Nick Apollo Forte on working with Woody Allen...and on cruise ships
Nick Apollo Forte, who'll perform in Denver for the first time in two decades on Sunday, April 22, at Lannie's Clocktower Cabaret, is best known for playing the lounge singer Lou Canova in Woody Allen's Broadway Danny Rose. But Forte is much more than a singer: He started off as a drummer and has been playing piano for decades.
We recently spoke with Forte, who's been married 54 years and has seven children and 22 grandchildren, about Broadway Danny Rose, performing on cruise ships for fifteen years, and how he got his middle nickname "Apollo."
Westword: How are you doing?
Nick Apollo Forte: I'm doing great. I'm working outside a little bit today, getting my boat ready to go up to Rhode Island.
I hear you're into fishing.
Oh, yeah. Of course, I worked on cruise ships for over fifteen years, performing on cruise ships. I keep pretty busy. Shows here and shows there. It's so nice to play back in Denver. I'm going to tell you something: The most money I've made on any recording was a song that I wrote called "Love Your Country" -- though I'm a city-slicking guy. That's when they were trying to get country music in the New York area, here on the East Coast.
So when Lannie called me up on the phone and said, "Would you consider coming out here? I got a little place here," I said, "Listen, we'll work it out." We're going to work it out so I can do my show. I know I've got a few fans out there. I just got an e-mail from an attorney in town and said he was going to bring a little gang down there.
My whole show is well-rounded. We'll play Frank Sinatra, Tony Bennett, Dean Martin. Anywhere from country to '50s, '60s stuff. I mix it all up. Of course, I'm known for the movie with Woody Allen, Broadway Danny Rose. I wrote a funny song for it called "Agita," which is about acid indigestion, and the other one was called "My Bambina." The song "My Bambina" has sold two CDs for me over time. I'm looking very forward to performing there.
The thing about it is that Lannie has gotten me a couple of good musicians, which is very important because the guys have what they call in our business "big ears." The guys have to have big ears because I'm so spontaneous; if they're not top-shelf, they're not going to make it. Believe me. In back of me, I've had anywhere from the Tonight Show band to Sands Hotel big orchestras, but when you're talking about me on keyboard, a drum and a bass, you can't go wrong. Years ago, I was asking Tony Bennett, "Why are you always using a trio?" He says, "Less chances of mistakes," which makes sense because when you don't have that small combo, you're at the mercy of the weakest link in an orchestra. And you become very mechanized. In other words, it's a set, fixed thing.
I gave the musicians a list of songs I'm going to play and said, "They're all stock songs." If they know them, they know them. If they don't, don't worry about it because I play left hand bass, anyway. A drummer just has to follow the beat. I know they'll like what I do because it's well-rounded. My show is well-rounded. It touches all the bases.
When was the last time you played out here?
Oh, my god. That's twenty years ago.
So this will be the first time since then?
Yeah. First time back there. It's just amazing. I get phone calls, because I get a lot of work in New York, New Jersey, Boston and all around here. See, when I did the movie, Woody didn't want me playing piano. A lot of people, they know me as an actor. They say, "This guy's an actor. He's a funny guy." I mix in some humor with my show. It's not just stiff music. It's happy. I don't like down songs. But in the movie, Woody says, "I want you to stand up." I said, "Woody, I play a lot of piano. I'll stand up at the keyboard." He says, "no, no, no... we'll have musicians behind you. We want that type of thing." I say, "Okay, whatever you want." So I did it, but for years, people never knew that I played piano.
If you go around the world on a cruise ship, you'll say, "That's the guy, Nick Apollo Forte." But they never really got behind it to say, "Geez, that's the guy who starred in the Woody Allen movie." I was doing the cabaret in the smaller lounges. I got letters from cruise directors saying, "Anytime you want to play, it's definitely main stage entertainment."
But truthfully, I would rather play any day for 500-seater places than I would play outside concerts. It's not personalized. They're going to see me in a cabaret and they're going to say, "My god, I could hear all the words. I could hear what he's talking about." It's not a lot of noise out in the field or something like that.
What am I going to do? I've got arrangements for 22 musicians. How can you forget about the small guys, where my roots are? You know, my roots are all small cabarets, small clubs and this and that. And I do them. It's very personalized. I know that people are going to have a nice time because we touch the bases with all kinds of music. I'm what you'd call in the business "underexposed." [He laughs.]
I like the everyday person to say, "You know what? He did that song. That's one of my favorites. He did this or he did that." Or I just did St. Patrick's Day -- two different locations. They said, "How the hell do you know so many Irish tunes?" It's the same with Jewish tunes, Italian songs. If I don't know Italian songs, I don't know anything. But you know what, I'm a proud Italian American. I'm not off the boat. I'm not Italian Italian. So when I sing a song, it's not Italian Italian, it's Italian American. My song "Agita," what does it say, "acid indigestion." "My Bambina" is all about my daughter getting married. Just remember her heritage. That alone has to say something to everybody -- be proud of your heritage no matter what it is.
You know, I have a gift. I don't know what I'm doing on keyboards. Really. I don't know what I'm doing. I know I have a gift maybe because I played at church for over twenty years and I didn't know what I was doing then. Maybe I got a little angel on my side that says, "Nick, here's your gift." So that's what it is. I like to always make people feel happy. I don't sing any down songs. It's all happy. Everything's got to be happy. That's what I like.