Jazz Vocalist Ron Boustead's Humor Shines On 'Unlikely Valentine'

Apr 22, 2017
Originally published on April 22, 2017 9:28 am

By day, Ron Boustead works as a mastering engineer: He makes the final masters from which records are duplicated. He once worked at a Hollywood company that handled artists like Prince, The Rolling Stones and Frank Sinatra. Now, he's got a record of his own, Unlikely Valentine, which he's been promoting locally in Southern California.

Like at the E Spot, a slightly-bigger-than-cozy supper club in Studio City. It serves good spaghetti and meatballs and — at least on the night Boustead and his band were onstage — hosts terrific music. The audience was full of jazz singers who loved his self-deprecating look at jazz in the song "I Won't Scat."

"Scat is when a singer — he's sort of emulating a saxophone or a trumpet and using wordless syllables," Boustead later explains.

But in the song, he refuses to do it, at least at first: "I won't scat / Tell you flat off the bat, I won't scat / Eat my hat, kiss a rat, but not that." The kicker comes at the end of the song, when he does end up scatting — and scatting well, at that.

Boustead is 66 years old and comes from Pittsburgh, Pa. He sings bebop, Latin jazz, waltzes and ballads, all with swing. At 16 he started performing and writing his own lyrics.

"[I was] a business administration major [in college], but I was always into language, for sure," he says.

After singing and playing bass in Cincinnati, Ohio, for a while, he drove to Los Angeles in a rented truck with no air conditioning — along with his wife, all their belongings and Lucy, their border collie — on July Fourth weekend, 1983. In LA, he learned audio mastering, studied new instruments and played local clubs — but the club date in the Valley was his first performance in five years.

Many of the songs on his new record are ones Sinatra would have sung, but Boustead's versions tend to be wittier and less romantic. Take "I Love My Wife" (which Sinatra did, in fact, sing).

"I had never heard the tune before. I didn't know it existed, but I was completely charmed by it," Boustead says. "I just thought it was funny and a little racy — and I really do love my wife, so it kind of hit home for me."

His wife is Ruth Rivin. They've been married for 35 years.

"We met in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a laundromat," Rivin says. "We struck up a conversation while we were waiting for our laundry. He was a musician, and I was a dancer at the time, and we had some things in common. And we exchanged phone numbers and the rest is history."

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

To music now, though - Ron Boustead. He's a mastering engineer. He makes the sound files from which recordings - maybe some in your collection - are duplicated. He worked at a Hollywood company that handled Prince, the Rolling Stones, Sinatra. Now he has made his own album, and NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg heard him promote it in Southern California.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for coming to E Spot Lounge. Please welcome to the stage Ron Boustead.

(APPLAUSE)

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: The E spot is a slightly-bigger-than-cozy supper club in Studio City - good spaghetti and meatballs and terrific music. The night Ron Boustead and his band were on stage, the audience was full of jazz singers who loved this tune - music by Bill Cantos, lyrics by Ron.

RON BOUSTEAD: This is a sort of self-deprecating look at jazz singing.

(LAUGHTER)

BOUSTEAD: It's called "I Won't Scat." (Singing) I won't scat. Tell you flat off the bat, I won't scat. Eat my hat, kiss a rat, but not that. It's not in my wheelhouse. I'm just not that cat. I won't scat.

STAMBERG: What is scat?

BOUSTEAD: Oh.

STAMBERG: I got Boustead into our Culver City studio a few days later to talk about this tune and others on his CD.

BOUSTEAD: Well, scat is when a singer - you're sort of emulating a saxophone or a trumpet and using wordless syllables.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T SCAT")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) I'll tenderly render the verses. Make sure that the chorus will soar. When it's time to blow through the changes, that's what the band is for.

That's what all the musicians like - that's the line they like the best.

STAMBERG: (Laughter) I bet they do.

BOUSTEAD: Yes.

STAMBERG: And then you do it at the end, and you do it very well.

BOUSTEAD: That's the humor.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I WON'T SCAT")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) I won't (vocalizing) I won't scant.

STAMBERG: Ron Boustead is 66. He could be Vin Diesel's uncle - shaved head, kind of beefy. And he swings with bebop, also Latin, waltzes, ballads.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) Let's go out for coffee.

STAMBERG: "Coffee," lyrics again, by Ron, music by Ken Kresge, is about a guy on his lunch hour too shy to approach a beautiful woman he sees, but not too shy to imagine it and the rest of their lives together.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COFFEE")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) If it came down in buckers, wash the city clean, made a river of the boulevard, well, we wouldn't care at all. If it turned into a squall, we'd be safe and warm inside our caffeinated storm. And so let's go out for coffee.

STAMBERG: It's a lovely wistful song. There's a lot of longing in it and very gentle. I can tell from your lyrics here that you are not a New Yorker.

BOUSTEAD: Why do you say that?

STAMBERG: Because a New Yorker would never say, let's go out for coffee. We say let's go for coffee.

BOUSTEAD: Oh.

STAMBERG: Of course, that would ruin your rhyme scheme and your beats, wouldn't it?

BOUSTEAD: There you go. See, when you're a lyricist, you have to listen to the music, too. You can't just be all literary.

STAMBERG: Boustead is from Pittsburgh. At 16, he started performing and writing lyrics. Were you an English major in college?

BOUSTEAD: I was a business administration major, but I was always into language for sure.

STAMBERG: His lyrics show it - caffeinated storm, eat my hat, kiss a rat. In his record's title number, "Unlikely Valentine," music by Bill Cunliffe, he rhymes escapade and dismayed and has this bizarre riff urging a playboy and his prey into the carnal unknown.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "UNLIKELY VALENTINE")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) You might as well go paint the town red like your beating heart, like your bloodshot drunken eyes, like a house of cards on fire, like a cherry on the vine, a sweet unlikely valentine.

STAMBERG: Ron started out as a singer - plays guitar, piano, bass - with a band in Cincinnati. After a while, he drove to L.A. in a rented truck with no air conditioning, plus his wife Ruth, all their belongings and Lucy, their border collie on July Fourth weekend, 1983. He played local clubs, learned new instruments, learned audio mastering - now the new CD and a club date in the valley.

BOUSTEAD: It was actually the first performance I'd had in five years.

STAMBERG: He may do more.

BOUSTEAD: It was fun. Many of the songs Ron Boustead does are ones Sinatra would have sung but wittier, less romantic. Some of the lyrics, not the ones he wrote, have real '50s takes on women - chicks with low cut blouses, shapely hips, et cetera., like this one - lyrics by Michael Stewart, music by Cy Coleman. Actually, Sinatra did sing it.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE MY WIFE")

FRANK SINATRA: (Singing) My thoughts may stray. My eyes may roam. The neighbor's grass may seem much greener than the grass right here at home.

STAMBERG: I like Boustead's version better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE MY WIFE")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) If pretty girls excite me, well, that's life. But just in case you couldn't guess or hadn't heard or didn't know, I love my wife. I love my wife.

I've never heard the tune before. I didn't know it existed, but I was completely charmed by it. I just thought it was funny and a little racy. And I really do love my wife, so it kind of hit home for me.

STAMBERG: And she's sitting in the control room behind you, and I'm going to go talk to her. Will you excuse me for a minute, please?

BOUSTEAD: OK.

STAMBERG: Thank you. Ruth, here I come (laughter). Well, I want to know how you two met.

RUTH RIVIN: We met in Cincinnati, Ohio, in a laundromat. We struck up a conversation while we were waiting for our laundry. He was a musician, and I was a dancer at the time. And we had some things in common. And we exchanged phone numbers, and the rest is history.

STAMBERG: Ruth Rivin married to Ron Boustead for 35 years. According to Ron, in the laundromat, Ruth asked for help folding her sheets - nice. And they have lived happily ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LOVE MY WIFE")

BOUSTEAD: (Singing) I love my wife.

STAMBERG: I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.