It's not at all unusual to find super-talented singers toiling away in the piano bars of New York City. But Scott Ailing holds a special place of honor among this elite group in that he is one of those rare performers who are able to adapt a truly "legit" voice to pop, jazz, and show music without sounding ridiculous. On the contrary, his gorgeous tone, phenomenal breath control, and spine-tingling high notes bring out undreamed of textures in standards as well as more esoteric fare. With his equally talented sidekick, Charlie Lindberg, at the piano, Scott holds people in thrall at Danny's Grand Sea Palace on Restaurant Row as he sings everything from John Bucchino's "Grateful" to ravishing duets (with Lindberg) from The Secret Garden to classics from the great American songbook. I recently spoke with him about where he's been and where he's going.
THEATERMANIA: How long have you been doing the piano bar thing?
SCOTT AILING: I started down at The Oaks about four years ago. I had been working retail on the Upper East Side and hating it. I was also singing classically, but the people at my day job were being real jerks about giving me time off to sing. They said, "You're not retail career-oriented." So I quit! I went down to the Village to find a job, and The Oaks hired me. I started working happy hours and singing down there. Some days, I'd have Benny Martini on piano, and other days I'd have Charlie Lindberg. The first time I worked with Charlie, he and I just hit it off musically.
TM: What happened next?
SCOTT: I came up to work at Danny's in midtown. Then Terry White opened Rosie Two, so I worked over there for a while. Charlie was there and we were having a good time--but then that place went down. Danny kept asking me to work more shifts. He said, "You and Charlie get along so well. Why don't you guys get together and do our Sunday nights?" We've been working Sundays from 8 to midnight ever since. Danny likes us and the regulars like us. So, now it's time for the next step.
TM: Which is?
SCOTT: I want to do a really wonderful recording. But that's just in the planning stages.
TM: According to your bio, you've only done one musical theater role: Cornelius in Hello, Dolly!
SCOTT: I'm not a musical theater person.
TM: Are you still studying classical music?
SCOTT: Not studying--performing. I haven't really studied since I was in college. I still accept classical gigs from time to time, but I'm not sure that's the kind of career I want to have. What I'm up to now is I'm just trying a little a bit of everything and seeing what I really love to do.
TM: It's so impressive to me that you can apply a legit voice to pop music and make it sound totally natural.
SCOTT: That's what a lot of people have told me, but I don't even think about it.
TM: Do you have a different sound when you're singing classical music?
SCOTT: I do. It's a lot different. I was a vocal performance major in college, at Bowling Green in Ohio. My teachers were all right, but I really learned the most about classical singing from my roommate, Jenny. She was the accompanist for the entire college, an amazing musician and an amazing vocal coach. Every time I had a concert coming up, I'd go to her for some pointers. But as for jazz, pop, and Broadway music, no one taught me to sing that stuff. I just picked it up.
TM: What are your future plans, aside from the album?
SCOTT: I don't know! I have to say, I have been extremely lucky so far. I've gotten to go to Amsterdam, Paris, Rome, Assisi, Croatia. Now I'm going to sing in Spain, with Charlie. I've been to 49 of the 50 states touring, and I've gotten to perform in the most amazing places--except for Carnegie Hall, but I'll get there someday. And I've somehow managed to eat! Right now, I'm just kind of taking everything as it comes. I did this really difficult German opera, Ariadne auf Naxos, here in the city a few months ago. The other opera singers told me, "Forget all this jazz singing! You should come and sing opera for the rest of your life. You could get rich beyond your dreams just from doing this one role; people will hire you to sing it all over the country." I thought, "Why would I want to do that?"
TM: I'm probably not the first person to suggest that you might want to consider changing your last name for professional purposes.
SCOTT: I'm working on it! At first, like everyone else, I thought: "I'm not going to change my name. Why should I?" Then more people began suggesting that I change my name. And then my manager said, "We should really change your name." So I said, "All right!" He came up with this two-page list of fake names and brought it into the bar, and everybody had to vote. They were ridiculous names like Ethel Vermin and Cheetah Riviera, but everybody's favorite was Dan Sfergramma ["dance for grandma"]. It's a difficult thing. I wouldn't want the name to sound made-up, like it was from a soap opera. Part of the difficulty is that I want to change my first name, too.
TM: What's wrong with "Scott?"
SCOTT: I never felt that I looked like or sounded like or acted like a "Scott." I always wanted to be named "David." I've thought about "David Scott," but that's kind of plain.
TM: How about "David Scotto?"
SCOTT: Yeah! From Jersey. "How you doin'? I'm gonna be singin' a little Sinatra for you tonight." I can just see it!
TM: How do you feel about the piano bar experience in general? I'm sure it's frustrating at times, but can it also be fulfilling?
SCOTT: Yes. I'll give you a for instance. There are times when it's really loud: There are dishes clanking all around you, the blender has been turned on because somebody in the back room ordered a frozen drink. And there are a million distractions for the audience as well, so you're constantly fighting to get their attention. For the most part, you're background music; you're there to entertain when they want to listen. But that's where my favorite thing about piano bar singing comes in. Sometimes, when it's really noisy, you start to sing a ballad that's going to end as a big showstopper and, all of a sudden, the room becomes silent. You get almost to the end of the song and you can practically hear a pin drop, because you've gotten every single person's attention. Then you bring it on home and they absolutely love it! That's a huge thrill.
TM: You haven't done a solo cabaret show in New York, have you?
SCOTT: No. I had one in the works at Judy*s, but circumstances led me to have to cancel it. The only way I'll do a show is if it's going to be a knockout--well written, well produced, well thought-out, and completely original. I'm not going to ask all of my friends and whoever else may be interested to come and see me do an entire show of the stuff I do on Sunday nights at Danny's. I won't do a show unless it's going to be fabulous.