Eddie Bruce: Making melodic music

Eddie Bruce

Philadelphia’s own Eddie Bruce is a powerhouse. His critically acclaimed tributes to Tony Bennett, Anthony Newley, Frank Sinatra and his The Best of Broadway have sold out venues of every size all over the East Coast. He is a former radio talk show host, TV host, and leader of the Eddie Bruce Orchestra, which has entertained at major society and corporate galas, over the top weddings, and more for over 40 years. Oh, and did I mention he sang the National Anthem at 4 Phillies games this winning season? His cabaret and concert gigs at places like World Cafe Live and the Mandel theater regularly sell out, and he’s bringing back former collaborator, pianist Tom Adams, for a special night of music. 

Bruce is the host with the most, a consummate crooner, but when we spoke, he wore another title, grandfather. I had the pleasure of conducting the interview while Bruce held the newest addition to his family in his arms. With Pop Pop singing the lullabies, I’ll bet that’s one little tyke who sleeps through the night. 

Tell me about the family growing up.

Small family. I had a younger sister who unfortunately passed away about 6 years ago. We were 4 1/2 years apart and she was a real character. A great, great lady and one of my biggest fans. I miss her a lot. My father was a butcher, and growing up my mom was a stay-at-home mom. My parents separated when I was 6 and divorced soon after that. When she became a single mom she did all sorts of work. She was usually holding down at least two jobs to raise my sister and me.

Where do you think you acquired your love of music?

I don’t know. We always had music on in our little row house in South Philly. I had a record player and several 45’s which I would spin and sing along with. Early on I loved to sing and perform. [Laughing] I think my first addiction was to attention! So I’d sing for the parents and grandparents and great grandparents in the living room. I’d use the bottom step of the staircase as my stage. I was always attracted to music that was older than me. Of course at 6 years old, everything was older, but you know what I mean, that great American songbook. Growing up in the Northeast in the 60’s all my friends were waiting for the next song from the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc, and I was waiting for the next Ella Fitzgerald or Tony Bennett song to hit. So it was lonely musically, as you can imagine! 

Was there a particular artist that struck you first?

This sounds so square, but the first artist that I really loved was Steve Lawrence. He sang with his wife, Eydie Gormé, and they were both wonderful singers. He had a gorgeous, pure voice that I loved. Then it was Sinatra, and shortly thereafter I found a woman named Nancy Wilson and that changed things. I was 13 or 14 years old and I had every single Nancy Wilson record made. That’s where the jazz influence began. 

Any other extracurricular pursuits?

No, it was always music, and by the time I was 11 I’d already started singing in public. My first time was in a talent show at the Capri Lounge on Locust Street. It was a smart move on the bar’s part. They’d do the talent show Tuesday nights and it would bring in parents, and grandparents and they’d all have a few cocktails and the bar would make money on a Tuesday night! I remember I sang a Steve Lawrence song, “More” with a live trio, and wore a little tuxedo. Jack Helsel, who was a reporter for the Daily News, was in the audience and he wrote an article on me. I lied and said I was 14! He wrote, “Singer at 14 had poise of pro!” It was like wow, exciting, though he did comment on my mic technique or lack of it. He wrote, “But he has to learn to move his head with the mic.” 

That’s funny!

There’s some old video footage of me singing on the Ted Mack show, don’t know if you saw that.

I did, impressive. 

I was 15 and…

Wait, what? You were only 15 in that video? 

I know! I look older, I’ve always looked older, always. I sang a Tony Bennett song, which I guess was a little anachronistic for a 15 year old, but we were on the old Ed Sullivan stage so it was really cool. Thrilling to be on the same stage where the Beatles made their American debut and along with so many others. 

What do you think when you see that clip now? I had to chuckle at your expressions, though they were apropos since that was the era of big gestures. 

It was SO dramatic! I show that clip sometimes in a show that I do and make fun of what a drama queen I was, making all those Elvis faces, the lip curl and all. But seeing it for the first time in a while, I liked it more than I thought I would. I did okay for a kid of 15. It was a competition and I didn’t win; there was a kid who did a James Brown impersonation and that was hard to beat. But it’s nice that my kids can enjoy it now. They get a kick out of it. An amusing footnote: people voted by postcard to pick the winner! 

Ha! No iPhone instant results. Tell me about your journey, I understand that you led a different life for a minute before coming out. 

More than a minute, I was married for 15 years, and we were together 4 years prior to that. We met when I was on the road with a band. Once I got a draft lottery number high enough that I knew I wouldn’t be sent to Vietnam, I dropped out of Temple and began the glamorous life of touring the country playing in hotel lounges, though at the time that really did feel glamorous!  We’d work 6 nights a week, 5 sets a night and played everything from Billie Holiday and Frank Sinatra to Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers. 

I interviewed another singer a while back, maybe Billy Gilman, and they said that they got tired of singing love songs about women and feeling inauthentic.  

For me it wasn’t about singing the songs, it was about living the life where every breath I took became inauthentic. I thought I could do it but it beat me up. I thought I could have one life for the world and an inner life for myself but it was killing me. I had a wife and 3 gorgeous kids and I loved them all very much. I had a successful band which I still have, I was the go-to guy for weddings and events and had a local TV show that I hosted. I also had a public persona that was one thing, and something different on the inside which was causing turmoil. I call it dis-integration which was causing disintegration. It was torture. Something had to give. 

What was your first step out of it?

I acted out on things for years, and that was part of what was becoming difficult. The feeling of betrayal, though I had talked to my wife about it previously, about 6 weeks before we got married I came out to her in a bathtub with some quaaludes. I told her that I was bisexual and she said, “Oh, does that mean we’re not getting married?” and I said, “No, we’re still getting married.” I thought I could repress it, but it was always there. Oh, let’s just lay it out… what I did to survive the pain and inauthenticity was to develop a love of a few substances. I managed to use enough to ease the pain of my life but not ruin it. But it was getting out of hand, and then I heard that there were some rumors going around about me and I developed a fear of being outed. I realized that I needed to deal with it by first dealing with the addiction. 

I started a 12 step program and built up faith, courage and sobriety to come out. I had a great therapist who taught me that being gay wasn’t just about sex, it was about accepting my own humanity and embracing my truths. By the way, they did an article on my coming out in the PGN back in 1996. It was a big story, front page with 3 continuations! I heard from so many people at the time about how much it helped them, it was a big thing. 

That’s great.

Yeah, I knew the career and all that would be fine, but my biggest fear of course was, will my kids still love me and accept me. It’s funny, they were 8, 10 and 12 when the article came out. We’d spoken about it, I was worried about my kids reading the article. I remember I had a gig at Bally’s Casino and the kids were in the van with me and they were reading the article, and you know the only thing they were upset about?  “Did they mention us? Where’s our name?” That was the only thing they cared about. So we’ve been fine, [smiling] I think my kids kind of like me. [Laughing] Enough to leave me with their three-year-old child!

That’s so sweet. Well, speaking of your career, let’s talk about the show you have coming up in a few weeks. 

Yes! I’ve had a dual existence for a long time. As a wedding band leader for 46 years doing great big, beautiful high end weddings with a great band that plays everything from Sinatra to Bruno Mars and has been very successful. I’ve been lucky enough to make people happy for years doing that, but I decided to end that part of my career. I think 46 years has been enough in that arena and I want to lean more into the other part of my career which has been performing doing cabaret and concert work. It’s been incredibly rewarding, it’s allowed me to sing with the Philly Pops, and others and play major clubs in New York. I want to pursue doing even more of that and spending more time with the kids. 

So, to answer your question, the show coming up is at Chris’ Jazz Cafe, which is one of the true great jazz rooms in the country. I’m teaming up with a pianist and friend, Tom Adams, who worked with me for 11 or 12 years. He’s been retired but I managed to coax him out of it to do this show. It’s going to be an intimate performance with just piano and voice, with lovely, beautiful songs. It’ll be a true collaboration, not just me singing with someone to accompany me. It’s more of a duet and we’ll feature each other. It’s right before Christmas so we’ll have a lot of fun, and Chris’ always has great crowds. 

Eddie Bruce and Tom Adams

What was your best moment on stage?

Best moment would have to be singing with the Pops. Walking on stage at the Kimmel Center with 65 musicians behind me and 90 voices in the choir was unbelievable. They just happened to be having the Pops Festival Chorus that weekend, and I had a song arrangement that had a vocal part but I never thought I’d hear it. I asked the conductor if perhaps a few of the chorus members might want to perform it with me. He called me back and said, “They all want to do it! How are you with all of them joining you?” I’ll tell you, when they struck the first notes at the rehearsal with the Pops playing and the choir singing, I came to tears. I was enveloped and the sound was so warm and rich, I could hardly sing! And it sounds Pollyannaish to say but every time I delivered what a bride dreamed about and ended the night with people dancing and screaming and having a good time. It was such a rush; it is such a rush.

Okay, some random questions, what’s your favorite piece of clothing? Least Favorite? Clothing disaster?

Favorite? My World Series Phillies jacket signed by Charlie Manuel. Least favorite? I’m one of those elevator guys when it comes to weight, I go up and down. So it’s picking that tuxedo for Saturday Night and realizing that I can’t button it; it’s the worst feeling in the world. Because of my job, I have a closet full of tuxedos in all different sizes. As a matter of fact, as soon as I quit, I think I’m going to have a tuxedo bonfire and burn them all! And my clothing disaster was when I did a wedding in Baltimore and realized that I was wearing two left shoes! Let me tell you that hurt after a while. I finally just took them off. 

Did you get slammed during the pandemic?

Yeah, we lost 70 weddings, it was ridiculous, but something I started that I think I’m going to do again was small concerts from my house. I was live streaming from my house; I called it the Friday Night Club and I’d create an original show every week. I discovered a company in London that makes tracks, something I’ve never used before, but these are really good. I learned how to set up the camera and do lighting and edit and all that. So it was just me on a stool in front of my grand piano and I’d sing and talk to people. It’s the purest form of singing, no mic just me and the tracks. It became a thing and helped people get through the pandemic, it certainly helped me. I’ve decided to start it up again. I did one Black Friday and will probably do it every other week, the next one being Dec. 9th.                                                                                                                                                                                                          

So I think we have something in common. You were the host of “Dancin’ on Air” and I filmed a children’s show on the set of “Dance Party USA,” which morphed out of your show. 

Yes, I was the host of “Dancin’ on Air” for a number of years. That was a crazy time, I went from playing weddings and bar mitzvahs to being on live TV 5 days a week. I was living in a row house in Northeast Philly and all of a sudden I couldn’t go to the 7/11 without someone stopping me. I had to make sure I combed my hair just to go out and get some eggs. But it was a lot of fun. 

Are you more partial to male or female voices?

Good question! Growing up I was always attracted more to female vocalists, Ella, Sarah Vaughan, Carmen McRae, Nancy Wilson, those were the people I couldn’t get enough of, but I got more technique from Frank Sinatra, Joe Williams; I learned more from those kinds of singers, but god, those women of jazz… unbelievable. 

And finally, a favorite place to hang out in Philly?

Citizens Bank Park. I’m a Sinatra singing, baseball loving, poker playin’ gay man with kids and grandchildren! The best of all worlds!