Legendary Singer Sally Stevens Shares her Experiences with Frank Sinatra, The Simpsons, and More in her New Book (Exclusive Interview)
We were lucky enough to get to chat with Sally Stevens, a singer, writer, and multi-talented lady who has worked with so many famous faces over the years. She recently released a memoir, detailing her experiences in Hollywood and beyond and we were able to ask her some questions about the new book and her life. Even if you’ve never heard of Sally, we guarantee you have heard her voice! Let’s dive right in.
What inspired you to write a book now?
Over the last 23 years, I’ve done the Iowa Summer Writers Festival workshops at the University of Iowa, diving into various genres – fiction, poetry, non-fiction, memoir… and often, when fellow writers there learned what my work had been over the last many years, they would say, “Oh you have to write a book!” I’d done a few chapters in memoir workshops along the way, but the pandemic was a wonderful time to get all the notes together and tighten up the writing. In addition – I discovered in my garage my date books from 1965 forward, and there was so much material to access, to remind me of early times and events. It helped me to really dive in and get the stories together.
What was the hardest thing to share?
I think the most difficult were putting the feelings “out there” that I went through as things started (inevitably!) to wind down. It’s always painful to see pictures posted on Facebook of projects for composers I used to work for – and I began to feel that. But when the pandemic hit of course, that work sort of screeched to a halt. It gave me a chance to let go of some of that sadness, and just be grateful for the unusually long run I’ve had. It was also hard to write about my feelings of having let my little girl down in the early days when work was SO busy, but so competitive that if you didn’t show up, they might plug someone in that they’d end up liking better, and you would lose that spot. I shared all the chapters about family with my brothers and sisters (mixed families/step/half-brothers and sisters, etc.) before I gave the final okay to the publishers because I didn’t want to hurt, or embarrass or offend anyone.
What were you most excited to share?
I loved sharing the fun stories, the happy memories – the great adventures around doing the Oscars as Choral Director for about 20 years, and working on the show prior to that as one of the singers. Also, because as “session singers,” whether as soloists, or ensemble singers, we literally never got screen credit – so it was fun sharing some of the solo vocals I did for films back in the late sixties/early seventies – Klute, Dirty Harry, Magnum Force, Butch Cassidy & The Sundance Kid, and The Fox – – many people remember those films still today, and it was truly special to have been a part of them.
What can you tell us about working with Elvis Presley?
I wish I could tell you more, but – in the very early years, I worked on one of his films as a singer for Carol Lombard (not the actress, a dear friend and session singer who did contracting in the early years), but I can’t tell you which film it was, and I don’t think Elvis was present for the pre-records.
I loved being re-connected when the 1968 “Comeback Special” was done, but we didn’t interact a lot with Elvis even on that – we did the pre-records for his backup vocals, but weren’t there when the special was filmed. He was there with us at Western Recorders for that pre-record session, and kindly posed for a picture with the four of us, singers BJ Baker, John Bahler, Bob Tebow and me.
What is your favorite project you’ve ever worked on?
It’s just impossible to pick one project – there have been so many amazing projects. I LOVED working with John Williams as his vocal contractor, doing the research to find him the right solo voice for a very emotional vocal cue in Amistad, just working with him, meeting with him to confer, etc. I LOVED doing the Oscars, I LOVED working with Burt Bacharach on Butch Cassidy, and later, traveling in concert with him doing solo work. AND some of the special “bucket list” projects were writing a lyric for Burt, writing the main title lyric for On Any Sunday for Dominic Frontiere, a film that has become iconic among the motorcycling community – AND writing a lyric for Dave Grusin, for the film Absence of Malice, which later was recorded by James Taylor, my forever music hero, in his first Christmas album. The song is “Who Comes This Night?” and I found out many years later that the reason I got to write that lyric for Dave was that the Bergmans (Alan and Marilyn) were out of town!
Have you ever taken something from a set? If not, what was your favorite set?
That’s a great question! I don’t remember ever doing that, but there were times when I should have! I haven’t done that much “on set” work, which usually references on-camera work. One set I worked on for three seasons was the Danny Kaye Variety TV Show, in the beginning years of my career. It was very fun to work with Danny, with Harvey Korman on camera, and with the many very famous stars who visited his show as guests.
ACTUALLY, I couldn’t resist taking home (removing from the parking structure wall) my parking place name placard for some of the Oscar years when I served as Choral Director (and was kindly given screen credit by the then-Executive Producer Michael Selegman). I have several of them around the house!
Who was your favorite artist to work with and why?
In the VERY early days, it was just thrilling working with Frank Sinatra – I was always such a fan, and he was a magical performer. I think my years with Burt Bacharach affected my life most, in terms of being a “favorite artist.” Recording with him, writing a lyric for him, singing his gorgeous songs “live” on stage all around the world… that was pretty special!
Who was the hardest person to work with and who was surprisingly easy to work with?
I wouldn’t want to say anything hurtful about any of the folks I was lucky enough to work with through the years. I think in the very early days, it was intimidating to work with the vocal contractors I didn’t know well – but they were not the “artists.” On an early Oscars show, I was hired to sing the harmony part with Barbra Streisand on a song she wrote the music for that had been nominated for Best Song. On the recording, she had sung a harmony part with herself, but she would be singing “live” on the show, so I was hired to sing that with her. At the orchestra run-through, I tried to stay off to the side, but eventually, she became aware that someone was to sing with her. She had a little chat with the music director, who had a little chat with the director of the show, and it was decided that I would NOT be singing with Barbra!! I did get to work on the show for other numbers as part of the choir, but – that’s about the only unhappy moment I remember.
Some of the wonderful film composers – John Williams, Alan Silvestri, Marc Shaiman, Burt of course, and more recently Tyler Bates… AND for 28 seasons of The Simpsons, composer Alf Clausen – and with Family Guy composer Walter Murphy – they are all wonderful folks who were so easy and fun to work with.
I see that you’re a writer and photographer too. Can you tell us a little more about those passions?
Yes, I have always loved writing. Since I was about 5, I’ve been writing poems and short stories! But when I had my 60th birthday, I gave myself the gift of starting those writing workshops every summer at the University of Iowa – AND I gave myself the gift of a Photography workshop in the Loire Valley. I continued photography workshops and really became fascinated with it. I have a good eye, but I’m terrible with the technical part of it. I’ve done workshops with Greg Gorman, an amazing photographer who did celebrity photos – you’ve seen his work on magazine covers and film graphics – and he helped me transition from Film to Digital photography. The most special project I think of the photography work I’ve done is the series of black & white portraits of Film Composers, as they conducted, or ran the session from the control booth, etc. I’ve had several exhibits of those photos, and some were included in Cite de la Musique, in Paris – in the celebration event for 100 years of film music.
I’ve had short stories, poems, and personal essays included in about 12 literary journals and anthologies, but I need to be more focused on submitting material. AND I love to do open mic readings and make people laugh, with some of the short humor in my “flash fiction” stories.
What would you consider your greatest accomplishment? You have done so many incredible things!
You are so kind – I’ve just been blessed with so many opportunities. I would say, I guess, that just being in the business as an active, working singer and vocal contractor for 60 years was pretty great! But getting the memoir together and published – that was truly a joy and a thrill. (AND of course, singing the main title on The Simpsons, which we did 33 years ago and is still playing!)
What do you like to do in your free time? Hobbies, charities you support, etc.
I was very involved for many years with my unions SAG and AFTRA, (now merged, becoming SAG-AFTRA). I served on the AFTRA Board for about 45 years, on the SAG Board for 18 years, and currently serve as a Trustee of the SAG AFTRA Health Fund and of the AFTRA Retirement Fund. That is all voluntary work, but I kind of became addicted to it. I also served as Chairman of the Singers Committee for many years, participated in negotiations, etc. I also served on the Board of Society of Singers, a charitable organization started back in the very early 1980s, that Ginny Mancini was very instrumental in establishing. We helped so many singers over the years, some whose names would surprise you – who had fallen on hard times. But the industry changed so dramatically over the years that it was not possible to continue raising the funds needed for the work of the organization, and they had to close their doors about 8 or 9 years ago. They did a fundraiser every year called The Ella Awards, which got them through their charity work and administration, but the major record labels and artists who had supported the event for so many years, sort of slipped away as the industry changed.
For fun, I do love theater, I love writing when inspired by some deep emotion or political angst, and I just enjoy time with friends and family. AND I have another book ready for publication – something I’ve been working on for decades, that I’m kind of excited about!