When you reflect upon the 70s sitcom Happy Days and you think of a smooth and polished swing and big band singer, the class-clownish character of Ralph Malph hardly comes to mind. Donny Most however is all that and a bag of Vegas Lounge chips—the high roller variety to be exact!
Coming off the heels of the success of his last Los Angeles appearance on December 30th at Rockwell Table and Stage, Most is ready to Jump Jive and Wail again at Catalina’s Jazz Club on Sunday March 1st at 7:30 pm!
Having referred to himself as Don in the years following Happy Days, these days he goes by Donny and delves into his roots in more ways than one! I caught up with Mr. Most at The Federal Bar and Nightclub. During the course of our roughly thirty minute conversation, his love for the American Songbook and high octane horns is evident. Somewhat soft spoken, yet in the most enthusiastic of ways, his humble, halcyon manner belies the great passion and enthusiasm beneath the surface in the form of hastening half steps and heartening harmonies!
So, when did you know you wanted to be a singer and what was your first experience with it?
Singing was actually my first love. Before I started acting…I was singing when I was 13-14 years old. I grew up in Brooklyn and I was going to a school in Manhattan…for singing and I got picked to be in this group–a professional troop of about seven of us…and we would sing in the night clubs up in the Catskill Mountains up in Upstate New York. So I was 14 years old performing the whole summer in these nightclub acts and I loved it! I love that kind of music; the music from the 20s and 30s and 40s and…I really got into…Bobby Darin, not his early rock n’ roll stuff but his Sinatra kind of stuff… I went to see him at the Copa Cabana when I was 18, but I took a turn towards acting when I was 16 and I pushed the music aside… Over the years I did some theatre that had some music involved but I wasn’t doing what I knew I would do [again] one day and…I don’t know why I waited as long as I did [but] about a year ago this month (February 2014) I decided…the music of that era–of the swing era and the great American Song book and the jazz standards–were just pulling at me…and I just had this very strong kind of compulsion, if you will, that I had to do it.
So how’d you get the ball rolling?
…I called up a guy I knew from the New York area who I had done some things with and I asked him to [be] my music director…and he was totally into it. So I started putting together the songs I wanted to do and working on the arrangements with him along with some other arrangers… And we just built the show. Then I met a guy who became my manager through…serendipitous circumstances, one thing led to another and then he got me the first booking at Vitello’s Jazz Club…in July of 2014. So I did the show and it went great and then I performed at Catalina’s Jazz Club in Hollywood. Then I got booked to do a great club in New York called 54 Below where we sold out and it went great and they asked me to come back! I’ve gone back again and now I’m doing Catalina’s again on March 1st!
Do you have guest stars lined up?
Sarah Spiegel’s the only one I’ve had so far… We just did a show at the end of December at Rockwell Table and Stage…and Sarah opened for me there. But for this [upcoming show] at Catalina’s besides Sarah, I’m going to have another vocalist, Becky Martin, and then Grammy Winning Trumpet player Willie Murillo [of The PHAT Band]… I think we’re going to have a pretty big band this time… [We’ll have] a 14 piece band. Normally I’ve been doing it with seven pieces…
When you’re doing…those arrangements; the Frank Sinatra, Bobby Darin, Nelson Biddle, Billy May…there’s nothing like having a big band to play those… So I’m real excited about having that kind of a band behind me… These are songs that have stood the test of time for sixty-seventy years for a reason and that’s why they call them ‘standards’ ‘cause they’re great…and people keep recording them…people like Harry Connick and Michael Buble and Steve Tyrell, even Rod Stewart has done several albums of these kinds of standards…and like I said, I really get into making sure the arrangements are right and the band is great and everything is just swinging.
So your musicianship extends far beyond singing. I mean you look at how everything is arranged and it’s very particular.
Yeah, I’m really into all that… I work with Willie Scoppettone my music director… We collaborate and we compare notes but a lot of times I’m saying, “I really want to do this!” …What’s fun is that I [recently] found some material that I think is great but it’s a lot more obscure…from almost the beginning of the Swing era… It’s like Jump Blues…’Jive and Jump’ they call it. It’s fun…and maybe nobody famous did it but they’re great!
And of course then you arrange it and then you make it your own.
Yeah and I’m definitely inspired by Bobby Darin and Frank Sinatra’s [arrangements]. At this point, I don’t want to take some of those incredible arrangements and totally rework them because they’re so great that I wanted to work within that framework… It was genius the way they did them. Those arrangements were masterpieces and I don’t want to mess with them too much.
So, do you primarily currently perform in L.A. and New York?
…Also in Chicago… I got up with The Chicago Jazz Orchestra at a club and did a couple of sets with them. I also performed during the Sundance Festival at one of the private events up there just a couple of weeks ago, and [I’ve performed] in Long Island New York, outside the city… I have something coming up in the summer in Asbury Park New Jersey and Milwaukee… There are [all kinds of] great venues, and I’d love to do more in New York [since that’s where I’m from].
Right! Like a home team advantage!
Yes, when I did 54 Below it was great ‘cause I had a lot of family and old friends from elementary school!
And 54 Below, just to clarify, is a club.
Yeah, they call it Broadway Supper Club. It’s a really cool club right in the Broadway district on 54th street right below where the old Studio 54 used to be.
Oh right! Okay!
And they get a lot of Broadway talent to come and do Cabaret there; a lot of well known Broadway performers and Cabaret performers or jazz type stuff. So I was really happy to get booked there and had a great show and we sold out so it was really cool…really cool.
That’s great! So are you planning on performing overseas or do you have any venues lined up there that we wouldn’t expect?
Not yet anything overseas but I’m hoping to. I would love to do that. There’ve been a lot of people writing to me…whether it be facebook or whatever, saying…“God we love this music, when are you going to come to the U.K.?” “When are you coming to Australia?” “When are you coming to France?” “When are you coming to Italy?” …So I’m hoping somehow that will happen.
And after Catalina’s what will you be doing in the near future and will you be collaborating with anyone new?
I have another show at the Rockwell coming up in April. [I’ll] probably bring guest artists up during that and since I’m doing an artist in residency I’ll be doing it once a month. So I’ll be able to bring up some friends and different people and I’m not sure who they’re going to be yet. There’ll be surprises.
So, since you had been recognized so many years as Ralph Malph from Happy Days, what’s people’s most common reaction when they hear you’re now a Swing musician?
People are usually pretty surprised because they don’t expect this from me. [They’ll say], “Hey we didn’t know you sang,”… Anson Williams who played Potsie did all the singing on the show… Coming off of Happy Days it was very difficult breaking away from that character even though I was nothing in real life like the character I played. Yet they just figured that’s who I was and that’s all I could be, and I went, “Wait a minute, isn’t that what actors do? You play a role?” And that’s not me.
Your character on Happy Days, now that you mention it, was really less of a smooth, suave lounge singer and more of a class clown really.
See but I was never a class clown. I had friends like that. I was always the straight man for them.
And now you’re coming into yourself more…
Yeah it’s never too late. I was telling my wife, Frank Lloyd Wright, his most prolific period of life of his work was from the time he was 70 to 90. That was his most prolific [period] so I said “Okay, I’ve got some time left.” (laughter all around)
…And Most’s next most prolific performance to date will be held at The Catalina Jazz Club on March 1st at 7:30 pm (doors open at 6 pm).
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