Michael Bolton sensed the question coming from a mile away.
We were ending a portion of our phone interview dealing with his versions of the soul classics (Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay, Georgia on My Mind and When a Man Loves a Woman and whether he had any trepidation about recording such revered music.
Bolton’s reply was thoughtful and detailed. He described how adventurous new music begins by rediscovering pop’s past and how taking on such sacred ground songs wasn’t in any way inappropriate as long as proper respect and notice was paid to those who created the song in the first place.
“What you learn when you have a giant hit with a classic is that you’re bringing the song back to life,” said Bolton, who performs Tuesday at the EKU Center for the Arts. “How can that ever be a bad thing? Worse case scenario, you sing it, nobody likes it and nobody hears it. The best case scenario, people start talking about the song, who wrote it, who produced it and who gave it to us a gift.
“Think of the things that wouldn’t have happened – like, perhaps, The Beatles – if someone hadn’t been moved and inspired to embrace someone else’s work of art and say, ‘Here’s my interpretation. Hope you like it.’ And you just do it. One thing leads to another. As long as you’re respectful and mindful that there are people who are very connected to the original version, then you’re simply singing the praises of the artist and writer who first delivered that song.”
And Bolton should know. He turned all three soul staples to popular singles again between 1987 and 1991, interspersing them newly composed pop hits like Soul Provider, How Am I Supposed to Live Without You and Love is a Wonderful Thing.
But this wasn’t the question that Bolton knew was headed his way. Sensing our interview time was growing short, I wanted to make sure we could still talk about…
Yep. He knew it was coming, alright. How could he not? A video parody created last year by The Lonely Island, a hip-hop comedy trio featuring then-Saturday Night Live star Andy Samberg, Jack Sparrow was a hysterical clip featuring a straight-faced Bolton singing his heart out with the same soul scratched R&B tenor that colored his radio hits. The video was a bizarre, even nonsensical mash-up of party dudes clubbing at night with a parody that shot through Pirates of the Carribean, Forrest Gump, Erin Brockovich and Scarface.
The video debuted on SNL in May 2011 and became a viral sensation overnight. At present, it has received more than 94 million hits.
Bolton was game to poke fun at himself from the get-go, but he initially passed on the original obscenity-filled script The Lonely People gave him for the project.
“Their script was so raunchy at moments,” Bolton said. “So I told them that as funny as I thought it was, I just couldn’t do it. My fan base and the people that have been loyal to me for many years aren’t going to get some of this language. They’re not going to appreciate it. And they said, ‘We get that a lot. Give us some time to tweak it.’ I figured they were just saying that and that I wouldn’t hear from them again.
“Then I started getting emails from Andy Samberg saying, ‘I think we’ve got it.’ Eight months later, I’m in Atlanta and they’re calling me to sing the vocals. You could tell from the video footage they shot that they were being very ambitious. It took two 17-hour days to make, and those guys were funny as could be. So the next thing I know, I’m on the Saturday Night Live set. I find a little hiding place up in the studio and I watch it, and I hear people starting to laugh.
“At the after-party, John Mayer was telling me, ‘Michael, when this thing goes viral on Sunday, there are going to be people who don’t even know your music who are going to be in love with this film.’ The next morning, my oldest daughter said, ‘Dad, you’re not going to believe this.’ She monitored a million hits the first day. This was for a three-minute video.”
That brought to mind the line Bolton used earlier about recording his own versions of the vintage soul hits:
“One thing leads to another.”
“There is a whole audience for me now of 14 year old guys who are huge fans of our version of Jack Sparrow. I’m on people’s radar now just because I was open to doing something different.”
Michael Bolton performs at 8 p.m. Nov. 27 at the EKU Center for the Arts in Richmond. Tickets are $55-$70. Call (859) 622-7469 or go to www.ekucenter.com.