michael Buble grew up with it, listened to it all on his grandfather’s record player, during the long months his parents fished for salmon and herring off the coast of British Columbia. Grandfather Mitch was a plumber, his big Italian-Canadian family clustered around him in Vancouver’s eastern suburbs. Michael was around 14 when the most wonderful thing happened, wonderful as he remembers it.
Buble: “I really didn’t know that I could do this. I mean I sang like everyone else does, in the shower. But it wasn’t really until right at Christmas, actually. And my grandpa had this little — bought these tracks from Los Angeles, ‘You Sing the Hits of Frank Sinatra.’”
Morrison: “Like a karaoke machine.”
Buble: “A karaoke machine. Yeah.”
Not even his grandpa knew what he’d been hiding.
Grandpa Mitch: “And I said, my gosh, what the heck? Is this guy for real? I mean, where you been hiding that, you know?”
There were lessons then, of course, and all along, Mitch taught Michael one oldie after another.
Buble: “Grandpa always thought I had it; even when I really didn’t have it, he thought I had it. And even when Dateline called and said, ‘You know, we’re going to do a story on you’ and I called him and said, ‘Grandpa, Dateline is going to do a story, he said, ‘what took them so long?’” [Laughter]
Grandpa Mitch: “I always used to say he’s going to be the one to bring this music back.”
No small thing to imagine, mind you, and when Michael, still in his teens, asked to sing at local watering holes, they’d tell him to get lost. At least until Mitch the plumber got involved.
Buble: “He said, ‘Listen, I know you have this show coming up with this hotel.’ He said, ‘If you let my grandson up there... we’ll do a little business’, he said. And I think he gave him a new toilet or something like that.”
Morrison: “You mean he was doing plumbing in exchange for giving you a chance?”
Buble: “He did plumbing in exchange for him to give me a chance.”
Still, it didn’t amount to much, beyond supper clubs, buzzing with the sound of nobody listening.
Morrison: “You went through a period I’m sure where it just looked like, well, that was a nice fantasy but nothing’s going to happen’.”
Buble: “Yeah, absolutely. All people would say to me was you know, ‘Michael, you have a nice voice. But, you know, do something else, sing pop or something because you know that you’ll never get a record deal.’”
The music, they told him, was simply too old. He’d been at it for most of a decade, from the time he was 18 and still he wasn’t getting anywhere, still barely supporting himself. It was time for a painful conversation with his manager.
Buble: “I said, I think it’s time for us to cut our losses. We just didn’t get our break. She said, ‘Sweetheart’, she said, ‘give me one more year. This is going to be the year. It’s going to be the year.’”
And what a year it has been. Discouraged, beaten down, one night he gave a stranger in the audience a home-brewed CD of his music, told him to feel free to use it as a coaster. Turns out that fan was well-connected and put him in touch with a Hollywood music producer.
Now, Michael Buble sees his face staring back from a slick CD jewel case, and has hired his very own band, with whom he’s discovered, at sold-out venues worldwide, a bit of unexpected simpatico.
The audience is, to say the least, diverse. You’d expect couples of a certain age. But the crowds, as he tours the country, are often as young as he is.
Morrison: “You didn’t expect this kind of audience for your music, huh?”
Buble: “No. I mean —”
Morrison: “I mean here you are, 27 years old. You’re singing the songs of dead white guys, you know.”
Buble: “Dead white guys, yeah. Dead white guys and dead black guys, yeah.”
Morrison: “Okay, dead white and black guys.”
Buble: “That’s OK.”
Morrison: “And the stuff is 50 years old and more.”
Buble: “Exactly. You know for a long time, Keith, I thought that I was crazy. I remember thinking, am I the only one my age that loves this stuff? Maybe there’s just a wire that isn’t quite connecting in my brain but it comes down to the basics, that this is good music.”
Crazy? If he is, so are scads of fans. Just now, as we’re watching him, he’s getting ready for what may be the biggest concert date of his life — so far: a performance at the Hollywood Bowl.
Buble: “Yeah, I’m feeling a little nervous right now. You know, I just have to go out there and do my very best. You know, I sound...”
Morrison: “You know, you’re so nervous your hair is standing up.” [Laughter]
Buble: “Do you know how much stuff it takes to do this, too?”
Sax Player: “Lemme tell you, you can pretty much do anything to Michael except touch his hair. You could say anything on earth, offend him any way possible, but don’t touch a piece of his hair.”
Buble: “Oh, you guys.”
And now, ready or not, it’s time.
Buble: “That was scary. you go out there and your knees are shaking and you try to hold onto the microphone and not look like your hands are shaking. And at some point I just settle in and think to myself, how wonderful is this?”
Afterwards, there are CDs to sign, fans to earn, one at a time.
He goes home to Vancouver only occasionally now. To his old friends, to hockey, and to their way of making sure he keep his head on his shoulders. His grandfather tells him he should get a steady gig somewhere, less travel, and somewhere they could see him more. They miss the time together. But they say success hasn’t changed their “Mikey,” and hope it never will.
Buble: “The greatest part of the whole thing is that it’s not about me, it’s about my family and my friends and people that came to see me at the crappy hotels and the smoky bars that believed in me the whole time. Sometimes when I didn’t believe in myself.
And then he’s gone again, to some place where a hot young singing star can be cool, and talk about his grandpa, and sing songs that don’t sound old at all.
Close to a million copies of Michael Buble’s CD have sold worldwide. His first Christmas CD, “Let it Snow,” is in stores now.