John Davidson, Singer-Actor-Host Extraordinaire-Episode #164

Jun 8, 2021 | 0 comments

John Davidson is one of the most extraordinarily gifted entertainers of this or any era. John’s probably best known for hosting the TV shows, The Hollywood Squares, That’s Incredible!, and as the guest host of The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson some 80 times, more than any other singer.  John has also hosted his own daytime talk show, many beauty pageants, the Tom Jones summer replacement series, as well as The Kraft Summer Music Hall with regular performers no less than George Carlin, Flip Wilson, and Richard Pryor.

As an actor, John has appeared in dozens of TV shows including The Streets of San Francisco, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. And he starred opposite Sally Field in the TV series The Girl With Something Extra. You’ll also know him from the Disney films: The Happiest Millionaire and The One And Only Genuine Original Family Band! He can also be seen in Airport 80, Edward Scissorhands, and The Squeeze.

But it was John’s performances in the major showrooms of Las Vegas that established him as one of America’s foremost entertainers. If you have the opportunity, you must see him live!

Over 50 years ago, John made his Broadway debut in Foxy, starring the legendary Burt Lahr. Later, John would star in State Fair, and win a Theater Guild Award for playing Curly in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma! As well, John played The Wizard in the Broadway musical Wicked.  He’s also toured the US in multiple Broadway musicals.

And he’s released 13 albums on the Columbia Records label.

John and his wife, Rhonda, created the geography card game, BORDERLINE USA. He’s also written a book and a play. And most recently, he’s been entertaining America as a troubadour/singer/songwriter/storyteller with his original songs, his jokes, his guitar, and his backup singers, The Inflatables!




Read the Podcast Transcript

Steve Cuden: On today’s Story Beat…

John Davidson: Any creator must trust that voice inside. Your first reaction when you come up with an idea for something is to say, oh, that couldn’t be any good. I mean, I just thought of that. That’s not in any books at that. I didn’t see it. That’s my idea. Who am I? I’m nothing. I think every artist has to trust that thing. Yes, if it’s wrong, then you’ll learn. But you have to listen to that inner voice and go with it.

Narrator: This is Story Beat with Steve Cuden, a podcast for the creative mind. Story Beat explores how masters of creativity develop and produce brilliant works that people everywhere love and admire. So join us as we discover how talented creators find success in the worlds of imagination and entertainment. Here now is your host, Steve Cuden.

Steve Cuden: Thanks for joining us on Story Beat. We’re coming to you from the Steel City, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Well, if you’re like me, you’re already a fan of my guest today, John Davidson, who’s one of the most extraordinarily gifted entertainers of this or any era. John’s probably best known for hosting the TV shows, the Hollywood Squares, That’s Incredible and as the guest host of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson some 80 times more than any other singer. John has also hosted his own daytime talk show, many beauty pageants, the Tom Jones Summer Replacement series, as well as the Craft Summer Music Hall with regular performers no less than George Carlin, Flip Wilson and Richard Pryor. As an actor, John has appeared in dozens of TV shows, including the Streets of San Francisco, Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. He starred opposite Sally Field in the TV series, the Girl with Something Extra. You’ll also know him from the Disney Films, the Happiest Millionaire, and the One and Only Genuine Original Family Band. He can also be seen in Airport 80, Edward Scissorhands, and The Squeeze. But it was John’s performances in the major showrooms of Las Vegas that established him as one of America’s foremost entertainers. If you have the opportunity, you must see him live. Over 50 years ago, John made his Broadway debut in Foxy starring the legendary Bert Lahr. Later, John would star in State Fair and win a Theater Guild award for playing Curly in the Broadway revival of Oklahoma as well. John played the Wizard in the Broadway musical Wicked. He’s also toured the US in multiple Broadway musicals, and he’s released 13 albums on the Columbia Records label.

John and his wife Rhonda created the geography card game Borderline USA. He’s also written a book and a play, and most recently he’s been entertaining America as a troubadour singer, songwriter, storyteller with his original songs, his jokes, his guitar, and his backup singers, the Inflatables. We get to hear more about that soon. For more, please visit johndavidson.com. So for all those reasons and many more, I’m deeply honored and greatly delighted to have as my guest on Story Beat today, the exceptional comedian, author, actor, musician, TV host, singer and entertainer, the great John Davidson to Story Beat today. John, welcome to the show.

John Davidson: Oh, Steve, I can’t stand it. That’s the best introduction I’ve ever had. I swear. It’s 55 years in show biz to get an introduction like that. Thank you.

Steve Cuden: Wow. I’m going into the introduction Hall of Fame. That’s what’s happening,

John Davidson: It’s all true. It’s just a little glorified. I mean, I’m just a guy just trying to save his butt and I’m thankful to have had so many good jobs.

Steve Cuden: You are more than just a guy. I’ve been following your career for a very long time and it’s exceptional. What you’ve done is really, truly exceptional. I do want to go back to your roots. You grew up where I am. You’re not here right now. But you grew up where I am at the moment, which is in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, or you were born here at least. Yes?

John Davidson: Yeah. That’s what it says in my passport, Mercy Hospital.

Steve Cuden: Oh, that’s where I was born.

John Davidson: Oh, good.

Steve Cuden: Same hospital.

John Davidson: Maybe we had the same nurse. I doubt it was the same year. But it’s because my folks lived in Warren, PA up to the north. We came into Pittsburgh where my grandmother lived so that my mother could have her mother’s help in having this baby seven days after Pearl Harbor. This is December 13th, 1941. Of course the war had just started and here came this little dimpled overly cute baby. I think everybody was thinking about the war. I kind of snuck in or snuck out, I guess. But yeah, I consider my roots to be Pittsburgh. Then we would go back to Pittsburgh a lot over the years to visit my grandmother. In those days, Pittsburgh was a pretty dirty city.

Steve Cuden: Oh, filthy, filthy.

John Davidson: Remember, from the coal.

Steve Cuden: When I was growing up here, because I grew up here, but I spent 40 years away from here. But when I was growing up, it was the end of the steel industry, and it was filthy here. You could cut the air with a knife.

John Davidson: I think I said coal. I guess it was steel, of course. But then later I had some of my best shows out at the Holiday House in Monroeville. All of us. Tony Orlando and Ben Vereen, Bobby Vinton. We would all play Holiday House and then it mysteriously burned down one night.

Steve Cuden: It did. Mysteriously is correct. I’m not going to get too far off track here, but I am still remembering I saw the Three Stooges at the Holiday Hhouse in 1960. Can you believe that? The Three Stooges.

John Davidson: The Three Stooges. Was that Tony Orlando, Engelbert Humperdinck, and John Davidson?

Steve Cuden: Exactly. So, all right. I’m just curious. You didn’t actually go to school and grow up here. Correct? You grew up elsewhere?

John Davidson: No. Yeah. We were living a war on that. I lived with my grandmother there, my mother and I. Because my dad went away to war. My dad was in World War II. So we would stay with my grandmother a lot. My uncle and cousins lived across the street. I forgot what street it was on or what area. Probably changed a lot. But I have a very fond memory of it. Going back to Pittsburgh, people used to say John, they would say, hi, John. So that was the Pittsburgh accent. I love that Western Pennsylvania accent. My family kept moving and we wound up when I was in high school in White Plains, New York, suburb of New York. I graduated from there and then went to Denison University in Grandville, Ohio. So that was still the Midwest and not far from Pittsburgh.

Steve Cuden: You were a theater major there? Yes?

John Davidson: I was a philosophy major for my sophomore year and the beginning of my junior, yeah, I was. Then I met theater people and really got excited about the students that were theatrical and into the theater.

Steve Cuden: I’m always curious. People that have had success in the business. How important was schooling, do you think, to your career? Did it give you a foundation?

John Davidson: I think it gives a foundation in being a person and being a father and being a better husband and being more curious about life. You learn more about what the options are. Even though you don’t learn everything, you learn how to learn. We had a great library at Denison. That is where I got excited about reading because I was not a reader until after college. But my grades weren’t that good. My mother had gone to Denison, so she called and kind of got me in. But I think if I hadn’t been a theater arts major, I probably wouldn’t have graduated. My grades, even at Denison, were not that good. I haven’t been the best student. I loved to go down and sing in the music department rehearsal rooms.

I just loved singing. I started using my guitar that I had learned how to play in high school, sang with another guy named Dusty Rhodes, Dwayne Rhodes. We had a kind of a folk duo. He played a small guitar, and I had a regular size. We were not Everly Brothers, but we did harmonies and stuff and sang at some events. Even though I love theater my favorite thing I must say is always singing with my guitar. I’ve come full circle. That’s what I’m doing now. I went from Denison to Broadway and got lucky right off the bat in New York. I stuck out like a sore thumb because I was from the Midwest and very clean cut.

Steve Cuden: So when did you start singing? Did you sing from being a little boy?

John Davidson: I was a very shy kid. My mother had me sing. Probably the first time I sang was at a church in Maine. I sang the Lord’s Prayer. Sing the glory, the glory, forever. My voice cracked on the last note. Oh, I’ll never forget it. Our father who is in heaven. So singing in church was my first time. Both my parents were ordained ministers. I’m not religious at all, but I think people assumed that I was more religious than I was. But I was a preacher’s kid. So singing in church was probably my first time singing. My mother sang. My dad was not theatrical at all except being a preacher. But it was my mother who was the great storyteller. I think she got me into voice lessons in high school. So, yeah, I studied a little voice and then of course, studied voice at Denison. But then my really great teachers were in New York City.

Steve Cuden: You have and always have had a very natural fluid ability to be in front of a crowd. You’re just easy, is what I would say about you. You’re just a natural in front of a crowd. Did you get that from your mom?

John Davidson: Yeah. At an early age. Because I was a preacher’s kid, I was put on display all through high school. So there’d be a lot of get togethers in our home. I was on a parade. I was paraded out as this wholesome and clean kid and Mr. Perfect. Gee, I wish my son were like you and all that. So I mean, yeah. I was put on parade in a minister’s home all through high school. So I grew up probably a little bit like the Osmonds in that I was having to deal with adults all through my teenage years.

Steve Cuden: Well, you’ve always had what one would call a wholesome image. It’s not a weird quirky or offbeat image. It’s always been kind of wholesome. I think that comes from your Midwest roots as well.

John Davidson: Yeah. I think I’m not as wholesome as people think. But that’s okay. Because I’ve looked the way I look.

Steve Cuden: Which is a good-looking guy. Yeah.

John Davidson: Well, open faced. I don’t think there’s any mystery about me. I haven’t shown my dark side. Of course, I can be many things. But the side that I’ve played on is a smiling, happy go lucky guy. Those are the parts that came my way, and that’s how people perceived me. I mean, I don’t look like Al Pacino or Robert De Niro. So people saw me as a guy who was trouble free, who probably always should play parts where the guy gets the girl in the end. So that’s how my career kind of developed and I used that. We all use our looks too. I think, the way you are perceived. I played on that and was able to get jobs because of that. I barely very rarely rocked the boat because I wasn’t offered offbeat parts of drug dealers or drug users.

Steve Cuden: Right. So you offered the clean parts. Was that something that you then exploited and developed on? In other words, did you actually push that as something that was your career? Or did that get pushed on you?

John Davidson: Well, I didn’t have to push it. It was just there. That’s what seemed to work. I learned early on that when I choose songs that are passionate, I’m going to love you till the stars fall down. I’m going to climb that mountain. I’m going to be a winner. That’s what I enjoyed doing because that’s what people enjoyed me doing. Tony Bennett was better at singing crying in your beer songs, like Who Can I Turn to When Nobody Needs Me. I didn’t feel right singing those songs where the guy was a loser. So most of my material, especially in the early stage, was very positive. I find that I can move people. I can touch people more if I’m positive, even if it’s a sad song. So I guess that’s limiting.

But every career is limited in some way, and it’s been great. But I have used that in my career. My look. My approach. My conservative family background. It wasn’t until I started meeting theater people that I discovered that was a whole other world out there. That’s what attracts me to the theater because you meet all different types of people.

Steve Cuden: Sure. All of the time that I’ve known you, which is a good part of my life, from watching you on TV and so on, I’ve always admired your singing voice, which is exquisite. I mean, you have a beautiful singing voice. Did you know early on that you were a good singer? Did you know when you were in college at that point that you were good at it?

John Davidson: No because I wasn’t. I’ve studied breathing a lot, and I think it’s my Broadway roots that have kept my voice. I’m singing now in my show as well as I’ve ever sung. Because of breathing and because of having that Broadway background, I’ve experimented with other types of sounds. A little gravelly or a little more edgy or whatever. But I keep coming back to that to trying to make as nice a sound as possible and be a singer. Don’t be a screamer or a shouter. I can identify with a guy like Tom Jones, for example. Tom Jones says he stood out in the sixties with all these other rockers because even though he had soul, Tom Jones was a singer. Always has been. Absolutely, he’s still singing great today.

Well, I think it’s amazing that Tom Jones and Engelberg were able to have hit records and sing well during a time in the sixties when so many rockers were having hit records by not really thinking about singing. They were just yelling and doing that. So I’ve been more of that, but I haven’t spent enough time in the recording studio. I’ve never worked on records enough. Yeah. I made 12 albums and they’re pretty. I’m proud of them. But I’ve never had that one hit record, I think because I’m not a song stylist. I’m a song interpreter, but I’ve never had a unique sound which comes, I think. I don’t know.

Steve Cuden: For the listeners that don’t know. What is the difference between a stylist and an interpreter? What are those differences?

John Davidson: Thank you, Steve. That’s a good question. A stylist is someone who, because of some quirk or thing in his voice, or the way his sinuses are placed or the shape of his mouth or the size of his tongue.

Steve Cuden: Sinatra is a stylist.

John Davidson: Well, Sinatra is both.

Steve Cuden: He’s a great interpreter of lyric. There’s no question about that. But his is a distinct style that’s all his. Nobody else does Sinatra, am I right?

John Davidson: Right. Well, people try to, but yeah. You’re right. Of course, the progression is Jolson, Bing Crosby, Sinatra in American pop singers. Al Jolson was our first pop singer and then Bing Crosby, because of the microphone started crooning. So that was the next stage. So everybody tried to be like, blah, blah, blah, blah, boom like, Bing Crosby. Then Sinatra said, no, you’ve got to speak the words just as you speak, but sustain them so that you hold words longer, but you speak the words. Right on the front of your face. That’s Sinatra. You add Brooklyn to that, and it helps.

Steve Cuden: But it does.

John Davidson: But I was trained in college to do musicals, to be curly in Oklahoma, to be Don Quixote in Man of Lamancha, to be Billy Bigelow in Carousel. So I never thought about how would John Davidson sing? What is my style? My style was whatever the Broadway show required.

Steve Cuden: I see.

John Davidson: So I don’t think I have a unique sound. I think I’m more of an interpreter of material.

Steve Cuden: Oh. May I beg to differ in this way. If I heard a song that you were singing, I’d know it was you.

John Davidson: I don’t think so.

Steve Cuden: You think you’re just like everybody else? Is that what you’re saying? You’re just in the middle of the road?

John Davidson: No, I’m a guy who tries to support the sound to try to sing from his diaphragm and open his mouth. I try to sing easily and not to squeeze it out. I try to free up my voice so it’s usable to play any emotion or any story that I’m telling.

Steve Cuden: That’s really key, isn’t it? You are able to move in different directions. It isn’t one thing.

John Davidson: That’s right. But if I just sung one way, I might have had a hit record.

Steve Cuden: Is that a regret? Do you regret that?

John Davidson: A little. Yeah. I think that’s the one area of my career where I should have worked hard. I mean, Engelberg has Please Release Me. Tom Jones has, It’s Not Unusual and Delilah. Tony Orlando has Tie a Yellow Ribbon. That just came out of them. I was too busy trying to learn how to sing a perfect tone. A generically perfect thing instead of having a style. I should have spent hours in the studio saying, now what? Of all the many sounds that I can make, which one matches this look, is John Davison? I never worked on that.

Steve Cuden: Alright. When you have gone into the studio, I assume you were involved in this selection of the songs that you recorded.

John Davidson: No. Other people.

Steve Cuden: Other people picked them for you.

John Davidson: Yes.

Steve Cuden: Interesting. So you didn’t have a choice in, well, I like this song versus that song. You just sang what you were told to sing.

John Davidson: I had a little choice, but I started off with Columbia Records. Columbia, their theory was, here’s John Davidson singing the hits of 72. I don’t know why. They did it with Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis and Percy Faith and Gullet. But I guess they have their individual sounds. I see what you mean. Yeah. I guess I sound like John Davidson. But the Columbia Records said, these are the hits of this year. We want you to sing the hits. So I did all covers of other people’s hits, and I very rarely got a new song. I went into the studio and said, now how would John Davidson do this? I was singing the songs as well as I could sing them. Do you know what I mean? It’s a different approach to a career.

Steve Cuden: Well, sure. If you’re singing mostly or all covers, it’s pretty hard to then have a hit with a cover. Although that happens, but it’s rarer than if you have an original piece. Well, when you do your act now, or when you’ve done it in Vegas, did you select the programming of the songs? Was it you?

John Davidson: Yes. Oh yeah. By that time, I began to realize that this is the type of material I want to do, and I began writing songs. I’ve now written 20-25 songs and I use a lot of them in my live show. More and more as I got up into my thirties, I began to discover myself, and discover what sort of stories I wanted to tell. I think that’s when I really started being a better storyteller, better interpreter. Those were the Vegas years where in my twenties, I was a Broadway guy, and then in the thirties I played Las Vegas a lot and had the records and the television. So I began to sort of make my own way.

Steve Cuden: You were interpreting at that point yourself rather than other people.

John Davidson: Yeah.

Steve Cuden: It probably felt even more natural to you at that point.

John Davidson: Yeah. But I wonder why someone would buy a Kenny Rogers song sung by John Davidson his way. Why not hear Kenny Rogers do it?

Steve Cuden: Well, yeah, of course. Of course. That makes sense.

John Davidson: Looking back, it is outrageous. But that’s the way my career went. When I would guest host The Tonight Show, I would come out and sing two songs instead of doing the monologue, and I would sing other people’s records. My theory was people want to hear the hits. They want to hear the big show. I took over from Mike Douglas, the daytime, so I had that for two years. I would do at least a couple of the hits of the day my way. In Vegas, by and large, the crowd back then wanted to hear the hits of the day, and I didn’t have any. So I did everybody else’s big record. Then I began to develop my relationship with the audience and really had a very good act that I think made people come back and see me because I became an entertainer. I consider myself a singing entertainer.

Steve Cuden: I think that’s as accurate as it gets. That’s dead on. Okay, so I ask lots of guests this question, which is, in your point of view, what makes a good song good? What does this song have that appeals to you, and that you say, okay, this is something that I can sing, want to sing and represents my feelings and who I am?

John Davidson: I think art in general is not just in the creation, it’s in the reception. Art has to be received, appreciated, and art has to move somebody who hears it or sees it. If it doesn’t do that, then the artist is just playing with himself and it’s not enough. It’s just not enough for me. There are some paintings where I think the guy’s just being self-indulgent. So let him go do that in a closet. I like moving people to laughter, inspiration, tears and passion. I like to have someone hear me and have an epiphany. Have a wow moment and say, oh, I never heard that put quite that way. It has to touch people. I’ve always said, especially my opening number in any performance must have the word you in it. If I come out and it just has I in it… I’ve got rhythm, I’ve got music, whatever. I want the performer to touch me. Yes, I want the performer to say what he wants to say and to express himself. But it has to touch my life, the way I feel, the problems I’m having, the challenges I’m having, the joy that I’m feeling. That has to come through otherwise, in my mind, art is nothing.

Steve Cuden: So the songs that you select are very much rooted in passion, in feelings and guts. Not in intellect of any kind. I’ve taught my students for a long time. We’re not in the intellectual business. We’re not in the academic business. We’re in the passion business. That’s what I think you’re saying. Am I right?

John Davidson: I think so. I think so. There are sweet songs that I have done that have no passion. I stopped doing it. Why? They’re just a pretty thing.

Steve Cuden: Were they a grind for you to sing?

John Davidson: No, because there are other things you can work on singing easily and beautifully and to sing as pure as you can and make a nice vocal sound and work on breathing to try to hold the phrase as long as necessary, or as long as you want.

Steve Cuden: What would you say are the most important things you’ve learned from your years of performing live in front of audiences? What would you say are the fundamental lessons that you’ve learned over time?

John Davidson: Well, Sammy Davis says in his book, it doesn’t matter what you’re singing if they don’t care. So at the age of three, I think Sammy Davis started realizing that you have to give them a reason to care about you and to care about what you’re singing. So you do it in the setup. You do it in the way you perform it. You do it in looking them in the eye. You’re always singing to one person. Don’t sing to a thousand people. You sing to one person.

Steve Cuden: Great lesson. Same thing with writing. You want to write to a person or maybe a small group of people. But always to one thing is what you want to write to not to try to write to millions.

John Davidson: Yeah, sure. You’ve got to move organs. A guy named John Stewart, who was one of the Kingston Trio for a while. He wrote many songs. John Stewart came to my show. I was playing the Fairmont Hotel in San Francisco. He said, yeah, it’s nice, but you’re not moving organs.

Steve Cuden: That’s a great phrase. If it’s not punching you in the gut, somehow it’s not doing it. So, I’m curious, when you’re preparing for a show, a gig, what do you do? Do you have a ritual that you go through in the days prior to a performance or series of performances? Do you work on your breathing more? What is it you work on?

John Davidson: Well, of course, your whole body has to be ready to sing. You’ve got to try to stay in shape. As I get older, it gets harder, but you’ve got to. Your whole body has to ring. Your tool is your body. So it means don’t drink too much, don’t eat too much, get enough sleep, drink a lot of water, all that stuff. I think a big factor is you can never know the material too well. Make sure that you know that material so well, that it just is second nature to you. I have had times when I just didn’t know the stuff well enough, and I think a lot of performers need to make sure of that… Someone once said in order to learn how to do something, you’ve got to do it 10,000 times. I’m not sure.

Steve Cuden: You have a marvelous clip that you have on your website from when you went up on lyrics on the Tonight Show. You handled it extremely well. Of course, Johnny zings you at the very end of it. But was that a panic moment for you? Or how did you handle it where you just looked like it was yeah, I’ve screwed it up and we’re just going to go on. You make it look so easy. That’s what I’m marveling at.

John Davidson: It was a musical version of Rudyard Kipling’s If. If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you. I had done that as the closer in my show for five or six years. At that moment, I was thinking about having to go over and talk to Johnny on the couch after I sang. I lost my concentration in the song because I knew it too well. I got sloppy. I was not focused. I was not thinking enough about the material. The material will save you. Anybody says, oh, I get so nervous in front of a crowd or in front of a board meeting or whenever I have to get up and speak.

Get into the material. If you get into that material, that’s what you should be thinking. Don’t think about anything else but what you’re trying to communicate. You will not have any trouble. That night I was not thinking about Rudyard Kipling’s If. I was thinking about my interview with Johnny, which was to come. It was a train wreck, but I saved it.

Steve Cuden: You did. You saved it greatly.

John Davidson: Somebody said to me once that I’m at my best when things don’t go perfectly. I had a manager once say, oh, that was a perfect show, but we would’ve cared more if you’d screwed up.

Steve Cuden: Well, Carson was famous for having his best monologues when the jokes were bombing and how he would play off the bomb. That’s sort of what you’re talking about. The same thing. But you didn’t bomb. You just went up on lyrics and started over. Many people would’ve collapsed and folded at that moment and been in terror. But you looked like we were having a good time anyway. Were you conscious of that?

John Davidson: It’s a good point. Part of it was that Johnny really liked me. I felt that. I felt his support. I knew he was with me. Fred Dec Cordova, the producer, was very supportive. I knew I was among friends and that this happens to everybody. I don’t know. My way when I get in trouble is to start smiling which is just such a cop out. If you see me smiling a lot—

Steve Cuden: We’d rather see someone like you smiling than frowning or getting upset. So I think you’re doing the right thing. It seems to me that it’s just in your nature. Were you always that way? Did you start out, you were always a happy-go-lucky person? Or is this something that you consciously put on?

John Davidson: I don’t know. When I get in trouble, I start laughing because it’s just so… I don’t know. Again, I was very shy. It was being in the theater playing the role of the song, or the role of the part in the musical or the play that helped me to not be shy. I guess my self-esteem may seem like it’s enough, but I often don’t have enough self-esteem. So I think of John Davidson as a role, and I actually made it. When I first started doing this in the mid-sixties, I made a list of the things that John Davidson was as a separate person. Because when I did those things, I was okay, and people would want to see me. But why should they see an ass who’s jealous, petty, mad, petulant, whatever.

Steve Cuden: It worked pretty well for Don Rickles, but that was his specific act, wasn’t it?

John Davidson: That’s true. That was an act. He was the sweetest guy. Yep.

Steve Cuden: If you watched him for any length of time, you knew that he was actually a really sweet guy. But that was the act. So I’m fascinated by the fact that you created a character named John Davidson. In life, you just seemed that way. I don’t think you can get up on stage and do as many hostings as you did and fake who your personality is. I think that comes through.

John Davidson: It’s not fake. It’s just that we all are many things. We all are, well, many different things. You just choose from those things what you’re going to use. This is true if you’re an IBM executive or a talk show host as you are. You’re not revealing to us all the things that Steve is. You’re picking and choosing.

Steve Cuden: God help us if I did.

John Davidson: Right. We all do that. Cheerleaders do that. When they’re bouncing their pompoms, that isn’t what they’re like all the time. So we all do that to tell stories and to relate to whoever wants to hear us.

Steve Cuden: Well, you’ve clearly worked with many of the giants of the business. I assume that you learned some of that from them as well. Various greats of the day. Johnny for one, the Richard Pryors and so on. There is something about how they approached the business so that the audience respected them or liked them or laughed at them how they wanted. Yeah?

John Davidson: Oh yeah. I am a stealer. I’ve stolen not just lines, although I have stolen some jokes from people. But I steal attitudes and audience relationships and points of view from most everyone I’ve ever worked with. When I started hosting the Hollywood Squares, I was doing Peter Marshall, but I don’t do impressions well, so nobody knew it. When I did The Music Man, I was doing Robert Preston. Then gradually, when I started hosting The Tonight Show, I was trying to fill Johnny’s shoes and taking on attitudes that he did. You begin to realize, of course, that you have to buy your own shoes. You have to get your own shoes. I could go down the list.

Steve Cuden: What’s the greatest lesson you think you learned from any really successful, famous person that you’ve worked with? Because you’ve worked with a ton of them. Would you say there’s one that stands out as that’s the real lesson of how it all works.

John Davidson: I don’t know, Steve. What is the one thing?

Steve Cuden: It could be more than one. I’m just curious if there’s something that stands out for you.

John Davidson: I think to have love and compassion in everything you do, even when you’re doing a joke that is somewhat unkind, there’s got to be a kindness to it. Betty White, she had a thing underneath that smile and that sweet thing. Betty White had that twinkle in her eye.

Steve Cuden: Oh, yes.

John Davidson: It was a little dirty, a little naughty. But through it was that great love that came through.

Steve Cuden: She plays very well against what is perceived as her sweetness.

John Davidson: Exactly.

Steve Cuden: That works just superior when she does it. Alright. We’ve talked a little bit about hosting. Was being a host something you had thought about as you were coming up in the business, or did it just sort of happen for you?

John Davidson: Well, I started as wanting to be a Broadway leading man. In my first Broadway show, a guy named Bob Banner, the television producer, who’s gone now. He had discovered Carol Burnett five years before and put her on the Gary Moore show and then the Entertainers, and he brought me on the Entertainers. He wanted to develop a television host who could do it all. Who was a singer, actor, comedian, a little bit of dance and do a Las Vegas acting and be a total performer, not just a recording star. So we didn’t work enough on recording. He said to me I don’t want you to be just a spear. I want you to be a pitchfork. He said, I want you to be a Swiss Army knife instead of just a blade. So we worked on all. He said, this is what the greats have done. This is what the Bob Hopes and Sinatra and the Lucille Balls, and the Carol Burnetts. I could go down the list. He was referring to older performers.

So he helped me find who John Davidson is and how I would be as a host. So he started honing me as a variety show host. I remember saying to him, no, I just want to play Curly in Oklahoma. Then I want to play Matt, the boy in the Fantastics, and eventually I want to play El Gallo, the narrator in the Fantastics. Then I want to play Billy Bigelow in Carousel. But he said, no, you’ve got to figure out who John Davidson is and play that character. So that’s when I began making lists of who John Davison is and making those choices. That’s different from the career of, let’s take a Karen Carpenter. Karen Carpenter did one thing.

Steve Cuden: Brilliantly.

John Davidson: Brilliantly. Tony Bennett did one thing. Johnny Mathis makes an incredible sound. He doesn’t try to tap dance. He doesn’t try to be a Shakespearean actor. He makes that sound as Tony Bennett does. So I’ve always tried to be a Swiss Army knife. So it’s gotten watered down maybe, and it’s gotten confused. But that’s my career. That’s the difference of what a John Davidson is as opposed to those artists.

Steve Cuden: So in a sense, that notion of Swiss Army knife that was contrived by Bob Banner to fit you into that mold.

John Davidson: Definitely. He pulled me away from just trying to be a leading man on Broadway.

Steve Cuden: Aside from sitting down and making a list of who John Davidson is or would be, what did he develop with you that you now needed to have in your arsenal to be a good host? Was it to develop your comedy chops so that you could operate under fire, under stress when things weren’t going well?

John Davidson: We worked on telling jokes. Yeah. We worked on comedy material. Yeah. He had comedy material written for me. He would hire people and then advance me money and then I’d pay him back. He taught me to study the comedians that were opening for me. Jay Leno used to open for me in Vegas and Reno. He taught me how to study, not to steal those jokes from Norm Crosby or Kip Addotta or other people from Joan Rivers open for me. Watch them from sides to see what it is, see what it takes, see where the pauses are, see what it takes to tell a joke well. So I picked up a lot of attitudes from people like that. I’m still doing some things that I picked up from Joan Rivers. I’m still doing things that Jay Leno taught me and then I found my own stuff.

Steve Cuden: Is a lot of it timing? Is it how a joke lays out and then times out?

John Davidson: Yeah. It’s performing live. It’s nothing like performing live. When I speak to young people’s groups about how to have a career in show business, I say perform at the drop of a hat. If somebody says there’s a fashion show that needs a host or there’s a ladies’ luncheon group that wants a couple of songs and maybe to talk about your life. Do it. Well, but I’ve never done that. So what? Get up and do it, but perform a lot. There’s nothing like performing in front of an audience. They will teach you timing because if you step on a laugh or if you don’t wait long enough to set things up, they won’t get it. So you need to perform live. The basis to all theater is of course, live performance. Way before recording or television, people were performing on the back of wagons.

Steve Cuden: Well, 2,700 years back to the Greeks.

John Davidson: Yeah. So live theater is the key to everything.

Steve Cuden: So how long do you think it took you to develop where you were comfortable doing that? Was it pretty fast or did it take a while? You’re still doing it.

John Davidson: I’m still working on it. I’m 79, I’m going to be 80 in December, and I still haven’t done my best show.

Steve Cuden: That’s amazing.

John Davidson: My best show is coming up.

Steve Cuden: So this episode will be released as they all are. Audio only. People aren’t seeing you the way I’m seeing you. You sure don’t look 80, that’s for sure.

John Davidson: Oh, of course I do. This is what 80 looks like. It’s just that I have my hair. I have hair. I’m like an albino chia pet. My hair just keeps growing.

Steve Cuden: An albino chia pet.

John Davidson: I could see you. You’ve got great hair too.

Steve Cuden: Well, thank you. We’re just lucky. We’ve got hair. Not everybody that gets past the age of 40 has hair. It’s a really excellent thing. So there’s nothing that you do in particular to prepare to be comedic, light and funny? It’s just doing a lot of it.

John Davidson: I think as you get past 30, I think you begin to realize how ridiculous life is. That’s what comedy is, is saying, this is outrageously ridiculous. This life that we live. I mean, that’s what George Carlin was playing on. It’s just how ridiculous the things we do. That’s what got me to question everything. Why do we do that?

Steve Cuden: Do you write your own material now for your act?

John Davidson: Yeah, mostly.

Steve Cuden: Mostly. So you don’t hire anybody to help you out with the writing? You put it all together?

John Davidson: I’ve tried that. I’ve paid writers to give me stuff, but I usually rework it and make it my own. I used to go through the Milton Berle’s joke book and then make the jokes my own.

Steve Cuden: He stole all the jokes.

John Davidson: Yeah, sure.

Steve Cuden: That was the whole act. That he stole other people’s jokes.

John Davidson: Yeah. You make them your own by the way you do it. But you can learn a lot by just reading jokes in a book.

Steve Cuden: When you say reading them, you mean reading them out loud, not just reading them.

John Davidson: Well, that’s a good point too. Yeah. Reading them out loud. I meant reading, but you’re right. Reading them out loud is even better.

Steve Cuden: Well, it’s one thing to read it. It’s another thing to actually bring it from your brain through your mouth. That’s another story entirely, isn’t it?

John Davidson: Exactly. Good point.

Steve Cuden: So I want to talk for just a moment about acting, because that is where you really started out what you really wanted to do. It’s been a little while I assume since you’ve been on Broadway. Yeah, it’s been a number of years.

John Davidson: Five years ago four years ago I did for a year I was the Wizard in Wicked in the National Tour of Wicked. I played the Wizard.

Steve Cuden: How fun was that?

John Davidson: It was great. The trouble with the Wizard, of course, in Wicked is that you sit off stage for an hour and 15 minutes while the witches tell their story. It’s really all about the witches. They talk about you. We’re going to see the wizard. While the wizard is sitting in his dressing room playing his guitar just reading and trying to pass the time because the Wizard is only in Wicked exactly 16 minutes.

Steve Cuden: Wow. Alright. This is a great question then, because this is one of the things I really find fascinating. You’ve done plenty of tours and most of the tours you’ve done, I assume you’ve been the star where you’re on stage a lot. But in this case where you weren’t. How challenging is it? You’re on the road. You’re not at home. So you’re out of your comfort zone, which would happen in a tour, and yet you have to perform for those 16 minutes. Was there anything special, mentally, that you would do psychologically to prepare for those performances so that each one of them was special in some way?

John Davidson: Well, yeah. In a Broadway show, you’ve got to make it happen for the first time eight times a week. But it would drive me crazy. Most recently I did a little over a year touring in Finding Neverland. Of course the star of the show is William Barry, who wrote Peter Pan. But in Finding Neverland, it was a dual. You play the producer Charles Roman, and then you play captain Hook for about 20 minutes in a dream sequence. But I would rather be on stage all the time. I hated being off stage. I want to be out there. I’m a racehorse trained to run.

Steve Cuden: You love the spotlight. That is clearly obvious.

John Davidson: Well, sure.

Steve Cuden: Well, some people run from the spotlight. Most people are scared to death to do that. But you take to it as they say, a duck to water. I mean, it’s who you are.

John Davidson: Well, but one thing I like about it is that it’s a little scary. You’re taking a chance. You take a chance every time and that’s what I like. It’s the train wreck quality. A train wreck could happen at any moment and that’s what I love about live theater and live performances.

Steve Cuden: You’ve obviously also worked with plenty of directors. I always like to ask actors what it is that they’ve learned from directors over time. What kind of direction do you like to get while you’re in rehearsal and preparing?

John Davidson: I like a director who tells me how he sees it, and then lets me find it on my own. I think a director should be strong. You’ve got to leave something up to the actor to make the moments work. There have been times when I have not been able to make the moments work and the director wasn’t able to help me, and I was just terrible. One of my problems with acting is that about 80% of the time in my career, I’ve been pretending. Acting really feels great when you’re not acting at all.

Steve Cuden: It’s being.

John Davidson: Being. Yep. So true.

Steve Cuden: But I think if you study the great actors, the Robert Duvalls, the Al Pacinos, the De Niros, and those folks that are notoriously great actors, they all say that that’s very rare when it happens for them.

John Davidson: It is. Oh, I’m glad they say that. I didn’t know that. You’ve talked to more people than I. I’m glad to hear that, because they look like they’re being it, but the thrill of acting is what it really feels like. Those are your own words. You know the dialogue so well. Again, you really know the material, and it feels like these words… I don’t know why that came to me, but I just told you that I love you and it just came out of me. That’s when acting is a thrill. But you’re right. So much of it, you’re pretending. That’s an awful feeling.

Steve Cuden: It’s that goal that most actors have is to be in the moment. That’s a big deal. To be in that moment.

John Davidson: Yeah. It’s hard.

Steve Cuden: Does that bleed through into your singing where you’re in the moment in a song?

John Davidson: Sure. Yeah. When you’re not, it’s hard. It’s hard to hit the high note when there’s no passion in it. You need air and passion and joy to sing. Well, it has to come from you being in the moment, as they say. Yeah.

Steve Cuden: You are still at it. You say you’re going to be turning 80 shortly, which is just awesome. But you also now have your own little club where you live in New Hampshire. Yes?

John Davidson: Oh, I do, Steve. It’s my dream. I live in Sandwich New Hampshire, and I found a small barn in the center of Sandwich New Hampshire. It’s in the Lakes region of New Hampshire. Because it’s a venue and it’s in Sandwich, I’m calling it Club Sandwich. I think that’s just the greatest name. So it’s John Davidson’s Club Sandwich in Sandwich, New Hampshire. You can go online to johndavidson.com and you’ll see Club Sandwich. It only holds about 40 people, but I have a rear projection screen behind me. So I can be walking through the woods. I can be at the beach at Portsmouth. I can be riding a horse. Whatever. But I can make the background anything, or I can make it nothing.

I can make it brick or just trees or a fabric or some sort of texture. I love having that. Having a real set for just a nightclub, really. I’m also presenting other singer songwriters on Wednesday and Thursday nights. But every Friday and Saturday, starting the last weekend in June and going until Halloween, I’m going to be performing every Friday and Saturday, at seven o’clock doing a different show almost every night. I’ve got a different set list every night. I’ve got so much. Well, I got so much material from Las Vegas and television specials.

Steve Cuden: It’s just you. Solo act. There’re not even other musicians or anything, right?

John Davidson: No, I’m a troubadour. I’m playing the guitar and I have a tambourine on my left foot. It’s a one man show, and the people that I’m presenting are also singer, songwriter, troubadours. People who play guitar and sing. So it’s a very personal presentation. No one in the audience is more than 20 feet away, and they’re sitting on couches and love seats.

Steve Cuden: Wow.

John Davidson: So it’s overstock seating.

Steve Cuden: So it’s very intimate.

John Davidson: Very intimate. With Covid, that’s a challenge. We’ve had to wait until Covid dies down. I wanted to open in the end of May or June, but we pushed it back. I opened the last weekend in June, and those shows are sold out. That weekend is totally sold out. My first show, July 2nd, is already sold out. So it’s small enough. I mean, that’s an intimate experience that you can’t have anywhere else.

Steve Cuden: No. Goodness no. I mean, I can’t think of anyone else who does what you’re talking about. I hope someday I can take a trip up there and see you live. That would be exceptional.

John Davidson: We’re an hour and 45 minutes from Boston. So we’re close to Meredith, New Hampshire. We’re an hour and 20 minutes from Portland Maine. We’re in the middle of New Hampshire. I’ve lived here for four or five years, and I just love New Hampshire. I grew up in New England after I was born in Pittsburgh. Then we moved to Massachusetts. My first years until I was 14, I lived in West Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

Steve Cuden: Well, I have been speaking for almost an hour just to me, just one of the greatest entertainers ever, John Davidson. Last question for you today, John. You’ve already given us tons of tips and thoughts about how to be in the business of show, as they say. Do you have a solid piece of advice or a tip for someone who maybe is just breaking in, or maybe they’re in a little bit, but trying to get to that next level? What’s a good tip or piece of advice for them?

John Davidson: Well, I think a big factor is any creator must trust that voice inside. Your first reaction when you come up with an idea for something is to say, oh, that couldn’t be any good. I mean, I just thought of that. That’s not in any books. I didn’t see. That’s my idea. Who am I? I’m nothing. I’m a jerk. I think every artist has to trust that thing. Yes, if it’s wrong, then you’ll learn. But you have to listen to that inner voice and go with it. Do your gut feeling. You may find that you made a mistake. So that’s the greatest thing that can happen. Learn from that mistake. But you must trust that voice inside of you, even if it sounds weird to you. But if you really think that is right, do it, man. Do it.

Steve Cuden: That is so excellent. George Bernard Shaw, who wasn’t a pretty fair writer himself he said, a man who makes no mistakes makes nothing at all. That’s what it is. You have to fail a little bit in order to succeed.

John Davidson: Yeah. Got to trust yourself.

Steve Cuden: Absolutely. Well, John Davidson, this has been one of the great thrills for me to spend an hour chatting with you about your life, your career, and how you get there. I can’t thank you enough for being on the show with me today. It’s just been a terrific hour.

John Davidson: Thanks, Steven. You’re really good at this. You were made to do this guy. You are in the pocket. In the groove. It’s just great.

Steve Cuden: I believe my day has just been made. Thank you, John.

John Davidson: Call me anytime. Let’s do this again. Okay, thanks.

Steve Cuden: So we’ve come to the end of today’s Story Beat. If you like this podcast, please take a moment to give us a rating or review on whatever app or platform you’re listening to. Your support helps us bring more great Story Beat episodes to you. Until next time, I’m Steve Cuden and may all your stories be unforgettable.

Executive Producer: Steve Cuden, Producer: Casey Georgi, Announcer: Javier Grajeda
Social Media: Mina Hoffman, Design & Marketing: Holly Reed, Reed Creative Group


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