By A.J. Wachtel
Many people just remember John Davidson for his work in various television roles, including sitcoms, game shows, variety shows, and talk shows. But he is also a very talented musician who still performs around the state charming audiences with his supreme singing and great guitar work. Here’s what the former star behind the center square on Hollywood Squares is up to today.
Noise: You are an American singer, actor and game show host. What’s similar in hosting a TV show in front of an audience and performing your music live and onstage?
Davidson: Hosting versus singing on stage? Well it’s all entertainment, storytelling. I started on Broadway after graduating college. then a manager helped me put together my Vegas shows and concerts. I love the freedom of doing my own show and singing with my guitar. I used to sing with full orchestras but I really love the intimacy and total control that I have now, alone on stage. Also, when you are a host, your job is really to make your guests shine. You are really a prop for them to score. I’d rather have it be all about me Ha!
Noise: You were born in Pittsburgh and now live in Western MA. How did you land here and what’s your opinion of the New England music scene?
Davidson: Although I was born in Pittsburgh, I lived in the Brockton, Mass. area from age two to 14. But I didn’t live here after 14 so I am not an expert on the New England music scene. I have noticed that folk music works well here. I like the New England people. Boston is so full of colleges, progressive thinkers. My brother graduated from Harvard. In the early ’60s he took me to Club 47 which became Passim. I saw my first theater when I was living in West Bridgewater – my mom took me into Boston.
Noise: Music has always been your passion – you play guitar and banjo and sing in English, French and Spanish. What’s it like singing songs in another language?
Davidson: My wife and I wanted to see what it would feel like to live outside the USA when I turned 60. We lived in Mexico for six years. I studied a lot of Spanish and learned quite a few love songs in Spanish. I love singing them. Of course the guitar is very popular in Spanish speaking countries so I like that.
Noise: What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been recognized?
Davidson: Most unusual recognition? Once, while I was driving across the U.S., my mini-van broke down on the highway near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Nothing around. I started walking through a pasture towards a farm house like a half a mile away. I saw a bull. I ran. There was a swampy area. Cow flaps everywhere. Finally I got to the farm house. There was a dog with one bad eye. The whole place was really a mess. I knocked on the door. Smelled. A lady came to the other side of the screen scratching with a cigarette falling out of her mouth. TV was on. A kid was screaming. She said, what do ya want. I said my car broke down can I use your phone to call AAA. She starred at me for a minute and then said, “You host the Hollywood Squares don’t you!? You’re John Davidson!” Oh, the power of that little box in the living room.
Noise: Who were your early music influences?
Davidson: I grew up listening to The Ozark Jubilee, Harry Belafonte, ’50s rock ’n’ roll, Mathis, doo wop.
Noise: You recently participated in Ellis Paul’s song writing retreat on Cape Cod. What did you do and what was the workshop like?
Davidson: I am a big fan of Ellis Paul. So I signed up to attend his work shop for songwriters. I met him backstage at Passim in Cambridge. He asked me to be one of the speakers at his workshop since I was going to be there anyway. I was thrilled. Unfortunately, it was not to be. On the first day of the seminar I got stuck driving from the Berkshires to Cape Cod on MA 90 for like six hours going only about 30 miles. There was a terrible accident. I got off and tried to go east on MA 20. It was also totally stopped. A parking lot. I would have hit Cape Cod traffic after that. Probably have missed the whole first day. So I called Ellis and cancelled. I was so disgusted and disappointed. He was great about it. I hope to be there next year. Ellis Paul is an amazing talent, a wonderful performer, and a gifted writer. Also a very nice man. I hope to spend a lot more time with him in the future.
Noise: Fact or fiction? Your father was the minister who married Dick Clark and Kari Clark?
Davidson: Yes, My father was a Baptist minister. He married Dick Clark and Kenny Rogers to their wives. He was a great man. I am not religious however. I have been openly secular for quite some time.
Noise: Your Broadway debut as an actor was in 1964’s Foxy with Burt Lahr (most famous for his role as the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz). Care to share a story about Burt?
Davidson: Yes, my first Broadway show was with Burt Lahr in Foxy. I was green just gotten to NYC. Mr. Lahr was really nice to me. He was not a happy man. Never seemed satisfied with his performance. A worrier. His comic timing was a thing to experience at every show.
Noise: You guest hosted The Johnny Carson Show 87 times. Did you get along with him personally and care to share a short story him?
Davidson: I admired Johnny Carson very much. such a gentle, shy man. He was very supportive of me and very nice with everyone, but a private man, you know. Great man. I miss Carson.
Noise: In Wikipedia, it says you were best known as a contestant on Hollywood Squares for your long winded bluffs. No one was more convincing at getting contestants to believe your (often ridiculous) answers to questions posed by Peter Marshall. Most times, Marshall could barely conceal a grin as you started in on some far fetched but plausible explanations for your answer often prefaced with something like, “I just read about that in the New England Journal of Medicine, it was a fascinating study and it said that…” You sold these preposterous stories with such sincerity that contestants were often duped more than once in the same show. Were these events scripted or did you just ad lib them whenever the mood struck you? Care to share a great memory of one of these situations?
Davidson: Before I hosted the Hollywood Squares, I guested a lot with Paul Lynde in the center square. When I hosted, my center square was the wonderful Joan Rivers. As a guest I used to pretend I knew everything about absolutely everything. I got this idea from working with Professor Irwin Corey, who went on and on with authority about nothing. It was fun. I was not a comedian so I figures this could be my way of scoring on the show. On Squares everyone is given a joke answer to a question they never hear until it is asked of them. I didn’t feel I could be funny that way so….
Noise: A friend told me he once saw you perform playing an acoustic guitar using an effect pedal that harmonized a female voice in the same pitch that you were singing in. You kept time with a tambourine on one foot and an electronic bass drum you triggered through a pedal with your heel. What’s the story behind this set up?
Davidson: Yes, I perform now as sort of a one-man-band. I sing and play guitar, but I have a tambourine on my left foot and a bass drum on my right heel. I sometimes use a harmonizer on my vocal mike so I can sing harmony with myself. Kind of cool. I recently did this at TCAN in Natick, MA.
Noise: Any advice to young musicians struggling to get their music heard in these tough times?
Davidson: I’m not big on advice. I’m still trying to figure it all out myself. But I know that nothing beats performing again and again anywhere, for anyone, street corners, friends, family. Sing at the drop of a hat, even if you have to drop the hat. You have to do it and do it and do it. And make sure you are telling stories and performing through your own eyes. You have to, just have to make the material come from you. Through you. You must take responsibility for the words. Doesn’t matter who wrote it, or where you heard it, make it your own. Make it yours. Then it will touch people in a personal way.